Student: I have been looking at the precept around anger. I’ve been so aware of it in different forms lately – a flash of irritation, simmering resentment and just outright rage.
Teacher: You are aware of course that the precept says, “Not to be angry.” It does not say, “Not to get angry.”
Student: Actually, I hadn’t seen that nuance. But I see what you’re saying. “I am angry” is an identity being maintained through a story?
Teacher: Yes. We can experience ALL energies and we do, in the moment. It’s a classic ego maintenance strategy to be a “someone” with anger issues. So what is ego “angry” about?
Student: Well, I consider myself a sincere practitioner who has wholeheartedly participated in everything practice has to offer. After years of struggle, it feels like I am finally in a good place. Life is happier, kinder and sweeter. Then I heard you say that having “a more comfortable egocentric life” is not what practice is about. It was like being slapped. I felt criticized. I felt like my practice success was being dismissed. I have been sitting with a simmering resentment that could best be described as “What right have you to say that about me!”
Teacher: Hmm. So instead of “Interesting, I get to find out what that means,” the ego took it personally and turned it into “something wrong with you?”
Student: Yes! I see how being angry stops me from examining what is actually going on. And, I suppose my reaction is a signal for me to look more closely.
Teacher: Yes. Conditioning would love to lull us into being “comfortable” with the “depth” of our practice so we stop practicing. It is a spiritually dangerous place when ego-I is “happy” and can persuade us to consult how it feels as a way to make practice choices.
Student: Since “I” had such a violent response to your comment, it is clear that ending suffering is not about “being comfortable.” What is it about, then?
Teacher: You get to find out, yes? Here is a place to start looking: Is it possible to be comfortable with discomfort?
All things are without a self.
One of the core teachings of the Buddha is Anatta or “All things are without a self.” As long as there is a sense of “me,” there is suffering. Letting go of “me,” what “I” am, allows us to embrace what is. The path of waking up and ending suffering, therefore, involves the transcendence of “identity.”
The willingness to bring the spirit of inquiry to the process that creates and maintains the illusion of a self separate from life, is Awareness Practice. When we stop being curious about what “I” says it prefers to do or not do, we have stopped pursuing identity transcendence and moved into identity maintenance. The life force is still in service to the ego, even if it currently feels “enjoyable.”
When there is a challenge or an invitation from practice, ego-I focuses on the content of the invitation or challenge and decides, “That is not for me,” “That’s not who I am,” “I don’t want to do that.” In Awareness Practice, it is never about the content. Whether we actually implement or execute the content of the invitation/challenge is never the point. The point is to remain willing to explore and let go the “me” that is being maintained as a result of the “no.”
If our focus is on waking up to what is, then we are on the quest to let go anything, “positive or negative,” that stands in the way of seeing what is so.
It is always more difficult to transcend a socially acceptable identity than to transcend a socially unacceptable one. For example, why would I not want to be the kind of good person who is helpful, easy-going, responsible and caring? This is exactly the kind of question that “I” would ask to deflect the attention from truly looking to see the beliefs and assumptions operating behind the “someone” who is that “good person.” If I am not defending my identity as a good person, if I had nothing going about being good, then would there be any resistance to examining what good is?
Most of us who start down a spiritual path are aware to some degree that there has to be more to life than what “I” am experiencing. Perhaps we even superficially comprehend that letting go the “I” doing the experiencing may be the key to resolving our dissatisfaction. What we are never prepared for is how violently opposed the “self” is to being transcended, nor the forms resistance can take to the process of transformation.
With practice, we realize that from within the ego maintenance system it is almost impossible to recognize we’re inside it. Karma hides in plain sight and counts on us being desensitized to its familiar presence. It is essential that we practice paying attention to resistance because it may be our only clue that we have encountered an unexamined realm of ego.
Once we encounter ego’s resistance, we recognize the wisdom of surrounding ourselves with the mirrors that can reflect, on a moment-by-moment basis, where we are—in Life or in identity maintenance.
This is especially true if we have been practicing for an extended period of time. We can know that ego-I will use practice language, masquerade as the Mentor, be willing to “pay attention,” even agree to come on retreat as a way to maintain itself. In fact, ego has no problem assuming the identity of a spiritual practitioner. We must be ever alert to the very real possibility—even probability—that practice has become the content of identity maintenance.
Conditioning frames the choice for Life over ego as a hardship. We’re told that choosing Life, choosing practice, means we will have to give up something that’s important to “me.” This tactic is, of course, meant to scare us away from making Life choices. As tyrants around the world have proved, as long as we are afraid, we can be controlled. In saying yes to exploring what challenges the ego, pursuing what ego-I says no to, we are saying yes to freedom from the causes of suffering.
Whenever we encounter an ego boundary that we’re preparing to transcend, we will run into ego-I’s resistance. The resistance can manifest in different ways—anger, anxiety, fear, preference, procrastination, rejection, inattention, disinterest, indifference, derision, complacency….
For the next 48 hours, pay attention to ego boundaries. Notice where the “Do Not Trespass” signs are posted. Practice taking the risk of making the ego uncomfortable as you step past the ego border control point. See if you can discover the Life experience being denied you by the identity maintenance system. Record and Listen to what arises.