Getting Free Of Self-Importance Is The Key To Happiness: Polly Young-Eisendrath at TEDxMiddlebury

Getting Free Of Self-Importance Is The Key To Happiness: Polly Young-Eisendrath at TEDxMiddlebury

October 31, 2019 87 By William Morgan


Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven
Hello there.
I’m really happy to be here.
I might need a prop.
Because what I’m going to talk about today
involves being here with you,
I would like to say hello
and hear you say hello to me.
So, I’m going to say hello.
Can you say hello to me?
(Audience) Hello.
So I know you’re there, you know?
It’s like ‘om’ing together or something.
It’s true that the better part
of my adult life,
I have been spending
trying to put together
the wisdom of Buddhism
and the insights of Western psychology.
I do that in my day job as well,
I just wanted you to know that,
and it’s one of the reasons
why I’m speaking about the subject
that I’m speaking about today.
On an everyday basis,
I meet with people in psychotherapy,
many of them are very much
like the presenters here at TED;
others are just slightly
neurotic Buddhists;
and others are people who have,
in many ways, done incredible things
in the world and in their lives.
And yet, to a person,
and over all of the years
that I have been doing therapy,
I would say that the biggest
suffering that I meet
is people not liking themselves.
And so that underlying
sort of self-hatred,
whether you’re a Buddhist
and you’ve been meditating for years,
or you have done wonderful
projects in the world,
seems to be a very troubling situation
in our society today.
It’s something that actually made
the Dalai Lama weep at one point
when he heard that Americans
don’t like themselves.
So I thought that it would be important
to talk about the issues
that surround what I’m going to call
‘self-importance’ and happiness.
Self-importance, as I’m defining it,
is actually the tendency that we have
to make ourselves
the center of our experience.
That is, that we imagine
that we control our lives;
we imagine that we can manage things;
we imagine that our consciousness
comes from, somehow, inside ourselves,
from our brain or from
our awareness or whatever.
And then, with this sense
of self-importance,
that is, this focus on ourself as center,
we don’t feel important at all.
Instead, actually, we often feel
haunted by negative commentary,
like judging ourselves
in terms of the way we look;
what we are capable of doing;
we compare ourselves to others
in terms of our thinness,
our wealth, our fastness, our smarts,
and we always come up lacking.
Even if we feel superior,
we come up lacking
because we feel superior.
I had a young man come
to see me in therapy one day,
and he sat down across from me –
very nice looking, graduated
from a college like Middlebury,
it wasn’t Middlebury –
and I said, “So what’s up?”
And he said, “I am suffering
from feelings of superiority.”
And, of course, those feelings
made him feel very bad about himself.
So, this tendency
to feel that we control our lives,
and that we manage things ourselves,
actually has been enhanced
in this period of time;
you must recognize that.
And it is a very big mistake.
We are not the fixers
or the fashioners of our own lives,
but it’s a mistake
that we’re making a lot,
and pretty much, I think,
untroubled by reality in making it.
So, let me look at happiness, then,
in the way that I’m defining it,
because I think that happiness
is something you all recognize
from your own experience.
And I’m defining happiness
as that state of being
in which you do not
want to be in another state.
When you’re happy, you’re not restless,
you’re not distracted.
You don’t have a desire
to be doing something else.
In fact, you’re completely engaged
and involved in your direct experience.
And you recognize this
from your own experience:
it occurs when you’re making love –
not always, but sometimes –
it occurs when you’re,
maybe, rock climbing –
maybe again, not always,
but a lot of the time –
sometimes when you’re
doing yoga, meditating,
problem-solving certain kinds of problems,
certain kinds of creativity.
It’s been widely studied,
and sometimes it’s called
‘being in the flow’
or ‘being in the zone.’
So what happens to your self
when you’re really happy
is that that sense of self
drops away altogether, doesn’t it?
You know, you forget yourself.
You’re certainly not comparing yourself
to someone else at those moments
or you lose that flow.
We all know that in our experience.
Also, when we’re in this state
of happiness, as I’m calling it,
we don’t have the experience or the sense
that we are fashioning our own world.
Instead, our ideas come to us.
And they seem to come in a way
that’s kind of like a flow,
in other words,
whether we want them or not.
And so, instead of having this sense
that we’re thinking things up,
or we’re making something happen,
it seems as though
things are happening to us.
So, you can see right off
that there’s a real contrast
between this kind of self-importance
in which we don’t feel important at all,
and happiness, in which
the sense of self disappears.
I became a Buddhist a long time ago –
it seems embarrassingly long, actually,
I think I may be 105 up here;
actually I’m older than I look,
and I don’t like to talk about my age,
because I feel there’s a lot of prejudice,
so I’m not going to tell you how old I am;
you can find out easily.
(Laughter)
Everything’s on the web these days.
So, I did take vows in 1971,
and I practice something
called Zen Buddhism
and also something called Vipassana,
and I’ve been practicing for many years;
I’m now a meditation teacher
as well as a lot of other things.
Also, I became a psychologist,
in 1980 I finished my PhD.
And in 1986 I became a Jungian analyst,
so I did a lot of ‘becoming’
for a long time.
And then I’ve done a lot
of practicing of those things.
And over these years I’ve really wondered
about trying to put together two things
that come from these practices
that are hard to convey.
One thing is a self – the sense of
what is an individual self?
If I ask you guys,
“What do you think a self is?”
I’d get as many answers
that there are people in the room.
And the other thing
is this Buddhist teaching
of no-self or non-self
– very hard to convey to people,
even though it’s kind of available to you
when you’re having direct experience,
as I implied a moment ago.
So, I have actually
brought along a painting
that could help us a little bit
in putting together these two concepts
that are hard to teach.
This is actually a contemporary replica
of a fifth or sixth century
type of Chinese landscape painting.
As you see, the world is presented
as a vast and mysterious place.
And over here, on a cliff,
those are us, there; that’s you.
Tiny little being, intense little being,
little story-telling being
that stands on the edge of the cliff
and looks out at this vast world
telling stories.
Now, the Chinese meant to indicate
that we should pay much more attention
to this vast and mysterious world
than to this little point over here,
because they believed that nature
was actually making us conscious,
that it was teaching us.
Now, in this period of time,
we have a much more complex sense
of a lot of things than the Chinese had.
But I think this painting helps
in one very important way,
which is that the world
as it is appearing to you and to me,
in this moment,
we are in this space together,
all together and all at once.
That means I’m not over here
with my little separate self,
and you’re over there with yours;
we are participating in a fabric of being
that we do not understand.
And if you are not fascinated
by that all of the time,
it is because you’re collapsing
back into this tiny little center,
and you are worrying yourself to death
with your self-consciousness.
So, why do we do this?
Well, psychology has helped us understand
that there are certain emotions
that motivate human beings,
that do not motivate the other animals.
We often talk about how we’re animals,
and how we’re like the other animals,
but there are some ways
that we’re really different.
And one of those ways
is our self-conscious emotions.
These emotions begin to develop
in the second half of the first year –
18 months to two years.
By the two year time,
we have what we call the ‘terrible twos,’
because the toddler is saying,
“No. I’m in here; the world is out there.
This is mine; and no.”
And that’s the beginning of the birth
of the ego in the human being,
and then that development
of the self-conscious emotions,
it continues, particularly
through our maturation,
until about 25 years old,
and gives us what we call
‘executive functioning’ –
our ability to govern our lives,
to make decisions for ourselves.
At the same time,
these self-conscious emotions
do not drop away once
they’re no longer needed for motivation,
but they actually organize our being,
moment to moment,
when our, you might say, ego is aroused.
And at that moment,
we’re motivated to feel
that we are separate
from everything that’s out there
and to compare ourselves to others.
That’s what these emotions do.
They do many good things for us,
but they also load onto us
an enormous load of negativity,
if we engage in them.
So, I’ve put four
of the self-conscious emotions up here
that are an example
of the way that they motivate us.
This is not the whole list.
I will just say that the others
that are often talked about
are pride, and self-pity,
and embarrassment,
but these four are biggies when it comes
to how you feel about yourself.
So let me focus
especially first on ‘shame.’
Shame is one of the self-conscious
feelings that the very best people
that come to see me in therapy
generally feel a lot of;
and this is the desire
to hide, cover up, lie, or die
because you feel defective,
because you feel like
there’s something about you
that you cannot change, that is just you,
but it’s different from other people
in a defective way.
And of course, it might
be feelings of inferiority –
more often it’s that –
sometimes feelings of superiority,
as the young man who sat across from me
and said he was suffering from that.
But the feeling of shame is not
the same thing as the feeling of guilt.
Guilt is the desire to repair wrong-doing.
Shame is the desire
to hide it, to cover it up.
And so when you feel shame,
when you feel defective,
the only thing you can do is
stay at home, cover up, lie, disappear.
And when you feel guilty, you can repair
your wrong-doing or your bad action
because you feel responsible
for what you’ve done.
But even then, guilt is an uncomfortable
self-conscious emotion.
Many people feel responsible
for having created a life
in which they feel they’ve made
the decisions that led to this or that.
Now, I’m going to say a few things
about responsibility in a moment,
but let me just touch
on envy and jealousy.
Envy is the motivation to destroy
or attack what someone else has
because you don’t feel
you can get it for yourself.
And jealousy is the desire
to compete with someone else
who has what you want
because you do feel you could get it.
So envy and jealousy,
in these self-conscious emotions,
motivate very different things,
but in both cases they make us restless.
Envy makes us restless in terms
of attacking what someone else has,
like putting it down,
belittling it, minimalizing it,
or even sometimes
attacking the other person outright.
And jealousy, to compete with others,
and to see ourselves, really, always
as not having enough, somehow, to succeed.
So, these self-conscious emotions
motivate us in a way
that make us feel like we can control
our lives and our decision-making,
and that we should manage everything.
Now, of course, we are
responsible for our actions,
and we’re responsible for our speech,
but we are not responsible
for all the contingencies in our lives
and that sort of mysterious universe
that, actually, is always
a point of fascination.
So, what to do
in order to arrive at a point
where you can feel genuine happiness
on a moment-to-moment basis
without years of sitting meditation,
without having a direct
experience of the no-self:
how can you shift your view a little bit
and come back to a point of view
that I think people
have had traditionally?
So first, I would recommend
that you experiment,
and experiment with these three things
that I’ve put up on the board.
The first one is to go back
to that Chinese painting
and imagine that you are tiny
and the world is large.
And at any moment that you feel bored,
that you feel bored with yourself,
stop, and be in contact
with the world in a simple way:
feel the air on your face;
look at the light in the room;
see the colors, they’re not personal.
But you can be in contact with the world
in a very simple
and fascinating way quickly,
and it will change,
it will shift your point of view.
Second, spend a day or two or three
without looking in a mirror.
We are obsessed with the way
we look in this period of time.
People did not live
with mirrors or photographs
or anything like this,
certainly not Facebook,
for eons of time,
and so they weren’t removed
from their experience
by looking at themselves.
Thirdly, become engaged
in your immediate world.
People often talk about,
and many wonderful things
have been said here today,
about how to help in the world out there.
But also look at the immediate environment
in which you are arising,
moment to moment.
That is, the room that you’re in
when you walk through a door,
when you look up from
what you’re focusing on within yourself,
look up and see if someone needs help,
if someone needs a smile,
if a door needs to be opened.
I guarantee, if you do that, you will find
that the world is reaching out to you
all of the time.
And so if you put
these three things together,
and you recognize how fascinating
this world is, always,
and you stop looking
at yourself in the mirror,
and you open yourself to the way
that the world is reaching out to you,
happiness is guaranteed almost 24/7.
Thank you very much,
I hope that you find it,
and I wish you blessings.
(Applause)