…that we are “hot-tempered,” or “shy,” or “sad”— and that these are fixed, immutable traits. We now know that many of the attributes we value most are, in fact, skills, which can be trained the same way you build your body in the gym.
- The ego is never satisfied. No matter how much stuff we buy, no matter how many arguments we win or delicious meals we consume, the ego never feels complete.
- The ego is constantly comparing itself to others. It has us measuring our self-worth against the looks, wealth, and social status of everyone else.
- The ego thrives on drama. It keeps our old resentments and grievances alive through compulsive thought.
- Perhaps the most powerful Tollean insight into the ego was that it is obsessed with the past and the future, at the expense of the present. We “live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation,” he wrote. We wax nostalgic for prior events during which we were doubtless ruminating or projecting. We cast forward to future events during which we will certainly be fantasizing. But as Tolle pointed out, it is, quite literally, always Now.
“You create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking,” he said. “For example, you take one conscious breath.”
“Make the present moment your friend rather than your enemy. Because many people live habitually as if the present moment were an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment. And imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one. That is continuous stress.”
Epstein totally nailed my habit of hunting around my plate for the next bite before I’d tasted what was in my mouth.
As best I could understand it, the Buddha’s main thesis was that in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last.
My favorite Buddhist catchphrase, however, was the one they used to describe the churning of the ego: “monkey mind.”
The doctor’s theory was that, in modern life, our ancient fight-or-flight mechanism was being triggered too frequently— in traffic jams, meetings with our bosses, etc.— and that this was contributing to the epidemic of heart disease.
The final step—“ non-identification”— meant seeing that just because I was feeling angry or jealous or fearful, that did not render me a permanently angry or jealous person. These were just passing states of mind.
What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, “respond” rather than simply “react.” In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.
What he really meant was something like, “Everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last.” As Goldstein points out, we don’t live our lives as if we recognize the basic facts. “How often are we waiting for the next pleasant hit of . . . whatever? The next meal or the next relationship or the next latte or the next vacation, I don’t know. We just live in anticipation of the next enjoyable thing that we’ll experience. I mean, we’ve been, most of us, incredibly blessed with the number of pleasant experiences we’ve had in our lives. Yet when we look back, where are they now?”
This, as Joseph had pointed out on retreat, is the lie we tell ourselves our whole lives: as soon as we get the next meal, party, vacation, sexual encounter, as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good.
We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these “if only” thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.
Whatever the cause, in the months after I started adding compassion into my meditation practice, things started to change. It’s not that I was suddenly a saint or that I began to exhibit extra-virgin extroversion, just that being nice— always important to me in the abstract, at least— now became a conscious, daily priority.
“Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump.
When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome— so that if you fail, you will be maximally resilient, able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the fray. That, to use a loaded term, is enlightened self-interest.
“I’ve figured it out. A useful mantra in those moments is ‘What matters most?’ ” At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept.