See if this is at all familiar. There is something in your life that you are really unhappy with. Could be anything. Could be a job, a relationship, where you live, your weight or level of fitness, finances…whatever. And you’ve been trying to be okay with this whatever-it-is for a really long time.
I’m not talking about the habitual daily ploy of “I don’t like” that conditioned mind is using all the time to maintain dissatisfaction and the illusion of separateness. I’m referring to a cyclic process of descending to a place of “I can’t do this,” followed by a “pep talk” from conditioned mind that convinces you that, “Yes, you can because you have to. You have responsibilities, bills, people to care for. Besides you can’t just quit your life! That would be crazy. You’ll starve. You’ll die a street person with a shopping cart full of junk parked next to you in the gutter where you’ve fallen.”
After that little pep talk, you, as the old song says, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” You use the tools of practice, reassuring yourself that you can do it, you just need to work harder. “Supportive” voices tell you that if you were really doing spiritual practice you wouldn’t be having this problem, and you bravely soldier on toward the next round of, “I just can’t do this.”
A monk recently sent me this:
“There is an old saying, often attributed to Mark Twain (like so many others!), 'To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.' This is the essence of projection. We take our conditioned understanding of the world and we project it onto every experience we have. In this way, no matter what is going on in our life, we have an experience that perpetuates the patterns of thought we have been conditioned to. If we are conditioned to be angry, the whole world is an opportunity to be angry. If we have been conditioned to be victims, the whole world is trying to victimize us.
The truth of the matter is that not very much of any significance happens to the vast majority of us. We wake up, we eat, we pass waste, we sleep. In between we do some things that allow us to keep the process going. We are, after all, islands of curiously persistent chemistry. Like all other life forms, we are spectacularly well suited to our way of going about this. In addition, we have the wonderful knack of being aware of the process. On its own, the experience of going about our lives is one of joy and contentment.
Ego, however, wants none of this. Ego wants to be a star. Ego takes the essentially meaningless events of life and projects onto them a conditioned drama in which we are the center of attention. In short, Ego makes up a life, and convinces us we are living it.
Consider: You are the star of one show, a supporting character in several more, and an extra in 6.7 billion others. The overwhelming majority of the time that you make an appearance in any life, you are little more than a canvas on which another ego paints a bit of story. This is an indisputable fact of life.
Ask yourself: what does it serve to have a problem with that?”
A very good question, indeed, the answer to which can take us in at least a couple of interesting directions. One possibility is to eliminate the drama ego imposes on our lives through its endless melodramatic projections of misery and despair. This approach would look something like, “Well, this seems to be what I keep choosing in my life so I’m just going to accept my choice, admit this is what I truly want, and enjoy the consequences of the decision. I continue to choose that food, that person, that story, that job, that activity and, therefore, I will acknowledge that is what I want more than I want an alternative and that will be that.” Or, you could decide that rather than allowing “your,” or someone else’s ego, to paint a story on the canvas that you’ve assumed is your life, you will start listening to the deeper wisdom, the gentle longing, the sweet tug toward what your heart wishes for, a possibility that continues to appear to you in all its clarity right before the first voice tells you, with that edge of panic, “You can’t do that! You have to do what you’ve always done. You have to keep doing what makes you unhappy, that’s the responsible thing to do.”