Nothing like getting your feelings hurt at a Buddhist retreat to make you start thinking deeply about ego.
At breakfast this morning, I was in a rush with less than 15 minutes to put food on a plate, sit for a moment to eat and then get to my assigned volunteer post in another building. In the process, I grabbed a breakfast sandwich in the cafeteria — an English muffin with a fried egg they had given a catchy name in homage to the Egg McMuffin. I threw a couple of slices of bacon on the sandwich, and then set my plate down for a moment to grab silverware.
When I came back to the counter, two guys were literally laughing and pointing at my sandwich. I didn’t understand their French, but it was obvious they were directing it at my breakfast.
As I walked away, I felt sadness, anger and shame. Why are they picking on me, I thought. Taking my seat, I watched them walk to the other side of the cafeteria. My ego was a bit bruised.
Throughout the day, I kept encountering one of the guys. My inner monologue silently passed judgment while he went about his business. A few hours later, I had a realization: there was no reason for my feelings to be hurt. He wasn’t laughing at me…he was laughing at a sandwich that, to a French-Canadian, was probably quite funny. A McSandwich with bacon. And it was the round type of bacon, no less, which I’m sure is made especially for American biscuits.
The next thing I knew, I was chuckling under my breath. It was funny, actually.
The whole encounter has me thinking: ego probably needs to get hurt — or, at the very least, must be made to feel uncomfortable — before someone is able to address their own self-grasping. Otherwise, what’s the point? If my ego feels safe and secure, and I’m not doing anything to chip away at its power, then, in the words of Charlie Sheen, ego is WINNING!!! I certainly don’t need tiger blood to figure that out.
This has to be why spiritual transformation (at least in the Buddhist sense) is so difficult. My ego has had 40 years to get nice and comfy. It’s grip is strong and powerful. It’s dug in, and it would have me think that there’s no other way.
My meditation practice has (perhaps) helped soften it, but that same practice has also opened my eyes to the fact that ego, in the form of self-grasping and self-cherishing, is a constant source of the obscurations that hide my true potential as a human being. I know that ego blocks my ability to unpack the emotional baggage that sometimes keeps me “stuck” to painful memories from my past. With ego so firmly in control, how can I ever truly embrace the Bodhisattva’s vow?
While it certainly didn’t take a Buddhist retreat to open my eyes to the true strength of ego, I’m hopeful that this particular retreat will provide me with a powerful antidote in the form of lojong, a mind-training practice designed to cultivate compassion while loosening the grip of self-grasping. In just one day of teachings, I’ve already had to confront some unpleasant realities about the way my mind operates; I shudder to think what the next four days have in store for me.
And yet, I’m filled with gratitude that the causes and conditions are ripe for me to be on the receiving end of these powerful and profound teachings.