June 14, 2011

The Urge to be Great doesn’t have to be about Ego.

Make your Life Sublime; or, why Buddhists are Cowards.

Growing up in a Buddhist community, I was told to shut up allll the time. It hurt, for years. Only a few years back, complaining to my best friend Dave about folks hating on me in my role as elephant editor, did I finally get it: haters gonna hate. Do your thing. Be your own judge. Listen to yourself, and others’ criticism. Then do your best, be true to yourself. That’s all you can do.

But when I was a child, I didn’t get all that. When I was told to be quiet in every room I ever went into, it seemed, it hurt. And, yah, I was asking for it: I ran instead of walking, I jumped instead of running, I hollered and talked and sang…you know, I was a boy.

I was the only child around, usually. All the rest of the good folks in my Buddhist community were there to meditate. I wasn’t. I was, understandably, an irritant. I had yet to be humbled, really. Sure, I suffered. I was insecure, I was a nerd, I was sensitive, I was lonely, I was insufficient. Still, I was happy! I was me! I liked nature, and basketball and baseball and David Winfield and Magic Johnson and girls, though I was shy as we all are. I liked life.

We’ve all heard this quote.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I appreciate the above feel-good talk not only because it reaffirms something we all know in our spiritual DNA to be true: our Blue Sky human nature (wherein neuroses and suffering, however insistent, are viewed as clouds passing over the sky of our awakened mind/hearts rather than who we are).

Growing up in my Buddhist community, I went to a remarkable Buddhist school (open to all). I remember, in those pre-Wikipedia days, how precious and impressive it was to see someone listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s what I wanted: not fame, but to be of merit. To be of the sort of value or worth to humanity that I’d be remembered with three or four lines in a lineage of human history, to be glanced over by future children.

And so it is that when I read the below I’m reminded, I’m heartened, that the urge to be great can be about an enthusiasm for being of service, for being useful. It doesn’t have to be about ego. Buddhists are so afraid of ego: a fear which is, in itself, rather egotistical. Ego is like kryptonite, to us. But, still, how many of us work and play so that we may be of use to a suffering, yet brilliant blue sky humanity? How many of us take our meditation practice off the cushion, and try to earn our place in human history?

The poem that inspired the above contemplation:


55. A Psalm of Life

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


TELL me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!—

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.


Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.


Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.


Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.


In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!


Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,—act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!


Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;


Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.


Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.


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