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Spirituality as the Object of Greed

Waking up to ego's whispers, and letting them float downstream

There are times when I pine for my own goodness. I want it so bad that the very desire narrows my vision to where I can only see my shortcomings. Everything tightens around me, and I end up missing huge opportunities to express compassion, to see needs I could have easily fulfilled — all because I have this desperate, ego-driven need to be good.

But is it that?

Is it a desire to be good?

Or is it the desire to be seen as good?

Such a fine, invisible line between the two.

Example: I was doing the floors one day, filled with a sense of virtue. (My wife usually does the floors, so in my mind I was doing her a big favor.) As I worked on the stains in the linoleum, carefully reaching into the corners, doing a thorough job of it, I caught myself strategizing how I would let her know I did the floors (in case she didn’t notice). The whole time I worked, I was creating different conversational scenarios into which I would casually drop the news. I kept tweaking what I would say so it would seem less look-at-me-what-a-good-person-I-am. So I would come off as more humble.

It was hilarious. I wanted to be seen as good.

I mean, the floors got done, right? Nobody can take that away from my scorecard. But the little tutorial in narcissism I got while doing them was a very important dharma teaching.

It wasn’t a condemnation (You can’t even be unselfish without making it about you!). It was a teaching. An invitation. A Pixar short. A sort of comedy routine, à la George Carlin, master of truth-telling for laughs.

The laughter came in handy because my tendency is to go right into judgment (I suck! I’m a narcissist! There’s no hope.) But my meditation practice has helped me develop the habit of watching these thoughts like you would watch the water in a stream. You don’t say, “I like those drops of water over there and I want to bring them closer and keep them, but these ones are no good. I have to get rid of these ones.” It’s just a beautiful bubbling stream flowing by and you love all of it.

Here’s what the stream looked like in that moment with the floors. As I put away the mop, I noticed what I’d been thinking, and I had a good laugh at myself. My long-term meditation practice kicked in and instead of going into self-loathing about this mental event, I realized this was just another drop of water in the stream. The mind is just doing what it’s made to do: generate thoughts. None of it was about “me.”

I still pine for my own goodness. That doesn’t go away. It’s just part of the little medicine bag I was born with this time around. And I still get greedy about it, using spirituality as my own secret popularity contest. But when I notice all of this, I remember the water and smile. For a blissful moment, all my striving floats downstream and I return to the present moment.

Pressing my feet into the ground, I can feel the muscles hugging my leg bones all the way up the body through my spine. I soften the back of my neck and take a deep breath.

And exhale.


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