I once read a quote that really stayed with me:
“…The conceit of self is challenged and eroded not only by the circumstances of our lives but also by our willingness to meet those circumstances with grace rather than with fear.”
When word spread in the village of a beloved teacher’s failing health and impending death, well wishers gathered to pay their last respects and to honor him. Streams of people extolled his kindness, patience, eloquence and compassion.
The Master listened and smiled weakly as the visitors seemed to go on for hours. Finally, his wife noticed he was growing restless and asked that he be allowed to rest. Turning to her husband, she asked what was bothering him remarking that such wonderful things were being said about him.
“Yes,” he replied “It was all wonderful … But did you notice that no one mentioned my humility?”
The ‘conceit of self’ is said to be the last of the great obstacles on the path to full awakening. Cleverly disguised as humility, empathy, or virtue, conceit can appear as feelings of being worse than, equal to, or better than others. This in turn gives rise to the messy and jumbled world of comparisons, judgements, jealousies and insecurities.
Superiority Conceit is easy to grasp: Basically, this is where we consider ourselves better or worthier than others – it builds upon our appearance and achievements.
Who hasn’t (even for a split second) noticed a fellow meditator shifting positions on their cushion as we congratulate ourselves for remaining stoically still?
Or how about that great story we are itching to share, the one that highlights some ‘wonderful’ personal achievement, or quality we possess, only to discover our audience couldn’t be less interested?
In its obvious form conceit displays as arrogance and self-righteousness. There are also more subtle versions such as the immutable belief in our ‘rightness’ – which in turn blocks our ability to receive criticism or to truly listen to another person.
Inferiority Conceit is one everyone can relate to: Feelings of unworthiness, of ‘not being good enough’, which have become a common aspect of our competitive culture. Oddly this conceit also builds upon our appearance AND the mental laundry list we keep of all the mistakes we have ever made.
This is the domain of envy, resentment, fear and blame … further reinforcing our belief in an ‘imperfect’ self.
Moments of personal progress are ‘mistakes or flukes’, achievements are the prizes of the ‘more perfect’ others.
When we break out of this cycle of self-judgement we develop our self-confidence and can see that each person, in each moment, has an equal possibility for joy, the capacity for compassion, and a potential awakening on their path.
Equality Conceit is not subject to the Goldilocks Principle one would assume: Here we fall into the realm of mediocrity. Why bother? Don’t we all share the same flaws and delusions? There’s a lazy comfort with this outlook, ‘sameness’ means we don’t need to strive toward higher goals alone … “Misery loves Company”.
When we notice that someone falls asleep during a teaching, suddenly we feel better about ourselves because we feel the same way. It’s reassuring to observe ‘apparently’ happier or more successful persons (than ourselves) and to focus on their flaws to somehow justify our own struggles.
Who hasn’t seen the chuckles when a celebrity trips and falls on stage at an awards ceremony?
The downside of this attitude is a constant sense of disappointment and cynicism about human nature.
Conceit perpetuates the dualities of “self” and “others” by taking the stories and identities we build for ourselves and using them as the foundation for how we relate with others and the world.
To break out of these cycles takes hard work along with the courage to use each ‘conceit’ moment as a chance to practice mindfulness and restraint.
Life can be unpredictable, and as such, gives us many opportunities to practice letting go of control with sprinklings of hardships, illnesses, and other obstacles.
But it’s OK to face the limits of our powers and to let Life happen, because in doing so we learn to cultivate a heart that can unconditionally welcome all things.
Student: “What is the secret to your happiness and equanimity?”
Teacher: “A wholehearted, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.”
This is the Heart of Mindfulness and Compassion. This is an Awakened Heart.