It was at the end of a silent retreat one January, prompted by an enquiry into what we would take away from the retreat, back into our lives, that I made a vow. I can’t quite remember the nature of the enquiry but what arose for me was “everyone matters and we’re all ok’. Out of this I made a vow – to let go of ‘better than’. This vow included both sides of the equation; both the times when I felt superior and the times when I felt inferior.
A preoccupation with comparison
I had become aware that my sense of self was largely constructed through comparison, and that this was pretty much an ongoing preoccupation. Constantly trying to work out where I fitted relative to others. There were a few things that I relied on to feel superior; my intellect, my relatively slim body, my possessions. And, at least in equal measure, there were times that I felt inferior. I would observe other people’s lives and marvel at how they managed sometimes incredibly complex capabilities and sometimes incredibly simple capabilities that I doubted I could.
I would notice how I felt with these comparisons. One of those Awareness moments that was more than a little uncomfortable. I realised the extent to which I relied on this hierarchy of human value to find my place, to define my identity. The moments of inferiority were depleting, crushing, diminishing. The moments of superiority were empty. Core to my spiritual practice is the understanding of non-separation and I was finding more and more that the moments of superiority, while they held some payoff, took me away from a sense of oneness and connection, and the payoff was waning. I know that any of the strengths that I have are temporary, on loan for this life. That they are but tools I have been given to get the job done that I’ve come here to do, or to learn what I’ve come here to learn. I no longer wanted to identify myself in comparison to those more fortunate or less fortunate than myself. I wanted to be free of all that.
Over a year later (and I assure you it’s an ongoing project), it seems like such a juvenile way to construct a sense of self. But, I sincerely doubt that I’m alone. It’s inevitable when we believe that we are separate to the rest of life. And that’s pretty much the conditioning that we’re all born into. I’m not ego bashing here. I recognise that we do this in an attempt to feel ok. I also recognise that it always fails.
The mainstream is incredibly coercive. We all want to belong and not feel excluded or isolated. We exist within multiple ‘mainstreams’; family, religion, work, even our hobbies or pass-times (to name a few). They come with their own rule books – sets of ideals, values, conventions, and a host of things to live up to and measure ourselves against. Unspoken, or spoken, guidelines that help us know how to belong and feel safe, part of a larger group, a stream that carries us along without too much effort. Just going with the flow.
I think we all have our own little stream too, forged by our own experiences, desires and natural abilities. No two the same, the unique expression of life that we are. Our little stream is precious and valid, no matter what it is. Honouring it and being informed by it gives us a sense of harmony, alignment and wholeness. But, the pull of the strong currents around us can take us off course. It is of course a dance. We need both, to survive within and navigate the constructs or streams that we’re a part of, AND to honour our own little stream.
The conditioning that lives in our heads, the collection of information on how to navigate and survive within the lives we find ourselves is undoubtedly useful. Habits formed in the past, projected into the future. Useful – except for when they aren’t.
I had always been particularly accomplished at reading my external environment and working out how I needed to mold myself to make myself acceptable and get the external approval I was looking for.
It has been meditation and inner work that has changed all of that.
The space between the past and the future
Exploring the space between the past and the future – the present – made me less sure that what I’d learned in the past was useful or relevant to my current experience. Not that it was bad, but that it could use review. It didn’t always fit or feel relevant to the unique circumstances I found myself in, in the present moment. Was there something else, other than the rules, something beyond the conditioning? That slight discomfort I’d feel in my body, the bristles on my neck, the churning feeling in my gut, that sense of just knowing in a way that wasn’t rational – before the mind chimed in with its stories, justifications, rationalisations, arguments for and against.
The longer I hung out in that inner space, bathing in my little stream, listening to the messages from my body, the more I needed to take their heed. Bit by bit I shifted my allegiance. At first with trepidation I would take my stand. Easy when it didn’t clash with the external environment around me, but much more challenging when it stood me apart. However, I was finding the cost of compromising that inner compass excruciating – it took me away from peace and out of harmony. That inner sense of harmony was becoming far more important than any outer approval, which once I would have done anything for.
I guess it’s been a process of repositioning the authority that directs my life. There’s a sense of wholeness and wonder when I am just being myself and not trying to mold myself into some externally defined shape. Some future shape that I might become, like an unfinished project. As if the way I am is somehow inadequate or insufficient. When I’m true to myself, I shine, I thrive. I’m in my element. There is no struggle or effort. What freedom! To have the courage to radically accept myself, as I am, even if others don’t approve. To allow life to be expressed through me just the way that is authentic and true for me. To find my authority from the inside. The new, unique and fresh offering that I bring to this conditioned world.
While there have been some external costs of repositioning authority to the inside, I’m finding a stability that remains no matter my circumstances or external environment. That’s not to say that I don’t need to retreat to comfort and safety from time to time to nurture my inner stream. In fact, that is crucial.
My inner tuning fork
The things that I love, that make my heart sing, that feel natural and easy, the gold in my stream, are like an inbuilt tuning fork, an inner compass. I’ve started to allow this to be the measure of when I’m on, and off, track. If that inner alarm starts going off, including when I find myself in comparison mode and buying into the hierachy, I take it as an indicator that what I’m doing isn’t helpful or useful.
Does this sound like the path of least resistance? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I know I’m most peaceful when I have no resistance to my present moment experience. When I’m not imposing some ideal or rule about the way it should be. No, in the sense that I still like to challenge myself, to move out of my comfort zone. I do, however, find there’s no need to engineer these experiences. Life provides me with plenty of challenges. There’ve been plenty of experiences in my life I’d prefer not to have had, but they’ve all been ‘grist for the mill’. I trust that life is giving me what I need to evolve, grow and return to peace and wholeness.
A subtle shift
I no longer use comparisons as I used to. They are no longer useful in determining my sense of self. However I haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. When comparison arises now, I see difference, not a hierarchy, not ‘better than’, just indicators of different streams finding their own way back toward the sea in their own unique way. Fascinating! How interesting and diverse we are.
I don’t need to change the course of another’s stream that happens to cross mine. But I do need to be true to mine. Sometimes streams come my way and I recognise that we can flow together. Sometimes I find that certain streams I come into contact with completely throw me off course. If that happens, that’s ok, it’s just information to inform my direction. Just a unique flow that is taking a substantially different route back to the same source, that I have no need to align with or resist. And of course, there are the rocks, that simply change my course, and maybe in my flow I have a gentle influence on them too.
…gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.