The Significant Self

I read a moving evocation by Ram Dass of an interaction at a conference between him and a stranger. He describes the younger man’s response to him; the glazed eyes, the slightly contemptuous lack of interest. He feels strongly how the man has deemed him ‘irrelevant’ and goes on to chart his journey of being caught by that judgement, and the inner process as he frees himself from it.

I know from experience how painful it is when I give away power in this way. There are different motivations for doing so but in a lot of cases, including my own, at root is insecurity and anxiety about being loved.

On a long solitary retreat a few years ago I read a free online book about anxiety. There was one line in particular that nailed the anxious response that was part of my inner reality.

You assume you require the approval of others for everything you do.”

Oh my God! I thought. That’s me! And I’d thought this was normal! It was actually helpful realising this pattern was so hard-wired in me. I started to be able to recognise it’s shadow frequently, manifesting in thoughts and feelings I’d unconsciously grafted on to my very young self. As I became more aware of those moments, I acted less from this outdated view.

I shared Ram Dass’ original article on social media, and it sparked a further reflection from my friend Moksaka, who wrote and asked if I was familiar with the Buddha talking about similar territory. I wasn’t but eagerly asked for more information and for a reference in the discourses of the Buddha.

The Buddha’s example is specifically about teachers and teaching. There are different types of students. There are audiences composed of those who listen, those who don’t listen, and times where there are both types present. In each case, the Buddha doesn’t get elated by those who pay attention or dejected by those who don’t seem interested in what he has to say. He maintains mindfulness and clearly knows what’s happening; he remains equanimous.

Some time ago my equanimity was challenged on a retreat I was leading. On the penultimate day there was a chance for everyone to say something about their retreat experience. It’s common during these ‘go rounds’ for heartfelt thanks to be expressed, particularly to the retreat leader. Of course, not everyone connects with the approach to practice but usually, there is something they found valuable in the teaching and are excited and appreciative about. As a retreat leader, you put a lot of work in and it’s lovely to see the effects on people.

On this particular occasion, the first few people spoke and didn’t make any reference to me or the teaching. They mentioned how they were and what sort of time they’d had. They spoke about the retreat venue, the friendliness of everyone, the food, and all sorts of other things – but not about me. I noticed myself noticing this as a bit unusual, but I was pretty sure it would change as we continued to hear from others. It didn’t!

More people spoke and there were a few comments about what they’d learned. A couple of people spoke of the difficulties they’d had. As we carried on, I noticed my energy was rising fast, with an emotional alarm sounding. Maybe no one would say anything about how they valued what I’d taught. I wouldn’t get that affirmation that I was a good teacher, or that I’d helped deepen their understanding. It was starting to seem a glaringly obvious omission to me but perhaps I was only imagining that everyone was embarrassed on my behalf! I watched my mind jumping anxiously around trying to work out what was happening.

“Maybe this person will say something? I know he had a good time. Is it just a different retreat culture to the one I’m used to?

I was perturbed, then bemused. “

Maybe they just didn’t connect? Maybe I taught really badly this week? Perhaps they just didn’t like it?”

Finally the thought “Well, they’re not going to invite me back!”

And then we came to the person who said she hadn’t taken in a word I’d said all week! She sort of made it about her, but it wasn’t entirely clear whether, really, it was about me! Could I add being ‘really unclear’ to my growing list of hypothetical defects?

I was monitoring what was going on inside me and was aware of the waves created in my mind. My heart pounded and I felt hot. I felt a bit invisible. I felt like Ram Dass – irrelevant. They could have had the retreat without me, that’s how relevant I was!

We got right around the room and awareness and right view had largely done their work; the hyper-vigilant energy settled and the speculating mind, through being repeatedly seen for what it was, had calmed down. The desire for approval was wryly noted. I’d got to a place of humour and some acceptance; this is how it is today.

It was unusual to get so little positive feedback, but I was more open to not knowing why that might be and clearer that it wasn’t necessarily personal. For a while, the mind had made it ‘all about me’. People had come to the retreat for their own reasons, and would ‘listen’ or ‘not listen’ dependant on their own needs. I was just one of many factors in the retreat.

Later, individual comments and goodbye hugs elicited thanks and appreciation and balanced out the picture somewhat. Overall it was a good experience for me, working with the twin worldly winds of praise, and if not blame, then not registering as important or special.

Not irrelevant, but less significant.

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