By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
The concept of being without an ego is thought by many to be an objective of following Buddhist wisdom.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
First off, the concept of “ego” was invented in the late 19th Century by Sigmund Freud, in order to label the sub-conscious sense of a person’s sense of self, or self-esteem. Ego is not an attribute, like humility, it is a thing that may or my not exist depending on which theories of psychology you subscribe to.
Modern usage, of course, walks all over Freudian theory and uses “ego” with a negative connotation, like ego is a bad thing. In the incorrect-usage sense, I have an enormous ego, which means that I have high self-esteem, and I don’t exactly hide it under a bushel.
I am not a humble man.
I’ve led a life rich with opportunity for accomplishment, and I have tried to take advantage of those opportunities (and all of those opportunities were about doing what I love). I have never made more than $30,000 a year, but in a long career in human services I’ve helped hundreds of needful people improve their lives and circumstances. If that’s bragging, then I’m bragging. I’m not going to scrape the soles of my shoes on the floor and pretend “Aw, shucks, it was nothing.” It was hard work, and for 20 years I was the best case manager in Kentucky.
Which makes me a self-righteous son of a bitch, too.
I know how to help people build their lives. And I trained a lot of social workers along the way. It would be pretty stupid to be humble about what I do and how I do it and not allow others to benefit from my experience, wouldn’t it?
I’m not going to fake anything. I have a best-selling book on the market. I am sincerely proud of myself, and even more proud of the impact my book has had on the lives of the people who have read it—people I don’t know, who write me all the time to tell me how much good my book did them. Apparently, for some people, it’s like Prozac.
You wouldn’t believe half the shit I’ve done. It’s all about living life, baby.
The Buddhists have a word, atta, which literally means “self,” and its opposite anatta, meaning literally “no-self.” So, for those who casually run cross these concepts, and everybody else who just doesn’t get it, being a Buddhist is supposed to be about being meek, living small, avoiding conflict, and living a contemplative, quiet existence. And humility. Most of all, be humble.
That’s not what anatta means.
Anatta stretches into a realm I’m not very comfortable entering: metaphysics. But to understand anatta you have to look at it metaphysically.
Forget all the being-and-nothingness horse-shit espoused by gurus who have nothing better to do than to twist perfectly sound principles into drivel. The world exists. You exist. Your self—your atta, exists. Have you ever been shot at? Life is no delusion. Your sense of self, your self-esteem, you—all that is real. And it is not your job to extinguish your atta. Life will do that for you.
When Gautama Siddhartha became enlightened after meditating under the bodhi tree, he’d been chasing after spiritual butterflies and doing really stupid things to himself for six years, but he was never satisfied with the answers he came across.
Why? Because the standard religions of the time and the alternatives investigated by ascetics, and all the other religions since that time, except for Buddhism, was based on the survival of atta, of ego, of self. This means souls, if you will, that move on to heaven or hell or rebirth or reincarnation. Or whatever.
The Buddha trashed that idea. Maybe something persists after death, and maybe it doesn’t, but whatever the answer to that question is, you’re not involved.
Everything that can be associated with you dies when you die. You, Susan Mulligatawny, will one day come to an end. Whatever energy force that might leave you to inhabit another living thing, that’s not you. That’s not even vaguely you.
That’s what the “self” thing is all about, it has no bearing on whether you’re Mother Teresa or Bette Midler in this life.
Now there’s a big difference between a fathead like Donald Trump and a decent Buddhist man with an enormous ego like me. My sense of accomplishment comes from only one source—helping others. When my clients have accomplished, I have accomplished. I conquered aversion to enable myself to love some pretty unlovable people.
I’ve never felt better than when I was getting shit caked up to my elbows from reaching into the gutter to try to pull someone out. And I was pretty good at it. I sublimated my atta to the needs of needful others, so that I could let my ego run free.
Don’t knock egos!
If you have low esteem, it is because it’s delusional to discount your value as a human being. It’s not natural to do anything but love yourself.
Don’t worry, every once in awhile you get it right. Just don’t be a fathead. Get some shit on your hands every once in a while.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He wrote Buddhism for Dudes as a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It’s short and funny and to the point. “Way too much Buddhist information is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of metaphysical improbabilities. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life. This is not hard stuff to understand.”
Stribling writes a blog called Buddhism for Tough Guys. “There are lots of tough guy Buddhists out there willing to take a bullet for anybody. One of their mottoes is ‘Just because I am a person who loves peace doesn’t mean that I have forgotten how to be violent’.” He once broke up an assault with a little kitchen broom. “It’s my best story,” he says.
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