The Karma Series, Part 3
Most Westerners see nothing wrong with having a little pride. We use the phrases “I’m proud of…” and “I pride myself on the fact that…” without thinking much about them. We hang diplomas, certificates, awards and other signs of our success on our walls. And we strive for things that set us on a higher level than others—important sounding job titles, important sounding degrees, important looking cars and houses, important looking shoes and purses, and so on.
We think of pride as one of the keys to a healthy sense of self, and we think of a healthy sense of self as one of the keys to happiness.
In Buddhism, though, pride is thought of as one of the obstacles to a happy, peaceful existence. Pride gets in the way of compassion, and compassion and cherishing others are what Buddhists say lead to a happy and content life (more about compassion tomorrow). When you embrace pride, though, you see yourself as higher than others and you value your happiness over the happiness of others. When you embrace humility—the opposite of pride—you see yourself on the same level as others, and you value their happiness just as much as you value your own.
Let me tell you, I struggled with this teaching for a long, long time. There was this one part of me that was all like, “I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and I AM special, dang it. Just look at all of those bestsellers that I’ve penned. I deserve to be treated with respect. I’ve earned it.”
And then there was this other part of me that wondered, “If I embraced this and if I allowed myself to see every single person as equal and deserving of happiness, how would it change my life? If I embraced humility and brought it with me to every interaction, how would it change my career? Would I be happier or just that much more frustrated and downtrodden?”
The Great Humility Experiment
Buddhists see hardships and suffering as gifts that allow them to practice and strengthen their spiritual skills. Well, it didn’t take long before life gave me a gift that allowed me to practice the skill of humility.
I was working on a huge, long-term project with a team of people. Each person on the team had thoughts on how the project should be done, and most of these thoughts diverged. One person would suggest I write one way. Another would suggest I do it a completely different way, and a third would suggest something that was even more different than the second.
Even worse, the minds of all of these various people kept changing.
As a result, I would write something. Someone would ask me to rewrite it. I would. Then someone else would want it rewritten a completely different way. I would do it. Then that someone would change her mind and there I was rewriting the dang thing yet again. It seemed as if I was writing all day and all night, but that I never truly got anything done. I kept cranking out words only to delete them and start over again.
I don’t even want to get into what I thought about all of this because I like to think of myself as a professional, and the thoughts that occupied my mental continuum during this time of my life were anything but professional.
Anyway, while all of this was going on, I was going to my Buddhism class and I was learning about pride and humility. I asked myself, “What can this situation teach me about humility? How can I learn from this? How can this hardship make me a better person? Can embracing humility help me to survive this horrific experience?”
To embrace humility, I visualized a monk. He had a shaved head. He was skinny. He wore orange robes, and he had a big teethy smile. In my visualization, it was this monk’s job to build a series of cement steps. Each morning he would pour the cement and smooth it out. Each afternoon his boss came, inspected his work, and said, “These are the worst steps I’ve ever seen. Get rid of them and start over.” My imaginary monk would smile, bow, and say, “Yes, sir. Of course. Right away! I’m sorry that my steps have caused you suffering.”
And then he would happily jackhammer his recent creation and start the whole process over again.
In my mind, this monk was the antithesis of pride and the epitome of humility. He happily built the same step over and over again. He treated his surly boss with nothing but compassion.
He was filled with love, happiness, and peace. He always smiled. He hummed as he worked. He was lit from within.
I visualized this and I visualized this and I visualized this.
You know what? Eventually the rewrites stopped bothering me. Eventually I didn’t care that I wasn’t getting recognition for my writing. Eventually I stopped struggling. I stopped thinking things like, “I deserve better” and “why don’t these people recognize my worth?” I stopped should-ing and I stopped if-only-ing. I stopped fretting about who was right and who was wrong.
I shed the negative mind chatter and emotional angst.
Instead, I embraced the process. I accepted the situation as an opportunity for me to grow. I allowed this God forsaken project to teach me lessons about communication and interpersonal skills. I allowed it to teach me lessons about forgiveness. And I allowed it to teach me lessons about compassion. As a result, I began doing a meditation during which I wished happiness to every single team member on that team.
You know what? Doing so brought me peace.
And it wasn’t until I got on the other end of it—until I’d fully embraced humility—that I could look back and see that the pride would have gotten me nowhere. I could have fought for what was fair. I could have raged against the machine, right? I could have told off a few people. I could have argued for more money.
I could have whined.
I could have done any number of things.
But none of that would have brought me happiness, and none of it would have improved my career, either.
In the end, the one thing that I needed was the one thing I was most scared to do – let go. I had to let go of my sense of importance.
The Antidote to Pride is Humility
I wish I could say that I was cured of pride, but I’m not. I’ve received many gifts over the past few months, and most were gifts that helped me strengthen my humility. Let me tell you: I wanted to regift a few of them. I seriously tried to tell the universe that these gifts had been bestowed on the wrong person–that someone else needed to be taught about pride more than I did.
And then I realized that even that was being prideful.
I’ve had to shed my sense of self-importance over and over and over again.
It’s something that I might just have to work on for the rest of my life.
But each time I embrace humility, I find myself happier and more at peace. You might find the same is true for you.
And, now, my dear readers, I humbly ask you a question. I decided to write this series because I’ve learned so much from the karma project, and I wanted to pass what I’ve learned onto others. It was never my intention to offend. I did hear from a reader yesterday, though, who told me that he finds this series offensive to his beliefs as a Christian. I’m curious if there are others who feel the same. I’ve been trying to write about topics that seem to cross over and are embraced by all religions, and I’m avoiding topics (such as reincarnation and karma) that do not cross over. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can comment here or email them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.