I wish you the best in this new year. Truly. Whether I know you or not. Whether I like you or not. Whoever you are, my best to you. The idea that happiness is a zero sum equation and that mine is dependent upon someone else’s lack, is a great fallacy. There is happiness enough for all. And food, and clothing and money. Enough for everyone. Except that when we lack confidence, fear keeps us from enjoying our world. We feel we must take, segregate and manipulate to secure our position. We try and collect power, which is doubled when it comes at the expense of others. Then everyone is taking, scheming and, in plain fact, losing. And this makes us very weak, indeed.
When we perceive our position to be weak, we become dangerous and the world becomes a dangerous place. There are many strategies to cope with our fear. Any that promise to remove the danger are selling us a bad bill of goods. Those easy ways out actually make us more vulnerable. We give ourselves away again and again, and this erodes our confidence over time. There are many strategies for handing over the reigns of our self agency. Some of us seek a kind of provisional confidence in things that represent strength or safety. We become large with the largess of their vision. We lose ourselves jumping on bandwagons strewn with banners reading “make me great again”,”make me safe again”, “make me comfortable”, “help me find certainty in an uncertain world.” But, how often do those wagons end up leading the blind to indentured servitude? This might be a ‘yang’ approach to eroding our confidence. On the other hand, we might become very small. We might couch this as religious, holy even. We might adopt a false humility that is actually a defensive position. While true confidence engenders humility and a willingness to be patient and kind with our world, there is danger in exaggerating humility into a self denigrating lack of ownership of our life. This abdication of our self-agency ultimately serves no one. You might call this the ‘yin’ approach to lacking confidence.
In either the passive or assertive approach, we are giving ourselves away. Whether we are fighting, bowing or just getting high, all of a sudden we awaken to find we’re no longer in Kansas. And Oz, it seems, is a place far from our imagining. In the movie, the wizard ended up changing all the characters lives by giving them nothing at all, but avatars of their own basic goodness. “Where I come from we have folks that grow up strong in the fields, having been nurtured by their families and societies. We call them humans. And they have a basic goodness as their birthright.” As for Dorothy, she seemed to lack nothing but the ability to get back home. Her instruction? When you find yourself astray, simply feel your ruby slippers on the firm yellow brick earth and you’re home. In a practical sense, home is the present, free of projections. Home is our body. Home is our beautiful ruby shoes on the rich golden earth.
Now this doesn’t mean home is free of danger. It just happens to be the ONLY place you can work with danger. Life is simply safer if you’re there as an active participant. And a willingness to be there builds true confidence.
Yet, there are many ways in which we erode our confidence by denying ourselves in the garden. Many times we believed we needed something greater than ourselves to make it okay. This is addiction. Its is self-doubt. And in meditation circles it is based on theism. Theism is deeply ingrained in our society whether or not a god is involved. We can lose ourselves to our job, to our country, to our addictions, to anything that we determine is better than we are, or becomes more important than we are. Any time we decide something else is preferable to what our life is, or who we are, we are giving ourselves away. We will end up disappointed, and without hope. Once abandoned by our gods, when we find our idols have clay feet, we lash out and destroy them. And from their ashes will rise another idol for us to swoon over. This game continues on and on and gets no one anything but more servitude. And over time this erodes confidence. We can only shut ourselves out for so long before we will give up altogether.
The alternative to giving ourselves away is learning to develop true confidence. We do this when we build the fortitude to stay with discomfort and fear without checking out. We develop the strength to be alone with ourselves and our feelings for no reward except regaining OUR life. Sakyong Mipham talks about True Confidence. Unlike conventional confidence, which is dependent on external circumstances, True Confidence is a belief in yourself so deep and so naturally endowed no one can take it away. Only you can relinquish ownership of your heart. And, you will only do that when you are fooled into buying dross disguised as gold. Then, thinking there is an easy way out, we join the Pepsi generation and begin to follow someone else’s plan. The alternative is to stay the course by coming back to the breath over and over again, in order build the True Confidence to win our life back. This is the great power of meditation. It allows us to develop a strength that can never be weakened, as long as we believe in ourselves and our own goodness. Believing in ourselves is the point. Whatever happens, it is our life. We can either participate, or capitulate. In truth, we will do both. We will rise to occasions as we can, and otherwise crawl under covers of one sort or another. However, the more we choose to stand in the fire of our own experience, the stronger and more independent we become.
So, with all this talk of confidence and self regard, what about this Buddhist business of egolessness? Ugh! There’s that theism again. Our acculturated tendency toward extremes gives us a very impractical ‘all or nothing’ approach to our path. Buddhism encourages the middle way free of extremes. It’s a very practical approach to traveling the meditation path. It’s not all or nothing. In fact, it’s everything. But, because it’s not limited to one thing, it’s often interpreted as nothing, or empty. However, the middle way speaks to all experience as having individual qualities of equal value. The practice is not to attach our identification to any of it. The less ownership we have in life, the more life we actually own. In this regard, the terms egolessness and nonself don’t imply self-denigration, abnegation or ignorance. They simply mean that we are much more than we think.
In our conventional (and less awake than could be) mind we hide ensconced in a discursive mental swarm that keeps us separated from the fresh possibilities of life. Our self confidence is based on what we can acquire and our self identity is largely based on what we perceive we lack. And all of it forged on reactions to other people’s input. We are reacting to our world in a way that will make that world feel safe for us. Ego structures work provisionally. They help grease the interface with the society it was created to serve. But, we are so much more than that. The self is a small subset of the possibilities of who and what we are developed as a reference to navigate the storms of life. Yet, to believe we are the self is to believe the sailor is the lifevest. Pema Chodron likes to say that some of us are only comfortable in a life vest over a wetsuit over thermal underwear. We are well protected from our life. Maybe a diving bell. But somewhere in there is a vulnerable flesh and blood entity that is subject to changing every moment. This is the being that needs to be brought out and given confidence.
Each time we flinch and contract ourselves into the panic and tension (that all too often feels comfortable to us), we squeeze ourselves into a small reactive entity. We hide in our wetsuit. But, we can’t stay there. That tension will kill us. Make no mistake. Squeezing ourselves into defensive postures will constrict us, and shut off our life force. We can only shut down so many times, before something in there gets the message. But, there is an alternative. Letting go. The practice of meditation is entirely forgiving. We can always come back. We can let go. We can simply feel our feet on the ground, and there we are. Any system based in compassion and understanding would never deny the self. It might point beyond, but the only way beyond ego is to be confident enough to be able to let its gripping go. Ego structures gain power in our PHYSICAL GRIPPING. The antidote is simply to let go. Letting go does not mean getting rid of. It does not mean making an enemy of. Letting go means simply opening the grip and allowing the panic to subside and reveal the ground swell of fear beneath. Being frightened, and allowing yourself to be frightened without resorting to extraordinary external measures, is exactly what builds true confidence. We didn’t need a mommy, a boyfriend, a God or a president to pull us through. We were willing to sit there and feel our feelings without a bandaid. That is strength.
And if that sounds bleak, let me say that letting go of pleasure also opens to the true bliss beneath surface experience. We learn to be alone with our feelings. This allows us to feel more fully. We have the confidence to open; open beyond our pain, and open beyond pleasure, open past the clinging to the surfaces of life to the raw human experience that is actually our life. And, its okay if no one else knows, as long as we know. As long as we are willing to know more and more about what we are actually doing. Just us. And from that standpoint, we can naturally help others. Bleak? Well, maybe empty. Empty of all the stuff we encumber life with. But if we look into that emptiness, beyond our controlled presuppositions, life is full of possibility. Conversely, if we give in to our fear and reduce our mind to gripping and panic we become dangerous to ourselves and others. Yet, as all humans have basic goodness, if they have confidence in themselves, then if they can breathe, their actions will also be good. We will naturally help the world if we feel strong enough to do so. There is much energy devoted to making humanity feel unloved and unwanted, to keep us weak and at each other’s throats. But this is not the natural state of our being. And it is not the state we required to live in. The taxes are too high in that state. The natural state is a state of openness and grace for which the only tax is our own attention and confidence.
So, building confidence in yourself and your ability to deal with your pain, emotions and energy helps you to be your best non-self. And then, you might discover all the yous out there waiting for you.