By Bede Clifford, as posted on Facebook:

I wrote this article for a secular audience but it is all about the living of a life of dharma. My teacher makes the point again and again that given the discovery of the value of values and hence the desire to live a life of values we must then exercise our choice over action to satisfy this ethical striving. This is the often difficult task of making our actions conform to what we know to be the best thing to do. She pointed out when we don’t conform to what we know is the best course of action in each situation we meet we become disturbed within ourselves and in conflict with the environment. Living a life of values brings us into a new relationship with others and our world and transforms the quality of our minds so that they become more subtle. Without this she says the teaching won’t take. I have changed the article in small ways but mainly have kept it the same. The topic self honesty is important for us as Vedanta students. We have a choice before us every day. A life of dharma or a life of trying to become someone who looks good in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. 

Self Examination

“I am convinced that man’s fundamental problem is his human egocentricity … A living creature is a bit of the universe that has set itself up as a kind of separate counter universe. It tries to make the rest of the universe serve the creature’s purposes and centre on the creature. That is egocentricity. Of course, this is a forlorn hope. All the great historic philosophies and religions have been concerned, first and foremost, with the overcoming of egocentricity.” 
-Arnold Joseph Toynbee (14 April 1889 – 22 October 1975

Egocentricity, ego inflation and self improvement

When someone criticises us, without thinking we defend ourselves. No way do we want to be wrong! If we are wrong we are ‘no good’ in our own eyes and feel we are ‘no good’ in the eyes of the critic or those around us at the time. We find this intolerable. The ‘flaw’ being exposed by the criticiser is not the issue. Protecting our image of ourselves, the person we take ourselves to be, is what is at issue. The feeling of being diminished (being put down) is extremely unpleasant and emotionally painful. So what is it that is being deflated or made smaller, and why is it a life and death issue? 

We all have notions about ourselves and when these notions turn into experience they become entirely unconscious. For example, the notion that I am inferior and inadequate (a universally unacknowledged notion that governs many human beings) is not just a thought in the mind. It is lived out in our constant attempts to experience ourselves as someone who does not have certain imagined defects or limitations. These very attempts clearly imply an unconscious admission of the imagined defects. Swami Dayananda has made this very clear. My teacher drove it home to me when she first began the difficult task of getting through to me that any notion positive or negative about ourselves were always erroneous. 

When I think about myself, I have in mind an idea of who and what I am. Positive or negative, this is only an idea. However, on being lived, it takes the form of an experience. Typically, that experience unconsciously ‘confirms’ what I believe I truly am.

When we experience our identity as inadequate and inferior a strong tendency develops of moving towards a solution to our being a small, inadequate and inferior person. Feeling we are less than others, we seek to be better than others. Feeling imperfect and full of defects, we seek to become perfect. Feeling unloved and disapproved of, we seek to be a person who is loved and approved of. Feeling that we are a bad person, we seek to be a good one. Feeling wrong, we seek to be right. In Vedanta this is called becoming.

Whenever, in our own eyes, we feel better than others we are filled with a delicious sense of ego inflation. We then feel we are the superior person we want to be. Whenever, in our own eyes, we feel perfect we experience ourselves as free from error; and when we feel loved and approved of, we feel very happy indeed. 

Whenever we look, we often find we do not find ourselves matching our image of ourselves. However, our image of ourselves (how we are both in our own eyes and we hope in the eyes of others) is something we will defend – sometimes to the death. Yet there is a big difference between ego inflation and improving the way we live in the world. 

Improving our way of living in the world means improving our ability to see and think clearly, to become less emotionally reactive and living in relation to others in a socially beneficial and being productive by bringing value to our activities. It means developing our skills so we can bring real value to the market place in terms of making a good living and learning to and responding usefully and beneficially to people. This is improving our way of living in the world. It is good and very necessary. It is not trying to improve an image of myself –that is only trying to experience myself looking good in my own eyes and in those of others. Such image buffing takes our mind and efforts away from doing what will serve our best interests in terms of living happily, usefully and productively with others. 

Vainly trying to ‘prove’ ourselves to ourselves (and others) by puffing ourselves up generates a lot of anxiety, and always leads to hostility and an intense feeling of loss. The bigger you inflate an ego balloon the more likely it is to be popped by the actions of others. You may think I am stretching a point here, but think of when you were last upset and defending yourself. It felt very important didn’t it, and it was no little thing to you? 
People generally don’t fight to defend themselves, they fight to defend their image of themselves, an image they take themselves to be or desperately want to be. This image is a defence against experiencing ourselves as deficient or inadequate in some way. 

When our lives are based on ego-inflation and a defence of our view of ourselves we can easily become blind to what is really in our best interests, consequently doing things that are harmful to a happy and productive life.

If we hurt someone with our words or actions (which as fallible human beings we do often) it is good to say sorry and correct our hurtful behaviour. However, if being “right” is more important to us than living rightly with others, which is really in our best interests, we will find ourselves very resistant to saying sorry or to minimising the destructiveness of our actions, and will tend to justify them. This is the problem with living under the sway of false values (values we value that have no value in living a happy, productive and peaceful life). We find ourselves not living in our best interests. Instead, our interest is in building our image of ourselves and defending it. 

When we find ourselves being judgemental of others our attention will be riveted on their behaviour and on our self-satisfaction with our imagined superiority. Finding fault with others is often a favoured pastime because of its usefulness in raising ourselves above others in our own eyes. Having a condescending attitude to others also protects us against experiencing ourselves as inferior. Needing to be superior makes it very hard to be sensibly self-critical, to examine ourselves in an honest light. There is an old saying: “Don’t ever let the truth interfere with a good story.” Honest self-examination is not ego-gratifying; on the contrary it is ego-deflating. If we feel that the value of being superior to others – which is mainly unconscious – is what our life and happiness depend on, honest self-examination will not really be possible for us. 

Trying to be right, superior, perfect and better than other people – which is clearly evidenced when we see ourselves becoming critical, judgemental, condescending, superior and non-compassionate – takes us away from our imagined defects as a person and protects our image of who we think we are and how we like to experience ourselves as being. 

As human beings it is very true that we have defects that we need to remedy: we have defects in our understanding, we have emotional reactivity that drives us to say and do stupid things, and we have defects in our behaviour which prevent us from meeting the demands of the present situation in the best way possible. We need to improve our understanding (our seeing what is important and unimportant in living happily with others and in leading a productive and useful life) and we have to improve our skills in responding to the people around us. Defects in our understanding and behaviour don’t make us a defective person, and feeling bad about stupid and unhelpful behaviour is not negative, it is mainly helpful because it prompts us to correct our mistakes. However, if we feel bad about ourselves about our bad behaviour is unhelpful because we become ‘lowlifes’ in our own eyes and we will resist looking honestly at our behaviour and will fear doing so. 

Improvement in the way we live with others and how we engage in our daily activities is extremely important. However, ego-gratification has nothing to do with this and will in fact interfere with genuine improvements. To improve ourselves we need to examine our values and thinking. We need to be aware of our feelings and evaluate them in terms of their helpfulness or unhelpfulness in living our lives. Most importantly, we need to be aware of what we are doing and how we are doing it, and see whether or not these actions are serving our best interests. Without honest self-examination, improvement of our living, in the genuine sense of the term, is not possible. 

We need to be honest with ourselves – especially about what we value. When we are unaware that we are under the sway of ego-inflating needs or values (the need for fame, status, power, for a self approved by others and one that is better than others etc.) we are in trouble. Values we hold that drive us to repeat harmful and stupid actions, actions that make our lives empty and meaningless, can’t be released by an act of will because we did not consciously choose them in the first place. However, if we can become aware of self-harming values around which we build our lives, honestly examining them to see whether they have any real value, and discover that they are in fact harmful to a happy, socially beneficial and productive life, we are then in a good position to start the difficult but meaningful process of relinquishing them. 

Self-honesty is a major key to a better life. However, if we don’t see its value because of our ego-defensiveness our minds will not tend towards it. The only way to learn self-honesty is to practise it. The more we practise it, the more we see our dishonesty about ourselves. This is not ego-gratifying, however, it is more truthful, and being truthful with ourselves, which can at first be quite bitter, can become something highly valued once we see what we get out of it and what we lose by not practising it. 

The Latin root of the word vanity is vanus, meaning ‘empty’. In our culture, being rich and famous is highly sought-after and valued. However, we read of numerous people who have money and fame, who are yet unhappy in their relationships, and who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Money can buy comfort, that is very true, but it does not in itself produce happiness. There are rich people who are unhappy and comfortable, and there are poor people who are unhappy and not as comfortable. There is no essential difference. We all share the same problem. 

Living rightly with others by contributing value to our relationships with them, engaging in productive activity that is personally meaningful, produces relative happiness. If you start doing this, a feeling of happiness accompanies such activity. “What can I put into life?” is the most important question. Not “What can I get out of it?” It is the difference between a beneficial and productive ongoing contribution that becomes a way of living in this world, and a way of life based on getting things to make me happy. Pursuing ego-inflation is a worthless effort, having no value. It contributes literally nothing of value, giving only a fleeting feeling of ego-satisfaction that goes away which means the necessity to engage in compulsive efforts to boost it up again and this to , will turn out to be empty. To build your life around such a pursuit in such a way as to make it the reason for your living is an incredible waste.