Imagine this scene: you have been found guilty of some unknown but terrible crime, and are about to be sentenced. There is no question of being let off lightly. A fine would be too lenient. So would a jail term. In the surreal state in which you find yourself, the judge has created a cruel, round-the-clock punishment especially for you.
You are to be taken from the courthouse and returned to your everyday life, giving the appearance that you’ve been set free. The catch is, you are to be accompanied everywhere you go by an invisible being. This being is just like you in every respect—not so bad, you might think at first. Where the punishment comes in is that your unseen companion never stops talking. You soon discover that from the moment you wake up in the morning—even before you’ve opened your eyes—to the moment you finally fall asleep, you’re being talked at. Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah. There’s no escaping the punishment—you don’t even get five minutes’ peace and quiet in the bathroom—the judge has explicitly ordered that you are never to be left alone.
Most of the time your unseen torturer rambles on in a chaotic stream of consciousness. He has some lucid moments. But even these drive you crazy, because the invisible being only ever talks about one subject and one subject alone: me, myself, I—24/7! Want more, now! Gimme, gimme, gimme!
No one else is aware of the endless chatter of, let’s call him, Self. Which is just as well. If Self’s constant monologue were to be broadcast on radio, you would soon be shunned, not only on account of Self’s frequent, unsavory preoccupations—which nice people like you and your friends wouldn’t want to be associated with—but also because he is so completely me-focused.
This story is, sadly, far less fictitious than we mostly care to admit. Self seems ever-present, if not in our faces, then insistently whispering at us from in the wings. But when we try to turn the spotlight on him, to pin him down, to make him accountable for some disastrous episode, like McCavity in T.S. Eliot’s Cats, he’s never there.
The wiliest of operators, the very ultimate in spin-doctors when he needs to be, Self makes sure that when we do see him, he is the master of the plausible explanation. It is not Self’s vanity or egotism that caused you to lose your temper with someone—no way, that person was being outrageously provocative. It is not Self’s constant need for self-aggrandizement or material props that has you pushing your credit limit—on the contrary, you’re just trying to give your family a better quality of life.
Even when we do succeed in seeing through Self’s brilliantly devious spin, and recognize what a dangerous influence he is, for the most part we’re so used to him and his endless carping that we’ve come to think of it as normal. Natural. Intrinsic to who we are.
More than that, let anyone else so much as hint that they’ve caught a glimpse of Self and don’t much like what they see, far from agreeing with them about this unhappy state of affairs, we’ll feel hurt or angry and leap to Self’s defense. Like kidnapping victims suffering from Stockholm Syndrome (who start to empathize, then fall in love, with their captors), even though we know that Self is ranting, negative and obsessive, the bizarre truth is that we love him more than anything, and are at pains to indulge his every whim. We do our best to make him feel special, brilliant, successful, popular, wealthy, powerful, enlightened, or whatever trip he happens to be on. Most frightening of all, somewhere along the way we allow Self to so dominate our consciousness that we even start to think of him as our essence. Our true being. Our “real me.”
Popular magazines lecture to us that allowing Self expression is one of the highest goals of human beings. When other people thwart this, they are jeopardizing our chances of happiness, and we should break free from such negative people and situations.
Society sets great store in protecting the rights of Self. Advertisers play directly to Self’s monomania. And the desire to give Self his fifteen minutes of fame, to make him feel important, is constantly being exploited in new and creative ways.
From a Buddhist point of view, the veneration of Self is just plain crazy; we couldn’t be more effectively guaranteeing our own misery if we tried. For all our dissatisfaction, every last ache of suffering we experience can be traced back to our habitual indulging of Self.
This observation is by no means unique to Buddhism. There is a growing trend among contemporary psychologists to consider the cult of self to have gone too far. And no doubt one of the reasons the Dharma is becoming so popular in the West is that so many of us are waking up to the recognition that it directly addresses the prevailing unhappiness of our time.
It’s an amazing paradox: the more we focus on making ourselves happy, the unhappier we become. We remain convinced that attracting money, love and influence to ourselves is the road to happiness. Conventional consumerism and social beliefs support this delusion. But an honest assessment of the facts—whether the microcosm of our individual loneliness, or the macro trend of antidepressant consumption—reveals the same incontrovertible evidence that me-ism makes us miserable. Or in the words of Shantideva:
We all seek happiness, but turn our backs on it.
We all wish to avoid misery, but race to collect its causes.
Writing in the New Internationalist magazine, psychiatrist and writer Trevor Turner said, “Today a rising tide of narcissism is spreading like toxic social algae…Conditions such as air rage, road rage and dysmorphophobia (the conviction that you don’t quite look right) all reflect the triumph of individual desire over a commitment to the world outside oneself.”
The Buddhist response to the paradox of narcissism is both simple and profound: altruism is the cause of the abiding happiness we all seek.
Fortunately, Buddhism provides us with creative, radical and powerful tools to help us on what will probably be a lifetime’s mission. Just as the law of cause and effect shows us that it’s in our own selfish interests to be generous, so too our understanding of bodhichitta can profoundly alter our attitudes to others.
Adapted from Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in an Uncertain World by David Michie