There is always the risk that people take the inner life with a little bit too much solemnity. Two quotes on this from quite different sources:
Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
G. K Chesterson
One of the big problems in meditation is that we can take ourselves too seriously. We can see ourselves as religious people dedicated towards serious things, such as realising truth. We feel important; we are not just frivolous or ordinary people, going about our lives, just going shopping in the supermarket and watching television. Of course this seriousness has advantages; it might encourage us to give up foolish activities for more serious ones. But the process can lead to arrogance and conceit: a sense of being someone who has special mission or some goal of helping people, or of being exceptional in some way… This conceit, this arrogance of our human state is a problem that has been going on since Adam and Eve, or since Lucifer was thrown out of heaven. It’s a kind of pride that can make human beings lose all perspective; so we need humour to point to the absurdity of our self-obsession.
The essence of the basic human problem is that we live a substitute life. From our basic human need for protection, security, and comfort, we’ve fabricated a whole maze of constructs and strategies to avoid being with our life as it is. And as a consequence of believing in this substitute life we are disconnected from awareness of our true nature, our naturally open heart.
Our substitute life is made of many different constructs: our identities, our self-images, our concepts of what life is, our opinions and judgments, our expectations, our requirements. All these we take as reality. As a consequence of these tightly held beliefs, we develop certain habitual behavioral strategies to deal with life as we interpret it.
All these strategies are based on core decisions that we made early on, about who we are and what our life is about. They are decisions we made to help us cope with the many inevitable pains of growing up.
It is striking how much of our life is tinged with fear. We all have fears inside ourselves, monsters and dragons that raise their heads from time to time. When they show themselves we can default to a smaller, less competent version of ourselves and feel that we are not capable of achieving anything.
However, as Rilke’s extraordinary text tells us, when we turn towards our fears many of them dissolve. The things that frightens us can actually help us grow. Running from them ultimately is running from a place of real grace. That which is most alien will become our friend. The very difficulties become our path of growth.
We, however are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if we could only arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
Better is one handful of quietness
than two hands full of toil
and grasping after the wind.
Practice is based on a complete acceptance of ourselves, as we are, balanced with a gentle, non-judging movement to change aspects of our behaviour which lead to unhappiness. Any desire for change comes within the framework of that non-judgmental acceptance, and an ease with the status quo.
We know when we are far from that. We can feel an urgency in our desire to change, a leaning forward that is tinged with fear. There can be all sorts of reasons for this, such as an fundamental lack of acceptance of ourselves. Or we have an “indirect acceptance“, when we can only see good in ourselves if someone outside approves us. Or we get mixed up between been needed and being loved. Whatever the reason, we can look to mediation to fix us, and it becomes attached to an outcome, ultimately adding to our unhappiness with ourselves. The reality of our lives is that we are three-steps-forward-two-steps-back-kinda-people, and need to accept ourselves as that.
Ajahn Sumedho encourages an awareness of what we call “the becoming tendency”, meaning the use of meditation to become something. You do this to get that. It’s a kind of busy-ness and doing-ness and leaning — taking hold of a method, or others’ ideas, or quick solutions in order to get somewhere. This habit is the cause of many of our troubles, and can so easily take over our meditation. It can permeate the whole effort of spiritual practice. Indeed, he states that the becoming tendency can take over and gets legitimized by being called “meditation.”
Meanwhile, we miss the fact that we are losing the main point and that what we are doing has turned into a self-based program. We get caught in the illusion, trying to make the self become something other. We can relax without switching off, and consequently we can enjoy the fruits of our work. This is what we mean by letting go of becoming and learning to be. If we’re too tense and eager to get to the other end, we’re bound to fall off the tight rope.