The next time you find yourself ranting at salespeople, your mother, tech support, or other drivers, stop to remember rule #6. When I witness someone having a meltdown, it’s invariably because they have thrown rule #6 out the window. I’m guilty of such episodes, but at least I know the rule, despite a temporary lapse, and afterward I always feel foolish. You’re probably familiar with this rule already, though in the heat of the moment, it can be easily forgotten. Directly experiencing it is a revelation that can change your whole perspective on what matters.
My first encounter with the rule was through studying Buddhism in high school. Buddhist ideas such as “no-soul”, impermanence and emptiness, all ran counter to the the things I was led to believe up until that point; that a soul was everlasting, that the accumulation of material things equivocated success and that I would be judged on my accomplishments. I soon forgot the wisdom of Siddhartha in my pursuit of grades and girls, frequently frustrated in the process. In college, I immersed myself in Buddhist studies, but I found it so difficult to reconcile it with my competitive, ambitious nature.
The value of what I had first encountered in that high school Pilgrimage class came back to me in my 30’s through the story of The Frog in the Well. For those unfamiliar, this ancient parable involves a self-satisfied frog in a well, who boasts to a sea turtle about how great he is and what a privilege it is to live in his palace of a ruined well. But when the frog hears from the turtle about the vast sea, he suddenly realizes how small he really is and how much he doesn’t know.
The problem, as I’ve brought up in previous posts is that we regularly forget that our well is not the world. Our construct is as real as anything else, which leads us to believe that the way we see things is correct and justified. The map is the territory. The immense consequence is that we are confronted on a daily basis with people and situations that challenge the validity of our well, and we spend most of our intellectual and emotional energy defending it. As we stack the bricks higher, we create a fortress of righteousness that imprisons us in our certitude.
In the inspiring book by Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility, he highlights the absurdity of our self-importance through the following story:
Two prime ministers sitting in a room, and suddenly the door bursts open, and a man came in and he was extremely upset and shouting and carrying on. The resident prime minister said, “Peter, Peter, please remember Rule #6.” And immediately Peter was restored to complete calm. And a young woman came in. She was hysterical. Hair was flying all over the place. Shouting and carrying on. He said, “Maria, please remember Rule #6!” And immediately Maria said, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and she apologized and walked out. And then it happened a third time.You know how it always happens a third time. And the visiting prime minister said, “My dear colleague, I’ve seen three people come into the room in a state of uncontrollable fury, and they walked out completely calmly. Would you be willing to share this Rule #6, what that is?” And he said, “Oh yes, Rule #6, very simple. Don’t take yourself so damned seriously.” And so he said, “Oh, that’s a wonderful rule. What may I ask are the other rules?” And he says, “There aren’t any.”
It’s easy to think, “I’ve come as far as I have by believing in myself and I’m not going to abandon that now”. It’s precisely this belief, the illusion of “I matter” that derails us. The thing that drives and elevates us isn’t self, it’s an ideal – a vision that transcends our mundane world. But most of us will fall far short of our dreams, and remain trapped in the predictability of the known. The cost is that deep in our wells, we lose perspective and believe that everything matters. We don’t want to lose any part of the well we have meticulously built and the older we get, the more intractable we become. We take everything personally.
The cheap nihilism of “shit happens”, doesn’t satisfy me. Nor does the cynicism of “life’s a bitch and then you die.” I believe that life is beautiful, because I am making it that way. Just because I happen to have this power doesn’t make me important. I am living Chris Barclay’s life and there’s no reason at all to take this personally.
“It was the self, the purpose and essence of which I sought to learn. It was the self, I wanted to free myself from, which I sought to overcome. But I was not able to overcome it, could only deceive it, could only flee from it, only hide from it. Truly, no thing in this world has kept my thoughts thus busy, as this my very own self, this mystery of me being alive, of me being one and being separated and isolated from all others, of me being Siddhartha! And there is no thing in this world I know less about than about me, about Siddhartha!” — Herman Hesse, Siddhartha