On my Sunday morning run this week I passed by a church sign that suggested something along the lines of “Cast your anxieties upon Him, for it is he who cares.” I know it doesn’t sound the least bit Buddhist, but I took it to be slightly so. Let go of your anxieties, was the message I read, do not let them burden you. I didn’t bother with where the burden was intended to lay, but I did see the co-acknowledgment that those daily burdens that tie us to suffering and negative emotions are tied to the ego and our obsession with it.
A central tenet in non-Western philosophy and religion is the erosion of the ego. There are many interpretations to Zen koans and Buddhist scriptures, as there are to almost all religious documents, but one could get away with the understanding that our earthly desires, those things that make us constantly yearn for a state of satisfaction beyond what we are experiencing at present, are tied to our ego. When we dwell on things like personal satisfaction and comfort, we ultimately cause suffering, both to ourselves and others.
When I’m upset about something, I tend to talk it out with trusted friends and loved ones. After all, the worst thing one could do with emotional hardship is to keep it contained within and allow it to take up residency in our conscience and working memory. So I typically choose to lean on others and dump some of my burden on them. Meanwhile, my burdens are now not just wreaking havoc on me, but also my friends, taking up valuable space in all our lives. Wouldn’t it be great if I had had it within me to simply let them go, stop worrying about my own issues, and stop burdening others with them as well?
Humans are natural problem solvers; we generally strive to improve and fix things. So are ants. Ants may be among the most ego-less creatures out there. Insects that work in communities, like ants and worker-bees, give seemingly all of themselves to the greater community. Food is brought back to the hive for distribution, prey is hunted in groups, and sacrifices are made for the greater good of the colony.
Humans and ants love to work in teams to get things done, so much so that we naturally gravitate toward things like sports and competition, simply for entertainment. We make up games that require our bodies to work hard and together, playing various roles, because it is fun. We even watch other people do it just so we can cheer them on and participate in the comradery.
Sometimes we catch ourselves thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing if I were so good at that game that someone paid me a livable wage to do it?
And therein lies the myth of the American dream. I’m not implying the American dream is not real; I am using myth to reference a story we tell each other, like in Buddhist and Christian scriptures, that actually addresses a real condition. Myths often seem unreal, but when looked at closely, a myth tells a story involving reality, though it may contain elements of fantasy and surrealism.
But that’s the American dream—to live happily ever after, experiencing success. Maybe it involves raising a family or starting a new business, but it definitely includes playing an important role in a community, as a team player, or a supplier of essential goods, or a fixer of broken or improperly working items. We all want to grow up and solve problems and be compensated for it, i.e., be granted a right to a sustained, healthy lifestyle in return.
The ego-less philosophy is alive in the vision and mission statements of many schools and businesses. “Think of the customer first,” is a work place mantra, with the hope that employees will take pride in the work they do for the greater good rather than the paycheck. Schools usually incorporate something that implies all decisions are made with the priority of what is best for the children served there. If we keep their needs at the forefront of all decisions, we’re more likely to unify as a team to create the best learning environment possible.
As with personal matters, it is difficult to draw the line between what is easiest, and what is best for the community (or children, in the case of schools). It is easiest for me to lay my own personal burdens upon my friends and relatives, but that might not actually be what’s best for me, or them. Likewise, it is sometimes easier to cut corners in businesses and in education, to the detriment of the quality of service, product or instruction. It could be argued that corners are cut in the best interest of those being served, as a last resort, but no doubt the line gets blurred often.
When burdened by shortcomings, unfortunate outcomes, and unexpected adversity, it might be best to pay particular attention to how we dispose of those burdens, and who they impact. Are we solving problems, or spreading them around? How will the greater community be affected? And at what point, if any, was progress diverted or slowed or hindered by decisions that were dictated, in one way or another, by ego?