In her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, author and American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes, ”To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.” These words may, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with those choosing to make a living in the arts, but in fact they apply not just to this circumstance but to practically everyone. The concept of ego is central to the teachings of Buddhist philosophy. Specifically, letting go of the illusion of who we think we are as a way to move past self-deception and discover our true heart and mind. Doing this isn’t easy, and it requires the willingness to let go of the mythology we build around our own identities.
In order to even begin down the path of letting go of ego, it is important to understand exactly what we mean when we use the term. Ego encompasses all those things that make us go through the day without really seeing or hearing what is going on around us. This is not to say that we are intentionally avoiding reality, but most people tend to look at the world through a pair of self-focused lenses. We have a natural ability to nuance the truth in order to suit our own narrative. It becomes a habit to see things as they fit in with our picture of the world rather than seeing them as they are before us. Much like any addiction, the first step is to admit that we have a problem. In this case, the problem is our own need to cling to self-preservation. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “for things to reveal themselves to us, we must be ready to abandon our views about them.” We must abandon our views about who we have created as ourselves in our own minds in order to see who we truly are.
Buddhism often speaks to the need for continual death in order to achieve an open heart and a clear mind. This is not to say that one should continually fail, rather it means we must acknowledge that every single day we are exposed to all sorts of situations that make us feel uncomfortable. Every day we do fail at things and that’s OK. Rather than gloss discomfort of any kind, ignore it and carry on as before or simply distract ourselves from the feelings, it is important to look it in the eye. Pema Chodron suggests noticing the little things we do when we feel uncomfortable. A flick of the eyes or a small, forced yawn—the little gestures and movements we have subconsciously developed to work around discomfort. She does not suggest that we seek to actively alter these things, merely know them at first. In this way we begin to see our own habits.
For artists, every day is not only an opportunity, but a battlefield of sorts. Artists are left open to slings and arrows on a regular basis just by virtue of the work they do. It is easy to hide behind an ego, a false image of self, in order to preserve ourselves from the suffering we experience when faced with criticism. The fact of the matter though, is that no one has ever learned a thing who wasn’t willing to fully embrace criticism. Artists face a dozen or more no’s for every yes. Rather than let that harden your heart and make you believe that the world is out to get you personally, let it soften your heart and let these experiences in. Look at them and learn from them. Consider why you may have received a negative response. Be bold and inquire. Be prepared to listen, truly listen, to the answer.
Letting go of ego is a tricky sort of business. There is a fine line between letting suffering in and letting it stop you in your tracks. Buddhist teachings often talk about being nailed to the spot. This does not mean that we should find ourselves frozen with fear and depression about the tribulations of life in the arts. To be nailed to the spot means that we have accepted all the ways in which we habitually gloss our way out of an uncomfortable moment and made an agreement with ourselves to get rid of these tendencies. Instead we let the moment in. We let it be a teaching moment. We approach ourselves with tenderness and allow an honest look at our own heart and mind.
Letting go of ego isn’t about becoming someone else. It isn’t about reaching some imagined pinnacle of self-awareness. It is a constant evolution. The word practice is used to define the Buddhist path for a reason. It is the process of letting go of rehearsed notions about who we are and being brave enough to look truth square in the eye.