There is a very fine line between ‘being ourselves,’ and ‘being in ego.’ Spiritually, we each need to fulfil our specific part of the universe. The universe needs each of us to be ourselves for the ‘Infinite All’ to exist. Each part of the universe is equally insignificant, yet we are all simultaneously critical to the whole.
So, given this reality, how do we be spiritual, yet be ourselves at the same time? The best way I know to describe that, is to give you an example of someone who marries these two realities seamlessly.
For most of my life I’ve known a couple. I’ve grown up watching their lives and personalities unfold under a variety of joys and stresses. Over time, I’ve been able to collect an incredible amount of information about how they live and interact. And that lead me to questions about their histories that helped fill in the blanks I had.
In this couple, it is the husband who leads an enlightened life. His enlightenment may not seem apparent to the casual observer. But that’s only because of that very fine line I mentioned previously—the line between being ‘ourselves,’ versus being in a state of ego.
The reason most people wouldn’t notice or suspect that this man is enlightened is because his life can appear to be a living hell from the outside. For our entire lives my neighbours and I have heard this man be repeatedly beaten down. None of us have any recollection whatsoever of his wife ever saying a kind, supportive, or loving thing to him. In fact if she did, I’m sure we would all notice it immediately because in contrast to the rest of her behaviour it would glow in the dark.
She can be guaranteed to point out every failing she perceives him to have. And by now, her view of him is so thoroughly disappointed and disgusted, that the standard tone-of-voice she uses with him would be most appropriate to a misbehaving six-year-old.
We can’t really fault his wife for this. Women naturally mimic their mothers more than their fathers, so many will use the scolding tones appropriate for children, when criticizing others, even adults. It has innocent enough origins, but it’s not particularly conducive to the most positive relations between two adults.
As far as most observers are concerned, this guy basically catches hell all day long. He gets yelled at for what he does, what he didn’t do, what he might do, and for what he did years ago. If you recorded her all day long and removed the words, just the tone alone would tell you that she’s perpetually exasperated by his stupidity, lack of awareness, his laziness, and what she views as his poor prioritization of tasks.
Even though she would be able to point to evidence for her low opinion of her spouse, all of the neighbours would describe him as very friendly and helpful. He’s known to be very generous and thoughtful, and everyone would agree he’s an extremely hard worker who works all day. But, if that’s his life, how can it be good enough to be an enlightened life?
That question isn’t easy to answer until you understand their pasts. She grew up as the only daughter of a stern mother of one girl, and a baseball team of younger boys. That meant, when her mother taught her to speak to her brothers, she was unwittingly teaching her how to speak to men. And because it was a mother doing the teaching to brothers that were younger than the sister, she was primarily programmed to correct or scold them.
Without ever consciously meaning to, as the woman aged and started dating, she only had one perspective to speak from. And that language informed how she saw the world. In her mind her existence was primarily about finding mistakes, and then scolding her boyfriend or husband into ‘proper behaviour.’ Of course, this is pure mimicry. But in her mind, she’s ‘helping’ him, by ‘improving’ him. But that’s just another way of telling him he isn’t okay the way he is.
Whenever she engaged with him, even if she was happy, there was no consciousness placed on choosing the words that might generate the best results. Like all of us, she simply used the language she’d been raised with, which meant she was then blindly imitating how her mother spoke to her brothers. Of course, that is totally inappropriate in the context of her marriage, where she is speaking to her own very-equal husband.
Of course, every bent pot needs a bent lid. In his past, he grew up with an angry, abusive father who he learned to calm down by being completely obsequious. His standard starting point in life is to assume that he’s in trouble, and to save himself by figuring out what to do to calm things down. So, considering that’s his primary skill in life, he really did pick the perfect wife.
What’s critical to understanding the subtle difference between ego and personality is that one is not the same thing as the other. Personality is who we are, and who we are is always perfectly fine. Ego is when we begin to judge who we or others are. And living without ego is a step that the enlightened old man takes, simply because he doesn’t judge his own behaviour, or hers.
So here’s the tricky part: we could argue that this man is in a ‘bad marriage,’ and that his wife should treat him better. And that’s true. He would be happier, and both parties would be healthier if she wasn’t always angry and he wasn’t always afraid. But that doesn’t mean he’s having a bad life. She is.
Hers life is bad, because she keeps choosing anger, by choosing to sit all day and think about his failings. She ruminates on why he didn’t get this done, or why he did something his way instead of her way. There’s no way to think thoughts like that and have a happy life.
Meanwhile, the reason he’s okay, is that he doesn’t second guess her behaviour or his reactions. He simply is who he is. And he knew how to handle his Dad, so he knows how to handle her. That means that his life is good, even though he’s getting yelled at.
He does no voluntary thinking about how it could be better. No wishing she was different. No wanting a different past. And no criticizing of his father for teaching him to live that way. He accepts his history, and his present, with an internal silence. And therefore he simply Is.
Yes, the fact that he never says a bad thing about his wife seems strange to all of his neighbours. And yes, his life would get even richer and better if he was with someone who treated him more like he treats her. But even with that being the case, he still has one of the best marriages someone can have.
If you asked him what he thought about being married to his wife, he would do as he always does—and the opposite of what she does. He would point out everything about her he likes. And being married to someone who you honestly view as ‘great,’ is as good as it gets.
You can see, it’s very possible for one spouse to be in a good marriage and the other to be in a bad one. Because life is all about perspective. He may not be thinking ugly thoughts about her, but doesn’t mean she’s not thinking ugly thoughts about him. If we asked her about her marriage, she would exasperatedly list a litany of complaints and failures, because that’s what she thinks about.
Yes, this man’s unfortunate past lead him to get married to someone that seemed familiar in that she treats him like his father did. And he’s been working to win her favour since he met her. But, because he doesn’t see anything wrong with leading that life, he’s fine. He’s happier and better off than the rest of us because all he can see is his good fortune, because that’s all he’s looking for.
Our pain comes from us wanting a different life. His peace comes from accepting and appreciating the one he already has. So for us, the only question is, which one are we doing right now? And which one are we going to choose in our future moments?
Are we going to decide to be an angry, disappointed spouse? Or is our awareness focused on being a quietly contented one? It’s important to know, because the quality of any marriage will always depend far more on our attitude than on our spouse.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.