Letting Ego Go
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 18, 2015
Once, two friends named Mussa and Nagib made a journey through the mountains of Persia on camel back. They came after a time to a place where a stream flowed by a sandy bank and trees gave shade. There they had a discussion, which turned into an argument. Nagib grew angry, and for the first time ever, he slapped Mussa across the face.
Mussa was stunned. He felt angry. He wanted to slap Nagib back. But then he thought, “I cannot be too mad at my friend because I could have done the same thing. We are alike, and I care about him, and I don’t want to fight with him anymore.” So he walked over to the trees instead and picked up a stick. With the stick he wrote in the sand, “Today my best friend slapped me.”
Then he and his friend stood in silence and watched as the desert wind blew the words in the sand away.
By the time the writing had disappeared Nagib had said that he was sorry. The friends got back on their camels and rode to their destination in a distant city. On their trip back through the mountain pass they stopped again at the same river.
This time the two friends decided to take a swim. Since their first visit, the rains had made the current stronger and river much deeper. Mussa, the friend who had been slapped, stepped into the water first. Right away, he slipped on a rock, was dragged under by the current, and began to drown. Nagib jumped in without a second thought and pulled his friend to safety.
The two friends again sat in silence for some time until Mussa had regained his breath. Then he rose and went to his saddlebags. There he found a carving knife. This time he went to a rock near the river. Into the rock he carved these words, “Today my best friend saved me.”
Again the two friends sat in silence. Finally Nagib spoke, “My friend, after I hurt you, you wrote the words in sand. Now after I saved you, you wrote the words in stone, why?”
Mussa replied, “When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away. This way our hearts are free from bitterness, and we can renew our friendships. But, when someone does something kind for us, we must engrave it in stone and in our hearts so that we will never forget.”
“Thank you my friend” said Nagib. “I am very grateful for our friendship. I don’t ever want to hurt you again.” The two friends embraced and continued on their journey together.
[MUSSA AND NAGIB; Adapted from a story by Malba Tahan (pen name for Julio Cesar de Mello e Souza, 1895-1975), a mathematician from Brazil who also wrote The Man Who Counted (Editoria Record, 2001), which was first published in Brazil in 1949.]
So, how is it with you? Do you write your complaints and your hurts in stone or in sand? Do you keep the kindnesses offered in a lasting manner or do they soon blow away from memory on the wind? What do you let go? What do you hold fast? What the hurts and the kindnesses you give to others? Which of those do you write in stone and which do you release? Rev. Forrest Church once said, “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.”
Letting go is a hard lesson and we often come to it late. When we are anxious or troubled, when life around us is falling apart, it is near instinctive for us to cling to and hold tighter all the things we thing we need. What have you wrapped your “grasping fingers and anxious hearts around” (that phrase from the Soul Matters introduction for this month)? Success, safety, or society’s standards of beauty? I don’t know what it is that will ring true for you. Perhaps you’ll need to learn to let go of your desire to be accepted, or your perfectionism. Is it your hurts or your hopes you would do well to let go? Maybe for you it is just stuff, things, material possessions that have taken over the center of your living.
Me? I’ve worked at letting go of things through my life. At some point early in my life I let go of judgement – at least of judging others … I’m still working on not judging myself. As a young adult I had to learn to let go of the sad and sullen self I used to be. The stakes had been pretty high on that one, thankfully I figured it out. Much of the work is to figure out what to reach for instead, as Forest Church mentions. Do you hate your body? Try feeding yourself a new message about beauty. Are you stuck on the rat-race for success? Try developing other metrics of value. Do you complain too much? Try gratitude. “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.” (Church)
Really, what I need to keep returning to, what I need constantly to learn to let go of is my ego. Again and again, it is ego. And I do not refer here to Freud’s definition of ego – the mediator between the id (our base desires) and the superego (society’s idealistic desires). Instead I mean ego as the “look at me” layer of my identity, the persona that is self-focused and anxious, the insecure part of me that will never measure up and cannot settle down. In the story of Mussa and Nagib, everything hinges on how Mussa’s response is not a self-focused ego response; instead it is a considered response in recognition of the friendship and up-and-down realities of relationships.
In the book The Curse of the Self by Duke University Professor of Psychology, Mark Leary, there is a delightful example of this anxious self-preoccupation by the ego.
Imagine that you are attending the first day of a new class or the first meeting of a new group. To begin, the teacher or group leader asks each person to introduce and say a few things about him- or herself. As members of the group start introducing themselves, your thoughts turn to what you will say when your turn arrives. Your self shifts into high gear as you consider various possibilities, imagine how the other people might react to each disclosure, finally settle on what you will say, then rehearse in your mind how you will say it. Although you have now prepared for your introduction, your self has distracted you from what the other people in the group have been saying. As a result, you have no idea who these people are or what they just said about themselves. This phenomenon is called the next-in-line effect because people are least likely to remember what the person who immediately preceded them said because that was when they were most self-absorbed. (p32)
In our reading this morning, also from Leary’s book, we heard a bit about the Buddhist response to ego. “People suffer, in part, because they cling to the idea that they have a self that must be protected and preserved.” Buddhism teaches people to let go of their attachments, of ego, of self. And while letting go of attachments is a central element in Buddhism, Buddhism is by no means alone among the religious traditions to speak against ego as the great burden of spiritual living.
In the Gospel of Luke (18:18-30) Jesus exhorts a young nobleman to ‘sell all you have, distribute it to the poor, and come follow me.’ Let go of your worldly attachments and follow me. There’s an old spiritual that talks about how “I’m gonna lay down this world and shoulder up my cross.” Let go of the world and follow Jesus. But Jesus himself is shown having trouble with this. In all three synoptic gospels, just before being arrested Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray saying ‘remove this cup from me, yet not my will but thy will be done.’ In Matthew’s Gospel he even says this prayer three times. Jesus has a hard time letting go, yet surrendering my own will to the will of God is lifted up as a good and great virtue!
Now, this is a little different from the way the Buddhists speak of ego and letting go. A Buddhist does not surrender to the will of Buddha in any way comparable to how a Christian surrenders to the will of God. Instead they follow the eightfold path that they may be free of attachments. I can learn to let go my attachments; we can give up our clinging to things and expectations and outcomes, because that clinging is the root of suffering – that is what Buddhism offers its adherents.
Perhaps this is a distinction that resonates as one of the basic differences between eastern and western religions. When we look, for example, at another western religion, we see that the word “Islam” in Arabic is literally translated as ‘submission’ and is meant as submission to God. In western religious traditions the idea of letting go is wholly caught up in the idea of turning over control of my own will to the will of God. The point is to better control my ego by letting it go.
Yet in the eastern religions, while letting go of ego is still important, it is not accomplished by turning over control. Letting go is done by quieting the ego, by calming it. In the Tao Te Ching it is written, “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.” ~ Lao Tzu
It is perhaps too much of a simplification to say that the west sees ‘letting go’ as synonymous with the secular war-related concept of giving your freedom up to another’s will, to be captured and constrained. And the east sees letting go as the opposite: as an act of liberation, of freeing oneself from constrains.
In both concepts however, we are talking about letting ego go that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Whether I am giving over my will to the will of something greater or I am liberating myself from my attachments, what I am letting go is my ego.
Now, this may not be what you need to be letting go. I know a good many people whose work is better described as needing to build up a strong ego, to let go of self-depreciation. Rather than thinking too much of yourself, you are thinking too little. Balance is key. And it is unfortunate that religions spend so much time telling us to let go of our egos. I need that message, but not everyone does.
Perhaps, as I wind my way to the end of this sermon, the point I am trying to make is for you to uncover what you do need to let go. It might be ego; it might be stuff, or anger, shame, a grudge, or the fear failure. I don’t know. Spend some time in self-reflection. Notice what you cling to, notice what feels threatened when you consider letting it go. It is not easy.
“What’s hard,” Charles Darling says in the poem I used for our meditation, (Skipping a Stone on Water,) “What’s hard … is not so much the proper match.” The hard part is not figuring out what you need to let go. All that takes is honestly. “What’s hard is what’s unreachable: reckoning that point at which you must release.”
But here is the next part – the piece that is hard to see when you are learning to hard work of letting go. The next part is that when we let go, we must at the same time reach out. “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.” Let go of ego, reach out for service. Let go of stuff, reach out for experiences. Let go of suffering, reach out for gratitude. And really, let go of nearly anything, reach out for gratitude! Letting go is hard, but by doing so we become open for so much more than before.
In a world without end, may it be so.