Ego Play

“Adults are just outdated children.”
 Dr. Seuss

The usual overthinking takes me hostage. Just write something so you can get this darn website launched. So what’s the hitch? It’s the usual culprit, taking myself a bit too seriously. Feeling a bit too cautious. Making sure every word and line break is just so. Self-conscious obsessions overshadow letting go. I recognize particular thoughts as attachments and experience vulnerability. I realize that if I’m not careful, the ego will have its way with me.

When we are overly deliberate on getting something “just right,” we risk losing the forest through the trees. What keeps us from simply expressing ourselves? I often wonder why, as we mature, we forget how to play. We could be having a lot more fun if we told our ego to take a hike. 

Of course, serious reflection is important in our contemplative lives. Angst and catharsis are necessary at times. Let’s face it impermanence and “radical acceptance” are not particularly light topics. When it comes down to it, the work is about going deep. However, our tendency to avoid looking foolish can disconnect us from the innocent playful energy that once served us well. The work becomes restoring a youthful unabashed self.

For inspiration, I turn to a master of fantasy and play, Theodor Seuss Geisel, affectionately known as Dr. Seuss. Last week was the 110th anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s birthday (March 2, 1904). (My kid happens to be born on the same day–not a bad birthday mate.) Dr. Seuss is the author of dozens of brilliant reading primers. His books appeal to adults because, on some level, we know we need more play, a bit of mayhem, to balance our ego. The Cat in the Hat invites us toward ego “play”, a letting go of care and worry, yet, ultimately, quite responsible. “Have no fear!” said the Cat. “I will not let you fall. I will hold you up high as I stand on a ball.” Dr. Seuss shares:  

Cat-in-the-HatI like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

Inspired by this playful message, I reflect on my experience and what helps me get over myself, to shed the extra layers of ego attachment and pin down self-acceptance. I come up with three things (for now):

Give something away.  The practice of cultivating generosity in Buddhism is called dana paramita (“the perfection of giving”). The essence of this “perfection” is unconditional love, a selfless generosity free from expectation and motivated by a genuine concern for others. We are filled with warmth when a child stands before us with a big smile and an outstretched hand offering a tidbit: “Want some?” Our natural willingness to spontaneously share seems to shrink with maturity. When “me” and “mine” feel stronger than “you” and “yours,” it’s time to take deliberate action. Let giving be a daily practice. (I don’t always remember.) The little things count. When the person behind me looks harried, I let them go ahead in that ever-so-long coffee line. Share my last bite of chocolate with someone. Spend an afternoon with a friend who is going through a difficult patch. You won’t have to think about it all that much once you begin. Read about dana paramita in a talk by Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao.

Be imperfect.  Accepting our less-than-perfect selves builds resiliency on the embarrassment-shame continuum. We are conditioned early in life to aim for perfection. We teach our children to fix boo boos quickly, before anyone notices. What if we didn’t do that?  What if, instead, we acknowledge errors–human blunders–allow ego’s rigid lines to soften? A few years ago I had the privilege of taking a prayer (mala) bead-making workshop with Sarita Shrestha, the lovely owner of Tibet Imports in Denver. My knots were a disaster and the rubbish bin seemed the proper repository for my first effort. She quietly shared a beautiful custom from her native Nepal that has stuck. Painters intentionally leave a bit untouched on the walls of a home. This simple custom inspires me toward good enough. (You should see my malas!) My advice. Color outside the lines, stray into the imperfect. Creativity lives there. And the ego receives a gentle rebuke. For a beautiful explanation of the benefits of embracing imperfection and moving forward through vulnerability, I recommend reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are and check out her website for loads of resources. 

Get outside.  As children, my mother would urge my sister and I: “Go out! It’s a beautiful day!” It was annoying at the time, an interruption to my Saturday morning Underdog escape. Now, I’m grateful. Playtime on moss-covered boulders and fuzzy wuzzy caterpillar zoos. Hide and seek in the meadow. Enchanted with the natural world, I am at home deep in the forest. Work on our “interior” can be overdone. Ego attachments thrive on a myopic view, a retreat into self. The antidote?  Notice the sacred in Nature. The revival of Transcendentalism in our technology-driven culture is not surprising. Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his essay Nature (1836):

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance.

A friend recently shared how he works with an upstart ego, “Be bigger!”  That made a lot of sense to me. Catch the sunrise at dawn. Watch the ripples of a pebble dropped in a pond.  Gaze at galaxies across the night sky. Then look a little further. To infinity and beyond!