In the previous Ash Wednesday reflection, I suggested that, “Living into our own fullest personhood seems to be contingent upon developing and releasing our talents and abilities into the world.” I also intimated that, while we needn’t be boastful or arrogant about these capacities, neither do we need to be bashful or apologetic about them. And yet we are up against that assumed religious ideal that our eyes should be downcast in self-effacement.
So, if most of us have been raised with the warning that we should not sing our own praises, how can we affirm our God-given talents and skills without resorting to boastfulness? Is there some sort of key or alarm with which we might catch ourselves from toppling over this cliff of arrogance and immodesty?
Unfortunately, we usually try to discern this by observing our external behavior. An inner arrogance, we assume, can be detected by outer boastful behavior. Catch ourselves acting boastfully, we assume, and we can then pull the plug on arrogance. But, really, is that strategy workable or effective? Usually it seems that it is only well after the fact, if ever, that we realize our corrupt faux pas.
Instead of focusing on our behavior, maybe a better direction from which we might work on this issue comes from an inner scanning for fear. Fear? Yes, I am convinced that boastfulness and arrogance are nothing other than one side of the coin of fear whose other side is timidity and faint-heartedness. These are bifurcated responses to the entrapment within a tight and self-limited orbit of the ego’s obsession with self-enhancement and self-protection. Either side of this coin of fear—boastfulness and arrogance on one side or self-deprecation on the other—keeps us from being fully present and from manifesting our skills and talents with power and grace.
Two suggestions of inner work that might address this base fear come to mind. I hope that these might be helpful during this Lenten season. One concentrates our attention on interior emotion, the other on the physical body.
Shockingly, the first is counterintuitive. Instead of distancing or distracting ourselves from the destabilizing discomfort that fear brings, the suggestion here is to befriend this fear. Are you kidding?! No, it can actually be most helpful to develop a curious attitude about this fear. What is its energetic signature? What does it smell like? How do our bodies respond to its signals? A witnessing attitude toward this debilitating emotion means that we aren’t as likely to get completely lost, consumed, and overwhelmed by this fear. We may actually come to be able to differentiate different kinds of fear—that which might be informative and ultimately helpful and that which only serves to tie us in knots and to get in our way.
So when we are even dimly aware of fear’s presence, we can stop and make the intentional effort to face it and to sit with it. Non-judgmentally we can explore it and come to know its various facets. (An even fuller and more elaborate practice along these lines is the Welcoming Practice; it has been fully described by Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating.)
The other suggestion to deal with fear is to literally and physically stand in a deeper sense of groundedness that reflects our position as a bridge between heaven and earth. When we can stand firmly and unapologetically between heaven and earth, bridging both, we can find our rightful and God-given place in life. In this practice we actually stand intentionally embodying and embracing this deep reality. And as we stand, fully gathered and present, we imagine two triangles—the first whose base goes deep into the earth and whose apex reaches up through our body all the way to the “high heart.” (The high heart is about half-way between the beating heart and the throat.) The second triangle is inverted with its base in the highest and most expansive heavens and its apex reaching down to our physical heart. The intersecting triangles form a diamond in the high center of our chests. The practice, then, is simply to intentionally stand in mindful awareness of these two triangles. When we have an embodied sense of this diamond, it is possible to apprehend that we are a bridge between heaven and earth. And we will know this not as a belief, but as a felt sense.
By assisting us to modify and reduce our fear, these and other related spiritual experiences assist us in finding that sweet spot out of which we may authentically live out our lives—avoiding boastfulness and bragging on one side and self-deprecation on the other. This is about undermining the power that fear has had over us and learning to trust the basic goodness of our lives in order that we might actualize our life purpose.