Many of the spiritual traditions of the world seem to share a crucial commonality: the taming of the self.
Jesus, for instance, models leadership-as-servanthood, avoiding the human impulse to rule oppressively from the top down, to enlarge oneself through authority. Jesus takes aim at aggrandizing and exploitative forms of power, kneeling at the washbasin to demonstrate a kingship antithetical to such forms of power. He finally dies on the cross, giving himself for others in the most brutal, humiliating, and diminishing manner possible. In life and death, Jesus exemplifies the taming of the self, subordinating the self for the greater good. He places the self at the service of creational and communal aims and calls on us to do the same.
The taming of the self also receives considerable attention from the Buddha. For the Bhagavan, our mistaken notions of self, our inattention to our composite and fluid nature, underlies our misery. Not seeing our true selves, not apprehending the inevitable dissolution of the elemental union we mistake for an enduring “self,” we commit fully to self-advancement. We feverishly gather what must inevitably be scattered, making much of our standing, our material prosperity, our worldly accomplishments. We live for a self we construct, an invention at odds with the fluctuating bodily and mental aggregates we, despite our relentless egotism, cannot control. Only by seeing the erroneousness of this construct can we become calmed and cool, capable of looking beyond our self-serving preoccupations.
In just these two examples, we find a shared emphasis on the taming of the self. In their own ways, the leading figures of two great faiths teach the diminishment of the self-interested self, the quieting and the reformation of that stubborn agent seeking its own exaltation.
While this taming of the self may be an aim spanning the religious spectrum, it remains the hardest of all religious imperatives. It may be easy for a Christ or a Buddha, but for most of us it presents a lifelong challenge.
In my own life, my desire to be noticed and admired (a common enough desire) can run so hot as to taint those faiths urging the abandonment of this desire. I can feel the need to know more than anyone else about a particular doctrine, to practice more effectively and soundly than anyone else. The irony of this is not lost on me, but this selfish drive can still run rampant even while I am aware of it. I can be quite insulted by any attempt at correction in my daily life, envious of someone else’s achievements, unsettled, angry. I can be all me all the time.
The right message comes through now and again, often in meditation. The meditative path, however and wherever it arises, gives us a unique opportunity to tame the self. If, in moments of meditative absorption, we can let go of ourselves even for a minute, we can inch toward a bigger life. If “seer and seen” or “subject and object” can merge in meditation, if the self can be taken up in something larger, a different way of being can take root. As we begin to sense the wide universe experienceable in meditative states, we may come to learn that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. Perhaps we will come to appreciate a centerless universe of which we are but one expression and know some relief as a result. As Ch’an patriarch Seng Ts’an argues:
Each thing reveals the One, the One manifests as all things. To live in this realization is not to worry about perfection or non-perfection.
So freed, we may come a little closer to the to the taming of the self.
Meditation perhaps effects and taps into the much-discussed phenomenon of “awe,” the arresting sense of beauty sparked by something larger than oneself. A self-forgetfulness occurs as the awesome world opens up or falls away in meditative silence, as one ascends to the unknowable God, sinks into the embrace of Being, or moves through jhanas. Something awesome works on the self, making it receptive rather than assertive.
Not all of us need the taming of the self meditation can provide. Outsiders looking in may even think of mediation as a selfish act, a perception contemplatives and meditators have addressed for centuries (e.g. the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing). But for many of us, it can be a gateway to and a discipline achieving the taming of the self, a step toward a broader mind and heart.