Today a friend and I entertained our once-weekly meeting where we discuss our spiritual practices. We were speaking on the topic of Self-Worth and the word “arrogance” came up. My friend asked me what I meant by this word. I first said we’d be best looking it up, really, because I did not have the definition down pat! I was quiet for a moment and thought a bit more, then I said:
“For me – I am arrogant when I believe you and I are irrevocably different, in such a way you can’t understand, and in such a way that can’t be bridged.”
Now keep in mind, I have known for some time that having money, or a degree, or a flash car, or my physical health, or a particular skill, or a marriage, or happy and healthy children, that none of these things make me better than someone who does not have these things. So I have for some little time had a broader definition of arrogance than what many people might mean by the word (for instance, today I think of someone who goes about self-publishing their accomplishments and material possessions in an irritating fashion as someone who displays hubris, rather than arrogance).
But growing up, the concept of “arrogance” was that of a braggart, a loud person making boastful claims of superiority. I was taught this was a very taboo behavior – especially for a young woman. Emotional? Fine. Laughing, or crying? Tolerated – when appropriate. Angry? Unacceptable! And a vocal, direct, self-confident woman? The worst. We have special words for such women (“bossy”, and “mouthy” are a few fit-for-print which immediately to mind; invective we much more rarely afford men). The message is loud and clear: if you are good at something, if you have any attributes, keep your mouth shut about them!
For many girls and women, we are taught to take this a bit further, and to actually perform rituals of self-deprecation. If someone compliments something we own, or the way we look, we are taught to rebut and downplay the compliment. Then the other woman presses the compliment; and so on – a tiresome conversational charade. Men have their own versions, their own games they’ve been taught to play. More incredible still, people who’ve learned to refuse compliments think they are being humble by doing so. However, the opposite is the case: rebutting a compliment is as rude as openly disparaging a gift just as someone hands it to you.
When I first re-entered the Buddhist path, I didn’t know this. I didn’t think I was particularly conceited. So the first time my spiritual mentor told me my self-absorbed guilt, and my by-rote refutation of compliments, were both displays of arrogance, I was shocked – and a bit stung. After all, I knew arrogance was “bad”, and I didn’t want to be “bad”! Arrogance was “bragging”, and I didn’t “brag” – right? Besides, self-absorbed guilt, like worrying, or like the diminishment of a compliment, can often feel quite virtuous!
Despite my initial shock, my spiritual mentor’s statements quickly became incredibly helpful. Hundreds of times since this teaching was given to me, I’ve remembered to say “thank you” to a compliment. I’ve been able to set aside those occasional painful “old tapes” of my past, the unpleasant memories that can invade the mind when it is time to sleep, or in a quiet moment. Like the adage says – “If the past calls, don’t answer – it has nothing new to say.”
But in order to truly gain freedom from the past – it has to be the past. Another adage comes to mind: “Old behavior is not old behavior if you keep doing it.” If deep in our hearts we know we are doing wrong, the same wrongs that didn’t work out yesterday, we will not have relief until we stop the behavior.
The mind is a slippery customer. It doesn’t always serve our best interests. No one wants to believe themselves undeserving of compliments, but we aren’t willing to practice accepting them, and to sustain the effort. No one wants to feel guilty, and yet, because we are not careful, these mental exercises become a compulsive thought-life of their own. The work of dismantling our arrogance isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, either, as these matters of the mind can mean the difference between happiness and misery; between life and death. The rehearsed experience of arrogant “uniqueness” has led many to their doom – and usually, not before they hurt a lot of other people on their way out.
It is only natural we will compare; we will experience revulsion, we will experience envy, we will experience self-pity. If we know these are all operations of conceit, we can return to Right View. The Buddha is said to have identified three forms of conceit: thinking oneself superior to others, thinking oneself inferior to others, and thinking oneself the same as others. This seems like an impossible riddle, until we see with clarity how often our mind tries to separate itself. The humble mind knows there is no “self” and no “other”, and the calm spirit can experience those distressing moments of illusory separateness with a smile – and a return to mindfulness.