There’s much emphasis on the idea of the necessity of ego-deflation, affliction to self, and death in order to spiritually wake up. As Bernadette Roberts often repeats, “as I decrease, God increases.” I didn’t fail to pick this up, though maybe, it recently occurred to me, I had always put my own twist on it. To the term ego-deflation or affliction to self I had always associated the feelings of being rejected, dismissed, insulted, hurt, ignored, and others along this line. Spiritual life not only looked grim, but I understood it as an agonizing torture, a kind of violent murder, like being beaten to a pulp. What I understood as spiritual life was a dog-eat-dog world. Each for herself. And eventually, the impersonal Other, be it nature or society or god, will surely win and swallow me into nothingness.

Little did I know that this conception exhibited more about my psychology than it did my understanding about spirituality. It involved several disparate events to open the way for me to reconsider. To begin with, for some time I’d become aware of my tendency to treat myself harshly. Merely becoming aware of it did not bring much change since I didn’t know other models of relationship with myself. Till one day, a meditation teacher whose class I recently joined, talked about the idea of lovingkindness which needs to first be directed toward oneself. Only when you have it toward yourself can you give it to others. Sure in the past I had come across the idea of loving oneself, accepting oneself, being kind to oneself… but always, without knowing it, dismissed it outright. This time, however, I listened somehow without arguments. What the teacher said made sense intellectually and was intriguing emotionally. Maybe the time was ripe for me. Maybe I had grown intensely weary of living a life of loneliness and suffering. Or maybe I’ve come to the conclusion myself that the only real way I could be of any help to anyone else was by being happy. I’ve seen clearly that feeling miserable is in the way of my ever having good relationships with people. Maybe as I got older I felt pressed for time, and those youthful arguments virtually ceased of asking myself what happiness means or whether or not this was that anti-spiritual thing called ego-boosting.

A conversation I had with a friend brought these preoccupations into a clearer focus. By the time he and I had the chat, we knew each other only for a short time in the meditation group I mentioned above. We did not know much about each other except that we were both interested in spirituality defined very broadly, which motivated us to join the same class. One evening after finishing a practice, I asked him about an experience I had during meditation, which I sense others had had, too. He responded to the question but then added, “I know you want more than just experiences.” Upon hearing it I smiled. He offered his hand, and I shook it. There was a kind of brightening in my mind, and warmth. I didn’t know what he knew about my deepest desire, but it didn’t matter. What was key was the feeling of acknowledgment I received. I felt connected.

At home, still feeling the warmth of acknowledgment, the familiar thinking reaction kicked in. I asked myself whether what I felt was a case of myself being inflated, and whether such feeling, though positive, was going to hamper my “spiritual awakening.” While busy rationalizing, unexpectedly I heard an inner scream, “This is what I want!” And that felt right. I want to feel acknowledged. I want to feel connected. I want unconditional love. And that evening I had a little taste. I think this was honesty, and it stopped the rationalizing process (a process that was trying to mold what happened to fit into my idea of a spiritual life. A process that also told me that unconditional love was a myth).

Then I saw the difference between this warmth of acknowledgment and the suffocating euphoria that came with being acknowledged through achievements, for example, winning a competition, getting praises, getting accepted at a school, etc. I had a lot of this latter kind before, and the term “inflation” is really an apt description of it. Blood rushes into your head, and it throbs, and you feel about to burst from the mania of pride. Even when humility was why I was praised, this prideful elation was still the effect. The warmth of acknowledgment, however, had the opposite effect. It softened me. I was at rest.

I realized then that up to that moment I’d been spending my energy trying to find acknowledgment but without discerning between different kinds of it. And I practiced what was most familiar to me, namely, trying to prove my merit to the world (I have this image of myself as an early twentieth century English politician on a podium yelling out his speech to indifferent passerby). Proving my existence to the universe was and still is the purpose of my life to a large extent, and I always fall short. And this feeling of being defeated, dismissed, ignored was what I thought of as ego-deflation. Though damn bitter, I consoled myself by thinking it was conducive to spiritual awakening. If I’m not awake yet, that means I need more of it. I didn’t consider the possibility that, for my mentality, this feeling of failure could be just as much, if not more, bolstering to the self as the feeling of achievement. Because for me the sense of failure turned into alienation and anger, and these in turn kept alive the determination to show the world I exist. And if the world refuses to look at me, I’d rather cease. Self-loathing, too, could keep the self alive to be criticized, punished, hated. So there was a kind of confused violence in the way I had lived.

But that evening I saw that my new friend and I shared the same desire. A sense of personal property was absent; in its place was a camaraderie. Moreover, he acknowledged something that was already in me (my deepest desire), and I did not have to work to prove anything. So I became softer. That evening I felt I understood, through experience, what Khalil Gibran meant that to love is “to melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.” An alternative was presented to me. Contrary to my usual image of spiritual death, this dying through melting is not torturous. It is not like getting beaten to a pulp. And contrary to my idea of succumbing to that ultimate Stranger, this was deeply intimate: to let my deepest desire take over me.

Coda: I’m not claiming that I now have a better understanding of what spiritual life is supposed to be. Spiritual as opposed to what? After all, I’ve seen that my understanding of spiritual life was derived from my attitude toward the one life I know. I could do many things in life and play many roles, but still they happen in this one life. Nor am I saying that my attitude toward life has changed once and for all. In fact, I have more confidence in the power of old patterns and habits than of my ability to thoroughly learn a lesson and change. This experience did not give me a more correct understanding of spirituality or life but a broader awareness of my psychology. I wonder now if any outlook on life I have is not actually a reflection on how I relate to myself. Life may be a mirror.