Archives for February 2021

Taking the Self Out of Self-Righteousness

This article was originally published in the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness blog in January 2021. Republished with kind permission from the author.


The alarming circumstances we’re living in – a global pandemic claiming millions of lives, the resurgence of overt racism and rollback of civil rights protections resulting in civil unrest, an insurrection against the US government – has many of us thinking about what is right and wrong in the world. Most of us understand the importance of doing good and standing up for what is just, but how might we discern being “upright” from being self-righteous?

The unfolding of events of the last several years have provided additional evidence that there is a cost to standing idly by when great harms are being committed. Antisocial sentiments and actions don’t just automatically take care of themselves when left unaddressed. Self-serving and other-harming attitudes and behavior tend to create a self-perpetuating cycle of suffering. Not only is this what many of us know in our hearts to be true, but this pattern is observable in the record of human history and corroborated through a long list of social science experiments.

Both self-righteousness and genuine integrity are linked to morals, which are merely personal standards of behavior – what we deem is right and wrong for us to think, say and do. Individuals and cultures have different ideas of what is moral and amoral. In addition, when a judgment is likely to reflect badly upon us, fairly or unfairly, we have a tendency to blame the messenger. Despite these complexities, history and research show that upholding moral standards is crucially important to a healthy functioning society. A number of interesting studies have demonstrated that expression of moral boundaries promotes cooperation, interpersonal trust, and generosity that benefits us all. Scientific American writer Rob Willer cautions, “…while we may fear the judgments of our peers, we should fear more an anonymized world where they were impossible, as this would be a social reality where cooperation is tentative, trust rarely extended, and acts of benevolence harder to find.”

When I was in primary school, it was widely considered uncool to be seen as a person who earned good grades – especially if one appeared to care about academic performance and made obvious effort. Those who did so were disdained as “nerds” (way before nerd chic was a thing). This had real consequences that can be seen in the devaluing of science and expertise. Today we seem to be trending toward a disdain of morality. Some now consider upholding morals to be “elitist” or “whiney” and the label “woke” is increasingly used as an insult. In some ways this is understandable given the level of hypercriticism and hypocrisy we’ve been exposed to through the media. But just as being “holier than thou” is an unhelpful extreme, so is the condemnation of morality. We are seeing the negative consequences of this backlash unfolding before our very eyes.

How might we discern self-righteousness from standing for what is “right”?

No matter what topic I write about, again and again I come back to the wisdom of balance. Differentiating the sanctimonious from sincere depends quite a bit upon how much “self” is included in the mix and to what degree we feel we are “right” and others are “wrong”. Our mindfulness practice can help us examine the true intentions behind our expressions of moral boundaries. Self-righteousness elevates the self above others – are we concerned about our own reputation? Do we fear censure? Does cutting others down promise us a place on a pedestal? Self-righteousness is intolerant of other views – are we making space for different perspectives? Have we truly listened to and considered what others have to say or are we merely bulldozing ahead with our own version of truth? When we pay close attention, we often discover that the superficial reward of feeling “above it all” comes at the painful cost of cutting ourselves off from our common humanity, without whom we cannot truly thrive.

Is there an antidote to self-righteousness?

According to Jack Kornfield, “The first step is simply to not hate” – to put it more broadly, to resist the urge to other. We can start by recognizing that our anger comes from a deeper truth of caring – that we care very much about the world, its inhabitants, and our place within it. We can also reflect upon our common humanity – that we’re all susceptible to error (ignorance and delusion – though the details may be different) and this shared human frailty causes suffering. By acknowledging our own human vulnerability, we equalize ourselves with others, develop a greater sense of humility, and deepen our feeling of belonging within a wider web of existence. Finally, we can make a vow to do whatever we can to stop the suffering we see around us – or at the very least, to not contribute to it. We will all make mistakes and at times drift into self-righteousness, but we should not let this deter us. Doing our best to be mindfully aware when this happens, we can offer a sincere apology and learn from our mistakes. Finally, we can take courage from the lessons of our ancestors and the revelations of science showing us that the benefits of being an upstander far outweigh the risks.

To us all towns are our own, everyone is our kin,
Life’s good comes not from others’ gifts, nor ill,
Pains and pain’s relief are from within,
Death’s no new thing, nor do our bosoms thrill
When joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
That o’er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho’ storms with lightning’s flash from darkened skies
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise!
We marvel not at the greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate.

– Kaniyan Poongundran, Purananuru (Adapted from translation by G.U.Pope, 1906)


Resources

Everett, J, Pizarro, DA, & Crockett, M (2016). Inference of Trustworthiness from Intuitive Moral JudgmentsJournal of Experimental Psychology. General Forthcoming.

Simpson, B. et al. (2017). The Enforcement of Moral Boundaries Promotes Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior in GroupsSci. Rep. 7, 42844.

What is possible when we surrender?

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  – Rainer Maria Rilke


I am just plain tired. Wrung out. Depleted, defeated and dejected. I don’t know about you, but 2020 took a tremendous amount out of me and the events of January 2021 felt like the final straw. You know what’s on the menu: violence and partisanship in the US capital; a pandemic filling ICUs and killing our friends; injustice, intolerance and other inhumanity. This is the world in which we live these days and it’s damn hard to bear witness to it all and maintain any sense of hope.

I sit and follow my breath, I comfort myself for the simple fact that I am struggling and suffering, and I do my best to hold what I can with compassion and equanimity. But the sense of utter deflation and overwhelming defeat is so heavy in my heart that simply sitting with it (and soothing myself for experiencing it) feels so pitifully insignificant just now.

Or is it?

heart kite flying

I wonder if this surrender is where a revolution of the heart is born? One where we awaken to the fact that we can no longer go on as we once did, blithely dancing through a world that we believed would never change. One where we stop telling ourselves (in the case of my fellow Americans) that we live in a nation that is the best in the world, has its sh*t together, and is a paragon of all that is good and right. One where those of us with privilege can no longer go through life believing that because we weren’t experiencing injustice then perhaps it had been eradicated in the world. 

When confronted by these and other illusions, perhaps we can wake up from our deluded sleep and recognize that we share this planet with 7.6 billion people, most of whom face the grim reality of impermanence, the pain of power corrupted, and the impossibly hard truth of injustice, intolerance and marginalization. We were never immune to any of this global suffering, but only quarantined in our little isolation bubble believing we were free of it.

Pop! The bubble has burst and here we are in the new life, which is really just the old life revealed to our new eyes. Let’s not blink. Don’t look away. This is not a dream. This is it. This is reality and regardless of how we got here, it is incumbent on each of us to move with awareness, acceptance and action today, tomorrow and forevermore.

Awareness is simple, but not that easy. We may meditate each day to become more awake and aware, and perhaps more in tune with our life as it is and not as our brain tells us it is. But do not sit on the cushion to escape life but instead to live more fully in it. The cushion is not a refuge but a launching pad, but it can be an informed launch if we open up to the reality of our present moment. Where are my feet? What is in my heart?

Acceptance has gotten a bum rap. When we say “acceptance” many hear “surrender,” but this is not what acceptance really is. If we can simply accept the reality of what is before us and within us in each moment, that right now it’s like this, then that is all that is required. It is hard to accept that there is so much pain, injustice and anger in the world, but if we are to address it and heal, we first must accept that it is here and a part of our human reality. If you feel a pain in your gut, you don’t just “accept” it as a given that you will now die of an intestinal disorder. You accept that you are feeling it and let it inform how you respond to relieve it. 

What if we took the time to really feel our respective and collective emotional pain in this moment? Could we acknowledge and allow it because it is our heart and mind speaking to us? For myself, if I listen past my thoughts about the pain, I can get in touch with the part of me that has been grievously wounded and needs my attention. That attention could be soothing the hurt or taking action to relieve it. Both are mindful and compassionate acts.

Action is the alter ego of acceptance. Once we are aware of what is at hand, we can choose our response by harnessing the profound power and potential of our own human inheritance. As the Serenity Prayer says: “… accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can.” Perhaps we might follow Rilke’s radical and wise advice to “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…” 

After accepting what we can, what is left to change? Maybe it is as simple (and courageous) as choosing to be kind to ourselves in this moment of suffering rather than trying to “get over it”. 

Or maybe there is something heroic and necessary in simply standing and finding our feet, steadying our hearts and minds the way we would do this for another, and beginning to put one foot in front of the other on a renewed life journey of redemption, forgiveness and release of the ill-fated wish for something else. 

Writing this was my first step on that journey. What will be yours?