At the Mercy of Relativity

Chapter 4, Part 4

In terms of the human condition, truth is a relative term, relative to each human’s condition.

The Mississippi River

"Why, to say nothing of the Mississippi and other small watery streams, I could blot out a star with my foot, but I would not engage to jump that distance”

Thoreau told one anecdote about his encounter with a Long-Islander who gave him what was supposed to be a foolproof method for judging how to jump across streams. The fellow advised that, when he came to a brook he wanted to cross over, he held up one leg and then, if his foot “appeared to cover any part of the opposite bank,” he knew he could jump the stream.

Well, Thoreau thought over this intelligence for a few moments before replying: “Why, to say nothing of the Mississippi and other small watery streams, I could blot out a star with my foot, but I would not engage to jump that distance.”

We make astronomical leaps of faith many times each day by letting our egos guesstimate the streams of thought we want to cross. Using the mathematics of the ego, we infallibly jump to the wrong conclusion. Still, from our viewpoint at the mercy of relativity, we reckon these calculations as foolproof. While constantly teetering there on one leg with the opposite foot blotting out a star, we only prove that nothing is foolproof. As so many fools prove every second.

Several years ago, I was in a serve-yourself concession line outside a jazz concert, where a gaggle of caffeine-starved people such as myself waited for a percolator to finish brewing a pot of coffee. Glug glug. When it came my turn, I picked up the pot and noticed somebody standing beside me, cup in hand.

“Can I pour you a cup?” I said without glancing up at the person.

“Well!” said a furious female voice. “I am perfectly capable of pouring my own cup of coffee!”

What was her problem? Other than the obvious answer – the human condition – we’ll never know. Perhaps she had been undergoing some form of assertiveness training. Or it could be she was offended that I was apparently on an old-fashioned male-chauvinist kick. Or maybe, like many people tiptoeing through the minefield of middle-aged relationships, she was getting even for what the last guy or gal did.

Freud smoking a cigar

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

Whatever set off this angry person, it was imagined by her ego. In times like these, we tend to disregard Freud’s warning that “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This woman was forgetting that sometimes a kindness is just a kindness.

As for me, I was just as bad. After her angry remark, I slammed down the coffee pot and went away grinding my teeth. I let my own ego get the best of me. Instead, I should have let go of the anger her remark sparked in me and quoted Elwood P. Dowd, the Buddhist everyman and gentle tippler in Harvey: “Well, a little conflict between friends guarantees that everyone gets involved in the conversation.”

Whatever was going on in her troubled mind obviously had nothing to do with me. But this was before I discovered the healing power of True Thought, and I took it personally.

Lesson learned: Trusting the ego is always a big mistake. Unfortunately, most Americans are well-conditioned to trust their egos. Ego-tripping, or at least tripping over their egos, is the national pastime.

To prove it, all you have to do is pay attention. Posturing jocks puff out their feathers, cock-like, and show us how to inflate our egos by taunting opponents. Sitcoms glorify mean-spiritedness. Patriotism instructs us in the fine art of racism while teaching us that it’s always “us against them.” Media interviews bury us in ego-centering, chest-thumping, and self-serving. Self-promotion is lauded as one of society’s great skills, taught at business schools, university career centers, and professional-development seminars across the land. Self-help books and tapes make self-absorption into a countrywide obsession. Trash talk is passed off as a talent more respected than formal debating. Motivational speakers attempt to juice up our human potential, or in any case make us potentially human, by feeding our egos. Ego-maniacal CEOs, TV celebrities, chefs, and politicians are held up as universal role models. Psycho-therapists muscle up our egos to make us more aggressively self-centered. Egotistical robber barons star in noxious reality shows.

Like baseball, life breaks your heart. It's designed to break your heart.

America has a national libido for egotism. And ego, that old trickster, is always on the job, either building us up or breaking us down. Are you nervous about your looks? Ego. Are you psyched out by a sense of failure and disappointment? Ditto. Do you schedule every second of every day for fear of being bored? Do anxieties about your children crowd your thoughts? Are you often overwhelmed and disturbed by your love life? Is Hamlet-like angst your thing? Do you fret and fuss about the future? Are you a hypochondriac? These are all cases of the ego making us lead lives of quiet desperation.

It’s a treadmill, a samsara or “cycle of endless grasping,” powered by negative energy. The result, as Lama Surya Das concluded, is utter futility. “No wonder so many of us feel alienated, alone, exhausted, cynical, and disheartened,” he wrote.

As former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once said about the game he loved: “It breaks your heart. It’s designed to break your heart.” Your ego has the same designs. You might not know who did the engineering, but it’s designed to break your heart.
Is feeling forever broken-hearted better than taking the time and energy to retrain your thoughts? If your answer is no, then you’re ready to put a gag order on the ego’s lifelong filibuster. To put a governor on your ego! That’s what thought editing is all about.
The Dalai Lama regards this concept of thought editing, by any other name, as the only way to achieve real happiness. Buddhists have developed many practical mind-training techniques for this purpose because they understand that happiness is a skill; one – like driving, playing basketball, performing surgery, writing poetry, painting a landscape, being a good parent, or any other skill – which requires concentrated training. Happiness is not something that just happens by happenstance. 

“Permanent happiness can only be achieved through training the mind,” said the Dalai Lama. “The systematic training of the mind means the cultivation of happiness, the genuine inner transformation by deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states and challenging negative mental states.”

Thought editing, then, is essentially positive conditioning, the antidote to a lifetime of negative conditioning by our egos. And training our minds to be happy is the only way to untrain our minds to be unhappy. Simple as that. Contentment, as the Dalai Lama concluded in The Art of Happiness, it is the end product of a very disciplined and structured way of thinking.

To paraphrase Branch Rickey, the baseball general manager who broke the Major League color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, happiness, like luck, is the residue of design.

The big question is how, exactly, do you design your own happiness? The answer is by taking it one delusion, one rationalization, one misconception, one downer at a time. In with the good, out with the bad. Engineer your happiness by designing each thought you make. Let me give you a few practical illustrations in the next section, which is all part of a very simple method for training yourself to be at peace with the world.