Buddha, Deida, Self-Improvement, and Self-Love Pt. 1

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By Alistair Johnston

Every Saturday night at Wat Chom Thong, a temple in northern Thailand, the monks renew their vows. Foreign visitors are given a small English handbook to explain what is being said in Pali and Thai. During the ceremony, the monks are called to remember the 10 Reflections of the Dasadhamma Sutta, the eighth of which is “What am I becoming as the days and nights fly by?” It struck me when I read this, and it has stuck with me ever since, that Buddha, who was so keenly aware of the impermanence of life and the illusory nature of the personality, nevertheless encouraged his followers to contemplate the kind of person they wanted to become.

The link between spirituality and self-improvement is morality: the urge to be what you know, and live in accordance with your truest vision. Every spiritual awakening brings with it perspective shifts, which subsequently, put pressure on the personality to change. Inner wisdom, if we let it, modifies the way we are. The greatest work of karma yoga that we undertake is the construction of our lives; the greatest gift we offer the world is ourselves. Some people live like gold dust scattered in the sky: beautiful, certainly, but dispersed, and susceptible to all kinds of winds. Others draw the dust together around a moral core. Still others undertake the work of hammering and polishing that gold, until they are strong and brilliant. What is the difference between a person who shines and a person who doesn’t? I suspect, to God, it makes no difference at all. Some plants flower; some don’t. All is ordained by Nature. Only that the plants which  flower have a better time.

Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for Identity

A large part of modern self-improvement is the search for a sexual identity. Boys are no longer raised to be men, and girls are actively discouraged from becoming women. We do not undergo the ceremonies of initiation and maturation that our ancestors underwent. We are cast loose as children, without map or oar, and expected somehow to drift into adulthood.

I cannot speak to how this feels for a woman, but for me, as a young man, it felt like a dreadful, nagging sense of lack. Something was missing from my life, something had gone wrong; I felt I’d lost some vital part of myself. It was as though I was embarking on a treasure hunt without any clues, like fumbling around in a dark room, searching for something I would probably fail to recognise even if I did find it somehow.

My sense is that much of the bombast and grotesquery of young men, the ‘toxic masculinity’, is an attempt to cover this gaping insecurity. Men act hard to hide their softness; they camouflage uncertainty with force. Something is wrong, and they know it, but they have no workable solutions, and can really only pretend.

When I was twenty-one, I discovered David Deida. I read The Way of the Superior Man in just one sitting on a bus. It was a godsend for me. It helped me to recognise and treasure the gold in myself. It changed my sense of what duty meant, from being polite to protect other people’s sensibilities, to giving myself completely to life, without scruple or stint. It encouraged me to give time to my talents, to be confident, look people in the eye, understand what I need, and ask for it. It helped me reform my sexuality, something I had not thought possible,which changed the way I related to women. Sexual insecurity eats most young men alive. Afraid to give themselves, afraid to be vulnerable, they curl up into little balls, and hide. A dynamic that benefits no one. My life changed when I discovered that a man’s sexuality is just a matter of habit – that we are not stupid, but simply uneducated; and that every man has it in him to be a fine lover.

Of course I had teething problems. I had a tendency to over-correct and re-correct; I swung about like a weathervane. I puffed up, becoming haughty, inflexible, and dogmatic. A distance opened between me and others; I found it hard to listen. Beneath a proud exterior, the same insecurities seethed, appeased for a while, but never properly resolved. What I learned from David Deida cut into me, then I spat it out. With time, I forgot it. Some things remained with me; others returned after a time; but I was no longer trying: it was an effortless, organic process, a broadening of my personality, a growing into myself.

The Pitfalls of Archetypes and Overidentification

A decade passed, and somehow I found myself back at the beginning. A friend had recently rode a white stallion into my life, preaching the Gospel of Deida. I realised, listening to him, that I had forgotten its details. I remembered the thrust, but I couldn’t recall the specificities. I opened The Way of the Superior Man, and it all seemed new again. The same beauty that once inspired me is still there. I still see the same dignity. There is force in Deida’s words; he is no powder-puff. But I see something now that I did not recognise before, a part (perhaps of myself) that I kept hidden. Now I cannot unsee it: it gapes out at me, mealy-mouthed and leering, from every page. I have tried to explain it to my evangelical friend. Now I will try to explain it to you.

In Jungian psychology, ‘inflation’ describes the expansion of the personality beyond its proper limits due to identification with an archetype. What Deida calls ‘masculine presence’, corresponding roughly to the Hindu Siva, is an archetype. It is something that exists in all of us, and is available to all of us, but is not itself us. By encouraging men to identify with ‘masculine presence’, Deida forces them into inflation. Inflations produce an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and are generally compensated by feelings of inferiority. Adler said that behind every inferiority complex was a hidden lust to be better than others. I consider it no coincidence that Deida entitled his book The Way of the Superior Man.

Back to Jung: The Mother Archetype represents a person’s sense of safety, home, and security. The Mother Complex is the constellation of feelings and ideas a person associates with the Mother Archetype. Everyone has a Mother Complex; in some of us, it absorbs more energy than is its due, and becomes pathological. One common pathological expression of the Mother Complex in men is Don Juanism, which Jung said leads a man to “unconsciously seek his mother in every woman he meets.” A man with a Don Juan Complex jumps from one woman to another, failing to develop deep emotional bonds to any. He refuses humanity to women, seeing them instead as objects, goddesses, temptresses, deceivers, chalices of promise – anything but a human being. Frequently, on a deep level, he hates women. He tends to repress his emotional side, and split his personality into a tough go-getting man on the surface, and a deeply bewildered inner woman who comes screaming out in fits of temper and emotional distress.

However, if a man develops a relationship with this inner woman, even a Don Juan Complex can have positive effects. Jung lists them as follows: “a finely differentiated Eros (ability to relate)… bold and resolute manliness; ambitious striving after the highest goals; opposition to all stupidity, narrow-mindedness, injustice, and laziness; willingness to make sacrifices for what is regarded as right… perseverance, toughness of will; curiosity that does not shrink even from the riddles of the universe… a revolutionary spirit which strives to put a new face upon the world.” I see all these qualities, good and bad, in my friend the disciple of Deida.

Don Juanism is associated with a kind of demi-heroism (it does well to remember that Lord Byron, who wrote the English Don Juan, died in the Greek War of Independence). But Don Juan’s heroism is not true heroism; Jung called the true hero the one who leaves home, goes forth, faces dragons, and wins the princess. In this metaphor, home is the security of childhood, dragons are hidden parts of ourselves, and union with the princess represents wholeness. Real heroism does not wear capes or make speeches; it is a gentle, natural thing. It is not showy or vain; it is simply a willingness to face life, and let it lean against you, without being knocked down.

Ping-Pong, Heroes, and the Power of Humility

When I was fourteen years old, I spent Christmas with my mother’s family. My mother’s family are all psychologists and doctors; they are well-educated, well-mannered, and sophisticated. But there is no real affection, no caring attention paid from each to each. There are just granite rules, excitement that is not love, unspoken resentments, and endless chatter. At fourteen, I was no longer a boy, but not yet a man. I was a gangly, awkward in-between. I wanted to be seen and loved, but in the hustle and show of Christmas, I did not believe that likely to happen.

On Christmas morning I found myself playing ping-pong with my uncle. He had married into my mother’s family: very much at the centre of things by role, but by temperament he was an outsider. He had been an outstanding squash player, and was very good at ping-pong. I was passionately competitive. We ended up playing alone, in the garage, for half an hour, speaking only to keep score. Somehow, wordlessly, my uncle put me at ease. I felt he accepted me. He was not rushing to smother me with affection, nor loudly singing my praises; he was content just to beat me at ping-pong. He didn’t ache to be elsewhere. I felt no barriers between us, no repulsion or judgement. No doubt he felt my awkwardness, but he was big enough to hold it without cringing. I felt he liked me. Feeling liked put me at ease; being at ease, I behaved naturally; behaving naturally, I discovered that I liked myself. The half-hour I spent with my uncle that morning was the highlight of my Christmas, and has always remained in my heart. Whenever I think of what it means to be a hero, or what it means to be a man, I think of my uncle playing ping-pong.

My uncle was not a superior man, not a David Deida man, a swaggering Attila Who Says No To All Littleness And Opens Women To Love And Gives Himself Entirely To His Holy Mission. These things are good, but my uncle had something better: he had humility. He did the dishes and dropped people at the bus stop. He loved his family, and worked honestly at his job. He didn’t need to be Don  Juan; he was happy just to be himself. He had faced his dragons, and their hot breath had whittled him down, not blown him up.

Alistar is a contributor to our blog.

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