“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Likely on account of the warming weather, I’ve seen a lot of strange tattoos lately.
I usually consider myself to be a pretty open minded person when it comes to tattoos (I have one, after all), but I’ve seen some recently that left me wondering what were they thinking?
It might not be my thing to decorate my body with flaming skulls or Chinese characters, but I can understand how that would appeal to some people. But for the life of me, I cannot figure out why anyone would go to the trouble and expense of getting a loaf of bread tattooed on their forearm (no offence to any of your out there with cake or croissant tattoos).
I entertain many philosophical questions on this blog, but here’s one for you: how is it possible to really love bread so much that you would invest time and money into getting it permanently inked on your skin?
It got me thinking, is there anything that I would get tattooed in such a visible place? The forearm is a prime piece of body real-estate, one that we see many times a day, so I’d be very selective about what I’d put there. I sometimes put a little ‘x’ on my hand if I want to remind myself of doing something later in the day, so I would perhaps decorate my forearm with something important that’s difficult to remember.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking me a bit strange if I suggest that I would get “It’s ok to be wrong” on one arm, and “Judge not, lest ye be judged” on the other.
It’s ironic that I should arrive at this conclusion having just passed judgment on a total stranger, but hey, I’d like to think that God has a sense of humor, no?
I forget this so often that I think maybe a tattoo would be the only way to get me to remember (but even then, I’d probably just get used to it and overlook it all the time).
When applied, this wisdom provides a key to escape one of the deepest, darkest sections of the ego-prison. No external guards are needed in this ward, since most of us are quite content to stay locked behind the doors of righteous judgment. We tend not to see how everything we do to prove “I am right” creates suffering for ourselves and others. Yet most of the time, we cannot think or act any other way.
I can see this clearly in dealings with my wife. It’s not uncommon for us to disagree about certain aspects of raising our son. She will tell you about how frustrating she finds it that I seem to forget the simple things she asks me to do.
Many times, I’m frustrated with myself for forgetting, so if she raises a point with me, I tend to react defensively. I try to deflect attention away from my neglect and project my shortcomings on to her. When I interpret her suggestions as judgment, I respond by judging her, commencing a bitter, vicious cycle that leaves us both feeling hurt.
Is there any way out of this trap?
Forearm tattoo to the rescue!
I think it comes down to the fact that, like many people, I feel down deep the need to maintain an image of myself as someone knowledgeable, reliable, and consistent. When my mistakes become evident, I try to justify my actions in ways that often make the situation worse, all in order to avoid the perception of being wrong.
There are different emotions behind the desire to protect myself but really, all are rooted in fear. I fear what others might think of me if I reveal the extent of my ignorance. I fear confronting my limitations and fallibility. I fear that others might not love me if I make mistakes or if I admit that I don’t really know.
When I hold onto the need to be right, I’m holding onto prison bars of my own making. The more invested I am in hiding my vulnerability and weakness -in essentially hiding my humanity- the thicker these bars become.
All I have to do to be free is take a step back and realize that there’s a gap between my perception of the situation and the reality of the situation.
It’s easier to react than it is to try and understand, but if I take a step back and consider my wife’s intent, I would see that my reaction isn’t really justified. Out of love and concern, she suggests practical things. I am the one who takes that as an affront to my carefully cultivated personal image.
Reactions are always based on partial perceptions and understanding, which end up not being right most of the time.
Dropping the need to be right is only the first step; to exit this particular section of the ego-prison, I also need to ask forgiveness for the ways in which my unmindfulness harmed myself and others. Asking forgiveness is a powerful tool for leaving the prison, since it forces me to step outside the trap of seeing the world as a competition where an image of strength must be cultivated and preserved at all costs. That’s a game that I’ve found costs too much to play; I just can’t afford it any more.
That’s why I need the tattoo. I need to remind myself that I already know that there’s no shame in being wrong. The shame is in trying to prevent others from seeing I’m wrong.
I need the tattoo to remind me that I can only extend compassion to others if I’ve extended it first to myself. It don’t need to judge myself for being a tiny little human who doesn’t know any better, who sometimes acts out of selfishness and ignorance. If I can offer that maternal tenderness and acceptance to myself, then I can also offer it to others.
These are the keys to escaping this particular block of the prison, which are in my possession at all times. All I need to do is remember that I already know the way out. The only question is whether or not I’ll remember to use them the next time I find myself there.