I wanted to share about an experience I had recently on our local fall retreat last weekend that served as a good reminder about how it’s never helpful or beneficial when I get caught in comparing myself to others. While I practice not to use words such as always or never I think in this case it stands true: it’s never helpful to self-compare.
On Saturday evening during the retreat instead of eating dinner with the rest of our community those of us who were OI members (ordained practitioners within Thich Nhat Nhan’s Order of Interbing) were asked to eat together, along with our visiting dharma teacher Terry Cortez-Vega, downstairs from the main dining area. We had some business to attend to after spending a few minutes in silence during our practice of eating meditation. Normally all of our meals during our local retreats are held in silence and we’re invited to practice eating meditation during them. Oftentimes during our retreats eating meditation instructions look something like this: After you take a bite of food put your fork down and chew slowly, savoring your food, until the taste has diminished. Then pick up your fork and take your next bite.
While I used to be an incredibly fast eater when I was young, to the point of having unspoken contests with my cousins to see who could finish first, I no longer consider myself an overly quick eater. Even so, the instructions offered above have never spoken to me. It’s much to sluggish and un-enjoyable for me to eat that slowly. I’m simply not a fan of putting my fork down after every bite and chewing each one long enough to lose its flavor. That’s not to say things can’t change. Perhaps one day I’ll connect with this level of slow eating. There have been many other elements of the practice and things we’ve done on retreats that I used to really dislike but have changed my tune on over the years. But for right now I alter the practice of eating meditation to suit what works for me and I have the greatest of confidence that that is precisely what we are encouraged to do in our mindfulness tradition. We do what works for us.
So back to the OI dinner. There we were sitting around one round table eating our meal together. We were sort of crammed in so that we could all fit. There were about 11 of us. I became aware of how everyone else at the table was practicing to put their fork down after each bite. Everyone, that is, except for me. We were in such close proximity that it was hard not to pay attention to everyone else. I grew self-conscious about the fact that I wasn’t eating as slowly as the other OI members and began thinking to myself, “They probably see that I’m not putting my fork down after each bite. Oh man, I’m not being a good practitioner. I should be eating the way they are.” I then proceeded to take a couple of bites and put my fork down in between each one so that I would mirror everyone else at the table. Fortunately it took me only a couple of bites to realize what I was doing. I saw that I was comparing myself to others and how it wasn’t benefiting me to do so. I looked deeply into the situation and realized that it was me creating this inner turmoil and no one else and that the other OI members probably weren’t even paying attention to me at all!
We can tell when self-consciousness sets in when we start believing we KNOW what others are thinking about us. Self-consciousness is a matter of putting our own self-doubt onto others. It’s a way for us to not take personal responsibility for the state of our own happiness and well being. If it’s someone else’s fault then we’re off the hook in terms of having to put in the work necessary to transform our own discomfort or struggle. Self-consciousness is a sign that our levels of confidence and trust in ourselves needs to be strengthened.
When I realized that I was caught in self-comparison I was able to let it go and relax into the moment. I was able to see that the story line I was running about how everyone was judging and critiquing me was simply my own self-doubt being mirrored in those around me. I was able to drop this fictitious story and then take appropriate action and return back to my own pace of eating. I practiced smiling with each bite and connected with all of the many causes and conditions that made my food possible. I got in touch with my gratitude for the food in front of me and enjoyed each flavor-filled mouth full. And I held onto my fork. It no longer mattered that my practice of eating meditation looked different than that of everyone else around me. I wasn’t caught in the habit of comparison anymore. I had come back home to myself in the present moment.
This is a small example of what I think is a common stumbling block for many of us. We often invest a lot of time and energy into the habit of comparing ourselves to others. Thay (Thich Nhat Nanh) teaches about overcoming the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex. The last one, in particular, can create a lot of confusion. We may wonder how being equal could be a bad thing. When we are striving for equality we are still caught in a level of comparing our self to others. In trying to be equal we’re not able to simply let go of our need to stack qualities next to one another and come to some organized end result. We’re not able to drop our story lines and simply rest in the art of being who we are with ease and joy.
When we are able to be comfortable in our own skin our self-consciousness dissolves into the art of being and embracing who we are. It’s a beautiful transformation.