F E B R U A R Y 2 0 2 0
Some fifty years ago, my Sufi teacher — probably in one of his darker moods — told us young students gathered around him, “We do what we do, either in vanity or in vain.” I think that at that particular moment his proverb was a good way to puncture our self-centeredness (vanity!) and our romantic ideas about becoming heroes and making happy endings (in vain!), but now, after having lived these intervening years, I believe there’s a bit more to the story.
Yes, whatever we do is “in vain,” in the sense that the results of all our actions are impermanent, everything comes and goes, civilizations rise and fall, dust returns to dust. The recognition of the impermanent nature of everything has forced humans throughout history — from the ancient Hebrews to Samuel Becket — to question if there’s any meaning to our lives at all. All is vanity and vexation of spirit, saith the Preacher. In the past two centuries especially, writers, philosophers and many others have struggled with the dilemma of meaning-making in what they’ve felt is a meaningless universe. Although some of them have succeeded in suggesting ways we might cope with life despite its background of meaninglessness, that background still guarantees that whatever we do, it is ultimately in vain. This is vanitas — Latin meaning “emptiness,” as in empty of meaning.
And then there’s vanity, the preoccupation with self. My teacher was pointing out that the function of vanity isn’t limited to having excessive beliefs in one’s attractiveness, abilities, or importance (as it’s usually understood), but that vanity can be seen in a wider sense as the function of the ego project itself. In the relentless current of impermanence, we humans build our identities — unconsciously for the most part — as we react to the insecurities of our lives and try to fill the sense of lack we feel inside. We try to make ourselves into something substantial and defensible, something real. Some manage this without too much stress to themselves and others, but the effort is never without feelings of unease and separation, and often becomes neurotic and dysfunctional. When vanity’s dysfunction shows up in its extroverted forms it’s pride, haughtiness, conspicuous consumption, dominance, patriarchy, etc. When it appears in more introverted forms it may become meekness, self-consciousness, anxiety about being accepted, self-doubt, or loneliness. Either way, the vanity of the self in this view is characterized by its self-preoccupation and self-centeredness.
I recently came upon a phrase of Nietzsche’s that hints at another way to look at all this, although I doubt he would have interpreted it as I do. He said, “Vanity is the fear of appearing original…” How might we understand this little phrase?
One aspect of Nietzsche’s aphorism is about appearance — our vanity is about how we think we appear to others, or let’s say, it’s the image we have of the image others have about us. (A psychiatrist friend of mine once told me, “The ego is how we imagine others see us.”) We picture ourselves reflected in the mirror of other peoples’ estimation, and we get anxious about how that might turn out.
But Nietzsche’s definition goes further. He says vanity is not only our fear of how we might appear to others, but it’s our fear of appearing original. How might we interpret this?
If you ask yourself what you’re like when you’re “original,” what’s your intuition of the answer? Where do you go in yourself to look? When I ask myself that question, several things seem to happen. I get quiet. I stop thinking. I don’t pretend I know the answer. I don’t refer to ideas I might have about how others see me. It’s as if I go to where I start, in the moment. Whatever “I” am becomes synchronous with the present moment (at least for a moment). I don’t try to act “as if” I’m original — there’s no space or time to do that. I feel that I’m happening spontaneously, along with everything else. What I think and feel and do doesn’t first check to consider how I’ll be perceived by others — I just happen, unique and original.
I think that by opening to our originality in this way, we have the basis for a profound and extremely effective practice. It’s a practice that has the power to free us of our self-consciousness and social insecurity almost instantly. If you’re feeling constrained by vanity in any of the ways I’ve mentioned, go to your “original you” — how you are happening in the moment. It’s not complicated. You don’t have to think about it. You may notice that your “original you” has a kind of innocence to it, almost a delight, although it’s not naïve or amoral. It sees the whole picture without getting attached to a particular interpretation of it. It is free to respond sensitively and compassionately because it is intimately connected to what’s happening.
But why are we afraid of appearing original? I think there are countless answers to that, piled up from our early years when we felt others’ eyes on us, when we felt judged or praised or ignored or tried to fit in — whenever we tried to anticipate what we could do, or how we could be, that would please others. In some of us, this effort reversed itself into resentment and rebellion, just as it drove others of us into painful self-consciousness and shyness.
Perhaps our fear of “appearing” original has an even deeper source, one that’s not just about imagining how we appear to others but about our uneasiness with the indeterminate quality of freshness and spontaneity that being “original” challenges us with. From our long habit of self-preoccupation, freshness might very likely feel threatening, an unknown place that’s too uncertain, too open, too vulnerable.
Yet when we look to the great beings in human history whom we most admire for their holiness or compassion or creativity, we see that their genius arose from their lack of fear of being original. Vanity did not restrict them, especially in their most compassionate or creative actions. And in our own lives, the moments when we have felt most alive, most in love, most creative, most connected and generous, were they not the times that we, too, were most originally ourselves, when we were unafraid to show up in the moment without self-consciousness or self-preoccupation?
To the extent you are able to be your original you, your freshness corresponds to the universe’s freshness and its instantaneous creation. You don’t need to seek for more meaning — that’s meaning enough. Your freshness occurs with the universe’s ceaseless becoming, and is one with it. Being original you, you are purely unique, just like every tree and leaf is original and unique, every drop of rain, every wave. And being original you, you have no fear about how you appear. Fear has nothing to hold on to — you’re original!