Taking a Hit of Superiority
"There is no house like the house of belonging." -- David Whyte
One morning this week I arrived a few minutes late for a meditation group. I did my best to be quiet as I slipped in, blew my nose, opened the blanket under my cushion, and then sat down to meditate. All good. Some time later, another latecomer arrived. I heard him coming up the stairs, taking off his coat, and slowly creak open the door. He put down his bags, found a cushion, and sat down.
During his entry, my mind was taking careful notes. And when he finally sat down, my mind reached it's conclusion: I had been much quieter entering than he had. When this thought arose, I had a jolt of pleasant feelings, a physiological high based on knowing that I was "better than." It didn't matter what or whom I was better than, just that I was better. It was very similar to the feeling I have had when a drug or drink first hit my brain. "Ahhhh."
Using "better than" to get high is a very familiar process for me. I might call it a habit. Or even an addiction. The sweet feeling that arises when I think I am better than someone is addictive. And like other addictive substances, its effects are fleeting and always lead to a sober let down sometime in the future. But in that moment, I don't care. I just want the high.
In the reverse situation, for example if someone comes in more quietly and mindfully that I do, I will tell myself that I am not as good as they are so I'd better try harder if I want that hit of superiority. In any case, whether I find myself feeling better than, worse than, or even equal to, my mind is engaged in the game of "Who's better?" And while it appears that sometimes I can win this game, in fact, it's always a losing game.
Let's say I do get the hit of superiority, feeling smugly better than someone else. The high generally only lasts until the next opportunity for comparision. So what to do? At the end of the movie I Heart Huckabees, one of the men loses everything in a house fire, and when his enemy sees this, he suddenly understands the meaning of life. He feels compassion for his enemy and realizes that every one of us are suffering and every one of us just wants happiness and ease.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we can look to our shared suffering in order to see our innate oneness with other beings and to help us let go of our addictions to feeling superior, inferior, or equal.
"When we see the other person, we should recognize that in him or her there is suffering also. There is suffering in us for sure, but there is suffering in him and in her too, so you have something in common - both of you suffer. And you forget about that you are equal to him or better than him or are worth less than him. That person may look very fancy, but there is one thing that is certain; there is suffering in him or in her, and if you can touch that compassion in you it will arise and it will protect you from afflictions such as jealously, superiority, and inferiority." --Thich Nhat Hanh
When we begin to grasp our inter-relatedness to all of life, we truly feel that we belong to our life. We are no longer trying to compete with others, because we realize that our actions and our happiness depend directly on the actions and happiness of others.
Underneath my addiction to feeling "better than," what I am really longing for is this feeling of belonging. The experience of belonging to this world is a satisfying, sustained-release kind of high, with no crash and no hangover. When I experience belonging, I don't need to feel superior, inferior, or equal.
And when someone is noisy coming late to meditation, instead of using that experience to perpetuate my feelings of separateness, I can say hello to my craving for "better than" and make a choice. Do I put my attention on remembering how much quieter I was, or on how both of us were clumsily trying our best not to disturb others? Do I want to give in to the short-lived high of feeling superior, or go for the bliss of belonging?