The cycle of ego

I've noticed several benefits of training in the martial arts over the years, many of which I never anticipated on the outset (I suspect few of us do). One such benefit involves tempering of my ego.

When I say "ego" I'm referring to the definition that reflects one's self-esteem, self-image or sense of self-worth, for better or worse. When I first started as a white belt, I was, needless to say, the least experienced person in the entire school. That feeling is pretty humbling, naturally. Fortunately, the feelings of inadequacy were often tempered by the kindness and patience of my teachers.

As I progressed and learned I acquired some skills and a certain amount of proficiency. At the same time, newer students who were less experienced than I came along, which meant I was no longer the least experienced or "worst" aikidoka.

Once I got to the position of being the higher ranking, more experienced person in a pair, even as a brown belt, my ego (or self-image or self=worth) inflated based solely on an admittedly superficial premise: I'm better at aikido than you. Look I can do the techniques and you can't.

I don't think I ever actually thought those exact words (and I hope I never said them), but I would feel it; not on a conscious level, maybe not quite so directly or succinctly, but still. I felt proud of myself, and I think most anyone would and does.

Then, what may be the very next class period, I would work with someone higher ranking than me, and naturally, their skills would far exceed my own. I think I felt that sort of disparity a bit more sharply in judo than aikido, as I would (as many of us phrased it) "get my ass handed to me." From there, my self-image would plummet, and the self-abuse would begin: I suck, I'm terrible, I'll never get this.

So for several years, my ego moved in a cycle much like the one depicted below, with wide, sweeping arcs, at times skyrocketing to the heights of confidence, and at other times diving to the depths of humility and abasement.

Interestingly enough, however, I've noticed that over time, whenever I found myself on one extreme or another, my thinking changed. When successful, or when I spent time as the higher authority, I would remember in the back of my mind how easily I could fall, either by the hands of someone more skilled than I, or simply by my own errors. And when I spent time on the bottom, and reminded of how much I have yet to learn, I would remember those students who looked to me for guidance and knowledge.

In effect, remembrance of one extreme tempered the other. I wouldn't get quite so full of my own importance, but I wouldn't beat myself up quite so badly, either. The cycle, then, began to look something more like this:

Finally, at some point, I realized that none of it really mattered. No matter how much I trained, or how much I knew, someone would always, always be better than me, someone out there could still "hand my ass to me." Not only that, but even if I were the best, baddest aikidoka or judoka in the entire world, some poor soul with no training whatsoever could come along and shoot me dead from 10 feet away, before I had a chance to do anything.

If someone is always better, and someone is always worse, then I myself am always better and always worse. Which is essentially a wash, and puts me... in the middle of nowhere. I simply... am.

I become less concerned with being right, and more interested in remaining open and receptive, knowing that learning opportunities and revelations can come from both red belts and white belts, from the old and the young, from the wise and the unlearned.

And at that point, I realized that thinking of what I was doing in terms of "better or worse than someone else" is a flawed paradigm. We all do it, of course. Perhaps it stems from some prehistoric, Darwinian foundation: we had to think about whether I was better or worse than someone because our very survival as an animal depended on it. The line of those ancestors who didn't are no longer with us.

But when you realize that death will always get us, that it can come at any time and at the hands of any person or thing, you (hopefully) let go of the fear and stop comparing yourself. The cycle then begins to look more flat (with some fluctuation, as we are all still human):

And in that flatness, there is, true, the absence of exuberance that we derive from success, as well as the absence of suffering that we derive from failure. But there is peace. Stillness. Wonder. Harmony. Love. Compassion.

While all this is a wonderful, priceless benefit of studying the martial arts, I don't know that one could ever communicate that to the potential student, like a sales point in a brochure. It would be a bit like trying to describe sight to someone who has been blind their whole life!

I'm glad I have trusted in the process and in my teachers, who most assuredly knew. Here's to many more "eye-opening" experiences.