Sunday, September 29, 2013

"I am vain"

As she considered the difficulties she faced in her Buddhist practice, a friend of mine once observed, "I am vain." Of course naming the difficulty, while good, did not bring it under control or solve it, but still, it struck me as a good place to begin.

"I am vain." Gotta start somewhere.

Overtly vain people, like covertly vain ones, are proud of themselves and think they are special. In an egregious format, vanity pops up in the old, needling joke about the guy out on a first date with a girl: "Well, enough about me: Let's talk about what you think about me." (Women, the ones who accuse men of such vainglory, are never themselves susceptible, of course. :))

And likewise vanity pops up in the even older bit of doggerel:
I love myself
I think I'm grand.
I go to the movies
And hold my hand.
I put my arm
Around my waist
And when I'm fresh,
I slap my face.
Back on a more serious tack, who hasn't noticed some aspect of their lives that could use some revision? And it's a short step from noticing that something needs revision to the supposition that it is bad ... and if it's bad, how can I stamp it out or erase it or at any rate conceal it better? And from there, perhaps it's a short step to a spiritual persuasion that sits in a pew while someone else inveighs against the hell-bound tendency to be vain: It's lovely to have someone else agree with me and to apply the lash from some 'spiritual' standpoint. When someone else criticizes this bad habit, I get a bit of reprieve from lashing myself. One voice intones, "O you woeful sinner" and my own voice replies, "Amen, brother! Amen!"

This is the world in which I fully intend to stomp the bad guys into the ground. I am going to deliver the knock-out punch to vanity and spiritual life is going to give me strength ... down with the bad! Up with the good!

It's a vain hope, needless to say, but it is also as common as dishwater so ... if it turns you on, knock yourself out.

I don't know about anyone else, but I think vain people are a pain in the patoot. New shoes, new clothes, bigger houses in better neighborhoods, the requisite 2.5 children, a stunning, flaunt-worthy  education, a car, a stock portfolio, trips to Gstaad, more guns than Rambo, more power, etc. etc. ... well, I'm interested in other people but not that interested. After a while, vain people remind me of the dog-walkers in my neighborhood, the ones who allow their animals to shit on my front lawn and then don't clean it up.

And as the vanity of others can wear me out or make me cranky, so my own vanity can get pretty wearing as well. The worst part about vanity is not that it is a social or religious no-no, but that it simply doesn't assure the happiness it seems to promise. No matter how great my fascination with my life and no matter how I try to gussy it up, still ... well, happiness and peace always seem to remain just out of reach. Maybe if I get another pair of shoes, another promotion, another designer-label toilet brush, another accomplishment, vanity will fulfill its promise ... not.

"I am vain."

Now what?

Fighting vanity (assuming anyone wanted to) or disparaging it doesn't work very well. The virtues of self-flagellation don't work very well. And surrendering to it doesn't fill the bill either. So what will ease the burden?

My view is that this may be a chance to turn a problem into an opportunity. And the first step is to stop viewing vanity as a no-no. Vanity, like the five toes on a right foot, is just a fact. No one checks out the number of toes s/he has by asking or relying on anyone else. Yup -- I look down and there are five toes.

And, beginning with the facts of the case, there is an opportunity to consider who is being gussied up with the twinkling wonders of vanity. There is no applause-meter in this world. No temple or text can improve this scene. Just ... who is this one I take great pains to improve or place upon a higher pedestal?

"I am vain."

Who is vain and why is s/he so insistent?

Relax ... it's just a fact ... "I am vain."

Who benefits?


Pay attention.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road and my guess is that vanity, like anything else, is capable of some pretty sweet fruit.

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