Getting Real with the Relative

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a simple schemata regarding basic human needs. His Hierarchy of Needs in order are: Physiological (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), Safety and Security, Social (Love and Belonging), Self-esteem, and Self-actualization. It is easy to see the common sense of this schemata. If we do not have basic needs met, we do not have the luxury of going on a so-called spiritual journey. Even if our basic needs are met, we often get stuck in the self-esteem realm and spend our lives trying to be okay with who we are. This is a major stumbling block to self-realization.

If we are approaching a spiritual path as a means to gain self-esteem, we will have a very difficult time—especially in the Vajrayana tradition. Those who are emotionally fragile will get eaten up and spit out. I have seen many sincere people engage the Vajrayana path and when the practice surfaces approval issues, they quickly jump ship, blaming the path or the teacher for being impossible, or uncaring, or (fill in the blank). 

Most Buddhist teachers do not become involved in dealing with self-esteem issues. They assume you have already done the work of individuating and have moved on to self-realization—recognizing the true self. A few years ago, one of my teachers met with a number of Western folks who identified themselves as Buddhist practitioners. After meeting with more than 20 individuals, his only comment was, “Everyone has a lot of emotional problems.” He was not getting any questions about spiritual practice—only self-esteem issues.

I look back on my life and now recognize when I mistakenly used a spiritual approach for something that was better suited to psychological work. So I shifted gears and did some ground work through counseling and studying Enneagram personality typology. This was a revelation and uncovered where I was “spiritually bypassing” rather than working towards waking up to my true nature. Everyone needs to do the work of clearly seeing their limited relative self before transcending the illusion. 

My root teacher, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche told me, “Everyone has to get real with the relative self.” This came from a very respected Vajrayana master. If we do not do the work of recognizing our illusory mask, we will adopt a spiritualized mask without learning anything. Ego is very sneaky this way.

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