More Than, Less Than, Same

Last week’s blog about comparing papañca and imagination brought up an aspect of Buddhist theory that I admit I haven’t paid a lot of attention to, which is the issue of conceit. Once I went looking for evidence of conceit, I found it everywhere much to my initial chagrin and surprise; none of us want to think of ourselves as being particularly conceited so it is a hard pill to swallow when we find out that we have a lot more of it going on than we thought. But dents to our self-image aside, I’ve come to realise that uncovering the actions of conceit is an important step to take in our practice because its effects go much further and wider than just thinking we are something special.  

Conceit is a familiar term to us in English but the Buddhist meaning of it goes beyond our everyday use of the word. While the dictionary definition of conceit reads as: “an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.” [1]  this is only part of the story when it comes to the Buddhist concept of conceit.

In Buddhist terms conceit has two aspects; the first relates simply to the sense of ‘I am’, and the second one is the result of that thinking ‘I am’ – which is making any kind of comparison between ourselves and anyone else, be it that we think we are superior to someone else in any way, that we are inferior in anyway or even that we are equal to someone in any way.

There is a common saying used when talking about conceit that captures the remit of it precisely but throws up something of a conundrum at the same time too:

“If you think you are better than anyone, you’re wrong.

If you think you are worse than anyone, you’re wrong.

If you think you are the same as anyone, you’re wrong.”

It comes across a little like  a Theravadan koan but the intention isn’t to interrupt your thought process, there is a clear teaching in here.

Understanding the meaning of this apparently paradoxical statement pivots on the first aspect of conceit, the sense of ‘I am’. Buddhist teachings are underpinned by the concept of not-self or anatta, so starting anything with a clear sense of self is, in Buddhist terms, starting from the wrong conceptual position. If we truncate the statement this might bring that incorrect conceptual position to the fore:

“If you think you ‘are’, you’re wrong.”

If you remember last week, I said that the three key ingredients of papañca are craving, views, and conceit, and these three elements turn up again when it comes to understanding how conceit comes to be and how it then develops, albeit in a slightly different order this time – craving, conceit, and views.

There is a commonly occurring phrase in the suttas – this is mine, this I am, this is my self – which actually the Buddha’s description of the process that develops into conceit and its subsequent impact. ‘This is mine’ comes from the action of craving, this is our basic impulse to want things, and this is where the process begins. When we see something and we want it, craving is activated. ‘This I am’ or just ‘I am’ is the next step after craving, and this is where conceit arises and the comparisons we make between ourselves and others. ‘This is my self’ is a conceptual elaboration of the conceit ‘I am’; basically if the sense ‘I am’ happens often enough eventually this will become a habitual way of seeing the world and it develops into a sense of self, this is how personality view is formed.

So craving creates the idea that ‘this is mine’, conceit then develops the idea ‘this I am’, and after repeated thoughts of ‘this I am’ develops personality view which expresses itself as ‘this is my self’, which then goes on to create all kinds of problems for us. But conceit on its own, even before it develops into personality view, causes us problems in many ways, and not all of them so obvious.

It is a source of both pleasant and unpleasant feelings; what could give you more of a boost when you are feeling a bit down on your luck than something that inflates your sense of superiority? [2] Writing about dreams a few weeks ago, I quoted Tenzin Palmo when she said that we don’t want to give up our dreams because they feel good, and we can say the same about the side of conceit that wants to big you up as better than everyone else. We can see why we might be reluctant to give up our sense of superiority when it can make us feel good, and when we so often use it as a tactic to make us feel good too.

But we need to see beyond the superficial benefit of superiority and recognise that whatever makes us feel good can also make us feel bad. What could be more crushing and limiting than the weight of feeling that you are not good enough? Comparing yourself to others is a double edged sword, it will make you feel bad just as often or more than it will make you feel good.

And while equality itself is a worthy principle, the conceit that disguises itself as being about equality can take us down a road that sometimes manifests as a sense of entitlement to have ‘the same things that you’ve got’, in other words a sense that you are better than a situation or person is treating you, which is just superiority conceit again.

Conceit doesn’t come from a place of generosity or open-heartedness, it comes from a place of greed and ill-will – I want this, I want this but I’m not good enough to have it, why should you have this and I shouldn’t? It is this miserly spirit that causes conceit to have a limiting factor on our ability to spontaneously have joy for other beings and to meet them with kind thoughts and intentions, a significant hindrance for our practice.

All versions of conceit will create problems for us somewhere down the line and that is why in the suttas conceit is picked out time and time again as being something that it is fundamentally important to uproot. Conceit is described as  a disease,  a cancer, and as an  arrow. [3]. What these comparisons illustrate is not only the destructive effect of conceit but the insidious nature of it too, like a disease it wheedles its way into our system and then spreads and multiplies.

In my own practice I have spent the last week looking for instances of conceit, and I find them turning up almost constantly. So many thoughts centred on ‘I’ this, and ‘I’ that, and so many comparisons, either to other people or to myself in terms of imagining a better version of myself and wanting to be like that instead of how I am right now.

But as it turns out these are only the most basic manifestations of conceit; conceit as an underlying tendency in our way of thinking about the world spins out and works its way into less obvious but just as problematic attitudes.

In a verse from the Udana in the Khuddakanikaya, the Buddha points out one area where we can find ourselves getting caught up in the tendrils of conceit – conceit supports the sense of self, which in turn creates a sense of there being ‘others’. This division facilitates our ability to make comparisons, which, in this particular sutta about sectarian divisions between spiritual practitioners of differing views, is implicit in the holding of particular viewpoints and opinions, and ultimately leads to disagreement because we become fixed on our viewpoint through the conceit that we know better than everyone else:

“People are intent on the idea of

‘I-making’

and attached to the idea of

               ‘other-making.’

Some don’t realize this,

nor do they see it as an arrow.

But to one who,

having extracted this arrow,

               sees,

[the thought] ‘I am doing,’

 doesn’t occur;

‘Another is doing,’ doesn’t occur.

This human race is     possessed by conceit

               bound by conceit,

               tied down by conceit.

Speaking hurtfully because of their views

they don’t go beyond

               the wandering-on.” [4]

So in this way conceit can have a significant impact on our outer world in our relations with other people, but it also works its way deeply into our inner world and in less obvious ways than we might realise.

As already pointed out, our conceit makes us hold to opinions, and perhaps at the expense of evidence that would prove us wrong. On a fairly trivial level this might lead us to be unpopular company, but in its worst manifestations it can lead us to make decisions that can harm or kill us, such as holding to a very fixed opinion that goes against medical advice.

Its worst manifestation though surely is the one that the Buddha finishes the verse above with, the hatred and distain that develops from holding to our opinions at the expense of recognising the importance of human relationships. This kind of conceit will very severely block our progress on the path, as an attitude of non ill will is fundamental to cultivating metta, compassion, and equanimity.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out there are other ways these more latent actions of conceit can impact on our ability to practice too:

“The Buddha talks about comparing yourself to other people: thinking that you’re better than they are, or equal to them, or worse than they are. All of these comparisons count as conceit. In other words, the idea “I am this,” “I am that” gets brought into every issue, and this is where it grows fangs: “I’m really good at everything, therefore I’m going to be good at this,” and you get careless. Or you may think, “I’m not up to this. This is beyond me,” and you give up. You make the practice harder than it has to be.” [5]

‘I can do that’, or ‘I’ll never be able to do that’, are such frequent statements in our inner monologue that understanding them as manifestation of conceit really changed my perception of them. Looking within my own practice I’ve been particularly struck by how big the impact of negative conceit is when it manifests as the idea that ‘I can’t do that’. Even something as seemingly unrelated to conceit as moving the mind away from a compelling distraction can be brought to a halt by a momentary thought of ‘I can’t stop thinking about this’ or ‘I can’t get my mind to settle’.

I noticed this happen in one of my own meditations, I was distracted by a train of thought and trying to pull my attention away from it to focus on the breath instead. But just as I was summoning the mental energy to move my attention, a little thought popped into my mind: ‘I can’t get my mind away from this’, and in that split second all the energy that was leading away from the train of thought suddenly turned round and pulled me back towards it.

The bit where the conceit pops up is a really small movement of the mind but if you habitually believe your mind when says it, then the decision to act on it  is made faster than you might ever spot it. I found this a little bit alarming because it happens so quickly, it is almost completely under the radar, and it is so convincing – if you haven’t noticed that you have been telling yourself that you can’t concentrate on the breath or that you can’t move your attention from where it is stuck during your whole sit, then by the end of the sit when you review how well you did you will only see evidence that you cannot concentrate on the breath. So naturally you will form an idea of yourself as someone who can’t concentrate on their breath, whereas what was really going on was that you kept believing the moments of conceit and that kept you putting all your energy onto whatever it was that your attention was stuck on.

Ashby points out another very particular risk in meditation practice that the flip side of conceit can lead to:

“Any conceit that arises in connection with the practice of Dhamma is much to be deplored. This sometimes occurs when students are making good progress in their studies. Some queer experience or flash of “insight” is assumed to be a sign of virtue or an advance towards Higher Consciousness, and the student, instead of checking up on his experience with a wise teacher, jumps to the conclusion that he is half-way to being an Arahant. [2]

This kind of conceit-fuelled mistake might be what Walshe is alluding to when he talks about trying not to be diverted from the path of practice by:

…irrelevancies, interesting by-paths, plausible excuses or pseudo-mystical fantasies born of conceit and ignorance. [6]

So conceit doesn’t just impact on our ability to put the right amount of effort into the path, it also can lead us down the rabbit hole of believing in our own ideas of what practice could, should and shouldn’t be to the detriment of taking advice from a wise friend and from following the teachings and practices that are already well established. This chimes neatly with a point that Bhikkhu Analayo makes when he points out that in  The Brahmajala Sutta (DN1) that most of the wrong views in the list of 62 wrong views come from misunderstanding a direct meditative experience. [7]

That conceit is able to lead us to refashion the path of practice to fit with our own delusional thoughts is something that anyone who practices needs to always keep in the front of their mind, even more so if you happen to give teachings or, say, write a blog about Buddhist practice. In this regard Ajahn Amaro, the abbot of Amaravati monastery, role models what I think is a careful and considerate approach to working with ideas and concepts around Buddhism and practice that is worth following if you want to minimise the errant views that conceit might cause.

He obviously maintains an awareness of the risk of conceit in clear view at all times, and works to minimise any impact that it might have by always trying to offer a balance of opinions on a subject, both his own and those of other people, and by referencing where ideas come from rather than just allow himself to spout his own, unsupported thoughts on a matter. Even when it does just come down to his own opinion about something he is usually very clear that it is ‘just his opinion’, and that it in no way makes it correct or authoritative. For a writer like me, taking his approach whenever I can is something that I think helps to steer me away from the worst that conceit can do.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out another issue that conceit brings up, our unwillingness to make mistakes and why it would be better for us to get over this:

 “What’s different about arahants is that they continue to learn from their mistakes. They don’t get knocked off course by them because they have no conceit that’s going to be challenged by the mistake, destroyed by the mistake, or feel threatened by the mistake. But for those of us on the path, that’s an issue we still have to deal with: this issue of conceit, our narcissism. We don’t like the thought of having to make mistakes, but there’s no other way we’re going to learn.” [8]

If you are not willing to make mistakes, or to be wrong, then you will limit your practice to only being in the areas where you feel safe, and you will also likely take umbrage with anyone who tries to correct you. The Buddha often says in the suttas that a key quality a monastic has to have is to be easy to admonish, because you have to be able to accept the guidance and counsel of wise people to be able to fully develop beyond the limitations of your own personality and habitual way of doing things. If your conceit has also developed into an erroneous view about how to practice, then this additional conceit around not wanting to make mistakes will put you in a double bind and it will be very difficult for you to get back on the right track again.

So there are many, many areas that conceit finds its way into, and they are pretty much all very problematic for our practice. But I’ll finish up with the exception to the rule, the one instance where the suttas say that conceit can have a positive outcome. In the Bhikkhuni Sutta, the venerable Ananda is giving a nun a lesson in abandoning unskilful behaviours and tells her that there is a way that conceit can be used to overcome conceit:

“…it is by relying on conceit that conceit is to be abandoned.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to what was it said? There is the case, sister, where a monk hears, ‘The monk named such-and-such, they say, through the ending of the fermentations, has entered & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & realized them for himself in the here & now.’ The thought occurs to him, ‘The monk named such-and-such, they say, through the ending of the fermentations, has entered & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & realized them for himself in the here & now. Then why not me?’ Then he eventually abandons conceit, having relied on conceit.”. [9]

So it seems that while in every other case conceit will take us in the wrong direction, the conceit generated when we see or hear of someone else making progress on the path, or in the case of the monk in the sutta reaching enlightenment, then that sense that we are ‘just as good as they are’ can actually be the motivation that drives our practice in the right direction. Perhaps this is another reason why spiritual friends are given such importance in the teachings; we need that little bit of conceit to try to be as good as they are to pull us up to the next level:

“…Venerable Ānanda went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Sir, good friends, companions, and associates are half the spiritual life.”

“Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! Good friends, companions, and associates are the whole of the spiritual life. [10]

Image by analogicus from Pixabay

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References

1.       http://www.dictionary.com (2021) Definition of conceit | Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/conceit. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

2.      Elizabeth Ashby (2017) Pride and Conceit: What Can Be Done About Conceit? https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/bl014.html. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

3.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1998) Yavakalapi Sutta: The Sheaf of Barley. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.207.than.html. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

4.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2012) Tittha Sutta: Sectarians (3). https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.6.06.than.html. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

5.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Meditations 4: Dhamma Talks: Conceit. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations4.html#conceit. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

6.      Maurice Walshe (2017) The Buddhist Layman: Having Taken the First Step. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel294.html. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

7.      Bhikkhu Analayo (2019) Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. Windhorse Publications

8.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2007) Meditations 4: Dhamma Talks: The Path of Mistakes. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations4.html#mistakes. Accessed 25 Jun 2021

9.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997) Bhikkhuni Sutta: The Nun AN4.159. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.159.than.html. Accessed 26 Jun 2021

10.    Bhikkhu Sujato (2021) Upaḍḍhasutta: Half the Holy Life SN45.2. https://suttacentral.net/sn45.2/en/sujato. Accessed 26 Jun 2021

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