Confidence, Honesty, and Fragility

Hanging Prayer Flags
February 2, 2022

Doing our best and being honest leads to real confidence. Externalizing our sense of worth leads to fragility. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I was wondering whether you could talk about confidence?

Well, […] speaking from my own experience, I think confidence comes from doing your best, and from living through adversity as a sadhak, going through times when things don't seem to be progressing, and you feel sadhana is difficult, or when things come up.

You learn things about yourself, or see things about others or the world that are difficult to see because you're gaining in clarity. And you just do your best to be open and honest and work with whatever is arising in a sincere way.

So I don't think that confidence comes from specific spiritual accomplishments, because those happen—those specific sort of identifiable spiritual accomplishments—only happen now and then, right? Very, very far apart usually.

I think that, more, the confidence comes from just doing sadhana every day, recognizing you're doing your best, and not running away in times of adversity. So that you have a feeling about yourself—a self-knowing that you're doing your best. And I think that's where real confidence lies.

And then occasionally you get some sort of validation from wisdom—you're granted some kind of insight or dream or experience or something like that, that feels like a pat on the back.

But if you just sit around waiting for those things, you can't have real confidence.

So I think that the real confidence is in the daily sincere following-ness of it.

Having humility about that, but it also takes effort to continue to do that in all circumstances. And it takes effort, if you fall off the sadhana-wagon, to get yourself back on and all of those things.

You know, just understand that you're really trying your best to be a good practitioner.

That's I think where confidence comes from. What more can anyone ask of you, really? And what more can you really ask of yourself?

But lack of confidence comes from when we feel we're not living in accordance with our real values, and when we're not honest about our practice.

Dishonesty is the number one cause of lack of confidence.

Because people base some false sense of confidence on dishonest self description, or statements, or claims, or something. And every cell of your body knows that that's not how things actually are.

So the confidence that comes from being honest and just doing your best is immeasurable, really, and of incredible value.

And there's absolutely no way, not one speck of confidence can come from dishonesty, not one speck. And in fact, the opposite comes.

For instance, someone might appear to be very confident to other people. But if that confidence is based on a false sense of self, and on actual lies and exaggerations and things like that, or hiding things or obfuscations, omissions—all those kinds of different forms of dishonesty. Then no matter how confident you appear, and you might, you know—a person could be very successful portraying that kind of full confidence. You can make a lot of money doing that. I mean, people do, right?

So it's not like you don't get some kind of reward, necessarily, but you don't get confidence.

And the same goes for spiritual life.

People who are very spiritually ostentatious, who lie about their spiritual experiences or exaggerate—one of the best pieces of advice I ever got spiritually was from the book of teachings by Padmasambhava, the great 8th century avatar, and he said, "Do not fabricate even so much as an atom."

And this has really just stood me in absolute great—I mean, this has been like my constant companion in spiritual life. And he meant you can't have an authentic spiritual life if you fabricate anything, and therefore you can't have confidence as a sadhak.

So, confidence doesn't come from great accomplishments. It comes from just everyday honesty, and everyday doing your best.

And really, as a teacher, I can't really expect anything more from anybody. I don't really need anything more from anybody than that.

But when students are not honest, then there's not really much work to be done. There's not a whole lot of things that can be done with that. Other than to keep pointing that out [laughter].

And that definitely puts me in a horrible position. Right? No one likes to have that pointed out.

It's a great question though, how do we have confidence as practitioners?

It's definitely not about our yantra tattoos, or what malas we're wearing, or how many initiations we've had, or what great dreams or visions we've had.

I've had some pretty extraordinary spiritual experiences. If that's all that ever happened, and the rest of the time I was just fucking off and exaggerating and all this stuff, I would have no confidence.

My confidence doesn't come from those things. [It] comes from knowing that I'm just doing my best, and I'm being honest. That's really the beginning, middle, and end of it. You know, sometimes people say Well, you did this or that, or you didn't do this or that, or you [...].

I'm like You know, I'm doing my best. This is what I got.

And that's like, really some solid ground to stand on.

There's also a lot of ways in which various cultural flows, or various ways in which some other people want us to feel bad about ourselves.

In a certain sense, we're expected to feel bad about ourselves about different things. And when we don't feel bad about ourselves, like, you actually get push back when you have confidence in yourself for just doing your best.

Why aren't you feeling bad about yourself when I'm attacking you?

Well, I'm sorry, I’m just not.[laughter] That infuriates some people.

You know, if we're in relationships in our family, or in our love relationships, or with friends where someone else's sense of worth depends on us feeling bad about ourselves and then we just don't, that's infuriating for them [laughter].

So we have to watch out for that, too. It has to be just okay that we're doing our best and whatever anyone else is trying to do to make us feel lesser than, we need to be able to recognize that and not take it on as practitioners. That's a big waste of energy.

What does trying your best mean, and how to feel that out?

I can't, like, completely describe that because I assume that it would be somewhat different for each person.

But for me, it has something to do with, like, using all my energy and time in this direction. And that when things are hard, I still go the extra mile to, minute by minute, try to remain in contact with living presence—to not forget, to not get distracted from that.

To be helpful to students and do my job as a teacher, even if maybe I'd prefer not to that day. Or to continue doing whatever practice I'm doing, even if I'm sick—not if I'm at death's door, but you know, if I just have like a regular old illness of some sort.

But mainly for me, it's to always—and this is just at my stage of practice to always try to remain in contact with living presence, no matter what I'm doing. And sometimes that takes a lot of effort.

For me, it always means putting in that extra effort, even if I don't feel like it.

So, if someone's behaving in a certain way that I want to just, like, yell at them or something—to not do that. To just go in my heart and really try to open my heart no matter what's happening.

It also means taking risks with people. Doing my best as a teacher, not letting my fear about how someone might respond get in the way of what I think might be best for them. So sometimes that involves a bit of a jump off of a cliff [laughter].

And it's just again, always being honest. Just always being honest.

That's also a big effort for a lot of people. It's not so much an effort for me, but I know for a lot of people, it's a really big effort to be honest with themselves and with other people.

It has to do with effort—how I use my energy and my time, and what I do when I'm in a difficult situation. How much I try to adhere to the View and my best self, even if I'm in a difficult situation.

So not giving myself an outlet Well, he was an asshole! Or something like that.

Even when people are behaving in ways that I don't like, still finding that compassion, finding that open heartedness with them no matter what.

That takes a lot of effort sometimes, but I feel like that's really where the rubber meets the road, as they say.

Not compartmentalizing, not saying, well, I get to lie and hate people in this context, and then I'll be honest and not hate anyone in this other context. You know, that's like compartmentalizing.

Well, of course I have to do that because it's work. I have to lie at work, no choice. Lots of people have said that to me I have to lie at work.

And you know, what I've said is, well, if you have to lie at work, get a different job. Because there's just no place for dishonesty in the life of a sadhak. There's no way that that ever helps you in your sadhana.

It might help you earn more money. But it's never going to help you have confidence, and it's never going to help you in your sadhana, which are the things that I care most about, right?

I would love it, if every single one of you could enjoy the confidence that I feel. That would make my whole life. They say, ‘make my day’—that would make my whole life.

When you're in relationships, you're living in community with family, and then what is the difference of being honest about something but also not saying anything and holding that in. And what that can also do for you as a sadhak, or just in general to your body?

Well, being honest doesn't mean vomiting out every single thing that enters our mind or all of our deep, dark things, because there's also appropriateness.

People have asked me this question before, and I've often used the example of, like, if you have a 90 year-old grandmother and you've been given a spiritual name that's not your birth name.

There's no reason to tell your 90 year-old grandmother about it and upset her. ‘I know I was named after your grandma, but now I'm not using that name anymore.’ You know. [laughter]

Because there's an element of compassion about what is necessary and appropriate to say. And compassion also implies that you have a sense of what it is possible for another person to digest.

To give another example, I was at a retreat in Varanasi with a teacher there. And he had a student who was an artist, but that student had murdered somebody at some point.

And I don't really know what the story was, I never got the story. It was all being talked about in Bengali, and I don't know that language.

So, he was weeping on the teacher's lap. And it was just really, really beautiful the way that the teacher was hosting this person, and it really made a big impression on me.

Yet, it might be that for some members of his family to know that that had happened would not be appropriate.

How would they be able to digest that? Would they be able to feel any compassion for that man? Or would they just take it all in themselves and feel nothing but horror?

So we have to think about that—like, what is really possible for someone else to hear?

And that's also something that I have to work with a lot as a teacher. There's lots of things I see—most of the things I see I don't say because students aren't in a condition to hear those things and be able to digest them.

At the same time, we can't use that as an excuse not to say the things that need to be said.

Of course, one of the things that people say, like if they're cheating on their partners is, Well, I can't tell her, she'll be too upset. [laughter]

Yeah, right! So, like everything, it can always be used for nefarious purposes. But there is an element, a big element, of compassion in what we speak about and what we don't speak about.

It's not lying, it's being aware of the other person's condition.

There are certain things that I just hold in completely, and I feel like it ends up like hurting my back, or I'm holding it or storing it somewhere because I just can't say it.

Well, you might think about why you can't say it. What's at stake? Clearly evaluate what it is you're avoiding by not saying something that's hurting you from holding it in.

Every situation is unique, and it's not possible to come up with a rule.

Like, for instance, some of my students have been given spiritual names, and their parents initially were just horrified and rejected it.

Eventually, though, they wanted to be intimate with their children and they got over it and started using their children's spiritual names. So that can happen, too.

The desire for intimacy can overcome a lot of obstacles. But we can't live life totally conflict avoidant. That just doesn't work. We have to have some conflict in order for things to move forward and to maintain intimacy with people.

Can you talk about small-self fragility?

Well, I think one of the if not THE thing that causes most of our fragility these days is that we have externalized our value.

So we have hugely externalized our sense of our own worth onto how much approval we're getting from others, and what we have or don't have, and our health, and our jobs, and our appearance, and just everything.

Like, we just use everything around us to either validate or invalidate us. This is the very definition of narcissism. [laughter]

And so if our sense is so hugely—or our sense of worth—is so hugely externalized—I mean, we also judge ourselves and measure our value on our opinions, and how we think about things, and whether we have the right opinions or not, and better opinions than other people.

I mean, all of this stuff is a way of announcing our value and trying to get external validation from other people. So, when we do that we are incredibly fragile, unbelievably fragile.

We have no sense of our own value aside from what we earn, what we do, who we're associated with, what we believe, what we own, what we know.

And all of those things can be invalidated in a moment. Either by being taken away—because we're in impermanence and everything goes away [laughs].

Or by someone invalidating us, saying they don't approve or they don't admire, or they don't like, or they don't think we have the best opinion about something, or they don't think we know that much.

So think about maybe times when on social media, some of you, everyone like— I like, like, like, like, like, like, like...Don't like, think it's terrible.

You could get a million likes, in the minute someone says something negative, your world comes crashing down, or you have to go into self defensive overdrive.

So, this is all just a symptom of this incredible void in our relationship to our own eternal value that doesn't need any external support.

And of course, the whole point of this practice is to get us in touch with that internal, eternal value that is in every person and every being and everything.

And only when we have contact with that, can we have real confidence or real sense of our own value, and not need all of these external validations.

Of course, the need for these external validations has been around for thousands of years.

It's the whole topic of the Mahabharata, where all of the men, not the women, the men in the Mahabharata, are vying for external validation: being the best archer, winning a contest, getting the best wife, having the biggest, most wonderful things, and the most beautiful city, and building the most wonderful thing.

So the whole story is about that. And the coming into more wisdom about who you really are, and going through long periods of giving up that validation in order to learn that lesson of who you really are.

All of the excursions that the Pandavas make into the vana, into the woods—in a sense, we need to do the same. We need to turn inward and discover our real value so that we don't have this incredible fragility.

And then what happens is, when you marry that to privilege—so various kinds of people who don't have certain kinds of privilege are still externalizing their sense of value, but they don't have the same—in general, I'm speaking in grand generalities—the same kind of enraged response when that validation gets taken away.

But when you have people experiencing certain kinds of privilege, like male privilege or white privilege, and then everything that's validating them externally is being threatened, then you get rage.

And you get violence of varying kinds. Whether it's verbal violence, emotional violence, actual gun violence.

You get this just eruption of narcissistic rage. And I think that that's what is really more characteristic of our time than maybe what was being described in the Mahabharata.

So, we were talking about just fragility, but I think it's worth talking about rage.

The rage that people who have been promised this privilege and have enjoyed it, feel when that privilege is threatened. For instance, just the privilege of being the one who gets to know or the one who gets to decide, the one who gets to define.

I've always thought that white privilege and male privilege was really based a lot on being the one who gets to define.

And when interpretations of events, interpretations of relationships, when people who have been lacking that privilege, start to voice what they're seeing, and what their experience is, and insisting on it, then that power of the definer and the seer and the knower gets threatened and rage erupts.

Because the sense of the threat to one's value is terrifying. And rage is a desperate ploy to try to deflect and push something away so that that value is not threatened.

All over the world, women are killed for being women. Every day all over the world. And all over the world, every day women are attacked for being women.

But there's also the ways in which any marginalized person knows that there very subtle violence is being committed in ordinary conversations that threaten with the eruption of rage.

When you start to show your confidence, insist on your point of view, insist on your interpretation, insist on the definition that makes sense to you. When you start to move into that territory in subtle and not so of subtle ways in everyday conversations, there's these shades of rage that get expressed.

Even from very progressive white people, men, and straight people, and whomever.

I mean, we all hold privilege in some areas and not in others, right?

And I think that any of us who have any kind of privilege, whether it's class privilege, racial privilege, or gender privilege, or gender orientation privilege, or education privilege, or whatever kind of cultural privilege.

Whatever kind of privilege we hold—think about a moment when someone tried to supplant you [laughs] and say No, you're wrong about that. That's not how I experience things. That's not what I see.

When someone else takes up the position of the definer who doesn't usually do that. I know personally when that has happened to me, it occasionally I just felt like, ‘Ah! It's just so annoying! Go away!’ [laughs] Right? ‘Stop bothering me! Just leave me to my privilege.’

Like, as if I have the right to say that to anybody. Right!? So I think we can all feel some moment when we felt that rage too, or when we felt it from somebody else.

But it is that rage because value is being threatened. This horrible way that we've externalized our value is being threatened. It's like someone saying you're not worthy.

And this is something I've learned in my role as a teacher—having rage directed at me in this exact way. And it's been a very hard won insight. Let me just say that.

Being a woman teacher, being a woman who's got a fair amount of confidence. Being a woman who has a lot of education and a lot of cultural capital. Being a lesbian woman, if one could say that. I feel funny using that term, but in conventional ways, it's true.

And holding this seat while all those other things are true. And my job is basically to challenge people. [laughs]

It's not just that, but that's like my job definition. My job description is to try to create a situation where people could be more open-hearted, and modest, and honest, and not hold privilege over each other, and not be violent towards each other.

So when you take that whole package all together, the situation is that I've had quite a bit of narcissistic rage directed at me.

It's been very, very difficult at times, but also enlightening, as difficult things tend to be.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.