April 16, 2012. Many mystical practices involve the use of fantasy and imagination. Our creative mind can be a powerful tool for transformation. Buddhists have Koans: strange, puzzle-like dialogues that are meant to challenge students to see things in new ways. Christians have parables, some with clear lessons (The Good Samaritan), others not so much (The Sermon on the Mount can be rather cryptic in parts). One of the most useful spiritual practices I’ve come across in the past few years is what I call The Spiritual Master Role-Play: it’s a good, old-fashioned role-playing activity with a twist. As a spiritual practice, it can be almost, well, mystical, in the way it can transform you and a difficult situation instantly.
The Spiritual Master Role-Play: Imagining Your way to Enlightenment
Begin by imagining a very difficult situation you must face (or recently faced, or typically face on a day-to-day basis). It should be a situation that is generating a lot of clouded emotions in you, like anxiety, jealousy, anger, offense, etc. Run through the event as it happened or as you imagine it will happen. See your typical reaction–screaming, nail-biting, depression, hurt, annoyance, pants-wetting. Now pull back from the situation and assume the role of a spiritual master you are at least somewhat familiar with, like Mother Theresa (I like using her, because she’s fairly accessible). Now walk through the situation as if you were the spiritual master. What would she say? Even better, how would she feel? How would she react? The feeling part is important because it gets to the root of what makes the situation difficult for us.
It might sound silly, but it works. I do this all the time at home, work, and out in the world. For example, just when I am about to blow my top at a room full of rowdy teens, I imagine I’ve become Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Thich Nhat Hanh, and then I act how I think they would in this situation. I try to feel how they would feel as spiritual giants. It’s important to take on the role of someone you can readily imagine handling the situation. One of the problems I have with the whole WWJD thing, is that I’m really not sure what Jesus would do. He is not exactly an easy man to figure out. I’ve never actually seen him. But when I’m ready to snap on my son, I can readily imagine Mother Theresa. She was, after all, a caring but tough teacher for many years.
Dropping the Ego
Of course, we do not really know how these spiritual masters would react. What you are really seeing during this exercise is a better version of yourself, you without all your baggage. You as a confident, compassionate, and egoless mystic. And that’s the key factor. When you role-play, your ego does not translate easily. And half (or more) of what is really going on during conflicts is not external but ego. When I’m handling a difficult student at work, a bulk of the issue is not the student’s behavior, but my need to feel powerful, my desire to appear competent, my small self shuddering at the insult of being talked back to by some kid who can’t even work his belt. All this drops away instantly when I take on the situation as Gandhi. Gandhi is too secure to be offended by a ninth grader’s smart mouth. Without my ego in the way, I can handle the student with little effort. The solution is obvious. Gandhi would not feel insulted. He would not lose his temper. He would not get into a useless power struggle.
This practice works great with all sorts of interpersonal problems. In many ways, it is an exercise in letting things go, especially the little things. The Dali Lama would not get worked up in a traffic jam or irked by a minor slight at the office. Thich Nhat Hanh would not be insulted by poor customer service at Target or deprecating comments from his wife (well, that’s cause he doesn’t have a wife–but you know what I mean). Mother Theresa would not get pulled into gossip and office slander.
Bottom line, if you want to be a better person, sometimes it helps to imagine being someone else. Our little egos are remarkably stubborn, and they love to spoil the day. Anything we can do to face a difficult situation without them will be a truly transformative experience. By imagining you are someone else, you detach from your ego. The gift of true spiritual masters is this sense that they’ve dropped all ego, all self-doubt, self-worry, even all need for self-preservation. Spiritual masters do not do things to save face or look good. They derive their power from a higher source where petty insults, intrigues, and conflicts have little affect on them. If humanity were an ocean, many of us would live on the surface, easily tossed about by each crashing wave and looming storm. Spiritual masters remain calm in the depths below.
Or was Gandhi was just pretending to be someone else? We’ll never know. Either way, it’s telling to quote a few of Gandhi’s favorite lines from The Bhagavad Gita: “When he gives up desires in his mind / is content with the self within himself / then he is said to be a man / whose insight is sure.” We are at our best when we’ve let go of our petty desires and are content with the self within the self.
GIVE UP AND DIE to being yourself (at least for a little bit), you might like what you find deeper inside.