Is trying to be a consistently loving person doomed to failure? Did you ever notice the more open-hearted and loving you feel one day, the more likely you are to be sullen and irritable the next?
I have seen these frustrating swings in myself for years. Just when I am beginning to feel like the loveable, kind, person I always wanted to be, I turn into Cruella de Vil, ready to pounce on anyone unfortunate enough to cross my path. Recently, I read a Sufi story that explains these swings. It has helped me be more kind to myself on the inevitable Cruella de Vil days.
Ego and spirit fighting for the heart
The mystic Sufis envision the heart as a treasure fought over by both our ego and our spirit. Ego and spirit have been given equal power in human nature. And they are engaged in a never-ending battle to commandeer the prize of the heart. In their ongoing struggle, sometimes one prevails and sometimes the other.
When the heart listens to the ego, we are prevented from hearing the call of spirit. We pursue our fear-based, security-driven interests without much regard for the world around us. That can make us like the bull in the china cabinet, disregarding other people’s feelings and our own deeper needs. Wrapped in the cocoon of our little ‘me’ world, we go obliviously along. Until a glint of failure, remorse, tragedy; or beauty, insight, or kindness turns our heart again toward the voice of spirit.
When the heart listens to spirit, our defenses melt, and we fill with tenderness, gratitude, and compassion. But soon enough, terrified of the dissolving force of love, the ego becomes threatened and mounts an all out campaign to re-gain control. It activates powerful defenses—anger, hurt, distractions, addictions, fear, power trips—to establish its ground.
To our continuing dismay, it seems we have no control over which part takes command of our hearts. And it is true, most of the control we imagine we have is delusional.
The Sufis explain that the ego and the spirit have been given equal power in the human soul not to continually frustrate us; but so our free will can realize its profound need for the assistance of God, of a higher power. After enough time trying in vain to ‘do it ourselves,’ we finally give up. In desperation—usually after we hit bottom and are cracked open—we learn to surrender.
Surrender: the point of true power
In the midst of our most helpless moments, we discover a tiny point of true power. Through admitting our powerlessness, like the 12-step programs advise, we are surprised at what we discover. By acknowledging our inability to control our lives, we let in the hands of the divine. Admitting powerlessness comes comes easily to the conceptual mind. But most of us must go by the difficult path of finding ourselves on our knees asking for help. Then and there, spirit begins to fill our hearts and to prevail in our nature.
We can’t legislate this surrender. But we can be on the lookout for it and welcome it when it comes. Surrender blossoms surprisingly from our brokenness. Instead of feeling like total failures when we hit bottom, we can sigh a sigh of relief. We are beginning to realize the truth of our fragile place in the scheme of things. We sense even for a few seconds our absolute dependence on an Intelligence greater than our own.
Surrender flowers not in a once-and-for-all moment, but once we get the hang of it, grows slowly as a way of life. In finally recognizing defeat, the ego does not disappear or go all pathetic and weak on us as we might have feared. The defeated ego softens, stepping back from control central, transforming into its rightful place as an instrument of Spirit. Surrender brings its own rewards. Each time we surrender, we find ourselves going more easily with the flow of the day, relying less and less on our plans and agendas to direct us, and more on a tenderized heart to guide our way.