There’s a goal aspired to in Mahayana Buddhism called anatta or “no self.” Anatta can be interpreted as “getting rid of the ego” or getting rid of self-serving desires in exchange for bliss. On the surface, and in the West, it seems similar to the Christian notion of martyrdom or sacrifice.
I see this kind of humble ideal glorified in the service-oriented cultures (not-for-profit, education, public service etc.) and ways of being that are familiar to women. The narrative is something like this: A “good” person is one who is selfless – who has little ego. A “good” person is someone who suffers silently or nobly – one who “turns the other cheek” and “takes the higher road” – when faced with the choice of individual gain over social good.
One who sacrifices.
Undoubtedly, there is a time and place for sacrifice, and humility is a beautiful thing. However this particular longing to be good – and to do good work by being in service to others, undermines women’s access to power in our culture.
It shows up in these kinds of beliefs or behaviours:
- Being of service means I can’t take up space or act like I deserve a seat at the table (because that would mean risking my self-image as a humble person or someone who puts others before myself).
- To avoid competition, jealousy, or conflict, I will be “nice” or “accommodating” (so that I don’t have to be in a position where I have to stand up for myself and look like I am self-serving).
- Investing in myself is selfish and I “should” place others before myself (generosity, an authentic expression of your heart, is quite different than being socialized to not value your potential).
- My real vision to serve the world appears ego-driven because it requires me to lead or stand out in some way (so I serve in another way that leaves me feeling compromised).
- My vision or self-expression doesn’t need to draw income or be financially sustainable because that would be “self-serving” (and I won’t have time to make it work as a result).
- Ultimately, this means I don’t have to risk developing my self-worth or test my potential because I can hide behind my image of being a “good” person.
And the effects of this list? The shadow side of martyr culture: passive aggression due to not having your needs met, burn-out from trying so hard, compromising your truth and the quality of your work, ultimately, your ability to influence in the world…
In Buddhist theology, now is the time of the Kali-Yuga. It is the beginning of the time of Mappo (purgatory), and the dimming of the light in the world. A time of materialism, of decadence and decay. World events associated with selfishness that we can clearly in the present day American leadership. Let’s not mistake that kind of selfishness with the kind of self-realization that our personal development work offers us. Allowing the dimming of the light in our selves is deeply selfish. We feed the Kali-yuga when we self-repress: it grows in size.
The founder of Yasodhara Ashram, Swami Radha, speaks about how low self-esteem is simply the inversion of arrogance: that both are ultimately inauthentic and irresponsible. She writes that both violate the “right relationship” a person should have with their purpose, placing either arrogance or false humility above a person’s greater mission in life.
Women’s survival used to depend on attracting a mate, and so qualities like: not rocking the boat, not making waves, smoothing things over – were critical to our survival instincts and gave us power as women: they were how we derived our sense of worth, identity, safety, and security. While these still can be a reality for some women, we live in a culture and an age where dependency can be a choice for many of us. And so now the question becomes: “Who am I when I’m not playing the role that I think I should to get my needs met?” “What else is possible, and how can I be supported to make different choices instead?”
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