Status Anxiety

I’ve been reflecting over the last few days on how much suffering is caused by our hang-ups about status. The Buddha referred to eight worldly conditions of gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. You may notice that they are four pairs of opposites, with one of each pair normally being understood as desirable and the other as undesirable. According to the Buddha, hitching one’s wagon to any if these conditions, indeed to any circumstance or condition, is bound to lead to suffering.

A definition of status—my dictionary has it as relative social or professional standing—partakes of at least three of the eight worldly conditions, namely gain, fame and praise, and is to do with how we think we are regarded by others and, actually, how we regard ourselves.

Why are we so concerned by our status, our position in our society? Why are we so anxious to be respected and so offended when others seem to be held in greater esteem than we are? Why do we attach our self-worth to how we compare with other people? And who is deciding how much status is enough? How many people do I have to be better than? One, ten, ten thousand, the world? Doesn’t it all start to look rather ridiculous?

Yet many of us take it so seriously. We cause ourselves and others so much grief as we go about our lives trying to get one-up on everyone else and being so upset when we think someone has got one-up on us. And we do it because we do not yet know that we are so, so much more than this physical body and mind, so much more than the limited perceptions of our senses, that we are something much greater than the separate isolated, vulnerable being that we deem ourselves to be.

In the monastery it is customary to spend the half hour or so before breakfast doing some cleaning tasks in the communal areas. Cleaning the washrooms is a regular job and regardless of whether you are a company director, a famous actress or a millionaire, chances are, if you come for a retreat, you will at some point be asked to clean the toilets. If this is a problem for you then there is a great depth of teaching to be found in this simple task! The person cleaning the toilet is as respected and valued as the one cleaning the altar or the one cooking the breakfast. If there is a judgment, it is in our own mind, and therein lies both the cause of our suffering and our means of liberation.

On a lighter note, did you know that the public toilet in Osmotherley in North Yorkshire is twinned with a public toilet in Cambodia? No? Neither did I until I used the one in Osmotherley last week.

2 thoughts on “Status Anxiety

  1. Thanks for this interesting article. I recently retired from working in a stressful and challenging public organisation. I had been in the field for over twenty years and ‘enjoyed’ a degree of responsibility and management. Whilst I loved my work and my colleagues I often found myself in conflict with people about issues, policies, dictats and targets. The interminable meetings were fraught with tension and I frequently came away feeling frustrated and alienated. Usually this was when other people could not see that I was right! The first reaction was anger which then became embarrassment because I felt like a thwarted toddler. I did try to work on this, and learned that it was really about my ego and reaction to perceived attacks on my status (or people not appreciating me enough!). Sometimes I know I was right but handled the conflict badly.
    When I retired I experienced a bit of an identity crisis because I could no longer apply the professional label to myself which left me wondering who I was, and grieving my lost status. Since then I have started volunteering for a charity which provided excellent training, in all senses of the word. I had to let go of my ‘know it all’ attitude and accept my new role. As a result I have learned a lot about myself and gained a new view of my usefulness. Humility is a wonderful thing! I certainly havent conquered my ego but it is an area of my life that a change in status has precipitated some positive movement.
    Thanks so much for FOM

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