Sunday, May 20, 2018

Undermining the imposter syndrome with reflecting on hopes and fears

The first slogan of the Seven Points of Mind Training is "First, train in the preliminaries". Preliminaries are in fact a whole topic in themselves. A large part of these preliminaries includes reflecting on what is called the Four Thoughts which are reflections on (1) the preciousness of our human birth, (2) the truth of impermanence, (3) the infallibility of cause and effect, and (4) the suffering nature of samsara--the cycle of birth and death. Although the last reflection on suffering sounds quite negative, this is the one I decided to focus on this week.
So much of what I do is hoping for success (picture from Young Academy Groningen)

Where does the suffering come from? One of the most clear explanations of this is given in terms of the Eight Worldly Dharmas: hope for fame, fear of infamy; hope for gain, fear of loss; hope for happiness, fear of suffering; and hope for gain, fear of loss. I notice myself getting caught up in these hopes and fears a lot, especially in relation to my job. One of the most insidious aspects of my job is the imposter syndrome, which many academics suffer from (of course many people in other professions as well). It is the feeling that you only got to your job because of a fluke, and any time they are going to find out that you are really not capable. I often get this feeling when a grant is rejected (as happened this past week), and sometimes I get it in my ballet class as well (when I am put in the back row on stage for a show).

The interesting thing about the Eight Worldly Dharmas is that they completely undermine this imposter syndrome thinking. Imposter syndrome and the feeling that you are not good enough can only exist if there is a need to succeed, to be better than other people, to not suffer. The moment I realize that actually all these hopes and fears are only leading to suffering, and kind of short-sighted, I can feel a lot of space open up. The whole question of not being good enough becomes irrelevant when you are not hoping for fame and being afraid of infamy; instead you just focus on doing your best and trying to benefit others. Of course understanding this intellectually is not fixing it straight away, and you need to go through this reasoning many times, but it is worth the effort.

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