Perhaps the largest proliferation of ego in America is our obsession with our physical selves. From the abundance of gyms and health clubs, to advertisements for plastic surgeons in the food court at the local mall, to television ads to resolve non-existent "low T" issues in men, to hair replacement clinics, to anti-aging creams and other cosmetics, to Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, we are convinced that we can avoid aging, weight gain, and the effects of gravity while living forever. Three thousand years from now, archaeologists digging up the ruins of our cities will be convinced we were a society of narcissists - and they just might be right.
I was watching an online retreat done by my favorite Buddhist teacher the other day and noticed a comment someone had left that this teacher should stop her publicist from using twenty year old pictures of her in promotional material. The commenter felt, rightly so, that such a practice denied the reality of aging and sickness and so was contrary to Buddhist practice and values. I was shocked when I went to see this teacher speak a few years ago by her physical appearance, not primarily because she doesn't look like her twenty year old pictures but because she appears to have been on long term steroid therapy and I was concerned for her health. It's a sad statement that Americans may not want to hear the great wisdom this woman has to offer because she has aged and gained weight - especially Buddhists, who one would hope wouldn't be so superficial!
My family was always obsessed with weight - at least my mother and her sister were, which was enough to make both of their families obsessed. I remember stories of my aunt buying her husband and son's belts one size too small to encourage them to lose weight and my female cousin only being allowed half a sandwich for lunch in junior high school - and none of them were overweight! As for my immediate family, at five foot ten and one hundred sixty-five pounds I was always called fat. You can only imagine my surprise a few years ago when I found some pictures from high school and discovered that I wasn't fat at all! More recently I found some pictures from my early thirties and had the same amazing discovery. Of course, since then I have gained weight due to injury and illness - but I found it shocking how I tend to project my current weight backwards through my life. Of course, that tendency probably was aided by more than a few people who called a skinny Craig fat throughout the years! Then there is the recent "winner" of The Biggest Loser, who played out on camera what goes on in families across America when young people feel there is little to nothing they can control in their lives - they choose to control their weight, and eventually it controls them, sometimes until it kills them.
I have come to the conclusion that we focus on our external selves so much because we either don't like what we see when we look inside or are afraid even to look. It's as if we are engaged in doing the best remodeling job we possibly can on the exterior of an outhouse in the hopes that nobody notices the stench - but the stench is only in our imaginations! What we perceive to be an outhouse is actually a palace, and if we would only visit the interior once in a while and clean off the cobwebs we would realize just how wonderful a palace it is! The circumstances of our lives and the messages we have received from other people have so convinced us of our outhouse status that we have become afraid to even look through the windows. That's a real tragedy, and it pervades our culture.
I want to be clear that exercise is a good thing and contributes to our health and well being. To the extent that it is possible maintaining a healthy weight is a good thing, too. It's also good to have good hygiene and do whatever we do to look our best - within reason. However, when we start deluding ourselves that we can look twenty years younger than we are or live forever we have crossed over from healthy practice to unhealthy self delusion. When that happens we would be much better served to take at least half of the time we are devoting to our appearance and devote it to regular spiritual practice. In fact, if we had been doing spiritual practice all along the odds our we wouldn't have found ourselves exercise addicted, underweight, and having had so much plastic surgery we look more like a platypus than a human being.