“Wear your ego like a loose fitting garment.”


Wear your ego like a loose fitting garment

This one was passed on to me by Ben Jarrett, who had spotted it on Facebook (where else?). But it appears to be spreading through the internet, and someone has even made a graphic of it (which I’ve included above).

I’m certain that this is a metaphor the Buddha never used.

The Buddha talked about the self in two ways. He used the conventional language of the self as something to be purified, taken care of wisely, controlled, etc.

For example:

One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain. DhP 160

By oneself one must censure oneself and scrutinize oneself. The self-guarded and mindful monk will always live in happiness. DhP 379

The self (or the conception of the self) is also something to be abandoned:

And how is the monk a Noble One who has taken down the flag, put down the burden, become unfettered? He has abandoned the conceit of self [literally this is “he has abandoned the conceit ‘I am’”], has cut it off at the root, removed it from is soil like a palmyra tree, brought it to utter extinction, incapable of arising again. MN 22

These two aims (protecting, developing the self, versus abandoning it) may seem contradictory, but in fact one leads to the other. The forces that solidify our sense of self are greed, hatred, and delusion. By protecting ourselves, purifying ourselves, etc., we are letting go of greed, hatred, and delusion. And this is nothing less than the early stages of abandoning the sense of self altogether, although for that to happen a leap of insight has to occur.

I’m not fond of the word “ego” to represent the Buddha’s use of the word “atta” (which is just the ordinary word for “self” or “oneself”). “Ego” — to me at least — seems too abstract and latinate for something that’s actually a very ordinary experience: the experience of being “oneself,” and especially oneself as opposed to other selves and to everything that is “not-self.”

Otherwise, I don’t see anything objectionable in the sentiment of the quote. We have a sense of self. We should progressively let go of our clinging to and identification with that sense of self. So in a metaphorical sense we do need to “wear ourselves lightly.”

But — and I’m perfectly willing to be corrected on this — the quote appears to be of very recent coinage, and I can’t help but feel that someone has deliberately tried to concoct a Buddha quote. It may be, in fact, that this quote is an adaptation from a 2011 book called Self-Help: Find Your Self to Help Yourself by Max Kirsten. There’s a section in that book titled “Learn to Wear Life Like a Loose Garment,” and in it Kirsten says things like “The metaphor of ‘wearing life like a loose garment’ resonated with me many years ago…” and “Wearing life like a loose garment means letting go of the struggle and not holding on so tightly to life that it can’t breathe…”

But the expression, “wearing life like a loose garment” goes back at least to the 1950’s, according to Google Books. Mary Astor’s My Story: An Autobiography, uses the phrase, for example.

Another recent (2009) example is “One teacher keeps reminding me to wear my spiritual practice like a loose-fitting garment,” from Dance: The Sacred Art, by Cynthia Winton-Henry. This has “loose-fitting” rather than just “loose” and so is a little closer to the Facebook version.

The original model for the quote, as is often the case, may never be known.

So far this particular Fake Buddha Quote doesn’t seem to have made it into any books. Hopefully any editors or authors thinking of using this one will find this post and decide not to!

3 thoughts on ““Wear your ego like a loose fitting garment.””

  1. “wear life like a loose garment” appears in the Alcoholics Anonymous daily meditation book entitled”24 Hours a Day” originally published in 1954.

    1. Thanks. I’ve found it going back as far as 1887, in a Boston journal called “The Writer.” There, Lew Vanderpoole wrote,

      [Dickens] tried to wear life lightly, “like a loose garment,” and nothing else so much offended him as to have some one insist that it was a thing which was to be taken seriously.

    2. And even further back, in 1839, the Rev. J. Holdich wrote of the late president of Wesleyan University, one Rev Willbur Fisk,

      However earnest, zealous, and successful on such occasions, his zeal was not put on like a loose garment to go out in. No; it was the habitual feeling, the ruling, abiding all-pervading principle of his soul.

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