Conceit (mental element 20, Cn)
Conceit has the nature of pride or vanity, or the proclivity “I am.” It is characterized by the sense of giving importance to self as superior or inferior, but also as an equal.
In conceit, the sense of being a separate self is present as a subtle feeling of distinctiveness. A superiority complex, an inferiority complex, and an equality complex are various expressions of conceit. They are called “complexes” to signify their psychological underpinnings. The subtlest of all is the equality complex, which is hard for non-meditators to penetrate. In the advanced stages of meditative practice, you will realize that unless you also transcend the sense of being equal to all, you cannot realize the truth of phenomenal nature of body-mind-consciousness. Going beyond superiority and inferiority is doing 99 percent of the work. Going beyond equality is the final 1 percent of the work that needs to be accomplished, because only at this stage is the truth of impersonality realized.
It is important to understand that conceit arises only when greed is present. In other words, whenever there is vanity, pride, lack of humility, and so on, there is always greed associated. Depending upon the intensity of the associated greed, conceit can lead to arrogance and to complete loss of modesty. It can even result in madness, such as is present with narcissism or extreme self-centeredness. If unchecked, it is one of those few mental elements that remain until the final stages of mental purification. Therefore, every effort should be made to avoid the arising of this element and to eradicate it whenever it appears.
Let me clarify that conceit is not same as simply having a sense of a separate self. It is much more. Its characteristic is to give importance to the self. It manifests as a desire to promote or advertise the self. If there is a subtle sense of self-glorification or self-importance, it is due to conceit.
“I am better,” “I am worse,” “I am a leader,” “I am a follower,” “I am a guru,” “I am a meditator” are expressions of vanity and pride (if not used only for linguistic purposes). We first have to eradicate these images of superiority and inferiority to understand the equality complex. “I am one with all,” “I am Brahman” (meaning, all-pervading consciousness), “I am,” are all expressions of the equality complex. If you say, “I am all-pervading consciousness” and think that the sense of a separate self has been eliminated you have not yet attained perfect intelligence.
Many monks, spiritual teachers, and religious leaders reach the level of equality but fail to eradicate the equality complex because they do not thoroughly understand that there are no entities to be equal but only the phenomenon of body-mind-consciousness. The equality complex is a failure to understand that it is the conceit that says, “I am.” Even if they say that the “I” they are declaring is “all-equal, all-pervading, and so on,” they do not realize that they are giving importance to the sense of “I-ness.” They do not realize that they are glorifying the self. They do not realize that they are expressing the subtlest greed for existence (or non-existence) in the misconception “I am.”
At the level of perfect intelligence, it is more appropriate to say, “There is soul,” than to say, “I am soul.” Abiding in perfect intelligence means going beyond the mystical lure of expressions “I am one with all,” “I am Brahman,” “I am pure consciousness” and so on.
You may be thinking I am pushing the envelope too much. Maybe I am. But I do so because I must fulfill the purpose of this book, which is to provide you with the complete framework for attaining perfection. The equality complex is the last hurdle we have to jump over to reach the finish line.
When you are an advanced meditator, you can penetrate the equality complex by cultivating the understanding of impermanence. Conceit cannot be understood and eliminated until the body-mind-consciousness is experienced as a mere bundle of phenomena that are simply arising and passing away.
The real purpose of spiritual practice is to experience and express reality as it is and not to personify it, adorn it, glorify it, identify with it, or get attached to it. While we are training in meditation, wisdom, and especially perfection, it is important to keep watch of our tendency to feel special, distinct, or illuminated, to advertise ourselves, to glorify our spiritual attainments, to publicize our powers, or to develop a spiritual image. The key is to remain aware of greedy tendencies that persist even at very advanced stages of illumination, so we do not cultivate conceit.