On August 16, 1501, the powers that be in Florence chose 26-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti to execute the Herculean task of sculpting what is known to this day as the greatest statue ever created: The David.
The Biblical figure David, viewed as the embodiment of fierce resistance to a formidable threat, was to be seen as a symbol of Florence’s unyielding commitment to its independence from bigger and stronger city states, hence why David’s eyes are fixed eastward toward rival Rome.
Shortly after receiving the commission, Michelangelo set to work. From a massive block of marble excavated in Northern Tuscany, he chipped away, day after day, week after week, month after month…until just over two years later he’d finished the massive undertaking.
All of that patience and hard work paid off as the denizens of Florence immediately realized that the 17-foot-high statue Michelangelo had created was a masterpiece for the ages.
What does any of this have to do with trekking the spiritual path in the 21st century? A lot, as it turns out, because of the potent metaphor this anecdote presents.
Because in reality what Michelangelo did was take an enormous block of marble and chisel away until he uncovered the sublime beauty that lay inside.
Our block of marble
And that is precisely what we humans need to do. Our block of marble is the totality of our psyches, warts and all.
What warts? The grievances, grudges, insecurities, fears, anxieties, pride, vulnerabilities and feelings of superiority and inferiority we all possess to one degree or another. The sum total of these warts comprises our egoic self, that critical, relentless voice in the head that never seems to shut up.
We create this egoic self in childhood and then pile onto it throughout adulthood.
The David inside you
What is the net effect of all this egoic guck dominating our attention? The near-total smothering of our true, conscious self, the beautiful, compassionate real “you” that resides in us all.
It’s the statue of David that is inside every one of you right now.
How do we gain access to our statue of David? We do what Michelangelo did: With patience and vigilance we chisel away the egoic detritus we’ve heaped upon our conscious selves.
A 3 step process
How do we chisel away the egoic marble smothering our inner, conscious selves? It’s a three-step process.
Any time an egoic thought or feeling comes up we:
1. notice that it’s come up;
2. immediately relax everywhere in our body for a few moments; then
3. let that feeling rise up and out of us. Just let it go.
What are we letting go of? Energy.
Any time we experienced something we didn’t like and held onto it instead of letting it pass through us, the result was a little piece of energy stowing away in our lower selves. That’s the process of resistance.
When we have a positive experience and hold onto it rather than letting it pass through, the same thing happens. That energy gets stuck inside. This is what the Buddhists call clinging.
Mom and the time machine
How does this play out in real life?
Example: Thirty-year-old you visits your 70 year old mom. She was the Michael Jordan of helicopter parenting during your childhood.
Constantly on you about your studies. Arranging your college visits in ninth grade. Scheduling you up the wazoo. Parking outside and waiting to take you home from any party you attended in high school. She was so overbearing that it’s hampered your ability to have a successful romantic relationship.
The day you arrive for your visit, you head out to the garage clad in your biking gear. Mom tells you to be sure to wear a helmet.
“Oh, and avoid 23rd street. Jerry Clampett’s grandson got clipped there two weeks ago…”
This pushes about fifteen different buttons in your lower self, sending you kicking and screaming into a time machine that transports you back to age twelve.
One less piece of marble
What do you do? Notice, relax, let go. After doing this, a small piece of your egoic marble hits the ground and you’re one small step closer to uncovering your true self.
We don’t do this now and then or when we feel like it. Like Michelangelo we do this every day. Why? Because there is no more important endeavor we can devote our attention to.
Shedding ourselves of ourselves takes precedence over everything. Why? Because getting closer and closer to our true selves makes us better at everything. Better parents, better friends, better workers, better human beings.
Tears of awe
My sister cried when she walked into the Accademia Gallery in Florence and laid eyes on The David. The sheer size, vitality and force of the statue was emotionally overpowering.
The true self lurking deep within you, and I mean every single one of you, is a thousand times more powerful, majestic and beautiful than The David.
Our primary job in life is to uncover, with the relentlessness and patience exhibited by Michelangelo, that true self. It’s the greatest thing we can do not just for ourselves, but for the world.