Vanity, when is it appropriate?

There is a story about a disciple who went to see his Master and said to him, ‘I’m not at all satisfied with the size of my body. I want to be as big as the sun so that I can fill the whole of space so that everyone in the whole world can see me. Please help me to fulfil my desire.’

The Master granted his disciple’s request and, lo and behold, the disciple became gigantic; everybody could see him from miles away and many scientists and philosophers arrived and started to study this phenomenon and invent all kinds of theories about where he came from. As for the disciple himself, he was delighted to be the object of such universal interest.

Not long after that another disciple went to the same Master and said, ‘My size makes it impossible for me to study everything as I would like to. I’m much too big. I want to become so small that I can slip in and out of even the tiniest nooks and crannies of nature. Dear Master, please grant me my desire.’ Here again the Sage did as his disciple asked.

But before very long both disciples found themselves in a terrible fix: they had not foreseen that they would soon tire, one of being gigantic and the other of being microscopic, and they had neglected to ask their Master how they could return to normal.

I don’t know where that story comes from, but one thing I do know, and that is that those two disciples were mistaken: they did not know that the whole of life is based on a perpetual alternation between expansion and contraction. Yes: bigness and smallness are the two poles between which life fluctuates, and the danger for humans, just as for the two disciples in this story, is to want to remain stationary at one pole.

Of course, the tendency to grow bigger and bigger and take up more and more room is universal; even babies share it: from the moment they are born, they keep getting bigger and heavier. Once they have finished growing in their physical body, they want to grow in other ways, by acquiring more and more money, material possessions or renown, for instance, or by winning first place in competitions and contests of various kinds.

Artists, scientists and philosophers all want to take up as much space as possible in their own field: art, science or philosophy. And even those who dedicate their lives to the Lord want to win first place amongst his servants.

In itself, there is nothing wrong in wanting to be first. In fact God himself has sown this desire in the hearts of human beings. You will perhaps object that it is vanity, and you are right, of course. But isn’t it vanity that has driven so many people to perform so many shining deeds?

Of course, it is true that it is not they but others who benefit most from their deeds of glory: the vain person who does them is mainly interested in pleasing others and winning their approval and admiration. Performing artists, especially, have a great deal of vanity, but what tremendous pleasure and enjoyment they give us through their art, even though they, themselves, are often gloomy, unhappy people.

Vanity only becomes a problem if it is motivated by purely selfish considerations, if it drives someone to try to satisfy their desires at the expense of others, by ejecting or riding roughshod over all their rivals. But if one wants to be richer and more powerful than anyone else in order to help the poor, for instance, or to start an industry that would be to everyone’s benefit then, of course, it is quite different.

Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov

Izvor Book 221, True Alchemy or the Quest for Perfection
Chapter 10, Vainglory or Divine Glory

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