What is the ego? No doubt a very egotistical question to ask! I wonder about this as many millions of words have been devoted to this elusive entity. It occurs to me that I have no real idea what the ego is. I rarely seem to refer to it except in the broad and general terms that most of society will refer to someone very concerned with getting their own way as being egotistical. This is odd since I have spent most of my adult life reading a plethora of books concerned with the ego. Instinctively I find myself shying away from individuals and groups bent on conquering their egos. Why is this off-putting for me?
My own experience of coming to terms with my own personality began some twenty-five years ago. It came through my connection with Chrissy and the many people who visited her to consult her for advice on their problems and their lives in general and to do the I-Ching and astrology with her. At the time Chrissy lived in a cottage in the middle of the welsh countryside. This cottage at the time had no electricity, no central heating and an outside toilet. Yet, whilst sitting by a fire consulting the I-Ching and reading wonderful books by firelight created an unforgettable ambience, it was not this which was the most magical and valuable element of the experience. Instead it was the feeling that was generated for all of us by the experience of being there. This was a feeling that no matter how difficult our situations might be, everything was ok; it was a feeling of deep peace and reconnection, a feeling of coming home. This was odd in some ways since there were often tears and fights going on and the deepest and most difficult problems were often being dealt with and people’s personalities with all their tricks being openly discussed and exposed to the light. Indeed, my friends and I often went with a gut wrenching dread in the pit of our stomachs as we knew that our personalities and all their tricks could be quite ruthlessly exposed. As my friend Ali would relate, he knew as soon as he saw the gravel of the drive that he would be in tears by the end of the visit. So what made this experience so special since it involved some very difficult experiences and regular tears and fights? What made it so special was that no matter how hard the learning and how much our personalities might be exposed everything would be ok and more than that, that we were all accepted and loved for exactly who we were. The impact was remarkable and all of us would rush to be there whenever we were stuck or struggling, or in many of our cases, whenever we could without imposing (and often when we were imposing!).
What was intriguing about this environment was that it did not seem to conform to most people’s expectations of an egoless environment. Indeed, in some ways it was quite the reverse; people interrupted each other, we all boasted and showed off, people would argue and sort out quite nuclear and explosive fights between them, we would compete for attention and Chrissy reserved the right to lose her wisdom and fall in a black hole. What made it so different and magical was that everything was out in the open; nothing was hidden. It was challenging; there was little room for people to get away with not being honest about themselves but there was also a great deal of love. We would all show off, but everyone would enjoy each other’s showing off – we were all allowed to be special and we would humourously compete to see who could show off the most. Nobody would mind about interrupting each other, because the key was that no-one was taking themselves too seriously, rather everyone shared in enjoying and valuing each others personalities. We would even compete about whose personality was the worst – “you think you are manipulative, you should see how brilliantly I’ve managed to punish my friends whilst maintaining my sense of self-righteousness”. We were all learning to take our personalities less seriously, to be less identified with them and to revel in them with humour and to revel in each others as well. We were not being asked to change, but rather to accept our personalities and be who we were without any preconcevied judgements. We were being trained also to take responsibility for our personalities in their full glory and to be honest and objective about them. There was always a sense of play – of playing with our own personalities and each other and there was a lot of humour. I learnt that I was hyper competitive, that I was very sensitive and that I could be pompous at times. I wasn’t asked to change this but rather to accept these traits in my personality and to take responsibility for them.
I get the feeling that an ego-less state is often seen like a perpetual nirvana where we live in a constant transcendental bliss, modest and receptive, loving everyone and never interrupting, competing, boasting, arguing or losing our temper. We are constantly mindful and therefore never lose our keys, burn our toast, forget what someone was saying etc. My own concern with this is that it seems to come up with a lot of judgements of what is good and what is bad. Indeed there seem to be a lot of “shoulds” and “oughts” involved and I meet many people who are absorbed in judging themselves and finding themselves and others wanting. It can feel a very painful, constricting environment where everyone is watching out for egos. Yet paradoxically this description of the ego-less state feels a very egotistical state to me. It seems to be a construct or mind-picture about how we have to be, even if it is at odds with our nature. Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books says that the only enemies of a man of knowledge are self-importance and self-indulgence. Somehow the hunt for our ego seems a somewhat self-important and self-indulgent activity, a search which seeks to make us perfect in our own or other people’s eyes. Perhaps it is driven by the sad fact that we all often feel inadequate, that we must be better if we are going to be loved or accepted, that we are not spiritual enough. I remember Ram Dass saying that he worked so hard to be spiritual yet he noticed that more and more people would thank him for being so human! Accepting our imperfect natures with all their creative energies and flaws seems to involve less pride. Trying to not be something we see as bad (take your pick from competition, greed, jealousy etc.) always seems to hold the danger of driving it underground and making it come out in shadowy unconscious ways.
Is it possible that trying to eradicate our egos is a construct created by the ego? Certainly the pre-occupation with being good and all the things we should be doing to be enlightened seems to catch people in a competitive spiritual materialism – who can be the “goodest”, most mindful etc. I realise that perhaps I was lucky to be introduced to an environment where the focus was on accepting everybody and ourselves just the way we were – including all the “worst” elements of our personalities. Knowing the worst elements of our personalities and being open about them meant we could see them in plain view and so we could not kid ourselves when we acted from a closed heart or were jealous, hurt, competitive etc. Strangely it meant we were less likely to hurt others and to accept them for who they were. I can’t help feeling that much of religious and spiritual practice is caught in “trying” to be something, rather than simply being who we are; that really we are all children no matter how old we are and that we already are divine since we were all created just the way we are. In the end the path of trying to be something is a boring one, it takes a lot of energy and a creates a stifling environment. When I look at all this I realise that I even have to accept and have a sense of humour about the side of myself that wants to be perfect by not being perfect!! I realise there is no escape but to have a sense of humour about myself. This is only my own journey and perspective; perhaps it is all a clever construct of my own ego or competitive nature?! I’ll leave others to judge from their own experience and hearts.
Having written this some weeks ago, I have been thinking about this further over the last few weeks and realised that this is in many ways a description of the Taoist concept of wu-wei – doing by not doing. This also links in to Tim Galwey’s notion of interference. That is that our role is not to try to become something – a saint, a perfect person, a good person, an ego-less person. Instead our role is to be aware of ourselves exactly as we are and to accept that and be conscious of our personalities so that we do not try to make them do or be something they are not. When we bend ourselves out of shape like this it ends up closing our heart down. It is not that we need to focus on being spiritual and loving but rather be conscious of where we might close our hearts, to watch out for and be very aware of all that could close our hearts down to others so that we can inhibit it. I know that I can easily get caught in feeling I ought to feel more loving, but if I pretend to be more loving than I am, I usually end up caught in closing my heart down.
As the I-Ching says;
where the moods of his own heart are concerned, he should never ignore the possibility of inhibition, for this is the basis of human freedom.