Episode 22: A Natural History of the Ego, Part 1

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So if, as the Ideal tradition has taught us, the Good is the underlying Reality of all the phenomena we perceive, and if it is in fact our true nature, the reasonable question arises: why are we not in a state of full consciousness and bliss all the time? Why do we continue to live in the shadowland of the Cave when by rights we belong in the radiant sunshine outside it? Well, better pens than mine have attempted to answer this, so if you think you’ll get a definitive answer here, you will probably be disappointed.  But I may be able to offer some hints.

It really comes down to what we may call ego. This is not just ego in the sense of feeling self-important, or the Freudian sense of the arbiter between the id and superego, but any limitation put on the Good which prevents us from realizing it as our true nature. Emerson says, “The only sin is limitation.”  It can take the guise of self-pity, self-hatred, or just self-satisfaction, but it is a small, constrained sense of who we are.  It is the source of all unhappiness, indecision, longing, attachment and fear. The ego is a sphincter on the soul.

I realize this is not an explanation, but the question of what ego is and where it comes from really only arises when we are not at one with the Good–the Good requires no explanations since it knows all, sees all and in fact creates all.  Questions about the ego arise from the ego.  Many attempts have been made to answer the question of why the limited world seems to exist using many different analogies; for example, it is all just a play (Maya) created by Absolute Consciousness for its own entertainment and enjoyment. God created a perfect Eden, but Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of it. We drink from the river Lethe (Λήθη) and so forget the truth (aletheia) of our Being.  But as long as the “explanations” are heard by the ego, they will be misunderstood–ego can “understand” only that which lies below it on the Divided Line, but not that “which passeth all understanding.”

In fact the ego–and the world it creates– is an illusion. We are never truly apart from the Good and can’t be. But if the ego takes itself to be the true Self, it will project its own nature onto the world and see everything through its own darkened and distorted lens.

Essentially, this is the lens of duality. Me and everything else–all other people, all nature, all the manufactured world. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a spoiled adolescent, a parasite—if we allow it to be. It is a necessary construction for living in the world of the mind, the way that the body is a construct for living in the world of matter. It goes, as they say, with the territory. But ego cannot see that it is a part of and player in the world.  That would in a real sense destroy it, and it will do anything for self-preservation. So it maintains a variety of strategies to keep us thinking that it is in fact who we are, and it will be some of these strategies–the nature of the ego–that we will consider in this episode. These strategies are all interconnected, and if we can start to observe some of them, we can start to see through them and realize our connection to the Good.

The purpose of the soul is to unite; the purpose of the ego is to divide and multiply. It starts by creating two—me and everything else—and then goes on to create thousands, millions. And the next act of the ego, which happens seemingly in a nanosecond, is to find someone to whom to feel superior. The Good is self-sufficient and constant; the ego is addicted to novelty and craves insider information, “exclusive offers,” gossip, occult knowledge; anything to make it feel special and superior.  The mechanism for maintaining this feeling is the everyday mechanical mind, which delights in making endless microjudgments about whomever or whatever it sees. Me vs. them.  My gene pool, gender, race, party, belief system, team, country, and especially my religion.

After limiting our consciousness, it goes on to make itself the center of our attention, and it does this by assuming any role necessary. It can go from feeling practically all-powerful to feeling practically worthless in a matter of seconds. As required it can be charming, boring, judgmental, accepting, aggressive, passive, selfish, generous. If it feels itself to be weak and not interesting, it can become fascinated by other people’s egos and the cult of celebrity, where the work or the creation is the byproduct, and self-promotion is the main thing. It seems to come with a set of likes and dislikes, characteristics and opinions, that are never really examined, just accepted. We are “born this way,” and that’s enough. Any questioning is done within the confines of the closed system of the ego, which cannot see anything except itself.

Another tool the ego uses to keep us limited is what has been called the stream of consciousness, the endless monologue flowing in our heads. The Good is truly the Ocean of Consciousness, the infinite and unchanging Sea of Love; ego can change from being a babbling brook to a churning muddy river full of uprooted trees and dead cows. The ocean is its source, but as it is with a physical river its quality and nature can vary wildly. The more we realize that this stream does not come from us, the more we can appreciate the source of the water itself. As Emerson says in The Over-Soul, “When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pour for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come.”

Emerson speaks here also to another strategy of the ego: claiming. Most of us will look at that flowing river and think we own it. The artist who taps into it as the source of inspiration, the unhappy person who sees it as the source of her bad luck, the timid person afraid to take too much–all are claiming it as their own in a way. What it brings is matched to our expectations of it, and we feel that, good or bad, we deserve whatever it brings. But it belongs to no one, is freely given and inexhaustible. We have no right to it, but it is ours as long as we don’t try to possess it. For those who do, there is a price to be paid.

When the source is claimed and limited in this way, the mind and the emotions become purely mechanical. The mind becomes like an asteroid belt beyond which our spiritual consciousness cannot penetrate. It creates the boundaries of who we think we are. Similarly with the emotions—we are reduced to the Pavlovian model of stimulus and response. Someone pushes a certain emotional button and we react in a predictable way, especially when it comes to the negative feelings. In fact we are no more these feelings that we are our bodies. But while we are accustomed to speaking of the body in the third person—“I have a pain in my back”—we speak of transient ideas or emotions as if they were us. Rather than “I am angry,” saying “I have an inflammation in my anger plexus,” would make more sense, and make us want to treat it, not prolong it.

In the Good, there is only one emotion–love–but all negative emotions spring from the ego, and it delights in wallowing in them.  Hatred is love perverted,  greed is abundance made personal.  How many relationships have been destroyed because someone said something about someone and both are too proud to apologize or forgive?  How big a bag of anger, hurt, resentment, fear and duplicity do we carry around?  How readily can we still “pull the files” on events that happened long ago, and go over them in detail, perhaps rewriting them with stronger adjectives, more conflict, greater outrage?

This speaks to another tendency of the ego: pulling the mind into the past or the future.  The Good is known in what has been called the Eternal Now, in all its perfection.  The ego would have us dwell in the past or anticipate a future which will be better, always existing in a state of dissatisfaction, and blaming circumstances or other people for it, living a life as Thoreau said of “quiet desperation.”

What is the remedy?  For starters I’d say would be to examine all our thoughts and actions for signs of duplicity.  Saying something about someone in an email that you don’t want them to see can and probably will come back to haunt you.  Thinking your life would be better if only you had this or that, him or her.  Reliving the pains of the past.  When these are seen, to start to bring desires, thoughts, words and actions into alignment, with nothing hidden.  To become like the sun, radiating warmth and light constantly and in all directions.  To remember the words of Ficino:

Then let us not be moved or distracted by many things, but let us remain in unity as much as we are able, since we find eternal unity and the one eternity, not through movement or multiplicity, but through being still and being one.  ¹

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul, translated by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London, Clement Salaman, ed.  Inner Traditions, 1996.