Materials needed: Journal, materials for collage
Books and Tapes needed:
Exercises and Practices:
The animal depicted in the third chakra is the ram. Now one thinks of a ram as stubborn and hard-headed as well as strong and full of yang energies. Well, that is an apt description of the ego, so it is no wonder that the ram symbolizes it. Rams batter heads with other rams in order to fulfill their desires. Egos do the same with other egos. Rams are very persistent in getting their own way. So is ego. Rams are strong. So is ego. And they are both full of yang energies. As an example of that, ego is the initiator, controller and manipulator in our lives.
One thing we need to get straight before beginning a discussion of ego is a working definition. This is because the concept of ego is vastly different in modern psychology and in eastern traditions. This can cause a great deal of confusion. So let me give you both definitions.
Ego, in psychology, is that part of the self system that coordinates and integrates all of the personality aspects into one cohesive whole. Ego also mediates between the person and the outside world and is responsible for self-regulation and self-control meaning control over the instincts and impulses. It is capable of delaying rewards and feedback if it is mature. Ego is tuned in to all aspects of self-preservation including defense of the self-image or self-concept. It is conscious, in a limited sense compared to the Higher Self; but, nevertheless, it is awake and in touch with external realities and many of the internal ones. When the identity crisis has been safely navigated, the ego maintains a center of self-sameness and continuity over time. It is that part of us which, in waking life, recognizes ourselves as the same persons we were yesterday and the day before. In that capacity, it is connected to the memory bank.
Unfortunately ego, itself having been generated in association with parental training, is primarily invested in maintaining the false self. The false self, you will remember, is basically the self-image and personality that are constructed out of feedback from whoever is raising the child. It is called the false self because it is not the whole Self. Parts of it are hidden or repressed by ego. It is composed of those aspects of the personality that are "allowed out," so to speak, those parts of ourselves that are judged to be acceptable to others. You could think of ego as being in cahoots with the agents of socialization, so it protects and maintains whatever aspects of the self that are compatible with the norm. Both ego and personality were raised together like siblings in the same family. So they share the same values and outlook on life. The parts of self that are "out of sync" with ego's and personality's shared reality are relegated to the dungeons of the unconscious where they languish in solitary confinement. However, ego is essential to mental health because, by definition, one who does not have an ego or adequate ego strength is psychotic. A person without an ego is awash in chaos, at the mercy of the unconscious in all of its ungroundedness, archetypal and raw energies. Consciousness can be a place of intense terror and disorganization without an ego's mediation. A psychotic person cannot defend him/herself against invasions by others or the environment, so is likely to be incredibly anxious.
Ego in Eastern traditions is that part of ourselves that maintains the illusion of separateness and duality. As such, it is the major obstacle to enlightenment because it keeps us distanced from the dynamic Ground or the Ultimate Reality. Its major characteristic in this role is ignorance in the sense of ignoring something. It has forgotten who it is and has become attached to all manner of worldly objects, ideas, attitudes and people. All of these stand between the individual and unity consciousness. We become invested in satisfying our desires and wants and protecting our self-centered projects and agendas. Buddhists see ego as the source of suffering, cultural illness and neurosis.
In Yoga, ego is that part of self that wants its own way, wants to control everything and is unwilling to surrender to a higher power. It is the main obstacle to enlightenment because it rigidly defends the status quo and blocks access to higher levels of consciousness. In fact, it is generally unaware that there are realities beyond its own experience. It tends to be self-important, self-centered and selfish. What it wants is central to its attention and focus. And it wants its own way, wants to control everything and is unwilling to surrender to a higher power. It is the main obstacle to enlightenment because it rigidly defends the status quo and blocks access to higher levels of consciousness. In fact, it is generally unaware that there are realities beyond its own experience. It tends to be self-important, self-centered and selfish. What it wants is central to its attention and focus. And what it wants is what it was taught to want during its formative years. In our society, it is also likely to be materialistic, greedy and power-oriented.
Obviously there is some overlap in these two sets of definitions. But you want to be careful to understand that, in talking about ego death or getting rid of ego, we are not advocating destruction of the ego that maintains sanity in the psychological sense although there may be times when one feels that way. The best way to remember the distinction between legitimate ego and the ego that needs to be destroyed is that legitimate ego's roles are integrative while the dispensable ego is controlling, self-centered, and self-willed.
This being said, we shall proceed first with an outline of the psychological development of ego, then follow with the eastern teachings on ego. After dealing with the theories, we will look at how we can work with the ego toward higher levels of consciousness.
The psychological ego develops out of the dynamic Ground. At birth, the infant is still in contact with the Source from which it came. Gazing into the eyes of a very young baby, we can see the Soul of the Divine One looking back at us. But, very soon, because life is innately frustrating and needs are not always met on time, infants are required to adapt to this state of affairs. Enter the ego.
At first there is a symbiotic relationship between the mother and child. There is no apparent separation from the infant's point of view. When the pains of hunger, lack of warmth, dirty diaper rash, etc. impinge on the infant's awareness and nothing is done about it, the baby cries. That is its only means of self-help. When cries are not answered immediately, anger wells up and differentiation begins. This process is described in detail by Margaret Mahler (1975) and in Book I of Return to Spirit.
By about age two years, the ego has emerged and becomes functional. Here we meet the "terrible twos" which means the child is testing out its ability to control the world. Such reality testing is essential to development of a healthy ego and ability to function normally in a sensory-motor world. If the ego is squelched or not allowed to develop properly, the stage is set for later neurosis. This does not mean the child must have everything it wants. On the contrary, some resistance from the environment and other people contributes gist for the learning mill. However, the resistance should not be punitive, and the child must have a fairly large degree of success in its explorations. Its safety is protected, of course.
During the preschool period, the ego gets into a valuing stage. Adjectives emerge in the child's speech and it is apparent that it is learning to put a value on itself, others and the things in its world. Whether the image is positive or negative depends upon the kind of feedback the child receives from others. Usually the self-value is fairly stable throughout life since the ego becomes invested in defending it.
Personality aspects soon begin to differentiate and roles are learned. The self-image is constituted and valued. The appearance of self-concept or self-image indicates that the child sees itself as a separate individual. At the end of the preschool period, sex roles are formed. Also during the preschool period, the ego develops motor control, self-control over emotions and impulses and the beginnings of mastery in interpersonal interactions. Each success in reality testing strengthens the ego.
By age five, ego development is almost complete and self-consciousness shows up. This indicates the child is aware of itself as the focus or object of another's attention. As a result of the internalization process, the superego or critic is also formed. This is composed of the parents' and other authority figure's prohibitions, opinions, ideas, etc. It then becomes the moral director of a person's life. With relative autonomy, the ego is now able to repress unwanted feelings and aspects of self that are punished. The personality is now stable and relatively complete.
During the school years, the mental ego comes forth. It is based on school learning and experiences with peers and other authority figures encountered in the wider world of school and extracurricular activities. We followed this process in the unit on social learning.
In adolescence, the ego identity is consolidated and then continued development throughout life enables self-integration, self-acceptance, consolidation of roles, self-actualization and self-redefinition as demanded by one's experience in the world. We will take up each of these at the appropriate level of development.
Legitimate Ego Tasks
It is ego's job to protect the organism from harm or death. This means physically as well as psychologically. So, in that sense, it may act like a loving parent some of the time. However, in the face of threats, it galvanizes into action and generates various defense mechanisms. If the threat is real, the fight-flight responses are activated. If the source of the threat is unknown, anxiety is generated. This usually occurs when the self-image or self-esteem is at risk.
In order to develop and grow, we have to gain some measure of control over the environment, self and others as mentioned above. This requires reality testing. We try something and see if it works. Adaptability also requires testing. If we find ourselves in pain or conflict, the only way to work with it is to try something and see if it alleviates the problem. Learning requires reality testing. There is the basic conditioning paradigm, but there is also more complex learning. And it, too, is a form of reality testing. Children do this continually. Any day in the grocery store, one can see children testing their mothers and fathers. "I wanna candy bar." "No, it's too close to dinner." "But I want it." "I said no, now stop whining." "Waaah." "I'm going to put you in the car if you don't hush." Now some children stop here and suck their thumbs. Others persist until they wind up in the car. A variation is that mother succumbs and gives the child a candy bar. The result? You guessed it. Next time in the grocery store the behavior is repeated and elaborated.
Competence, Autonomy and Independence
Another general category of normal ego functioning centers around competency. Beginning with emergence of the nascent ego at about age two, there is the development of what is called ego-strength. It is based on positive experiences that give us a sense of being able to cope with the world and with ourselves. So it evolves around the ability to control the environment and oneself. A toddler is extremely active exploring the surroundings, getting into everything and sometimes destroying things. A wise parent will put away valuable things that might get broken during this phase and let the child develop its abilities. Children are driven by incessant curiosity to find out how things work and what will happen if they do something to an object or another person or an animal. If they are prevented from experiencing some success in these endeavors, they will develop a low self-esteem and eventually give up their explorations. This is the reason why overprotection by parents can have deadly consequences. Of course, one must protect children from realistic dangers, but a few bumps and scratches are par for the course and should be tolerated.
As you can imagine, it takes many years of practice and adjustment for egos to become mature. A great deal of this work is being done during the elementary years of school. In childhood, whatever happens impacts the development of ego strength one way or the other. The net result is either self-confidence and a positive attitude toward one's ability to make an impact on the world or withdrawal and unwillingness to take risks coupled with a defeatist attitude.
We have talked a great deal about control. And, indeed, control is the name of the game for ego whether it is direct and forceful, gentle and tactful, compromised by early experience, or completely absent. This does not mean that one is allowed to exploit or injure others or do any kind of damage to self or others. What it does mean is that we grow up with a sense of being at home in the world and able to protect ourselves. That involves self-control of impulses and instincts, control of others to the extent of maintaining realistic and flexible boundaries around oneself and being able to negotiate with others for what is needed. It also means being able to interface comfortably with the things one encounters in the outside world. One is capable and knows it. A normal, healthy adult can provide for his/her own needs, make a living, create a home and family if desired, and establish loving relationships with other people. Freud once said the mark of a healthy adult was that s/he could love and work.
Make and type up your resume. It should include your education history (briefly, and with degrees), extracurricular activities including volunteer work, any awards or formal recognitions, publications, if any, special skills, etc. If you have never worked, you must examine what you have been doing to see what skills you have developed. No one lives without constantly learning new things. For example, if you have kept house for the last ten years and raised children, consider what skills that involves such as people management, budgeting, conflict-resolution, negotiation, household management, child care, time management, efficiency expert, etc. If you have trouble getting started on this, make a list of all the things you do with your time, then give them names based on the skills they require as above. Include them in your resume in an orderly listing. Then write a paper on self-esteem.
Our middle-class society went through a period of excessive permissiveness in child-rearing during the late 50's and early 60's. It was fashionable to not deny your children anything, and many of them became virtual monsters demanding everything they wanted and having temper tantrums if they did not get it. No one wanted them around. So that extreme does not work for children. They need boundaries set for them in order to feel safe. If there are no boundaries, they do not have any guidelines for behavior and may find themselves isolated and unpopular later on when they go to school where others do not cave in like their parents did.
On the other hand, the other extreme is just as harmful. If boundaries are too strict, children lose their confidence in themselves and their ability to function in the world. Traditionally, in our society, women are socialized to give up their wills and, consequently, often do not learn how to set boundaries to protect themselves from abuse by others. This happens when parents continually make demands on the child to conform to strict rules and enact harsh punishments for disobedience. If the parents are also inconsistent in their demands and punishments, children become even more submissive and intimidated. This is another example of the partial reinforcement we met in the last unit.
What is required is a balance between no discipline and discipline that is too punitive. There is a great deal of confusion about discipline. It got a bad name during the permissive era. But the ego needs discipline; gentle, loving and firm directions about the right way to go about doing things so it can develop into a competent governor of the person. Ideally, we are first controlled by others, then gradually given control over our own functioning as we prove ourselves to be trustworthy.
Boundary setting also applies to protecting ourselves from intrusive others. It is the ability to say, "No, this is private terrain," or "No, you have no right to . . . "
Not only does ego have to develop self-control, it must learn how to start things and carry projects through to completion. If children are to become competent adults, they must learn that they have some powers. To allow these to develop, parents must step back and allow children to work out their own problems without prematurely offering help. This can be very difficult sometimes because the adult easily sees what is required. But, if the older person is continually stepping in and solving the problems or finishing the projects, what is learned by the child is that s/he is not able to do anything right. The ego interprets that as "I can't do anything right," and this goes into the self-image to be protected forever unless the false perception is somehow corrected. So it is critical for young children to have as many success experiences as possible with respect to the things they try to do. Of course, they need protection from things that may injure them, but that leaves a very wide field of potential learning.
Psychological Defense Mechanisms
The ego uses various defense mechanisms to do its job of self-preservation. Usually these are more or less appropriate to the situation and are not considered abnormal unless they become rigid and inflexible.
The most basic defense is denial. The person simply says, "I didn't do it." An aspect of this is repression. The ego, once it is fully functional at around age five, can relegate to the unconscious anything that it cannot handle or finds extremely threatening or frightening. This is tantamount to saying it does not exist, therefore, I do not have to deal with it. Repression may serve a young, helpless child well, but widespread use is undesirable in adults who should be dealing with their issues instead of hiding from them.
Repression is the basis for all neurotic symptoms. (It differs from suppression which is a process in which something is not in the focus of attention, but it is retrievable at will.) Usually the original trigger can be discovered in the late preschool period. Extreme trauma in infancy and the early preschool period is more likely to result in psychosis because the ego was not strong enough to offer any resistance, nor was it able to develop properly. Repression depends upon the ego being strong enough to hold the energy in place in the unconscious. It is an ego skill that protects the personality even though at some cost to normal functioning because it takes an expenditure of energy to maintain repression.
Developmentally speaking, another fairly early defense is projection. The person may say, "I didn't do it, Joe did." In projection we often put onto someone else something in ourselves that we cannot accept or find to be ugly or wrong. For instance, if I cannot face the fact that I tend to be overly critical of others, I may notice that same shortcoming in everyone who shows the slightest tendency in that direction. Or I may even attribute it to someone who is not critical at all if my own inclinations threaten exposure. Projections may be positive as well as negative. If my self-concept is such that I have a bad opinion of myself, I may project some of my good qualities onto others. The ego defends the self-concept regardless of its valuation.
Another defense is rationalization. We are all familiar with this one. If I want to do something that I think is wrong, I may find a way to justify it to myself, so that I do not feel guilty. This is an example of using the mind to generate a defense. Everyone does this, and it is another way to avoid taking responsibility for one's life and behaviors. Self-justification is an offshoot of it. If someone tries to give a person a correction or some sort of feedback and is always met with some explanation or blaming of someone else, this is rationalization. We can refuse the correction or say we do not deserve it or take responsibility for it. There is no real need for us to explain our behavior unless we feel inadequate for some reason. Then it would be healthier to get to the bottom of it so the defensiveness can be released.
Sublimation is yet another defense. In this case, I may take an unacceptable urge to a higher level where it is acceptable. For example, a person who lusts for an in- appropriate other person may raise the energy from the first or second chakra to the fourth and change the energies into compassion. In spiritual terms, this is a kind of transcendence. Vows of celibacy or lack of an appropriate relationship often present this kind of challenge, and sublimation is an important way of dealing with such sexual energies. Anger can also be sublimated. Into what do you think it would then be changed?
Reaction-formation means to change a desired response into its opposite. So I might be excessively nice to someone I would really like to kill. Doing the opposite puts the maximum amount of distance between the impulse and the action that might carry it out. The superficial mannerisms one sees at cocktail parties are perhaps a good example.
Intellectualization is a mechanism used very often by people who tend to live more "in their heads." In these cases, a person blocks responses that might come from the heart or from the instincts because they are all felt to be unacceptable or dangerous. There is danger of being hurt or rejected, for example. So such people are said to be out of touch with their feelings. If you ask them what they are feeling, they will say, "I don't feel anything." This reaction is especially likely in the case of anger for which they may have been severely punished as children. And the energies may be so completely blocked that the person does not, in fact, feel anything. However, they may be able to give you elaborate verbal descriptions about their lives even, sometimes, including what should be considered personal and private information. Poetic language and complex vocabularies are often used to mask very human needs and desires that are felt to be threatening in some way.
Persona. We have come across the persona before, but it is mentioned here because it is a form of defense mechanism. In this case, the threat comes from within and represents a fear of what we might do if we allowed our whole personality or beingness to emerge into the world. It involves restricting what is presented to others to a facade that is calculated to please. It may also be rigid, habitual and protected by anxiety, in which case it is neurotic. If it is something we put off and on as the situation requires, it is not neurotic.
Exercise: Cocktail Party Persona
Get your journal handy and find a comfortable seat or lie down. Take some deep breaths and relax. Close your eyes and imagine you are at a cocktail party. If you do not attend such events, select some social function you have to attend even though you do not want to, perhaps a work-related event. This will be a setting in which you do not know anyone really well and you feel constrained to be polite. Put the event into a setting you can imagine, picture what you are wearing, then allow yourself to fantasize it. See who is there and who you talk to, what you both say, etc.
When the fantasy has run its course, write down all you can remember
of it. Make a few notes about how you felt, then analyze it as if it were
a dream. When you are finished, write down what you learned about your
These are the most common defense mechanisms. I am sure you can think of more. It needs to be re-emphasized that defense mechanisms are normal. We all use them. There is nothing pathological about them unless one is singled out and used exclusively or excessively. When this happens there is a tendency for the defense to become rigidified and intensified. That is a signal that the person is getting neurotic. What this means is that the ego is beginning to feel out of control, so it panics and puts on the brakes really hard. Like a car with locked brakes, the individual begins to skid - into more and more anxiety. The process escalates until neurotic symptoms begin to appear, and the person finds it more and more difficult to cope with his/her life. Incidently, neurosis is a form of pathology that is the result of an ego being functional but too weak to deal with the normal challenges of life because much of its energy is used up in repression. This means that we need a certain minimum level of ego strength in order to get along in the world. Hence ego-death as destruction of ego is not recommended. Ego-death in Yoga means surrender of one's personal agendas to the Higher Self, not actual destruction of the ego.
Negative Aspects of Ego
Most of the negative aspects of ego have to do with control issues. We all know people who manipulate others in order to get them to do what they want. In fact, this has been a method employed by many women whose natural powers have been blocked by patriarchy. Another form of manipulation is gamesmanship or one-up-manship. We could call this "I'll get you before you get me." Both of these techniques make unsavory assumptions about the other person's intelligence and insight, and basically lack respect for the other. Playing psychological games with people is dishonest and deliberately misleading and deceptive. If we depend upon games to make ourselves acceptable to others, we can never be sure that we are loved for who we really are. And that accounts for much of our loneliness. What good are friends and lovers if they can only love our facades because we refuse to be real with them?
Competition is taken for granted in our society beginning at home and in the preschool. It can be eye-opening to read Kagan et al's (1972) study of Mexican-American children who are raised to cooperate instead of to compete. They were bored by a game that required collaboration in order to win. Anglo-American children were unable to win the same game because they had no idea how to cooperate to win.
Georg Feuerstein says, "It's harmful to bring competitiveness to Yoga; it's an infringement of non-violence" (Rosen, 1998, p. 152). Competition is a form of aggression and, in spite of "common knowledge," does not improve performance or learning. It usually results in only one winner and everyone else must experience the sense of failure that goes along with losing. This kind of subtle battering does far more damage to young children than we realize, or we would not sanction it. It begins in the home with sibling rivalry that is subtly condoned or even reinforced by the parents. Otherwise it would not develop. When children are required to compete for attention and affection, they learn that they are not loved for themselves. So this also contributes to negative self-images. Then when children begin school, they discover that competition is a formalized part of the curriculum and there is no escape.
1. Read verses 30 and 66 in the Tao Te Ching. Think about the message given in verse 30. What is Lao Tsu recommending we do instead of using force? Verse 66 gives us the antidote to competition. Would you agree with it?
2. Read No Contest: The Case Against Competition. If you enjoy competitve sports or other competitive events, you may resist this information. However, try to keep an open mind knowing that a great many people are terribly hurt psychologically by this form of behavior.
As you read, make a list in your journal of all the negative things Kohn says about competition and the reasons he gives. You may also note whether you agree with him. Notice that he documents his information. When you finish reading, make another list of how you have been hurt in your life by competition. Be honest. You might also want to list any gains. If you do list gains, ponder how you may have hurt your opponent regardless of whether pain was intended or not. Some justify competition as a harmless way to work off steam [aggression]. Do you now agree with this statement? What do you think should be our first steps to remedy the overemphasis on competition especially in events like Little League and in the schools? Is there something you can do? Can you think of any non-violent means of protest? If you have children, how can you protect them from the destructive aspects of competition and still have them feel accepted by their peers?
3. See if you can find a copy of a book called New Games. This offers alternatives to competition that employ a game-type of format but that avoid competition. Perhaps you can get this type of game adopted in your local schools.
The Shadow is composed of one or more of our personality aspects that result from reppression of unwelcome parts of ourselves. It is important to acknowledge the shadow because it is the personality aspect most likely to be projected onto others. This kind of projection represents another obstacle to progress on the spiritual path because it is basically dishonest and it is also an unconscious behavior. As such, it is out of control. Because the shadow is invested with energy, it has the potential to cause trouble and to slip around the ego's defenses at just the wrong time. To become whole, we have to acknowledge and integrate all parts of ourselves. If some aspect is in hiding, it cannot be collected into the whole. We do not have to like all the parts of ourselves, but we do need to be in touch with them and to know what they are up to. Furthermore, it is possible to reclaim and transmute the energy that is tied up in these shadowy figures thus making it more available for fueling the journey.
The shadow is not only composed of unwelcome personality aspects, it may be anything that was not acceptable to others, even positive characteristics if they threatened the parents or teachers. One example that most of us will find familiar is the loss of our creativity. This usually occurs in schools where a teacher requires that children's art work take a form recognizable to her/him. Or a child may be "put down" for a novel or creative idea or form of behavior that the teacher may feel is disruptive. Certainly requiring that eveyone learn in lockstep and regurgitate dry facts on tests is not conducive to the development and flowering of creativity. So we suppress it and it joins the shadow. Notice that the shadow may not be completely repressed, perhaps not even primarily so. For the most part, we know about our unrequited selves. And usually we feel ashamed of the shadow, so we are careful to not let it escape in public. We may, however, vent our negative emotions on our families, a solution that often leads to disastrous results.
Exercise: The Shadow
Find a copy of Romancing the Shadow by Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf and/or Facing the Shadow in Men and Women, a tape by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman. The book is preferable because it is an in-depth approach to reclaiming the energies in the shadow. And it makes useful suggestions about how to deal with it. As you read or listen to these resources, taken note of your emotional reactions to them. You may get in touch with some grief. If so, allow it. Mourning is an essential part of recovery from abuse.
You might want to highlight your book, then return to it when finished to reread the highlights for a summary review. In any case, make notes about the parts you need to remember in order to work on yourself. Writing main points down helps to fix them in your memory. If you need to forgive yourself, you might want to create a ritual to do so. Rituals are important tools in letting go.
This is an extreme form of the shadow. Humankind has never really come to a satisfying explanation for the presence of evil in the world. Nor does it help to try to deny it in the face of two World Wars, the Holocaust, Satanism and domestic violence. People do evil things, and we need to understand why. It seems to me, from my humble vantage point, that evil is usually the result of blockage in the system. We are all creatures of Light. It is our given nature. However, if our growing years are warped by severely traumatic experiences, we may lose the ability to express the Light directly in our lives and so turn to evil behaviors.
Human being have tremendous energetic power from the Light and from their life energies. Blocking those energies is like damming a mighty river. The force that builds up behind the dam is unimaginable. Most of us find acceptable ways of using our life energies, so we do not immediately feel this. However, in moments of intense rage, we may have experienced a sample of the potential. Imagine, then, a lifetime of repression of these energies with no acceptable outlet for them. They become twisted and ugly, and eventually they express themselves against society and other people. If this happens to parents, they will very likely batter their children. If there are no family members, the rage may be turned against society or even the world. In For Your Own Good (Miller, 1990), we had a sample of how this problem expressed itself in the life of Hitler. Now we must look at evil in everyday life.
1. Read chapter 10 in Emergence of the Divine Child.
2. Read Scott Peck's book People of the Lie. Before you begin, prepare yourself to deal with the psychological impact of what Peck says. This is a very difficult book to read because of the pain it will engender in you. However, we need to know these things, so we can strive against them. The best way to proceed would be to read a section of the book, taking notes in your journal. Then practice the "Meditation on Loving Kindness" in A Path with Heart, (Kornfield, 1993, p. 20) in your meditation center. For the purpose of cleansing the impact of knowledge of evil, I recommend using this little phrase as a mantra, repeating it over and over until you feel comfortable again. You may want to send loving kindness to the victims of evil that you have been reading about, and also to the perpetrators. It is a fact that you can send beneficial energies to others even at a distance. So this is a good time to test that out.
An alternative is the practice of Tong len which you have also already encountered. Of course, if you want to, you may do both.
When you finish the book, put together a list of the suggestions Peck makes for dealing with the problem. Then a bit of self-examination is in order. What, if anything, in yourself feels evil? What do you need to do about it? If you have or need a plan of action, put it in your journal and revisit it periodically to see if you are making progress.
The Yogic Attitude Toward Ego
Ego is an obstacle to the discovery of who we really are and, consequently, to progress along the spiritual path. Why is this so, you may well ask, since it is such an important part of our personality equipment? The reason is that we are not now talking about the psychological personality, but about that part of self that says, "I am." As long as we feel ourselves to be separate from others, we are not yet enlightened. It is not even enough to know it in our minds. We must experience it, not just in a momentary insight, but all the time in order for it to qualify as enlightenment. Therefore, as long as my consciousness is centered in the ego and focused on what I am doing or thinking or perceiving, there is a veil between me and the experience of who I really am.
You are the Divine One. Get a piece of paper and write down all your immediate reactions to that statement. If the first one is somewhat flip, keep going until you run out of ideas. Do this before you read any further. Then consult the last paragraph in this unit for an explanation.
Your ego is necessary to the journey. It is one of those paradoxes that you have to work very hard to recover as much ego strength as possible, then be asked to give it all up in order to progress on the spiritual path. At first this seems like a paradox or contradiction. In fact, it is not. It takes a strong ego to stay with the challenges the journey presents. It might be more accurate to talk about will... or Will, the spiritual Will to return Home.
So let us examine some of the ways ego can get in the way of enlightenment.
Separation. We have seen in previous units that separation is the major issue in Return to Spirit. And we also saw that ego is the prime culprit in maintaining this separation. It is more accurate to say the illusion of separation which is called maya. In this light, we could go back and examine all of the defense mechanisms and ask ourselves how each of them is in the service of maintaining the illusion of separateness. For it is a fact, is it not, that if we are really not separate, if we are all One and hence immortal, there is nothing to be afraid of and thus no need for defenses? On the intellectual level, we might all be able to agree with this. However, we still feel afraid. That is due to ego's limited sphere of knowledge and influence. It recognizes that its power is limited and perhaps also that it is truly out of control and never can be in control of the existential things that really matter. This knowledge activates a very basic need for survival and may lead to a considerable amount of stress. It is encouraging, perhaps, to know that progress on the path leads eventually to the certain knowledge of our safety in the universe, and that can allay ego's fears. However, the path leads first through the abyss and we cannot circumvent it.
Desires stem from the ego. As we have seen, there is a distinction between needs that must be met and desires which have to do with wants, likes and dislikes. Imagination inflames desire through fantasy and daydreaming, so that our whole attention can get riveted on gratification. Ego gets into the act when it tries to supply the gratification. This suggests that one very profitable practice might be to try to discriminate between wants and needs, and then to tutor ego to distinguish between fantasy and reality, so it can refuse to act on behalf of the imagination.
Track your wants, desires, likes and dislikes for a week. Take a few minutes several times a day and jot down what you can remember about the things you have wanted. They need not necessarily be "things." They can be happenings, people, recognition, approval, attention, etc. Anything that is wanted or not wanted. Once you have a goodly list, take a look at it to see if there are any themes. Are your wants more often things or reactions from people? Does status figure in? Power? Money? Success? Love? Food? Have you any clues about what triggers a seizure of wanting? Does it occur at one particular time of day? If so, what is the significance of that? How is your ego reacting to this exercise? If you are resisting or feeling negative about it, why is ego feeling threatened?
Fatigue. One of ego's defenses that was not mentioned before is fatigue, sleepiness and/or confusion. This may emerge when you are resisting something because unremitting resistance is fatiguing. Daydreaming, fantasizing, confusion, distraction, and avoidance along with fatigue are all forms of escape from what is going on in the present. If you are meditating, you may already be familiar with all of these forms because they may also emerge when you are bored. It is important, before you begin to chastise yourself, to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons for fatigue, and not all tiredness is due to ego's defensiveness. So other sources need to be ruled out first, taking care not to rationalize.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has fairly recently been identified as a genuine illness. I do not know too much about it, but think some mention of it ought to appear in this context. At least a part of its etiology must be due to exhaustion as defined by a breakdown in the body's defense system due to excessive and unrelenting stress. Selye (1956) was the first to identify and outline the stages of breakdown in the body due to stress. If you want to read about exhaustion in a holistic approach to stress prevention, consult Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer by Kenneth Pelletier (1977). Also any of you who might be struggling with the disorder yourselves might want to look up "My Healing Journey Through Chronic Fatigue" by D. Patrick Miller (1992).
If I may digress a moment, what was just said about an ego-generated sense of fatigue as a form of resistance points up a problem with self- correction and self-investigation, and why we need a teacher. It is extremely difficult to be objective about ourselves, and thus it may not always be clear exactly what is going on internally. Is this a defense or is it justified? Is this my ego wanting attention, or do I really need it? If you find yourself going around in circles like this and getting more and more confused, you need to talk to someone about it who can be somewhat more objective. It might be a good time to start a group to work on some of these issues together. (See Guidelines for Group Processing) One of the things you might do with a friend or in a group is work with Eugene Gendlin's Focusing techniques (Gendlin, 1988). These exercises help you become aware of felt changes in the body and to access the body's wisdom. They are very helpful if you feel like you need to be grounded or to get another perspective on your issues if you have been intellectualizing too much.
Pride is a big issue for many of us. We are taught, especially in the middle class and especially if we are males, to not show our feelings, to be courageous, to be self-contained and in control. Pride supports these edicts. It may manifest as self-justification, arrogance, self-reference, judgmentalness, pompousness, pretentiousness, pedanticism and snobbery, to name a few. In all cases, the subliminal message is that we are better than others. However, more often than not, excessive pride masks a basic sense of unworthiness or low self-esteem. It cuts us off from others because one of its basic activities is distancing.
But, you may protest, isn't pride in one's accomplishments a good thing? Well, no. Humility is an asset on the path. If we want to learn, we must make room for new information. However, if we are always focused on how much we already know, the humbleness needed to learn is, therefore, missing. Yogis remind us that we are not the doers. It is the Divine One acting through us who is the true instigator of all activity, or should be. And It cannot do so if we are blocking the way with our own ego agendas. This is one of the main reasons why ego is seen as an obstacle. The Higher Power, however we may conceptualize it, cannot invade our space. That is what free will is all about. It needs our permission to manifest through us, and that permission cannot be extended when we are caught up in trying to bring our ego's agendas to fruition.
This brings up the problem of control again. If ego is in control, the Divine One cannot be. We have a choice of which entity to give our power to. If someone else runs our lives, the same thing is true. So first we need to empower ourselves by granting ego its true domain; and then we are asked to surrender our egos to the Higher Power. Surrender and renunciation go hand in hand, and both are essential to enlightenment. We surrender to the Divine One, not to anyone else nor to anyone else's ego unless it is symbolic of surrender to the Divine One, and we are very clear about that. In that case, we do it deliberately and are always ready to retract it if the person betrays our trust. And we renounce gratification of our desires and the rewards of our efforts in order to discipline the ego and teach it how to play its legitimate role. This is necessary to break old habits because we are so used to serving our self-will and to trying to get our own way.
Recently there was a program on television in which several representatives of various religions and philosophies were discussing the Biblical story of Abraham who was called to sacrifice his son Isaac. It soon became apparent that the story is symbolic of the sacrifice of self-will and/or ego, perhaps even the soul since Isaac was Abraham's beloved son. At the last minute God allowed Abraham to substitute an animal instead of Isaac. We could think of that as sacrificing the ram of pride.
Exercise: Ego Obstacles
1. Read chapter 9 in Return to Shiva.
2. Read "Jnana Yagna" in Return to Shiva. What is meant to be sacrificed in "Jnana Yagna?
Sit for meditation until you are relaxed and have distanced yourself from the daily round of activities. Then consider how you might sacrifice your illusion of separation and selfness. Think of a ritual you could create to do this. Refer to the five archetypal elements in true sacrifice on pages 10-11 of Return to Shiva. For the oblation create something that symbolizes your ego self and/or personality. Then set up your altar and carry out the ritual. If you have friends who are spiritually compatible, you might want to invite them to participate with you.
Buddhist Ideas About Ego
"The whole approach of Buddhism is to develop transcendental common sense, seeing things as they are, without magnifying what is or dreaming about what we would like to be." - Chogyam Trungpa (1976, pp. 4-5)
Remember that it is Buddhism that advises us to question everything and to trust our own experience. This is not a religion, but a spiritual discipline that is compatible with all religions. In fact, Buddhist and Christian leaders meet frequently to compare notes and to build bridges from one discipline to the other. The Buddha searched everywhere for enlightenment without finding it. Finally he sat down under the bodhi tree and said he would remain there until he was enlightened. When it happened, he began to teach others how to find the experience for themselves. Meditation is at the heart of Buddhist practice. So get ready to sit.
Ego Development in Buddhism
You will remember from Book II, Unit 4, the skandhas are the basis of ego development. They are form, feeling, perception, intellect and consciousness. Please review this section of Unit 4 to remind yourself of the stages of separation that occur in development of ego.
The Four Marks of Existence
Buddhists see our inability to experience unity as a cultural illness or neurosis. With respect to this, there are Four Marks of Existence. The first is egolessness. This means that ego is an idea that does not have an independent existence. Our sense of a solid, continuous identity is an illusion. The second is groundlessness or emptiness. There really is no place to put our weight down, no point of reference, no stable, steady place to root ourselves in. The third is impermanence. Nothing is permanent. Everything is continually changing just as the thoughts that create our reality are changing. The fourth is suffering. The causes of suffering are the dualism of thought, wanting or desire, and the efforts of ego to protect the separate self.
Exercises: The Four Marks of Existence
1. Read Part I in The Myth of Freedom. When you feel like you understand these ideas, make a collage of them. Cut pictures from magazines and catalogs and paste them on a large sheet of paper in whatever arrangement suits you. Post it on your wall somewhere where you can see it on a daily basis and see what happens.
2. Read verses 21 and 29 in Tao Te Ching. Notice the similarities between Taoist and Buddhist thought. Do you think you can adapt to the thought of egolessness, groundlessness, impermanence and suffering? What do you have the most difficulty with? Can you stay with your disbeliefs with a tolerance for ambiguity for a while in order to learn more?
3. Read chapter 4 in A Path with Heart and do the exercises at the end of the chapter. You may want to tape record his instructions with pauses at appropriate places, so you can lie down and relax with a guided imagery.
Make some notes for yourself about what you like about the Buddhist approach to life.
The Four Noble Truths
The four Noble Truths are:
The meaning of suffering, in this context, comes from the word duhkha which means suffering, dissatisfaction or pain. We are continually dissatisfied because of the mind's constant wandering and lack of control. There is a continuous preoccupation with a feeling that something is lacking, not quite right in our lives. And there is a grasping quality to these feelings that will not let us alone.
The origin of suffering is the ego's constant effort to maintain and enhance ourselves. This struggle is the origin of suffering. When we realize this, we then begin to look for an understanding of how the ego develops and operates. Buddhists say that it is not the ego that is the cause of suffering, but its attempts to improve ourselves through struggle that is at fault.
Cessation of suffering comes when we give up the effort to change ourselves and sink into the sane, awakened Self that lies behind the ego, mind and personality. We must cease the struggle in order to stop the suffering. Therefore, non-striving is the truth of the goal. However, that is not so easy and we must commit ourselves to practice "letting go," accepting discipline and walking the spiritual path.
The spiritual path is meditation. This is neither trance nor concentration but simply sinking into the here and now allowing space and maintaining bare awareness. I see this as simply sitting quietly and still in my dignity, doing nothing, thinking nothing - just being there. . . now. This takes commitment and patience because we are so used to something happening all the time. We feel something is wrong if nothing is happening. You may run the gamut of all the ego escapes and defenses we have mentioned. And you will be treated to the full spectrum of your aimless mental activity. But, if you persist, the mind will eventually quiet down and allow you to enter the spacious awareness that is no-mind, sunyata or samadhi..
Exercise: Four Noble Truths
1. Read verse 41 in Tao Te Ching.
2. Select one aspect of your own suffering and trace it through the Four Noble Truths. See if you can identify the dissatisfaction expressed by it and the ego's struggle to dispose of it. Then see if you can, with the help of meditation, stop trying to fix it. What happens when you accept it the way it is? Part of the letting go process is to change the way you think about the problem. Does it help to change your assumptions or preconceived ideas about how the situation should be? One way of looking at this is to allow the assumption that things are going on as they should be and are right just as they are. What would happen to your problem if you took this position?
Meditation can help if you just sit with the issue. Let it move around and resolve itself without any manipulation from you. You can look at Part III in The Myth of Freedom and chapters 2 and 3 in A Path with Heart for help with problems that come up in meditation.
Working with Ego
It takes patience to change old, well-established habits which are what ego's attachments are basically. So we go in with compassion and begin to reeducate its outlook on life. We gradually teach it new ways of dealing with others and the world. As ego tries new strategies and finds that they work, it will gradually become more amenable. As we would with a child, we use understanding and knowledge to elicit its cooperation. On the other hand, if a frontal attack is used, ego will probably just dig in and entrench itself with formidable resistance.
We can also tune into the archetypes for assistance. Many people have found that once they have opened enough, they can make a connection with an internal guide or angel who can help them deal with ego. But, you may say, isn't the "I" that is dealing with ego part of ego? It can become so when ego is finally blended into the Higher Self or surrendered to the Higher Self. But in the beginning, spiritual direction comes from the Higher Self. One way to find out which entity is speaking, is to try to locate its voice in your body. If it is in the heart chakra, it is your Higher Self. If it is in the solar plexus, it is the ego.
Kabir (1995) says:
There are a number of different ways to work with ego based on the various approaches we have been examining. All of them involve some form of surrender of control by ego. It is because ego has created the problems by distancing us from our innate knowledge of how things are that we must get it to let go of all its unrealistic formulations in order to come into the pure Light.
"This is enough. I am leaving my self." - Rumi
This process works directly with ignorance. It involves remembering who we are and that we are part of the Divine One. One step at a time, we call up our various and sundry identifications and deny them. Assagioli (1965) created a disidentification exercise that goes something like this:
Notice how this exercise parallels the skandhas in Buddhism. If you can find a copy of this book, you might want to read all Assagioli says about disidentification and practice the exercise in its totality. Or you might want to select one of these lines that is relevant to one of your issues and practice it as a mantra.
1. Read Part III in Myth of Freedom. Here Trungpa is indicating some issues that come up in meditation that are due to ego. He offers some ways of dealing with them. So, during the next week or so, when you are sitting for meditation, keep these ideas in mind and see if they work.
2. Read chapter 14 in A Path with Heart. Kornfield is dealing with the difference between the false self and/or ego and the Buddha-nature or true Self. Find a partner and do the Who am I? meditation. If you do not know anyone you feel like you can ask, sit in front of a mirror to do the exercise. When you have finished make notes in your journal about what happened, then share with your partner. Make the notes first, so you can retain as much as possible in its uninterrupted form. Then see if you can make a statement about who you really are.
Humility is probably the most difficult hurdle on the spiritual path because we have been taught all our lives that we must take care of ourselves first. The ego has appropriated that idea to mean "Me first." It is important to make a distinction between taking good care of ourselves in an adult manner: establishing boundaries, earning a living, taking care of our needs, etc.; and activities that are rooted in self-centeredness. Humility does not mean to distract from legitimate functions of ego. What it means is to curtail all self-gratification and self-inflationary tendencies. It also means admitting that I do not know everything which enables me to become teachable. It means limiting my self-image to one that allows me space in the world, but not more than my share.
Humility is not humiliation. Thinking that it is the same thing or allowing someone to humiliate you for the sake of teaching you humility is an error in perception that is shared by many would-be mystics throughout history. It is not necessary to punish oneself to become humble. It is a matter of the correct frame of mind, one of opening to new knowledge and release of all self-enhancing scenarios. It is the best antidote to pride in all of its forms.
1. Read chapter 9 in Return to Shiva. Give some thought to the idea, "I am not the doer." That runs counter to all our socialization, so it may take a while to process it. However, if I am not the doer, if Spirit or the Divine One is manifesting through me, then I cannot take credit for my successes - or my failures. Humility.
2. Read verses 11, 28 and 39 in Tao Te Ching. Savor each one by reading it several times and reflecting on what it means. After you have meditated on each one, make some notes in your journal about the main ideas and how they apply to your life. Do you have some new hunches about how to work with your ego?
3. Think about something that you regard as an important ego block in yourself. Write a short paragraph about it, so you have a good idea of what it is all about. Then create a ritual to confess it and ask for absolution. If you wish and your religious tradition provides for it, you may use a conventional confession and absolution. However, if you do so, keep in mind that you are working with ego and not with sin in the conventional sense of doing something wrong.
As an aside, it might help to think of sin as anything that separates us from God. This idea comes from James A. Pike (1955), an Episcopalian Bishop and Dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral during his lifetime, who said, "Sin is separation. It involves separation from God, from one's fellow man, and from one's own true self" (p. 72). That would translate into all of ego's activities that are separative. This idea may help you integrate what you are learning here with the Christian and Judaic traditions.
We may think of renunciation in connection with giving up something for Lent. However, it is vastly more complex and important than that. True renunciation means giving up any interest in outcomes. Because karma is a chain of events such that a cause -> effect which itself becomes another cause -> effect, etc., if we cut off the cycle at the effect level by taking no interest in how something turns out, we interrupt the entire karmic series.
Similarly, in renunciation, we are working directly with attachment. We give up wanting satisfaction of desires and so cut them off at the root. You may test this out with one of your familiar addictions. Work with the desire directly, try to see what it reflects in your personality. Then gradually withdraw the energy from it. If you make a frontal attack, the ego will redouble its forces. So you must be subtle. Substitute nuts for candy until the physical sugar addiction relaxes. Drink caffeine-free coke. Use exercise to deal with lust. You get the idea. Think about the outcomes and how they are related to the addiction. Is the addiction really positive?
1. Read verses 26, 35 and 44 in Tao Te Ching. Assess your level of contentment. What is the connection between contentment and renunciation?
2. Read chapter 17 in Return to Shiva. How does this kind of enjoyment differ from ego-gratification? What is the author's formula for Self-regeneration?
3. Make a list of your desires, being careful not to confuse them with authentic needs. Then study them to see what they do for you? Make notes on what you discover. Can you identify their sources? If so, write them down. Then select one of your desires you would like to discipline and design a plan for giving it up. Be careful to take into consideration all the information you have about it, so you can undermine it subtly.
In the last analysis, letting go is what is required to work with ego. We must gently disentangle all its tentacles that have found their way into all aspects of our lives. Ego is like a baby monkey grasping its mother's fur in a life-or-death grip. It hangs on as if life itself depended upon it, as it might very well may have, originally. However, that is no longer true. Now we are adults and capable of using that same ego to make our way in the world without being self-centered and selfish. So we need to examine all those many ways in which we get into "I," "Me," and "Mine." Someone once said, "Ego is a mine field." We can move the focus of our attention away from our selfish, petty agendas and out into the world and onto other people.
One way of helping the ego to surrender is to make a commitment to do selfless service. That is giving to others without any expectation of reward. This kind of service is modeled in every Ashram or spiritual center that is worth its salt. Residents, especially new ones, offer to do the "grunt work" as a service to others. This is usually kitchen duties, housekeeping, weeding the garden, cleaning bathrooms, etc. That it is not initially seen as intrinsically interesting or rewarding work adds to its selflessness. It is fascinating to see that what happens is that the very same work ultimately becomes a source of light and joy and peace for those engaged in it. However, if one does it with that outcome in mind, it is no longer selfless. You comprehend? It is the intention that counts.
If you add to this practice allowing someone else to structure your day and assign you the work, you also have a practice of letting go of control. For example, mothers of babies and young children must give service for the survival of the children. What makes it selfless is the spirit in which it is done. If it is done not just for the love of the child or the satisfaction of helping but because it needs to be done, then you are there. Such things as being friendly when you are awakened in the middle of the night to comfort a fretting baby is an example. You do it joyfully and happily with an attitude of devotion. All selfless service is done that way.
Read verses 10 and 22 in Tao Te Ching.
This may sound like a curious concept. But it seems that, in the midst of our stream of consciousness, our discursive thinking, there occasionally comes a gap in which nothing is happening. This is an exquisite moment when all things are possible. The mind has temporarily stopped even if just for a few seconds. In this moment, we can catch a glimpse of how things really are. We can lay down the burdens of defense and expectations. We can just Be in all our pristine dignity.
Buddhists use this gap as an opportunity to touch others in an authentic way. In a one-to-one situation, the gap allows us to feel with and into the other's space to share their experience. When we can do this, we can then offer a real response that reflects our accurate understanding of their situation instead of promoting our own agendas. We truly listen and hear, look and see, touch and feel. It is light, non-demanding, compassionate and skillful.
We may first experience the gap in meditation when suddenly we discover we are not thinking, but we are still wide awake and pulsing with life. Then we take notice of it and the mind careens off once again. But each time it happens, we learn how to prolong the moment by just barely noticing it rather like we would deal with a shy dog belonging to a friend. Buddhists call this method "touch and go." Very, very lightly and delicately. . .
Try this for yourself.
Some of the things that will be helpful as we go through these ego adjustments are self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-respect and self-love. If you are working seriously with these guidebooks, you are engaged in self-knowledge because you are examining all aspects of your life and thought. Self-esteem and self-respect grow out of self-love. However self-love can be very difficult to achieve if we have been socialized into an inferior position in life regardless of whether our perception of our position is accurate or not. If we perceive ourselves to be inferior, the ego reacts to that perception whether it is true or not.
Self-love grows out of compassion for oneself and forgiveness of those who have caused us injury. Such forgiveness depends upon thorough understanding of those who injured us and why they were compelled to do so. It also depends upon release of all negative emotions and aggressions from our unconscious and conscious minds.
Read verses 33 and 72 in Tao Te Ching. Reflect upon the gentleness inherent in these passages from a tradition that is so different yet so similar to Buddhism.
"You are the Divine One"
Any negative reactions you had to the statement, "You are the Divine One" in the exercise referring you to this paragraph are due to ego and social conditioning. If you had such a response, there is also very likely to be a strong belief connected with your reaction especially since, in our culture, such a statement is considered to be blasphemy. An opposite reaction of great pleasure or happiness may also be due to ego which can be in danger of gross inflation if the statement is not understood properly. "You are the Divine One" means that you, and everyone else, are part of the whole of existence and superconsciousness which is personified in the Divine One. Ego has trouble with that concept because it is beyond intellectual comprehension which is all ego has to work with. A true understanding of the statement depends upon personal experience which, in turn, rests upon considerable spiritual practice. Nevertheless, it can be experienced.
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We have seen in Unit V. Ego, Power and Control, Suffering how the ego's agenda of forcing and defending a sense of separate I-ness can account for most of the suffering in the world. Most of the methods of dealing with this problem involve letting go of control, i.e., surrender to a Higher Power. In Unit VI. Emotional Upheaval we will see how emotions emanate from ego and how they can be managed by training the mind.
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