Ok so you’re born, you don’t really remember that, which is odd. It’s a pretty big deal in your life and you don’t remember it. Anyways, you don’t quite know nothing at this point but its close, only a few instinctual circuits like ‘SNAKE! AAARGH!’. But as you grow and test the world around you, you learn. You assimilate knowledge which is generated from theory and experimentation. This knowledge is valuable, without it you could not survive let alone thrive. This process of learning is one of our greatest tools, integral to our continued life here. But then something interesting starts to happen, you start to get better at theory crafting. Using your developed knowledge you build better and better theories, emboldened by the fact that most of these turn out to be correct or at least close enough. The theories that you get wrong can even be explained away by your rational mind as exceptions that don’t disprove the rule or perhaps even as the malevolence of others Soon you have theories which are so right that you don’t even need to test them. Theories which have deep roots inside your psyche, perhaps they are not even articulated knowledge but a more primal emotional embodied knowledge. These theories become imbedded in your identity and help to form what is know as the Ego. Congratulations you now have an Ego. May God help you.
This term has been defined in many ways and is an elusive concept, partly because we cant bear to have it attacked in any way (I mean we might get offended right), and partly because its incredibly difficult to define something, which is of ourselves, and which we cannot easily see or experience. So what is it exactly, what does our collective knowledge say about this phenomenon called the Ego?
I am not a psychologist, so this is an opinion which I’ve built up from reading and observation (theory and testing in other words). I view the Ego as a process of continuation. Continuation at all costs, whatever needs to be sacrificed or achieved for the Ego to continue is justified by the continuation thereof. This is a massively powerful force. So lets unpack this process and define it as clearly as possible.
The Ego, in my mind, has the following characteristics which are worth understanding:
- It is part of but separate to the self (The Ego is not ‘me’ per say)
- It can be conscious (often when ‘I’ am not)
- It is concerned only with continuation of itself
- It can fool me into believing that It is me
- It is not ethically bound
- It is of and for itself
- It is necessary for our survival and for us to achieve
- It can be observed and moderated
Ego and Self
Carl Jung was one of the most influential thinkers of the last century and he defined the Ego as a process born of the self and only as a component of the self, or as he put it a complex. A complex is essentially a sub-personality operating around one principal or idea. Hunger, desire, anger and our goals and dreams are all nodes around which these various complexes operate. Often these complexes are hidden from us and direct our behaviour in ways we are unaware of.
As I have experienced it, the Ego is essentially the main complex or a collection of the strongest complexes at work in our psyche. I don’t believe that the Ego is the base conscious experience but rather a process at work within us, it is however a very powerful process and can in a sense hijack the conscious experience.
The Ego as the Conscious Experience
When our Ego is in control, we are essentially tricked into believing that we are the thoughts and emotions which manifest themselves inside our conscious experience. We experience this as an all consuming emotion or thought, blind rage for example is a complex operating around anger, we experience this as if we are the rage, rather than the emotion being present in the space that we experience everything. We often use the term ‘lost in thought’ when a thought captures us and we cannot see outside it, it repeats and shapes our reality weather we want it to or not. As our emotions and thoughts rise up out of our unconscious, our Egoic process consumes them and uses these complexes as fuel to keep its fire burning. To continue its existence.
The Ego Must Continue
The Ego is concerned with one thing only, its continued existence. This is its purpose, to analyse the recourses available and do whatever it takes to survive. In other words it gathers thoughts and emotions which rise up from within us, organises them and creates actions to ensure its continuation. So if we are angry, or sad, the Ego can use that to continue. It tricks us into believing that we are that anger or that sadness and that we cannot be without it, to let it go would cause a fundamental shift in our Ego, it would involve our Ego loosing control of the conscious experience. This drive for continuation is not concerned with wellbeing, happiness or any definition of good or bad, it is only concerned with continuation from moment to moment.
The Unethical Ego
When the Ego is in control, bearing in mind that its sole purpose is to continue, it can act in a purely selfish way. Only actions which will continue its existence are considered, if this appears to be an ethical action when observed from outside, it is only because the Ego takes into account all the variable outcomes, including social pressures like humiliation and possible reprimand from the community. At base it is not concerned with the wellbeing of others, only its continuation. If it can execute an action which is harmful to another and not be diminished or reduced by the outcome, it will do so. This is evident in the most extreme cases of Egotistic behaviour, Narcissism. The Narcissistic complex will at any given opportunity seek to create a level difference between two Egos. It does this by generating contempt for the other Ego or Egos. This is a particularly useful tactic for the Ego, what better way to justify this ‘right’ to continuation than to be different and better than all other Egos (people). The Ego is a machine of survival, physical and psychological survival, not of ethical behaviour.
The Ego and Time
The Ego is a process which occurs in the present. Although it takes into consideration our past memories, experiences and our imagined future, it only does so to the extent that it can create a continuation of itself. When it is threatened or under pressure to survive, it’s focus can be laser accurate, taking only that which will create an immediate continuation into account. This extreme reaction can be detrimental to our future selves. Eckhart Tolle described this best when he referred to the Pain Body, a body of knowledge and experience which the Ego holds onto and makes us identify with. The more we continue to identify with this pain body, the easier it is for the Ego to create this illusion of continuation. The same can be true of ‘future memories’ which are created by our imagination to guide us to the future that we want. Getting a promotion or achieving some goal or other is an example of a future memory and, even if it is no longer possible, the Ego can hold onto this future memory to create continuation. The Ego is the process that stabilizes our psyche through time, it says ‘I’ve been to the past and seen the future and this is how it all fits together with the present’. When the present moment doesn’t line up with the ‘fully complete’ picture that the Ego has created,it threatens the Ego, then it says ‘if I’m wrong about this moment, then…’. The more threatened the Ego becomes the more likely it is that it will continue to use thoughts, emotions and memories which are detrimental to us to create that all important continuation, moment to moment.
Despite this dark side of our Ego’s which is prevalent and even sometimes encouraged in our society, it is a necessary force. It is what has allowed us as individuals, and therefore as a species, to survive. When our adrenaline spikes and our blood vessels dilate, readying us for either fight or flight, it is our Ego which rises to the challenge. It is our Ego which says ‘I got this, stand aside and let me create continuity’. This can be brought on by a physical threat or a threat to our identity, a challenge to our body or a challenge to our beliefs. Both of these are vital to our survival and the Ego is instrumental in protecting them. When our Egos get too damaged say by a rock or a kind of Damascus experience which fundamentally alters our beliefs, it can cause pathological problems. The Ego can ‘fuck out’ as it were, if we are conscious of it doing so we are left naked and exposed to the raw chaos of the existence, if we are not, then we are doomed to experience the frantic, terrifying death of a part of the Ego which we would be currently perceiving as our self. Having had this occur to me, I attest that it is one of the most mortally terrifying things one can experience. When your Ego says ‘I was wrong, this changes everything’ and then fragments into bits and pieces, re-amalgamating with the chaos from whence it came.
The Ego and balance
So we need the Ego but we also cant allow it to have full and unopposed reign. We need to know what its doing so that we can moderate its behavior, either is too ‘on’ or its too ‘off’ (or maybe it’s just broken). How then do we achieve this balance? If you’ve been reading this Blog, then my answer shouldn’t surprise you: Pay Attention. There is a field of consciousness in which all of our experiences manifest, this conscious experience is the base of the self and it is possible for us to rest as that space and observe the things that we experience in such a way that we do not necessarily identify with them. There is a way to be consciously aware of when our Ego is operating and which complex or collection of complexes it is using to create the illusion of continuity. We can stand back, as it were, and observe the truth about reality, we can experience without judgment those things which are occurring inside our consciousness. In general (although I’m weary of generalizing) in our society we are for the most part unaware of when our Ego is active and what it is doing. I might even go one step further and say that we are mostly unaware of what our minds are doing, our attention is for sale and we pass it freely to the agents who will sell it, often to our detriment. It is the rare individual who has sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to continuously rest as that conscious experience and only allow the Ego out when absolutely needed. Most of us, myself included, are dominated by the Ego and it is a rare occasion for us to be able to stand outside it and observe what it is doing. Often when we do, we see that it is acting in a way that doesn’t actually serve our best interests in the current situation or the future.
Meditation is the practice we use train train our minds to stand back form this process and observe it. If we can observe it, we can at least start to control it. Then we can seek the balance which is necessary to create a life more focused on well-being instead of the blind conquest for continuation of Ego. I’m far from an expert, but as I see it, the base of the meditative practice is to pay close attention to the mind, either through use of a kind of mental tether (like a mantra or the breath) or through experienced and practiced will. The idea being that you could potentially become aware of a thought (and not identify with or judge that thought) the exact moment that it spontaneously generates in your mind. Although we aren’t sure where these thoughts actually arise from, I think its linked to this concept of the future you, which is in my mind a process of the Ego. The more we practice this technique of actively watching our minds (and the world around us) and differentiate our consciousness from the things appearing inside our conscious field, the more ‘automatic’ this separation of perspective becomes. This has been one of the most earth-shattering discoveries of my life, to discover that you don’t need to be the thoughts in your head and you don’t need to be the reaction you feel to some truly horrid external stimulus like getting hit by a rock or someone offending you (heaven forbid). You can actually stand back and look at it nonjudgmentally, then you can start to craft a truly constructive future, a future of order and not the chaos of pure instinct. And if you can’t craft the future, at least you can craft the now, you can decide to just be, fully attentive to the current moment, immortal in the now. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
In Rocklands, during the few months prior the accident, I had resolved to take up meditation. I used an app called The Waking Up App by Sam Harris ( https://wakingup.com/ ), which I highly recommend. Although I had never meditated with any conviction previously, I was struck by how quickly and how profoundly I took it it. I created a daily meditation habit almost immediately. This brief spell of practice allowed me to observe my Ego when it fucked out, when it crumbled and went off spinning into the void, fragmenting and dying with the realization of what was happening to me. When the chaos became too dense and the me that was was overcome, when my consciousness was left bare for existence to have its way with, my conscious mind found this habit and to the best of its ability amidst the pain and terror, it crafted what it could of the current moment. The raw conscious experience which I had come to experience through meditation was all I had left to hold onto, and almost autonomously I did that. buffered by this ability to find a meditative state, without the obligation to identify with the frantic terror of the ego and without the necessity of dealing with the overwhelming chaos, I was able to calm, able to focus on staying lucid and conscious. Purely conscious with no past, no future and no judgement. Although I wasn’t able to hold this state consistently whilst lying broken on the mountain side, the ability to al least tap into it for brief periods was enough.
For me Meditation has been a profound discovery, it has allowed me to see the world in a way which I never thought possible. If somebody as flawed and imperfect as I am can find the discipline to create a habit of Meditation, then surely others must be able to do the same. Consider this a challenge, not just to create a habit of meditation but a challenge to shake loose the bonds of your Ego, to challenge your Ego by observing it and starting to recognise what it is and what it does. If we all do this, if we all develop the habit of paying attention, of being mindful, I postulate that we will no longer need to strive to make the world a better place, it will happen automatically. Download the Waking Up App or another app if you please, learn to meditate, learn to pay attention, to what’s really going on, to the truth: THE FUTURE OF OUR SOCIETY DEPENDS ON IT!
You have been challenged. Watson out.