Ego and Interconnectedness

One in everything, everything in one. Tee shirt from Nara temple.

 

I haven’t been fond of the term “ego,” as popularly used, from way back. Always seemed what someone spat that out when they were justifying their own behavior, which was almost invariably self-serving, and meant to stop the conversation. Ego was bad. End of story. I called it on you first, and with more aggressive belief I am right, so I win.

I have come around a bit. Not about using it in that way, as a word to bludgeon others into seeing things one’s way. Ego is useful to consider as a process of reifying ourselves as a solid entity that can be protected and preserved. Not very Buddhist, and often quite uncompassionate and even frankly toxic.

Well, it is easy to see ego write large in our president, isn’t it? Self interest uber alles. No lie, no harm to truth, justice and the American way, that isn’t on the table if it furthers his personal agenda.

In Buddhism we have the 3 poisons, anger, greed and ignorance (usually taken to be ignorance writ large, about the nature of Truth, not say, lacking knowledge of calculus. Of course, ignorance of things you need to know to function compassionately could be included, see my previous post/rant).

These poisons usually arise because you are trying to protect yourself, your projected image of who you are, in order to “feel” that the stories you tell yourself are true. Because the alternative is that you have to face impermanence and death, or at least the fact that you aren’t all you hoped you would be, life isn’t what you want and expected. You lose control, the bottom can fall out (is that all bad? Well, it can be scary to our propped-up model of who we are that we carry in our heads, our egos).

Nyogen Roshi suggested reading books Anthony De Mello this last Summer. There are two in particular, with Awareness and Awakening in the titles. A clue to where he is at. Like Zen, like all mindfulness and spiritual practice, wake up, pay attention, see what is there past your conditioning. Your ego, a term he favors, so I reassessed for myself.

De Mello was born in India, a Catholic, became a therapist and Jesuit, got kicked out of the church for his teachings. He taught that religion as practiced is usually at best a waste of time, a diversion (I paraphrase). He believed most of his patients as a psychologist didn’t really want to get better. I am agnostic about the latter point, as I never did such a practice, but he has a point. I certainly see myself skirt issues and the hard work of facing my bullshit from time to time.

And I have found his advice very helpful in my practice, that is, in my daily life. If you are disappointed, hurt and angry, fearful, jealous or whining, ask how your ego is involved. What is your conditioning? What are you protecting? What are you afraid of? What is your anger and hurt masking?

Sure, people will do you wrong. How do you experience it? After all, De Mello points out, are you surprised if you are hurt by people? Didn’t you know what assholes we all are much of the time?  Did you think it was only you and your parents? If people are very toxic and you can’t handle them, then disengage, he suggests. Move on. Don’t get dragged into their delusions any more than you have to or than is helpful. Don’t let them gaslight you, condition you.

Okay, some people do criminal or very deeply egregious things, and you may need help dealing with that. Your emotions and intellect can be guides, that’s why they evolved, just understand that they will outlive their usefulness fairly quickly, but that doesn’t mean they won’t hang around.

But Post-traumatic stress is real, and there are treatments. If it is that bad, and meditation and practice and chanting or yoga or relaxation exercises or talking to friends, whatever positive activities that you normally do when things go south, isn’t enough, get help. Cognitive therapy, ketamine, neurolinguistic programming (is that still a thing? I knew a therapist who swore by it being effective for PTSD), whatever you need. I am not expert on that, so I am just throwing out things I have heard might help. Get help if you need it. Right away.

Some people are dangerous and if you are unlucky enough to be victimized you may need help from the authorities. They will likely hurt others, so it is compassionate to stop them. Maybe you will be doing them a favor, as in the gangbangers I meet who are trying to live without crime and deal with their anger, their horrible past history of being victims of abuse that led them to where they are, in constructive ways.

I would add, again referring to my last post, if it is a matter of protecting others, you are one victim among many, or it barely touches you but touches others painfully, as in social, political or environmental big picture issues, disengage from taking it personally, see how much of your attitude is your ego, but engage on a principled level of defending others, especially those who may not be able to defend themselves.

(oh, and by the way, if you are fortunate have money, be generous and help those who are doing the hard, frontline work. If nothing else motivates you, it is a good selfish investment. Let it prop up your ego, heck, I don’t care. Maybe you deserve it. I won’t be Zen purist for you. Just, do the right thing.).

Anyway, as I wrote above, I have found De Mello’s advice very helpful. If I am brooding, hurt, angry, what is the issue? Not only the facts of the matter as I see them. Certainly, I may have to point out what is up, that someone was careless or had an agenda that was serving their ego and I was collateral damage, but what about my attitude? Is it just self-image protection? Is my “ego” bruised? My comfortable lifestyle threatened? To the degree that is the case, my efforts will often make matters worse, my life will suck just a bit more, if I don’t recognize that and let it “self-liberate.” And that has been useful, it can work, at least for the usual daily personal life slings and arrows.

I mean, it won’t help pass the deepest koan, but it helps me get through somewhat tough personal barriers. And in fact, that is not separate, I suspect, from the deepest koan. Not only because almost all separations are imagined or flimsy, as it is all One, interconnected, but also it seems it would be hard to see into the heart of the matter, life and death and Being, touch Mind directly, to see the true nature of Oneness and “interbeing” ( as Thich Nat Han likes to say) if you are in your head, licking your ego wounds. Heck, it is hard to even really pay attention to what is in front of you, to wake up on any level, if you are so distracted. Again, I’m not an expert, just my suspicion.

Now, regarding science, I may put up some suggested readings later, but for now since I just  brought up the interconnectedness and last post implied it by talking about ecology, let me suggest a popular science book that came out several years ago that I just got around to reading (yay retirement): “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong. Fantastic book. It is deep biology, story after story of interconnectedness. It makes no promise to reveal deep mysteries of Cosmic Truth, but it kind of does, as all honest things do, if you follow the threads and read between the lines. It is about the microbiome, sure, a current and recent buzzword, our internal (well, counting skin, also external) body’s ecology, and there are other books and articles about the microbiome and human health. But this goes into much more than that. It isn’t just human centric, and I love that. We are so full of ourselves, even though we are looking to be such a failed evolutionary experiment! Anyway, you needn’t have any science background to read it even though it blew my mind and I know a lot about biology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s