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.

Distortions, Blind Spots and Practice

It is the task of our brain to make models. For humans, and some other mammals, this likely evolved because of complex social interactions.

Or brains/bodies also have emotional states that serve a purpose (to alert us that things are amiss). I few are emotionally uncomfortable we might think: wow, things are amiss. How did that happen? Can I fix this?

An unfortunate tendency is to be attached to these models and try and fit the world to our models and then think that is what the world is, how reality is, Truth with a capital T.

We create models out of our experiences to organize them, to have something we can grasp. It gives us the illusion of being able to know what is up, to predict what will happen, because that make us feel safe, in a world isn’t safe for embodied beings. Bodies are things that get hurt and don’t last.

But if the model is wrong, maybe we’re not as safe as we thought we were, and that kind of sucks.

All models are made with limited data and are subject to our hopes and fears. Some models are pretty good, they work most of the time, but all models are in some way wrong.

These models, our projections of our needs, fears, hopes and desires, gets very subtle, layer upon layer. At some point we forget they are models. We mistake them for Truth. We are conditioned. It’s the foundation of delusion, and it results in distorted views that cause pain and suffering.

These are part of us, our nature as embodied complex apes on a specific planet at a specific time and place, contingent, not of essence (or in the jargon, karma). I am not suggesting we try to ignore them or get away from them. Running and hiding is another delusion, another trick of the ego.

I have heard it said that the intellect is a good servant but poor master. So it is with ego, with our perspective. You can’t escape having a perspective when you are using perceptions and thinking thoughts. That’s what the words perceptions and perspective mean! But that doesn’t mean they are anything more than a temporary expedient to help you organize your reactions, your energy, to the energies you interact with.

Look straight at the O below with your left eye. Go back and forth slowly. If you are careful you will find a distance where the X disappears. Or if you don’t see well with your left eye, or seem to be right eye dominant, look at the X with your right eye and the O disappears. (To people middle aged and older: it may be hard with some progressive/bifocals!)

 

 

X                                                                                   O

 

 

 

It is your blind spot. You have one in each eye. Every human does. It’s where the optic nerve leaves your eye to go to the brain. There’s no light receptors (photoreceptors), no rods or cones, there to see anything.

Everywhere you look that blind spot is there, but your brain fills it in and projects a complete scene “out there” based on what it thinks it should see. You don’t have to think about it. It isn’t an intellectual choice. It evolved as a practical solution so we aren’t bothered by missing parts of our vision. But it’s a trick, a gimmick. That’s also ego, and it works. A fine servant.

But some blind spots are a bit more hurtful than this, deeper and more impactful on our lives, yet we also don’t even know that they are there, that we still fill them in with our stories. We are upset when the world doesn’t cooperate by not sharing our blind spots or by sneaking up on us in our blind spots!

Early Mahayana/Zen sutras discuss perception and projection and consciousness, in particular in the Lankavatara sutra, probably written about 2,000 years ago. It was the main text of early Chinese Chan (Zen) masters as long as 1,500 years ago, who were sometimes called the masters of the Lanka in the early Tang Dynasty.

Meditation and practice is geared toward getting a more and more subtle look at the models you project, the ways you deflect reality because it threatens your self image as an individual being that is safe and abiding in a world of blind spots, contingency, disappointed expectations, entropy, sickness, birth and death.

Suffering, in the Buddhist jargon.

I wrote years ago the difference between how I see the world and other scientists who are committed materialists see the world is  whether consciousness is primary.

 

I have a proposition that brings me to meditation practice: Brain processes do not create consciousness. Consciousness at its core is not this model making, projecting, and responding to friction between our models, our projections, and Truth. It’s not the words in our brain. Rather, consciousness is manifest through all of this. It is the water taking the color and shape of the container.

Yes that is dualistic, but it is only a metaphor, not meant to be literal. It expresses what can’t be expressed in limited words since words are based on our scale as four dimensional contingent beings, the scale that perceptions and emotions and intellect exist at.

We chant something at the Zen Center: reading words you should grasp the great reality. Don’t make war on your tools. That’s just more ego, another story.

In Zen there is a mistrust of having goals as they tend to be just more distortions, unreal expectations, distractions. Yet in Zen we do speak of aspirations. This is my aspiration, something I consider a valid quest worthy of my time and attention:

Is there a foundational consciousness, not limited by the idiosyncratic perceptions generated by our particular set of sense organs and brains? Can we experience this directly? Is there some way of being that is not contingent on our programming and conditioning?

Does Truth make us free, and is this indeed safe and abiding?

Does it walk us out of suffering?

This is my practice.

And I am very grateful for it.

 

 

Entropy, Ego, What’s the Point?

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Rather than launch into a technical description of entropy and the relationship of energy and entropy lets try this first.

More entropy means more disorganization and more ignorance. Low signal to noise. Less information. Like static preventing the faithful transmission of data. Think of loud static on a radio when you are trying to listen to music on your car radio.

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If I tell you I mixed up the numbers one through ten and put them in a bag, then I picked out two, say a 3 and a 7, all you know about the next one I will pick is that it is not a 3 or 7. So they are mixed up, disorganized, and we have a bit of ignorance about some aspect of that system. Relatively high entropy. If I throw in some letters or blanks into the bag along with the numbers, i.e. static, you are even less able to predict the next thing to come out of the bag!

Now I tell you I ordered the numbers from ten down to one. There are no blanks or letters. I picked out a ten. Next picked will be… nine! Very good. You had little to no ignorance. But I had to put extra energy into ordering the numbers compared to throwing them in the bag. I had to have some way to assure they stayed in order as well. Low entropy, but it took more energy.

Meditation can be seen as aiming for high energy, low entropy. But I am not sure that’s quite true for zazen. You’d have to ask a Zen teacher. Certainly “mindfulness” is like that.

A circle is low entropy. You know everything about it and it took energy to create it (minimally mental energy, in addition perhaps energy to move the pencil or program and run the computer).

Symmetry is not ignorance. True, by definition symmetry is present when you can’t tell something has changed, like someone else spinning a circle while your eyes are closed, so that seems like ignorance. But to do that experiment, you need to know that the experiment was planned and then do it! That’s a lot of knowing, organization and energy!

Information is low entropy. It takes energy to put 0’s and 1’s in some order and that is one aspect of what information is. Ordered dualism.

Meaning is how we interpret and experience information. It is our perspective on it. It is contingent to the max. It is easily colored by our wishes and desires, by our egos.

I just read that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who unified the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces (along with others, of course; anyway major physics achievement) wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

That seems very nihilistic and depressing. Perhaps that’s how he meant it. If so, somehow he had dealt with it because some four decades after writing that he is still writing books!

On the contrary, that seems very Zen to me. And liberating. It relieves us of arbitrary values and goals. The kind the ego sets up to measure ourselves by, so we can achieve them and reassure ourselves. Except when we don’t.

What ultimate, objective, cosmic, universal, non-dualistic “point” could there be? Any point we could articulate would be a human construct, limited and contingent, a dualistic notion of use in only a very small corner of time and space.

Matthieu Ricard writes in his book “Altruism” that the ego is the crystallization of our identity. He writes that we try to protect it. That’s pretty good, but I am not sure that it is quite right. There is no single anatomic brain space that houses the ego. I think the ego is the process by which we protect our identity. The identity is our sense of who we are based on our conditioning (biologic and psychological, contingent on where and when we are). It is how we organize our sense perceptions and react to them. It is our karma, if you will. It is how we try to make the world comprehensible, to find a point. The ego is the process of having and wanting there to be a point. A point is like a location, a beacon, a polar star that the ego can refer to on the horizon to measure itself and its position by so it can better protect us as we cruise through the world of time and space, the world of the six senses.

So as the universe becomes comprehensible, what we comprehend may not be to our ego’s liking. It may not put our bodies (brains included) at the top of the heap. It may remind us that our limited sensory experience is a pretty pale reflection of the vastness of the universe. Of course comprehensible in this context means the forces of nature. The things physics studies. That which can be measured. It does not mean the whole shebang.

To be clear: I am not suggesting a lack of values. I hope you value compassion. I hope you don’t value your suffering and especially not the suffering of others. I am only suggesting not being seduced into thinking that is the “point.”

Or is it? We can chose to embody compassion, we can aspire to the low entropy high energy state. Is that the “point” of our lives, our minds, the dream, the whole show? Some think so. I admit to liking that view. But maybe that’s the point! It is a goal to like, admirable to be sure, but do I like it because it makes me feel better about myself? Is that my ego protecting me?

No “point”? Perhaps that’s kind of like “ordinary mind is the way.” Or the miracle is chopping wood and carrying water. You don’t need a “point” writ large to the universe to eat when hungry, or to be compassionate. That is the functioning of the universe. What needs to be added? What would be the point?

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