Ego is not an anatomical structure. It’s not something that you will see on an X-ray. Ego is an informational structure. That’s what the term ego actually means: it is a Latinized translation of “das Ich,” which is German for “the I.” “The I” is “the information” that you have about you.
The ego-based view of the self is as unstable as a table on three legs. There are three issues with ego we need to examine, and they all start with the letter I. “The I” (ego) balances on identification with impermanent information. Let’s take a closer look.
Ego is Information
Ego is a collection of self-descriptions, just a bunch of words written down on the mirror of your consciousness. Let’s say I point at the moon with my index finger. Is my finger the moon that I am pointing at? Of course not. Now ponder this: are you the information that you have about you or are you that which this information is about? Are you a self-description or that which you are describing?
Ego is Identification (with the External)
Identification is a process of pointing at something external, at something outside of you, and equating yourself with that. We’ve already touched on that earlier in the chapter. Identifying yourself with what you are not is absurd. Identifying yourself with something that you are not is like pointing one finger at yourself and the other finger at something else and then claiming that you are pointing at the same thing. The idea that you = this or that you = that is like shooting two arrows in two opposite directions and claiming that they are going to hit the same target.
Ego is Impermanence (of Form)
Self-esteem, self-worth, self-view are various ego forms, various forms of information that we have about ourselves. Ego is information about our form, not about our essence. Forms change. “How” you are at any given point isn’t fixed—it’s in constant flux. When we identify with how we are, we are identifying with the fleeting, with the impermanent, with the transient. States of mind, …
People talk about seeing the glass as half full (optimism) or half empty (pessimism). What about seeing glass as is (realism)?
Is the glass half full or half empty? Neither. The glass just is. It has nothing to do with ether the quality or quantity of what is “inside” it. The contents of the glass are not inside it: from the perspective of the glass itself “its” contents are outside it and therefore are not its own, not of the glass, the “contents” of the glass have nothing to do with glass. The glass is always just what it is.
Same goes for a mind that knows itself: we are not our informational contents, we are not what passes through us. We are not our optimism. We are not our pessimism. We are not what we think, feel, sense. Neti, neti – not this, not that.
related: Lotus Effect: Shedding Suffering
(I know it’s a strange word. Is that even a word? It is right now. After all, language is at our service.)
If you weren’t easily wounded, you wouldn’t be sensitive. Stones don’t feel which is why they don’t cry. I am glad you are not a stone. I am glad you feel. I am glad you feel intensely. Why? Because there is a lot to feel. And to feel intensely is to live intensely. I hope you too are glad that you are sensitive. But I doubt you are. Many see sensitivity as a bad thing. Rollo May didn’t when he said: “Anxiety is the shadow of intelligence.” He might have as well said: “Sensitivity is the shadow intelligence.” Stones don’t feel. They are dumb. I am glad you aren’t.
And yet, you might object, wound-ability is a vulnerability, a liability. It is, indeed, if you don’t know how to heal. But if you know how to heal, sensitivity stops being a problem. It used to take me a long time to heal (from ego wounds). Then I got better about it. By the time I figured out the “lotus effect” way of shedding informational suffering, I’d heal just as fast as I’d get wounded. Wound-ability stopped being a problem but the intelligence that comes with it remained.
This is important: psychological sovereignty isn’t invulnerability, it’s heal-ability (ability to heal fast in a self-sustaining manner), to shed dirt like the self-cleaning lotus does. Point is: psychological sovereignty isn’t about high fences and rigid boundaries to avoid damage and trespassing, but about reasonably permeable boundaries and effective self-repair.
Heal-ability? Yes, another strange word. Make language serve you instead of being at its service. Heal yourself with it.
Point is: mind wastes itself, leaving absolutely nothing of permanence to hold onto.
The real conservation question is: what remains?
Look into this cosmic mystery that you are.
more: Lotus Effect
You are not a thing, you are a process.
You are not a fixed entity, you are change itself.
You both are and aren’t.
A (pattern-interrupting) thought to ponder:
So, instead of asking yourself “Who am I?” try: “Who are we?”
The above (“Who are we?”) is a big picture question. Here’s how you could also apply this thought experiment on a narrower, more psychological scale.
You know how there are times when you wonder: “Why am I so inconsistent? Why am now this way and at another time that way?” These kinds of inconsistencies are hard to reconcile when we think of ourselves as an “I,” as a neural singularity. But as soon as you switch from an “I” to a “We,” the paradox of our inconsistency falls away. We are metazoan, multi-cellular organisms. Brain is not an organ but an organization, a neural community of billions of neurons, organized into firing patterns. Each firing pattern is an “I” of sorts and they clash and compete and come in conflict and, now and then, work in amazing unison (union). When you switch from an I-based view of your mind to a We-based view of your mind, your apparent inconsistencies will suddenly make sense. You’ll have moments of realization: “Hmm, this is an old part of me, an old neural firing pattern, that got programmed long time ago and it was just triggered… And, yes, a different neural “I,” a different part of my neural community, a different neural aspect of my Neural We just kicked it… So, no, I am not crazy, I am not irrational or inconsistent, just multi-faceted, varied, nuanced, complex – it’s just that one of my many minds (one of my many “I-s”) has shifted and the view has changed.”
My position that each of us is not a unified “I” but a variable Neural We is akin to Robert Ornstein’s …
You ought to realize, you take up very little space in the world as a whole – your Body, that is. In Reason, however, you yield to no one, not even to the gods, because Reason is not measured in size but sense. So why not care for that side of you, where you and the gods are equals?
Epictetus, a Greek sage, a Stoic, was born a slave but never was one – not to form, not to tradition, not to dogma, not to culture. He was – what I call – a psychologically self-made man. There are people that are (financially) broke but are not (psychologically) broken. There are people that are (financially) self-made but are (psychologically) impoverished. When Epictetus says: your Body takes very little space but your Reason (Consciousness, Spirit) is, essentially, of the diameter of Oneness, he is punking your Form and complimenting your Essence. It’s a Stoic kind of ego boost – the kind that belittles the irrelevant and hints at the immeasurable.
“So, why not care for that side of you, where you and the gods are equals?” – to my taste, this line is a great Christmas message. Heck, a great message for any day.
Related: Lotus Effect (Somov, 2010)
Pattern Break #108-a
Initial statement: the problem with empathy training for robots is not software but hardware. Mirror-neuron circuitry is hardware-based empathy that requires no programming.
Refined statement: the problem with empathy training for robots (and sociopaths) is not software (culture) but hardware. Mirror-neuron circuitry (of biological or technological kind) is hardware-based empathy that requires no programming/culture/modeling.
Pattern Break #108-b
All software eventually hardens; all hardware eventually softens.
Pattern Break #108-c
A mind on an autopilot is a robot lost in a mirror. Mindfulness (and humanity) begins with self-reflection: ask yourself “Who is this who is asking ‘Who is this?’” Break a pattern.
Shopping, like traffic, is a hotbed of fleeting social moments. It’s a time for snap judgments and social comparisons (“Can you believe what he or she is wearing?!”). Immunizing your mind against such trivial ego-challenges is too part of anger management. Invite your client to tap into this well of random social judgments to risk disapproval. Or, if you yourself are feeling a little thin-skinned, explore shopping as a disapproval-inoculation activity.
Do you usually dress up (or put on makeup) to go shopping? What do you think it would be like for you to dress down (or go shopping without makeup)?
Do you ever use coupons? No? What do you think it would be like for you to try, just to cause someone behind you in the checkout aisle a fleeting inconvenience and thus run the risk of that person’s disapproval?
How awkward do you think it would be for you to insist on a price check?
Ponder these questions with your clients (and ponder these questions for your own purposes).
In short, invite the client to explore the activity of shopping for ego threats and encourage him or her to consciously inoculate himself or herself against these judgments, which are insignificant in the overall scheme of the things.
Rethink anger and rethink anger management!
I am giving away a few copies of Anger Management Jumpstart to non-clinicians. While I wrote this book primarily for clinicians, I believe the book is also useful as a self-help resource. If you are interested in reviewing this book on Amazon as a self-help resource for anger management, contact me for a free copy.
Adapted from Anger Management Jumpstart: a 4-session Mindfulness Path to Change and Compassion (P. Somov, 2013, PESI Publications & Media)
Interpreting poetry is a dirty business. Understanding why it affected you is not so bad. Here’s another verse that woke me up the other day.
Korean Zen preceptor Naong (1320-1376):
With the true emptiness of nonaction,
I nap on a stone pillow among rocks.
Do you ask me what is my power?
A single tattered robe through life.
What is about these four lines? What did I see in this? A couple of thoughts:
1. We are restless creatures. We keep optimizing. We keep trying to get comfortable. But here, a fellow mind naps on a stone pillow among rocks. How is this possible? How can you be comfortable amidst such discomfort? By realizing that “with the true emptiness of nonaction” discomfort passes on its own. By realizing that there is neither the sleeper nor the stone pillow to sleep on. By realizing that all solidity is a dream.
2. We seek power. We aggrandize ourselves. We accrue. But here’s a fellow mind pursuing a different path, living a life in which “a single tattered robe” is enough. There is a different kind of power in this: a power of letting go, a power of non-attachment.
ref: Anthology of Korean Literature, by Peter H. Lee