The Apple Tree

I have written extensively about one of the dilemmas of being human. This dilemma is a charade played out by the ego. The ego would have us believe that we are separate from our fellows and special. Let us see how the ego misleads us.


The ego is a by-product of our consciousness – in some ways it might be said to be an aberration. Evolutionary psychologists postulate that consciousness developed initially as an aid to our physical survival – and then it lost the plot!


If consciousness occurred to enhance our physical survival capacity, in the modern world when we are faced with few physical threats this function of consciousness became largely redundant. The mind then transferred the attention of consciousness from physical survival to psychic survival. More and more it became devoted to the defence of the concept of “self”. We then became preoccupied with developing ego defence strategies. Our minds became obsessed with how we are perceived by others, the pursuit of material possessions (in excess of our survival requirements), and a myriad of strategies about maintaining an image of ourselves in the world in the way we want to be perceived. Indeed this process has taken us to such extremes that the preservation of a sense of self has become more important than physical survival for many, as instanced by the high rate of suicide. This is another example of the genetic development of humans that had survival benefits in hunter-gatherer societies that have adverse consequences in modern societies.


Guy Claxton, Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester, in his book Noises from the Darkroom had this to say:


“Originally associated with a marvellous mechanism for spotting and responding to basic emergencies, (consciousness) has become, through an interlocking series of evolutionary accidents and coincidences, primarily a mechanism for constructing dubious stories whose purpose is to defend a superfluous and inaccurate sense of self. The most powerful device in evolutionary history once found itself kicking its heels because life had become easy. Now it finds itself embroiled in a deadly serious game that it cannot win, because the problems it tries to solve are products of its very own misapprehension.”


So here then, we have the conscious mind diverted to a defence mechanism dedicated to shoring up a sense of self. The mechanism that had been primed as hunter-gatherers to be aware of a physical attack, is now fixated on defending the ego. And as Claxton intimated, this is a defence which is doomed to failure.


So the theatre of the mind of modern Man is preoccupied with such thoughts as, “How do I look?” “What will people think of me?” “I am afraid of making a mistake.” And so on.


The development and growth of the ego is dependant on a number of assumed criteria. The ego, understanding its identity is dependant on these characteristics, stoutly defends their existence. These characteristics are:

  • Separateness,
  • Autonomy, and
  • Persistence.


As a result, in order to shore up its defenses ego would have us believe:


  1. We are unique and special – that our welfare is enhanced by winning the competitions against other competing egos.
  2. We are the product of our own will. We are “self-made” men and women and those marvellous attributes in our selves that we so admire have been entirely of our doing. (Conversely we often attribute our failures to the malignant influences of others!)
  3. We rail against our mortality seeking to stave off at any price the concept that we are ephemeral beings that have but a transient life with little impact on the universe. We seek to deny any concept of death and as a result shy away from the dead and the dying because it makes us only too aware of our own mortality.


But most of the problems of ego can be sheeted home to its insistence of our uniqueness and specialness – and this is the principal theme of this essay. Ego would have us believe that in our specialness we are somehow separate and more worthy than our fellow humans.


Danah Zohar and Dr Ian Marshall, in Spiritual Intelligence quoted Joseph Campbell on this issue of unity.


“(Joseph Campbell) refers to the German Philosopher Schopenhauer, who says that in … crises a kind of metaphysical truth can break through – the truth that you and the other are one, that there is no separateness, that you and the “stranger” are two aspects of one life. Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.”


“The hero,” says Campbell, “is the one who has given his physical life to some order of realization of that truth.”


The identification of “I” with mind and body has led to a philosophy of selfishness. As Dr David Webb wrote in a paper titled, The Natural Environment as a Source of Spiritual Inspiration, “…(it) has led to a world driven by an egocentric greed borne of a heightened importance placed on the self. And yet somewhat ironically, we barely understand who we are. Unless we can answer the question, ‘who am I?’ how can we place so much importance on this “I”, this “I” that leads us to desire, to possess, to own, to accumulate even more wealth as if our very existence depended on it?” (If you want to explore this further open up my blog essay titled “I and Me” published on 28/4/2012.)


As the good Dr Phil and I have elaborated in other writings we have essentially two ways we can view the world.


Firstly we can choose to view the world as inimical to us. If I choose to view the world this way, I do not identify with others in the world but tend to see them as objects. As objects I deny their humanity and seek to exploit them or view them as competitors or threats. In such a world I believe my standing is determined by my status and power, which I must defend at the expense of others. The welfare of others must be sacrificed to enhance or preserve my welfare. A belief in separateness from others resulting also stems from my fear that they will benefit at my expense.


On the other hand I can choose to view the world as a place where I and other humans can progress and enhance our collective humanity. In such a world I do not see a separation between myself and other humans. In our book Humanity at Work we argued it is only at the level of the Watcher (often called “The Witness in Eastern Traditions) that this realisation comes. The mind sees only the body and in this egotistic relationship looks to highlight the individual’s uniqueness. It is the Watcher that gives us the capacity to understand we are more than our minds and more than our bodies and that far from separateness, a true realisation of our humanity makes our unity obvious. This is the essence of love. As I have written, Love is the Dissolution of Separateness.


Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now wrote, “Ego is the unobserved mind that runs your life when you are not present as the witnessing consciousness, the watcher. The ego perceives itself as a separate fragment in a hostile universe, with no real inner connection to any other being, surrounded by other egos which it either sees as a potential threat or which it will attempt to use for its own ends. The basic ego patterns are designed to combat its own deep seated fear …..”


We need to be able to put aside the ego and embrace our commonality rather than highlight our uniqueness if we are to be reconciled with our humanity and live lives of contentment and love.

I have recently read a marvellous book. This book was recommended to me by the good Dr Phil. The book was called Silence is the Answer: To all the Noise of Doubt by Robert E Draper.

One of the lovely features of this book is that it quoted that the Greek sage Epictetus. Epictetus had a parable that went to the heart of the issue elaborated on above. He used the metaphor of an apple tree to explain how some realise their commonality, yet others emphasise their separateness. All the apples are the fruit of one tree. When they are ripe they fall to the ground. To those that fall near the trunk their common source is obvious. But some fall to the ground far from the trunk and may even roll further away. Such fruit are not aware of their commonality and are convinced of their separateness and want to assert their specialness. But they are misguided and don’t understand that they are at one with the others because of this accident of fate.


Which category do you belong to?

5 Replies to “The Apple Tree”

  1. “Once Were Warriors” says this too……

    And Ted, surely there are more than 2 categories? But then again you and Sid were purported to have often said that there are two sorts of people in the world – those that believe there are two sorts of people in the world and those that don’t…..

    No offence Ted but Epictetus was a Stoic and not very popular at all – the opposing school of Epicurus taught that happines was achieved by mixing with friends and drinking and eating and satisfying the physical desires, and indeed pain and suffering was the natural result of denying all these natural drives – Epicurus was heaps more popular as you might imagine, even today. Our stoic friend predicatably was banished….. as I believe.

    But a very good blog Ted, excellent stuff..

  2. Hi Ted,

    Reflecting on my own experience I remember feeling very special as a young man, even to the point of feeling I had some greater purpose!

    My recent experience with depression was much more revealing. There’s nothing like a “real kicking” to the ego to put one in watcher mode. I’ve spent the last four years tearing down the old building and generally not finding a lot worth keeping.

    Over the last 2 decades I think I’ve made some progress in learning new skills and seeing the world through a prism of love rather than fear. Nevertheless in review it’s obvious how seamlessly the ego can turn even these activities into a competition.

    I feel myself getting better now but from a very low point. The baggage of ego and the impact that it has had on my life seems heavy indeed. It refuses to be shrugged off and demands to be chipped at, blasted, sanded, peeled, burned …..

    Hopefully the end result will be a shiny little apple.


  3. One other aspect of the ego that I have become acutely aware of recently is the desire for the adoration or acceptance of others. To be very famous is seen by most of society as very desirable. The Movie Star or Rock Star is a modern day God. Magazines exist because of them. People flock to the airport to see them. I believe we have all at some stage fantasised about achieving such fame, I know I have. My question is why do we seek fame? When I logically think about the life of a “Star” they typically have no home, do not see their children grow up, have multiple broken relationships and often seem to live very lonely lives in the midst of masses of adoring fans. We tend to ignore this though or accept it as adequate compensation for the adoration of the fans. Is this still defence of the ego? Are we trying to protect the physical self by being surrounded by adoring others? What ever evolutionary spin off this is, it is certainly not beneficial behaviour in the modern world. Life expectancies of the rich and famous are not all that flash and even worse for the many more seeking fame yet never make it. It was recently put to me that the desire here is to not be forgotten. It is as if while your movies or music live and people still talk about you, you will not be dead. Being forgotten is apparently the worst thing of all. I am told it is the quest for immortality that is the attraction of fame. I am not sure. What ever it is, it is powerful. People gamble everything for it and often regret it. It was a 70’s semi successful Rockhampton singer song writer, Kevin Johnson who says it best I think in his song “Rock and Roll I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life”. I suspect the song came from the heart.

  4. And of course you are right Jack and I would never argue with you about history or the classics. Maybe I am being defensive (ego getting the way again) but I am not sure I intimated that Epictetus was popular and I was certainly aware he was a Stoic! But thank you for your kind endorsement Jack!

    Bruno I found your comment very moving.In the decade or more I have now known you you have seemed very amenable to listening to other points of view. Ego normally shows more evidence of defensiveness. Even the best of us have to deal with the residual effects of ego and I don’t believe that the persona that you display reflects any particularly exaggerated sense of ego.

    I would be the last person to set myself up as an exemplar. Let me share with you a little story about myself. After I finished at Stanwell I went to a farewell function. My ex-chair, whom I greatly admire, said in his farewell speech something to the effect that what he admired about me was my lack of ego. I was flattered by this kind remark. And then afterwards I thought if I felt good about this praise then I must surely, in some way, be ego dependent! And I guess in many ways I still am.

    And of course Greg, in your comment you have elicited a great truth about the ego – its desire for persistence (read immortality).

    I believe I have shared this with you before, but this aberrant human desire was well-expressed in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias>

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. They are much appreciated.

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