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:
- Autonomy, and
As a result, in order to shore up its defenses ego would have us believe:
- We are unique and special – that our welfare is enhanced by winning the competitions against other competing egos.
- 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!)
- 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?