Speaking personally, the ‘ego’ and everything to do with it was a real turn-off for me previous to this Summer. There was something about the concept about the way it was bandied around by Buddhists that made my mind curdle. “What are they really talking about?”, “Surely, this is just more self-mortification – another form of self-hatred, this endless ‘ego-bashing’?” My training as a psychotherapist had emphasised the importance of a strong ego as a mark of development and spoke of personality-disorders as being a manifestation of weak or disordered egos.
But it’s starting to dawn on me that all these – very logical, very water-tight and very convincing – justifications for a strong ego might be so much smoke. The magisterial (though rather glazed-looking) Adam Phillips gave a great talk (or rather read a great paper) for the LRB recently where he seemed to argue that our minds are really just too strict. He was talking about the super-ego (that Freudian concept of the bossy, authoritarian, parental ego) and how it it was far too good at prohibiting. Most people, he hinted, if you were given access to their mind, would seem to hate themselves and the content of their existence.
Peeping into my mind, or having a clear mirror pointed at your own, you might be shocked to discover how much air-time is filled with negative denigration, control, manipulations and denials: overall a rather relentless and dreary world of security procedures and clamp-down.
That ‘peep’ or mirror is what meditation offers, of course, and it’s why meditation is such a potent tool in undermining and seeing-through the mean-spiritedness of the ego. (It’s also why, of course, that our egos resist meditation in oh-so-many slippery and invidious ways.)
Reggie gives a really good talk in one of his recent podcasts about the particularly edge that meditation of this kind (let’s call it ego-busting) has over other mind-expanding pursuits like Ayahuasca, LSD or jogging. You might be able see the whole Universe in cosmic play but if the “I” that sees it is still closed shut like an angry clam then the visions are for naught. Dharma practice has, perhaps, the unique selling point of exploding not only the Universe but also the limited eye/I of the beholder. Freeing the perceptions are only one step to freedom – we also need to free the limited perceiver.
You may well be glazing over at this point, as I used to, at the whole notion of a perceiver. There’s a sort of meditative weariness that came over me when the truth – and I knew it was a truth – of “self”-awareness came into the field. But I’ve started to notice that ‘glazing over’ or ‘zoning out’ is one of the ways we know that we’re getting close to the heart of things…
Because this is one of Mara’s best party-pieces. To twist up and deform the perception of the world through unnecessary and brutal filtering – and then to play the innocent and disappear from the crime-scene. It’s a little like the terrible dynamics of abuse. Some adult abuses a child and then tells them that they’re imagining it or threatens that something really terrible will happen if they tell anyone. Similarly, the ego abuses our experience of the world and then denies it or shuts us down (with boredom or glazing over) if we come too near to the truth. (This is, should you be interested, the work of the 5th Skandha, consciousness).
So how does one communicate the damage that ego does to a mind that is ruled over by the imperious ego like a oppressive police state?
The answer is: guerilla-style.
You cannot beat the ego head on with a big stick. It will always find ways to win. Instead we have to enter through the underground, creep along the sewers of the city, sneak in at night and post graffiti on the walls of ego. Teachers who can act like subversives seem to have the best chance of helping here. Chögyam Trungpa was by all lights a subversive teacher (alcoholic, slept with his students, appointed a moral disaster as his heir) but taught brilliant dharma and disrupted the ego at every turn. However, I feel that it is one of his students, Reggie Ray, (my teacher) who gives the best guerrilla pointers for undermining the ego from within. In this case, from the body.
“The self cannot be present at its own funeral”, says Trungpa, but it’s Reggie who points out that it is the body, ironically, that doesn’t die when the ego dies. We don’t need an ego to go on breathing, walking, speaking, communicating, enjoying. Remember the ego is not the brain. It’s not the natural intelligence of the human being, it’s a bad-tempered knot in the neural fibre which clamps down on that physical expressivity. When we gradually, bit by bit, move the centre of our governing intelligence from the abusive bully of the ‘ego’ (essentially a messed-up function of the thinking mind) then all sorts of experiences open up. Often meditators who are following this somatic path talk about a sense of expansiveness, relaxation, their day is peppered with flashes from their childhood, sense-memories from their teenage. The treasure-trove of the body, so long locked-up by the misery old grump of the ego, starts to spill out into our experience. We remember what being human feels like.
And I have felt that one of the errors that teachers (including myself) fall into when tackling this subject is to focus too much on ‘ego-bashing’ (that is seeing-through the delusional quality of the ego) and neglect the joy that is released when the ego relaxes. It’s a win-win. The effort required to run a police state is recouped and the natural aptitudes and energies of the native population – (your senses, sexuality, physical exuberance) – are liberated. And this is the very essence of the Buddhist path. There’s a lot of examination of the mechanism of ‘dukkha’ (suffering) but only so that we can let them go and experience sukkha (which is its opposite: great bliss). Rather than obsessively mourning or mauling the ego, we are really being urged to clear the stage of funerary urns and let the Body have the festivity that it is longing to enjoy.