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The Ego is Just a Phase

[This is a second excerpt from the recent ‘Tender Heart’ Scarborough Retreat held in March 2019. The first is here. This is a transcript from day 3 looking at the ego phase we all need to grow through… Alistair has just been talking about how when things feel ‘too much’ in meditation we lurch towards lots and lots of thinking.]

Habitually, our thinking mind – the habitual tendencies that we have, we can call it the ego phase, – comes from when we were children when everything was too much.

Because we are essentially born a couple of years premature – two years before we can even walk or feed ourselves, – experience is too much for us. Being hungry. Being cold, being wet. Having colic. Our caregiver leaving. We don’t have any means at that point to know that our caregivers are coming back. Our bodies are not developed enough to find our own food. So for our little infant self-experience is too much. It’s totally overwhelming for the psyche of a little infant.

This is why those first 18 months are so critical. Because essentially the caregiver – male or female – is acting as the higher self of the child. When the child is inconsolable then the caregiver is comforting. When the child is wild with joy then the caregiver is mirroring that. When the child has hurt itself then the caregiver is healing or nourishing with food.

The ghost that thinks everything is ‘too much’

And although some of us had not so great caregivers, the fact that we were sitting in this room meant that we had ‘good enough’ caregivers. But that sense, that shadow, that ghost of ‘everything is too much’ is still present in us. It’s not like that infant part of us just vanishes. We kind of manage. But there is still that ghost in us that thinks everything is too much and that we can’t manage.

In order to manage – when we get beyond two or three, through childhood, toddlerhood, teenage and young adulthood – we come up with strategies for managing that ‘too muchness’. And those strategies are very successful when they work because they keep us alive. And those strategies are 1) to ignore, to dissociate the ‘too-much-ness’ (“this is not happening”) or 2) to desperately cling onto the things that are feeding us or nourishing us or warming us. Or 3) desperately push away the things that trigger us or upset us or threaten us. And this is a very primitive but very successful way of being. It keeps us alive.

We need to mature again, go to the third stage

But we’re not very simple organisms. We’re very sophisticated organisms and we have been for many millions of years. We live in groups. We have higher consciousness. We think. We create. So we don’t want to be merely biological mechanisms that just survive. We want to thrive and flourish.

So in some senses, we need to mature again. To go to a third stage. Where we let go of those primitive ego mechanisms and we grow and mature into another way of being. And that way of being is founded on a sense of self-confidence. Confidence that our embodied self is enough. That in each moment we have everything that we need. We don’t need an Other to supplement our bodies. Our bodies are enough.

And in fact, our bodies are not only enough for us but they’re enough for the people around us. And they’re ultimately enough for the whole world. So it’s a process of maturation to let go of the ego and to move into a non-egoic, more embodied, more loving, more trusting, more confident state of being.

The tragedy of losing 95% of our humanity

For some fortunate people, this just happens automatically. They have kids, they assume responsibility and they just mature into that state. But for most of us, we don’t. We stay stuck in this immature ego strategy. Sometimes for the whole of our lives. And we die in that state.

And this is really tragic. Tragic on all sorts of levels. Tragic because that ego strategy is very, very costly in psychic energy. It’s very limited. It’s very isolating. And it involves cutting out 95% of existence. And we only have 5% that we completely trust, that is completely safe, completely sterile.

So it’s tragic that we lose 95% of being human. But even more tragically, being stuck in our ego shells, we are mean. We’re mean. We’re brutish and exploitative. And we’re nasty. And even if we can sugar-coat it in cultural norms, we’re essentially still exploiting the world around us to preserve ourselves.

It’s tragic because it has consequences for those around us and for the planet. So it’s a matter of urgency that we take the plunge and move on to this next stage of maturation. And as we are discussing, it really is a question of trust. It’s a question of recognising our resources and strengths. And the heart and the wisdom of the heart is our greatest resource in this.

Being 100% armoured is really boring.

But our thinking mind won’t believe it. It’s always screaming, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that. Don’t go there! Don’t listen to the heart. Believe me, I know what’s best. Batten down the hatches. Everything is too much. You’re not going to cope. Make yourself small. Make yourself invisible. Ensure that you are really, really 100% armoured.’

[long pause]

And that’s a bore. It’s really boring. Boring and damaging and limiting. For yourself and for others.

So this stage of what Trungpa calls the awakening of the heart, the arising of bodhicitta, is really a stage of maturation. You have had enough. You get a stage where the cost of having this ego strategy is so enormous and so damaging, we’re like: “I don’t care if it’s too much. Something has to give. I have to try a different way of doing things.”

Time and time again, drop out of the head and into the heart.

So we step out into this brave, new world of the heart. And that is the moment that the awakening heart is born. The arising of bodhicitta. Bodhi is the Sanskrit word for ‘awakening’ – like Buddha is the awakened one. And the citta is the knowing heart. Exactly the thing that we’ve been working with. The embodied hub of your experience. So the awakened heart is the heart that has moved through that growing phase of ego into something more courageous or engaged.

And it’s just as you said, that confidence in the heart comes from using it. Time and time again we come into the heart, not the head. We breathe into the heart what we think is too much. Take it into the backspace. And give away our confidence and our ability to bear it. Everything is much less personal. There’s much less territory.

And there are lots of practices to cement this. Tonglen is one of them. And somatic tonglen, in particular, is the one that has the most impact. It’s the most powerful one I’ve found.

So it’s really good to connect with that bigger view. So that when our head goes, ‘No, no, you must stop this and go and have a cup of coffee. You should go and smoke some heroin.’ [laughter] Then you can say, ‘No that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always shut down or pushed away or clung on. And I’m bored of that.’

The epigenetics of your enlightenment genes

And regardless of whether you came on this course thinking it was something else. [More laughter.] There was something in your enlightenment genes that suddenly clicked in. There comes a point when the epigenetics of your enlightenment genes kick in. Something in your environment says, ‘Now. Now is the time when I have to do this work. I have to wake up the heart.’ And it could be just a book that you read, or a conversation that you have or a course that you come to, but the seed is planted. And it’s started to germinate. And ultimately it’s going to change everything. It’s inevitable.

As Chögyam Trungpa said, once you get on the ride you can’t get off. But it’s a good ride. It’s the best there is. But once that seed has started germinating. There’s not a lot you can do to stop it from coming to fruition. Which is wonderful news.

Terrible news for your ego phase. But wonderful news for your life.

I’d love to know your thoughts about the ego phase. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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