2.6
October 11, 2010

Painting the Ego.

“Instead of offering a solution, meditation asks whether or not there is actually a problem.”

On occasion, conversations regarding spirituality go beyond the superficial diatribes of stoned hippies and overt intellectuals overheard by annoyed college students trying to study at their local coffee shop. This evolution produces an intelligent discussion, which inquires into the processes that the ego undergoes in order to establish and preserve some sense of identity, and usually the conversation begins with an acknowledgment of the pain and suffering brought about by these inbred processes. Perhaps the most interesting question of all relates back to how all of this got started, and the seemingly impossible predicament we find ourselves in.

How did I go from being a spontaneous child carelessly playing in the sand box to an anxious adult who hasn’t even seen a sandbox in 20 years? If everything is in truth spaciously-energetic how did it come to pass that we feel claustrophobically-static? We all agree that at times everything seems to fit together, and we all want to believe that life isn’t really that difficult, but at the same time we can never quite shake the feeling that we are somehow missing the boat. This is what is meant by the impossible predicament, and how this ball got rolling is the subject I wish to address in this article. I do not want to go into detail at this point about the later stages of ego’s development. I will simply focus on the initial conception of a sense of self. All I wish to do is show that the question, “How did this ball start rolling?” presupposes that there is a ball, which may not be the case! If you would like me to go into greater depth about the development of ego in its later stages, let me know in the comment box below.

Before the beginning and after the end there is pure energy. This energy is not one, nor two, but all. Known to us as awareness, this energy manifests in a variety of forms. Images, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile sensations, memories, and feelings –the whole landscape emerges from this ocean of awareness like waves- not distinct or separate from the water in any way, but as playful manifestations of the water. This is the mind of a child. Once we come of age our initiation into society begins with our parental units consistently barking out strange noises as they point fervently at random objects in the immediate vicinity. Before long we learn that the objects being pointed at are closely associated with the noises being made, so the entire spectrum of experience is shattered into a million things- mommy, daddy, doggy, etc. (Squirrel! Squirrel!) Memory begins to collect not only the words and their intended meanings, but also the governing dynamics of language. So to meet the demands of those pesky adults who continually insist upon us using our words this operating system is booted up more and more, until eventually memory assimilates through repetition to the same dynamics.

At this point everything becomes about formation, or establishing distinct lines of demarcation. Memory becomes consciousness (formed mind) when its primary means of expression ceases to be the archetypal symbols characteristic of what we commonly refer to as the sub-conscious (unformed mind). In order to form a complete sentence there must be a subject, object, and verbing between the two. The modus operandi of the formed mind is more conversational and semantic, taking the shape of an internal dialouge- memory is transformed into thinking.  Here it is important to note that according to the governing dynamics installed by language it would follow that in order to think there would need to be a thinker and some thing to think about. At this point a conceptual crack is imputed upon our perception of reality, and this crack is the genesis of our discontentment.

This subject/object dynamic forces us to experience ourselves as a spectator, which is to say that we feel apart from or other than life. This instills within us a pervasive sort of discontentment, a feeling that something is broken. The psychological gulf or belief that we are apart from life is discontentment in embryonic form, as it is the state of being separated from content or meaning. In order to repair that which we believe is broken the ego attempts to extract meaning or contentment from its interactions with others. It uses the information acquired through these interactions to define itself. This is an intrinsically self-centered system, as the only concern entertained by thought is the possible consequences the incoming information might impose upon the supposed thinker. Once thought has come to a conclusion about the consequences of a particular relations,  this conclusion is then expressed in our behavior.

Since the conclusions reached by thought revolve around our sense of self, and most everyone is caught up in this game, it should be quite obvious that conflict and suffering are the inevitable outcomes, as conflict would be unavoidable in such an environment. There is only one piece of cake or one parking place, and everyone is thinking about how they can acquire these precious commodities! This is then fed back into the perceptive system, which only serves to reinforce the egocentric position; “That son of a bitch parked in my spot!” or “She is eating all the damn cake!” Such a claustrophobic environment is not sustainable. It is only a matter of time before the whole things collapses in on itself.

This collapse of mental formation provides us with a wonderful opportunity to look deeply. Looking closer it becomes obvious that nothing is actually wrong or need of repair, simply misunderstood. When through insight the true nature of thought is discovered to be self-arisen & self-liberating the foundation that supports suffering & conflict comes crumbling down. “I” is little more than an empty concept committed to memory in order to meet the rules and regulations imposed by language, which themselves are concepts committed to memory. Furthermore, the memory itself is no self as it is little more than a wave of awareness. The whole thing is a giant misunderstanding, a cognitive illusion resulting from thought interpreting itself- a closed loop. It is like suddenly waking up from a nightmare about losing your job- you do not have to get out of bed and go look for a new one! In the final analysis nothing has changed. We are still walking around in the garden. Life is spacious and vibrant, and we are in no way separate or cut-off from life, rather we are a wave emerging from the ocean of life.

The only thing that prevents us from directly experiencing this is the belief that it is not true.

This is why meditation is so important. Meditation is not a solution to a problem; rather it is the recognition that there is no problem. Meditation practice as opposed to being a solution is a questioning of the idea that there is a need for a solution. We sit with courage and observe as all of our fears and expectations come to the surface. Then we look beyond them to notice that none of the consequences we feared or expected ever really materialized.  This is not because positive and negative events never come to pass, but because the reference point from which positive and negative are measured is realized to be little more than a first person singular pronoun. It is nothing more than a thought thinking about itself!  As we simply observe, it is revealed that there is in fact no problem, only a misunderstanding. Insight destroys confusion. In observation all misunderstandings fade away. “In the process of looking seeing will come to an end!”

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.