The Birth Of The Ego.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Feb 19, 2011
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A synopsis. The article is far more detailed.

In order to better understand the origins of our discontentment, we must further investigate the growth and development of the ego… We must catch ourselves trying to freeze the stream of life.

If everything seemed to be perfect there would be no need for meditation. Meditation practice co-arises with the path that leads to suffering. The path of meditation is nothing more than walking backwards down the path that gives rise to suffering, or as Chogyam Trungpa said “A Process of Un-Doing.” So in order to better understand the practice of meditation, it is essential that we better understand the ego-centric processes which give rise to our feelings of dissatisfaction…

Beyond the pretentious rhetoric of ego there is pure Life, total spaciousness. This spaciousness or emptiness is total formlessness. It is not nothingness in the sense that it is dead space; rather it is nothingness. It is absolute, beyond all distinctions of self and other, good or bad. It is beyond even this and that. In his Confession St. Augustine wrote, “It was not absolute nothingness. It was formlessness without definition.” Life— free of elaboration. It is isness.

Life, in this sense, cannot be understood or explained in some rational way. Life is not some-thing to be experienced, it is direct experience. There is no-thing that experiences, and no-thing to be experienced— the whole thing flows together in an integrated whole. The experiencer is realized to be a dimension of experience— Being!

The whole thing is rather impossible to explain. At this point logic and language begin to breakdown. Logic and language are dualistic systems of communication, and in Being dualism malfunctions. Language attempts to describe the relationship between two points, but when the subject is realized to an aspect of the object and vice versa, this relationship dissolves. In space there is not two, there is not even one; there is just one-ness.

So, how did we manage to go from that spacious quality of being, to being plagued by conflict, disorder, and dissatisfaction?

First of all we must understand that one-ness, is still there, untainted. We did not go from that to this… It is all an hallucination!

We are just asleep, ignore-ant of the fact. The fact being, that all of our conceptual boundaries— the lines of demarcation, which project a world of multiplicity upon the unified spectrum of energy— are in the final analysis transparent.  The concepts and labels which seem to be so solid are nothing more than thought projected onto the backdrop of impermanence. They are unjustly taken too serious because, there is a sense of ownership, some-thing that seems to possess them. It is this sense of ownership, this feeling that there is some-one who is in control of this whole process, which gives rise to all of our suffering.

Life becomes some thing that I takes personally. We experience this “I” as a kind of tiny dictator trapped between our ears. Fortunately, this miniature tyrant is nothing more than a personified thought born out of ignorance. It is this hypnotic trance that gives births to and nurtures the cyclic pattern of suffering discussed in the First Noble Truth, The Truth of Dissatisfaction.

All of our troubles must be the product of self-deception, as we did not intend to create problems for ourselves or anyone else. At the root of our troubles we will find confusion. Therefore, restoring the mind to its natural state requires nothing more than waking up from the fog of this self-deception… Simply observing this confusion!

The great Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton once wrote, “From space earth is just earth. There are no lines of demarcation that separate states and countries.” It is only on paper and in our heads that these lines exist. Ego has created a similar map, a map of life. Much like the maps of our planet, ego’s map can be relatively useful. The problem is not with the map itself. Rather, the trouble lies in our confusion. We ignore the fact that it is a mental fabrication, merely a conceptual map. There has been a fundamental error made… We have mistaken the map for the territory. In other words, all of our opinions, thoughts, and concepts which point at or describe objects, have been misapprehended as the objects themselves. As a result, when reality does not agree with our thinking we fight tooth-&-nail to make the world behave as it should

So how did all this get started?

In suchness all divisions of self and other break down. It is un-charted territory, but spacious enough to include any and all charts! Since it is fluid or empty, it is impregnated with possibilities. The whole thing flows together as a unified stream of energy. This energy is totally pure, completely innocent. That pure energy is raw potential. Innocence is extremely pliable. It is the mind of a child; fertile ground for anything. It is a world of infinite possibilities.

Prior to the development of ego there is no sense of ownership. In other words, this energy is not centered on some-thing. There is no-thing, no ego that is directing or manipulating this energy. There is no map or system for understanding or relating with life. In fact, there is not even a need for one!

Then we are born into an adult world…

We have to learn all the games that humans play, which as Alan Watts so humorously pointed out is not that easy. Watts said:

“Instead of saying hello my dear, and welcome to the human race. Now my friend we are playing some very complicated games, and these are the rules of the game. We tell our children you are here on probation; I want you to understand that. Maybe when you grow up a bit you will become acceptable, but until then you should be seen and not heard. You are a mess, so you need to be educated, schooled, and whipped until you become human.”

We first have to “learn our place”, which means that, at least for the time being, we have no place of our own. So our indoctrination into the human family begins with establishing a sense of insufficiency or defectiveness. We have to be beaten into a state of reasonableness before we will accept all of the ridiculous logic we are about to be force fed. Kids continually ask “why” because most of the stuff we are telling them is nothing short of absurd.  In order to overcome our inability to understand the adult humans, we have to begin our education and schooling, which starts with someone telling us to use our words.

Language is a system of communication meant to express the ego’s point of view. That is why the whole arrangement of language revolves around the interaction of subject and object or self and other. Language requires that there be some subject interacting with an object. As language, which is a type of map, is impressed upon the mind, the mind begins to conform. Pure energy begins to be shaped or take solid form. Much like a cookie cutter, language begins to cut up this energy into a great many things beginning with this and that. Life becomes “that over there,” which implies that “I am this!” It is at this point that we go from oneness to 1.

However, 1 is unable to validate itself. So, the experience is short lived. Although the event is short lived, it is nevertheless extremely profound. There was the rise and the fall of this and that. The creation of duality gave rise to a sort of self-intoxicated separation… We admired or obsessed over our creation. Ignore-ance is the ego’s primary source of nutrition. It establishes and sustains ego-centric consciousness… The ego defends it by obsessing over it’s creation, namely itselfWe become infatuated with form! This is the first stage in the development of ego, ignore-ance/form.

The experience of 1 is not sustainable. So, with the dissolution of such an experience, we come to embarrassed. We awaken in a dream. We are Adam and Eve in the garden— self-conscious of the fact that we are naked. The conclusion of the ‘that and this’ experience gives rise to a unique brand of paranoia; the fear that “I am not.” If I was, then it must follow that I am not.

In order for the ego to establish itself, it must white knuckle its way through the truth of selflessness; it must become well versed in the art of ignore-ance. Until the ego masters the art of ignoring the truth it will continue to rise up, only to come crashing back down. This constant rise and fall is what generates the self-conscious paranoia that fuels the whole process of self-confirmation— it is origins our fear of death.

If ignore-ance is the key ingredient in the establishment of ego, then it must be defended at all costs. In order to introduce self and other, reality must be ignored. However, ignore-ance all by itself is insufficient, as 1 cannot validate itself. The experience of self expands and collapses back in on itself, over & over again. In order to maintain the trance, ego needs to create a diversion, some kind of distraction. In order to sustain ignore-ance, the ego creates some thing it can obsess over. So as Chogyam Trungpa pointed out, “One confirmation needs another… And this process goes on and on to infinity”. Therefore, the momentum from our phobia of selflessness fuels an obsessive process of self-confirmation; 1 is validated by 2, 2 by 3, 3 by 4, and 4 by 5.

It is through this degenerative process that clarity and precision become misplaced.

The second wave in the development of ego is relationship or interaction. Relationship, in this context, is meant to provide a constant brand of entertainment; life becomes a 24 hour media outlet. It is an institution with a single objective— to prevent the onset of boredom. Boredom is nothing more than the lack of self-confirmation. That’s why there is a piercing irritation associated with boredom; it seems to cut straight through to the center of our universe. Relationships single purpose is to make sure that this failure to acquire affirmation does not happen.

As the “I AM” experience begins to assert itself and interact with other, “I am” becomes “I am experiencing THAT.” There is now verbing between subject and object. Through relationship, this self-conscious thought begins to project itself outward, onto some-thing else. It is a type of echo. If “I am experiencing THAT,” then I must be. At this stage there is no judgment involved, just simple contact. If there is sensation, then there must be some one feeling it… So, 1 is confirmed by 2.

This is reassuring from the point of view of ego, but in-&-of itself the 2nd stage is still insufficient. The “I AM because of that” still has no shape. At this stage, all it knows is that it is not that, but there isn’t a sense of identity. There is still no role to play or map to navigate through life. I does not know what to do or where to go with this relationship. So the domino effect continues with 2 having to be validated by 3

The contact with “other,” is encoded with a wealth of information. This information cannot be wasted or brushed aside because, it is needed to bring definition to an otherwise meaningless idea, the self. So, there has to be some means by which to manage all of the information received through relationship. The problem is that this information seems to be coming in at an unthinkable rate…

Speed and time are relative concepts; they are relative to the point from which they are observed. The ego is such a point, an observer. Now that we have introduced an observer the speed of life seems overwhelming.

Impermanence now appears, not as unified stream of energy, but as a million different things happening to us...

The whole experience of life has become muddled and incomprehensible. So in order to manage this speed, ego develops an automatic filling system. As experiences come and go they are remembered as good, bad, or indifferent. These memories begin to shape our perception. Our whole outlook upon life, our map of the territory, begins to be shaped by our interpretation of the past.

As this information is received it is pigeonholed by this memory/perception. Each new experience is sorted on the basis of ego’s perspective as good, bad, or indifferent, and dealt with accordingly. This information is handled by employing various pre-ordained responses. If it is perceived as good, then the ego will cling to it. If the sensation is seen as negative or threatening, then it will be destroyed. If the information is somewhat vague or indifferent, then it will be given the cold shoulder.

It is important to understand the speed of this process. The whole system is conditioned and reflexive. The perception which deciphers the incoming information is conditioned by the past. The methods of attachment, aversion, and ignore-ance are pre-ordained reflexes. It is an extremely fast, well lubricated machine that utilizes preconceived ideas and knee-jerk reactions to manage its environment. It is the purpose of this third stage, perception/impulse, to censor and manage the affairs of ego. It is almost like ego’s personal assistant. To some degree it enables ego to navigate through the speedy traffic of impermanence, cultivating desirable relationships and avoiding disagreeable ones. Although this is a necessary advancement from the viewpoint of ego, it is still incapable of sustaining the whole project. There is still no role for ego to play in the theatre of life. The first three stages have managed to insert a central persona into the scheme of life in a purely mechanistic fashion.

By way of  impulse/perception, ego managed to reduce the entire range of experience down to three distinct territories; good, bad, and indifferent. From the ego’s perspective, this is a giant step towards a more manageable situation.

Behind the walls of these three general territories of good, bad, and indifferent is a wealth of information, details the ego can use to better understand its empire, and consequently itself. So it begins to micromanage these territories by further dividing them up into even smaller provinces. In the fourth stage, ego begins to survey the landscape, and assign names to all it’s territories. Through the medium of conceptualization, the fourth stage, ego attempts to compartmentalize and define the infinite number of relationships it maintains with the external world.

A concept, in this case, is referring to a mental construction that is assembled using a host of ideas, called expectations. These ideas are nothing more than the affirmative version of fear. We expect things to behave in such a way that doesn’t scare us! These expectations are similar to job descriptions. They represent all of ego’s hopes and fears for that particular territory. The sum total of these expectations imputed onto some object equals a concept. Ultimately, ego assumes a God like status, as it is the role of ego to determine the part that everyone else will play in its environment.

Ego’s regime is an oppressive one. A type of totalitarian state where everyone’s role is assigned to them. In most cases these roles are not even communicated clearly, “other” is just expected to fulfill their duties. In order to better understand this point let us explore it further by way of an example, the concept of boyfriend.

Like any other concept, “boyfriend” is defined by various expectations. That is why on-line dating sites are so successful. They are not matching people, they are matching things that people cling to, expectations! These expectations could be anything. We may expect such a person to take us on dates, or say loving things to us. On the other hand, we may demand that such a person remain relatively detached or distant. All of these likes and dislikes are simply determined by our past experiences; it is a matter of whatever floats our boat because, we are paranoid that everyone is trying to sink our boat! Regardless of the expectations you subscribe to, the fact remains that whomever you call boyfriend will either meet these expectations or the relationship will turn up sour, because he is not fulfilling his job description.

When we realize that “boyfriend” has managed to escape from his conceptual cage, the relationship becomes painful because, it fundamentally challenges identity. That is not to say that we will get out of the relationship. In fact, often we will stay because, the pain can provide us with a sort of constant companionship… A type of entertainment that while it may not be pleasant, certainly satisfies our need for self-confirmation. Bad attention is better than no attention at all!

An incredibly interesting thing about this stage in ego’s development is that by defining other, ego’s role is also determined. Ego finally has acquired some kind of identity. By labeling other as “boyfriend,” ego assumes the role of “girlfriend.” It has assigned itself a role, a part to play, by conceptualizing other. Steps 1-3 establish the ego, and the fourth phase defines it.

These four stages are just that, stages. They are a linear; with a beginning and end point. They are like a bunch of sticks with nothing to tie them together. There is no sense of continuity. The appearance of permanence is installed in the fifth stage, where the whole process is tied together, creating a cyclic or self-contained state of affairs. The fifth and final phase in the construction of ego is consciousness

Consciousness attempts to provide a system that is capable of recycling the momentum created in the first four stages, which is what creates the illusion of endurance. It is not really a linear stage or level; it is more like a loop, which enables the various manifestations of self to play through as a single personality. There are great deal of relationships to be maintained, and a host of new information coming in. There has to be some form of management installed to manage this incredibly chaotic environment.

It is the job of consciousness to oversee this whole project, to make sure that things go according to plan. Consciousness could be compared to a computer that is constantly scanning any and all activity. As it sifts through all this activity, it is all the time encountering new information. These new codes must be deciphered. As this new information comes in, the emotions flare up, sounding alarms that ego interprets as some thing that must be dealt with; either cultivated or destroyed. Thought works tirelessly to interpret these threats. It looks for some ancient explanation… Some expired file from the memory’s database that inoculates the threat or seduces the situation. It is the job of thought to make sense out of all this new information, to explain away ego’s environment by making new information look like old information!

Thought circles around these experiences, interpreting them from many different angles. These various interpretations generate a variety of states of mind or personalities. Ego then utilizes these various states of mind to manage its empire and maintain the illusion of permanent selfhood.

Before we can begin to unlearn this ego-centric indoctrination through the practice of meditation, we must become more familiar with the way in which these systems operate. It is through these various personality programs that the ego is able to maintain the stupor or ignore-ance that is necessary for its survival.

So next week we will turn our attention towards these personality programs, also known as The Six Realms.

In the comment section below please share some of your own experiences, ideas, concerns, and yes, your disagreements! The questions below should help get some discussion going…

1) Do you ever get the feeling that your mind is constantly seeking to explain away the environment? Does this search manifest in the form of incessant chatter between your ears that drives you crazy?

2) Do you feel dependent upon or obsessed with the acquisition of certainty or solidity? Can you see the connection between the search for certainty and the fourth stage of conceptualization?

3) Can you identify patterns of both, behavior and perception, where you just re-act to things without even thinking? Can you identify instances where a certain stimulus triggers a response or pushes a button in you?

4) Can you identify the absolute need for entertainment? The need to be constantly entertained or touched by some thing, less you feel insignificant?

5) Can you sense that degree of separation, that imputed distinction between you and life that entertainment and certainty are intended to protect? The most common symptom of this contrived is boredom…

What exactly are we trying to protect?

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About 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.

Comments

64 Responses to “The Birth Of The Ego.”

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  2. […] a mom and a healer, I believe that the feminine essence creates egos and keeps them healthy/in service of our deepest truth. It is through divine relationship, pleasure […]

  3. […] concepts of ego and moving beyond it are present in many spirituality structures, including Yoga, Buddhism, and contemplative […]

  4. […] is the ego created if it causes so much sorrow and pain throughout the world?” a student recently […]

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  6. […] start building this fortress at a young age. The people that cared for us most likely had emotions that they had […]

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