Yesterday I got an email from someone who asked an excellent question. Why should he engage in ego-lessening practices?
Hello Mr. Hines.
I have practiced Zen for several years, but in the past year or two I have ‘fallen away’ from the practice. I find myself resonating with your concepts of ‘spiritual independence’ and ‘church of the churchless’.
I’m sending you this email because I thought you might have some insight on my question. Why do (why should?) I engage in ego-lessening practices? I realize that the question comes from the ego. It’s a sort of ‘what’s in it for me’ question. But – what IS in it for me? Why do it?
l wrote back, saying that I'd try to answer his question in tonight's blog post. Which puts me on the spot, because it's now tonight, and I'm starting to write a blog post. But I don't really know what I want to say, or what I'm going to say.
Yet this blog post is going to be written.
So who will do it? To be honest, I can't claim that it will be me. At least, not a capital "M" Me. At the moment it feels more like writing is happening, than that a well-defined entity inside my brain is pulling the writing strings.
Thus my first response is that ego-lessening isn't a practice, but the neuroscientific truth. Meaning, there isn't such a thing as an ego, self, soul, or other sort of homunculus (don't know if I'm using that term correctly, but I like the word) in charge of our inner and outer life.
From this perspective, trying to achieve ego-loss is like trying to make a ghost disappear. Since there's nothing there, what's there to do? (Well, read books like "The Ego Tunnel" and "I Am a Strange Loop." At the end of this post are other links to stuff I've written about the illusion of ego.)
However, while truth is enticing, it's eminently tradable for feeling good.
This is why religions hold so much appeal for so many people. Including me, for over thirty years. I loved the notion that the ultimate nature of little me (or rather, Big Me) was a soul-drop which would eventually merge in a spirit-ocean, assuring me (oops, Me) both eternal life and everlasting bliss.
Cool. Yet also, almost certainly, false.
Once I stopped believing in this fantasy, the death-denying magic didn't work anymore. No matter how I waved my wand in meditation, no longer could I bring myself to feel reassured that my final breath wasn't really "The End" but "To Be Continued."
Truth. Feeling good. Goddamn it, I want both! In my increasingly churchless psyche, I asked "Is there a way?"
Well, ego loss seems to be the most likely path to the Land of Truth and Feeling Good. I like this way because it is appealingly short: no distance at all, because there is no place to go, nothing to do, and no one to become.
Still, I'm not there yet.
The thought of dying and not existing, forever, irks me greatly. In my true believing days I dealt with this bothersome prospect (more accurately, near certainty) by trying to expand myself into a soul-entity that couldn't be destroyed because it was cosmically great.
Now, I dream of not being anything or anyone, yet still being me. And here's what's marvelous about this: both modern neuroscience and ancient wisdom seem to agree that this is the way our human reality is.
I used to look upon these Rumi words in a more mystical fashion. They mean something different to me today.
Fear the existence in which you are now!
Your imagination is nothing, and you are nothing,
A nothing has fallen in love with a nothing,
a nothing-at-all has waylaid a nothing-at-all.
When these images have departed,
your misunderstanding will be clear to you.
Lastly, assuming there's a firstly somewhere in this blog post, I often think about a conversation I had in the kitchen of a woman who I'd just met at a party, and somehow got into one of those Meaning of Life conversations which, strangely, can come easily with a stranger.
A few years ago I wrote about what she told me on my other blog in a post about death and nearing sixty.
Faced with the need to choose a category for this post, I ended up with "Humor." That's how I'd like to be able to look upon death: as a joke.
The Grim Reaper is too tenacious to be pushed away. But by laughing at the bastard at least I'd get some satisfaction from not taking the S.O.B. seriously.
Some years back an acquaintance told me a story about how her husband died. He had a brain tumor. OK, bad news.
But the good news – no, the great news – was that the tumor was in a part of the brain that controlled his understanding of death. So he was being killed by a disease that took away his ability to know he was dying.
Dear Tao, give me that brain tumor when it's my time to go.
The woman said they'd go to the doctor and he'd be told a dismal prognosis, that he didn't have much longer to live, and it wouldn't faze him a bit. They'd leave, walk down the sidewalk, and he'd say "Let's get an ice cream cone."
His health was good until it wasn't. Then, bingo, he was dead, not knowing he was dying.
Yes! Give me that! A double order, with a beer and fries!
Death without knowing I was dying. Sounds good. No, sounds great.
I can't hope for a brain tumor that accomplishes that, but realizing there's no "I" to die -- same difference. And that, in almost a thousand (mostly unnecessary) words is my answer to the question, "What's so great about ego loss?"