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?"
To say the ego is an illusion without actually observing the mechanism, the means by which the illusion is achieved, is egotistical.
Posted by: cc | November 14, 2011 at 08:47 AM
What exactly is the Zen practice that supposedly engages in Ego lessening? Is this a meditation practice? Could some one describe this Zen practice? I can see the Ego word, just being a word, and any word can take on various meanings and definitions. That said, then the Ego word is no big deal, as a word floating around in dualistic existence.
Now, someone might think that Ego is the duality of the subjective vs objective. Is there something bad regarding the subject/object realm or -isness? Ok, there could be. How can one come to this realization?
I liked this,
"This so-called 'realization' is really nothing more than a dropping or falling away of the duality of subjective vs objective. It is a spontaneous cessation of the dualistic view point which includes both the objective and the subjective.
Realization is neither objective nor subjective. It's not a subjective experience, nor an objective perception.
Realization is when the sense of subjectivity and the sense of objectivity ceases or vanishes. Realization is not something that an individual achieves. A person does not become "realized". Realization is not an attainment of something, like a state of mind, or a knowledge about something.
Realization is the opposite. Realization is the loss of duality."
--Is the loss of duality, the lessening of Ego? Maybe so, and maybe not. Within duality, there are many examples of goodness.
Posted by: Roger | November 14, 2011 at 09:49 AM
cc, how do you think the illusion of ego is produced by the brain? I've read descriptions of this in neuroscience books (described in some of the links in this post) but am curious about what your view is.
Whatever the mechanism is, almost certainly it isn't entirely or mostly conscious. So how does someone observe the mechanism doing its thing?
And why would it be necessary to observe this mechanism, assuming it is possible, to be in a state of ego loss? That doesn't make sense to me.
Having spent quite a bit of time Saturday watching the Oregon football team beat Stanford (go Ducks!), I saw flow in action -- with Oregon's vaunted hurry-up offense. When the flow is flowing, the defense is flummoxed.
"Flow" in sports, dance, music, writing, arts, or whatever (including meditation) goes best without a lot of self-awareness. Meaning, you just do it; you don't think "I'm doing it" while you're doing it.
So wouldn't separating yourself into an observer of the mechanism by which the ego illusion is achieved, along with an experiencer of flow/ego loss, be counter-productive?
Myself, I feel most ego loss'y when I'm genuinely immersed in some activity, not when I'm observing myself being immersed in some activity (meaning, being aware of being aware of something).
Again, this assumes that it is even possible to observe how the brain produces the illusion, which is doubtful.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 14, 2011 at 10:41 AM
The "illusion" of ego? If the ego is an illusion, and the realization of this illusion is good. Then, I would want to immerse myself in such, that promotes this illusion of ego. I can see genuinely immersing in an activity that lessens the supposed 'permanance' of this ego. So, why did the brain evolve to the point that it is hardwired for the permanance of ego? Tell me, who is responsible......
Posted by: Roger | November 14, 2011 at 11:05 AM
"Again, this assumes that it is even possible to observe how the brain produces the illusion, which is doubtful."
If the brain can't possibly perceive what it's doing to induce its own misery and confusion, all it can do is suffer and demonstrate better and worse ways to go about it.
Posted by: cc | November 14, 2011 at 11:29 AM
cc, I pretty much agree with what you say. But learning how to act in a healthy manner seems to be different from observing/knowing how sickness is produced.
Can't I be happy without knowing why I might be sad? Can't I enjoy a walk in the woods without knowing why a walk might be miserable?
Life could be simpler than we suspect. Maybe just living life often is the best way to live life.
And as I observed in this post, if what prevents us from being content doesn't exist (ego, sin, fate, etc.), then what's needed is letting of of an illusion, not grabbing onto something, or trying to understand/perceive something.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 14, 2011 at 11:49 AM
Sure, but it's our nature to find out and understand what we can; it's what we call "science".
Posted by: cc | November 14, 2011 at 01:07 PM
"if what prevents us from being content doesn't exist (ego, sin, fate, etc.), then what's needed is letting of of an illusion, not grabbing onto something, or trying to understand/perceive something."
I don't advocate "grabbing onto" anything...quite the contrary, and I'm not saying the ego doesn't exist. What does exist is an ongoing illusion, mistaken identity, and I don't see why it can't be seen, despite what those who supposedly know better would have one believe.
Posted by: cc | November 14, 2011 at 01:11 PM
"Can't I be happy without knowing why I might be sad?"
"Happy" is a funny word. To me, it refers to something delicate, enjoyed for its ephemerality, a delight, a momentary pleasure. It can't be sustained or made into a state of mind. It happens. Making a religion of it is sad.
For some people, happiness is finding out why things are the way they are.
Posted by: cc | November 14, 2011 at 01:29 PM
If 'ego' - illusory or not - is the issue then perhaps it's time to put in that order for a job-lot of Persinger's helmets!
Posted by: Seeker2011 | November 14, 2011 at 01:52 PM
I admit to not getting this 'mindfulness' stuff, but i wonder if anyone does or its really just a case of the emperor's new clothes and there's nothing there.
Are these wisdom traditions just an exercise in paradoxical futility in trying to observe that which cannot be observed. How can one become conscious of one's own subconscious? It cannot be done, all the conscious mind can ever do is to become aware of conscious thought processes, but we cannot observe what caused these thoughts, i.e. the subconsious.
Perhaps koans merely reveal the limits of language, rather than the limits of our awareness. Even if one were to somehow circumvent these limits, how does one get from this to supposedly realizing our true nature?
The zen koan says don't confuse the finger with the moon, presumably meaning our ego or self-image is but an illusion of our true self. But how can one realise one's true nature when one cannot even observe one's subconscious?
Is our true nature individual or is it a sort of common essence to the universe and all things? Presumably buddha nature or enlightement is such a common ground or absolute reality. The Truth, our true nature, the true nature of the universe, deeper than our subconscious, the source then from which not only our subsconscious and then our conscious emerges, but is also supposedly the source from which the universe and all matter springs.
It too much, too much we simply have to take for granted, by some old fella whose simply declared himSELF enlightened, where it is apparently impossible to recognise our own subconscious let alone an even deeper supposed source.
As for whether a self exists, a self-image, this may be intangible, but it has a functional biological purpose. Living organisms exists within bodies, some of these bodies have evolved mechanisms for survining in their environment, one of the best ways to do so is to have an accurate sense of self, not only of the shape of the body, but its limits, like, dislikes, etc which it forms from experience.
Posted by: George | November 14, 2011 at 03:03 PM
What is the ego? The ego is the sense of division or separation.
What is the ego's activity? The ego tries to heal it's division by wanting connection.
Can this work? No, there is no division before the ego creates it. Any further egoic effort only creates more division.
Does this mean give up and party? Not exactly. All efforts to party or drink beer only create more division and are themselves too much effort. One only need relax all struggle and effort and notice there was no separation before we created it. Struggle is not the solution ... It's the problem.
Posted by: 13 months left | November 14, 2011 at 05:20 PM
"One only need relax all struggle and effort and notice there was no separation before we created it. Struggle is not the solution ... It's the problem."
Yes, but the brain is conditioned to struggle compulsively, obsessively, because to cease is the psychological equivalent of death.
Posted by: cc | November 15, 2011 at 07:49 AM
All ships are sinking. I say, give up and party. Only a fool mops the floor of a sinking ship.
If you struggle, there is a problem
If you don't struggle, there is a problem.
Go topside, and open your eyes. On deck you
will see the problem--- all boats are leaning and taking on water.
The problem is being aware of death beforehand (unlike the other animals)and
consequently embracing and tripping over all manner of denial.
Posted by: [email protected] | November 15, 2011 at 01:57 PM
I think that if you lose the ego you become like a primitive animal. What a goal to reach becoming a selfless hunter or other survival mechanism. The illusion of ego (self) made humans evolve into a culture. Losing the ego might be the same as dissolving the culture. Of coast the ego is a lie imprinted on you by your parents but on the other hand it makes you act as an individual and accomplish what animals could not. For the human time being I would be glad to be an ego and cherish it with all the love you have. Perhaps a lot of people that life without an ego are early incarnations of animal spirits.
Posted by: nietzsche | November 16, 2011 at 02:27 PM
Hey Brian, don't worry about not existing. You won't be around to lament it.
Posted by: Suzanne Foxton | November 18, 2011 at 03:00 AM
Suzanne, thanks for the cheery reassurance. Much appreciated. I'm vaguely aware of the truth you point to. "Vaguely," because every time I think about it, I realize that I'm alive, thinking about it. For some reason I can't envision what not existing will be like.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 18, 2011 at 11:40 AM