After weeks of sporadic frost that came and went persistently, like Death through a nursing home, the growing season has at last settled in to this bedraggled little city. The woman of whom I wrote in my essay on genius, however, had already decided to allow her vegetable patch to go fallow this year. A moment’s instinct is often wiser than a sleepless night of calculation. But Nature never told us that the outer brain and the inner were meant to work in separate rooms, or to oppose one another like those wrestlers with painted faces who invent wars about images.
Therefore, I have quit on attempting to be better than I was, or better than that fellow over there. Let me be sufficient to myself and improvement can be abandoned. Why strive to improve when you can just be what you are? Why shovel the coal of self-blame into the fire of ambition whose smoke is illusion? I will try instead the path that returns to my original sufficiency and see where it leads. To win victory over Competition is the same futility as desiring to defeat Desire. Drop the stone of longing and those wings of which the poet Robert Bly speaks will rise and soar through and around you:
The sun goes down through ghettos of clouds.
There is one Burning Mind and so many Platos.
The Morning Star rises over a flutter of wings.
It can be difficult to give people an idea of the importance of repulsing the invasion of ego within our lives. Often it’s all we can manage to just keep the rock of manifest life rolling: work, shopping, family, and a few crumbs of pleasure (which for most people are found around a television and/or a smartphone). But if you will spend just a little time with the problem, you will find it hard to deny that you have been, since childhood, the target of an invasion — one which is all the more insidious for its seeming benignity. The very banality of the collective ego’s claims to truth makes it as seemingly mild as it is secretly malevolent.
Therefore, it is probably inevitable that we are — at least initially — fairly strong and assertive about killing and dissolving the influence of this ego of derived belief in competition, self-blame, and failure. For we are in the position similar to that of Captain Picard in the movie First Contact:
Even now, some 14 years after starting on the path of self-cleansing, I still have moments like that, guided by the same white-hot anger. The arrant lies that I have been hoodwinked into trusting and never questioning — oh yes, I can still feel that Picardian rage at the bullshit I’ve been fed for so long, and which I have so willingly consumed.
But as you go along, you’re likely to make a discovery that will make you progressively stronger — viz., the realization that all this trickle-down darkness (I call the phenomenon by which ego is continued “generational drip”) is really (just like trickle-down economics) nothing more than a hallucination. A powerful hallucination, to be sure, for its energy source is the universal consciousness — the “Burning Mind” of Bly’s poem; everything that simultaneously affirms our individual uniqueness and our common unity. Ego is merely a parasite feeding off that great well; but it has no essence, no autonomous existence. Ego is a mere distortion that is frequently mistaken for reality, in the same way many natural formations have an illusory image of reality (and I have to admit, that one in the link is a beauty). You could also think of ego as a psycho-emotional form of pareidolia. In fact, we very commonly see faces and images of darkness, delight, or delectation amid people and institutions that are themselves ineffectual and meaningless; our mass media are experts in spraying vast clouds of pareidolia — if it were only a matter of seeing Jesus’ beard dangling from my morning toast, then there would be scarcely any problem about it.
So this is why we are called to bring daily effort to the demolition, or even the execution, of ego’s hallucinations — our culture’s own demons summon us to the task. The more killing we can do inside, the less of it we’ll see out there. How you approach it will be incredibly unique, beyond anything that I or anyone else can teach you. That point made, I can offer you a few common areas of experience in self-cleansing, a few of which you might find resonant to your own practice:
- Specificity: It won’t be enough to have the resolve to kill ego; because at that level of excessive generality you’re merely attacking a word, not its foundation. To paraphrase Thoreau’s famous expression, slash the roots of delusion and you won’t have to hack at the branches of evil. This is perhaps the most intimate and personal aspect of the practice, where you will find beliefs and corrupt emotions that have shapes and shades peculiar to your life’s experience. Be as exact and targeted in your search as possible in each moment, and progress will take wing within you.
- Patience: You are undoing a lifetime’s worth of learned fears, guilt, self-abasement, and assumption. Be patient with the process and with the tricks played upon you by the same self-images and projections that you are destroying. The effort of this work is meant to be regular but not obsessive: give it a little every day and then leave time and room for invisible presences to finish what you’ve started.
- Remembering your companions: This may be the most difficult aspect of it all for many Westerners. We live in a culture of extremes, in which violent religious zealots battle at one end and the zealots of cynicism rage at the other. I personally think that science, despite its conversion into ideological Kool-Aid by the Richard Dawkins Marching Chowder Society, offers a wonderful inspiration here, with ideas such as quantum entanglement. To recover that original self-sufficiency that we and every other animal in Nature have been designed with, we need more than our own efforts. But when we submit to ideological representations of the invisible energies that can complement and complete our own work at self-cleansing, we tend to fall into yet another trap of belief. There is no need to believe in the hidden world and its helping presences; feeling them every so often is enough. Otherwise, it is too easy to slip into the absurd practice of deprogramming ego under the leadership of ego.
- Sincerity: Here I really like Alan Watts’ frequent reminder about the value of not taking life seriously. Sincerity is more than enough; for it leaves room for those quantum influences, while also bringing a spirit of play into the work. This is one reason why I recommend such seemingly silly things as practicing nude and imagining yourself stripped naked of fear and belief. And remember, the essence of this work is communication — with yourself and with your own quantum core and origin. You would never write a letter and finish it by saying, “Seriously Yours.” Good communication is about sincerity rather than severity.
- Perseverance: This is a corollary of sorts to patience, but with an active sense that has the effect of eventually making your entire life hum with the vibration of purification and discovery. That action is defined by trust: not faith, but trust. Faith is belief that has no basis in experience; trust is a feeling of confidence nourished by experience. Trust builds focus, which is the very core of creativity; faith sticks in the mud of affiliation. So as you go on, let your meditations provide the experiential feedback that leads you on. You don’t need a Bible or even a script to do this work; just the will to go on and the experience that you’re not alone.
- Bodily awareness: I have written about this a lot, so just one brief reminder: this is a physical practice, for there is no such thing as a separation between the physical and the psychological, or between the physical and the spiritual. My personal experience is that certain beliefs or other forms of darkness take their parasitic residence up in certain areas of my physical body. Most recently, for instance, I’ve sensed certain collective imperatives related to impulsive action or longing (“You must act! You must be recognized! You must be noticed!”) — I feel these parasites of compulsion in my feet and lower legs. I have also felt certain more personal ego-influences within my belly. Therefore, I can use physical activity to complement and complete the work of meditation. I assure you, when physical exercise becomes a fresh form of meditation, it’s very easy to make it a part of your daily routine. Suddenly, your “workout” is not a matter of feeding another self-image, but of actually expelling self-imagery of every kind from within your body.
- Surpassing opposition: Praise and blame; success and failure; self and other; life and death. As you go on, you’ll find it progressively easier to step off the wheel of opposition, where you’re either up or down, in pleasure or in pain, healthy or ill, confident or fearful. You might even recall all those times in your life when some Bad Thing led you directly into a field of blessing that you would never have experienced unless there were that misfortune ahead of it. Opposition is arguably the seed of all falsehood; and it often makes you sick, either physically or psychologically. One of the principle benefits of a practice of self-cleansing is soaring beyond the field of opposites. Personally, I can hardly overstate the beauty of such an experience.
- Blamelessness: Listen for a few minutes to Watts (below) talking about the freedom from gossip that defines the character of spiritual maturity. Getting out of the pit of blame means not merely freeing yourself from conflict with others; it means (and actually arises from) a liberation from what you might call “self-gossip” — that is, blaming, praising, or otherwise judging yourself. Ego finds fault and sticks there; the true self just finds what is and goes on.
- A Lifestyle of Detoxification*: “Detox” is thankfully entering the popular vocabulary in a big way. Ridding ourselves and our world of physical and environmental poisons is something that is of interest to most educated people. I’m all for that, but would add that a lifestyle of detox is not complete — for either an individual or a society — until it is nourished by the whole being of a person or a nation. I would even go so far as to say that if we could begin from a perspective that guides us to cleanse psychological poison, we will find ourselves more fully and effortlessly freed from physical poisons. Amid a culture that is in so many respects defined by addiction, a lifestyle of detoxification seems all the more appealing and regenerative.
Most of us work by day toward the enrichment of others — a business, corporation, government, or other institution. By making this compromise, with all the little sacrifices it entails, we support ourselves and our families. I do my job for New York State; you do yours for whoever you’re working for now. So I wouldn’t dare recommend that you quit your day job; only that you not make it the total scope and end of your life’s effort. We need our selves — our true and natural selves — even more than we need our jobs. But again, there is no opposition between these. For just as I could easily do my day-job’s tasks in half the time for which I’m paid each week, I find the work of liberation to be so challenging as to be beyond complexity — that is to say, my personal work leads me out of the iron bipolar channel of hard-and-easy, and into the clear and open air of natural accomplishment. When ego is killed (or as in my case, kind of morbidly ill), you don’t have to worry about the rules, commandments, and inhibitions that it tried to make you believe were real. In the words of the 17th century Zen poet Bunan:
Die while you’re alive
and be absolutely dead.
Then do whatever you want:
it’s all good.
(from Stephen Mitchell, ed.: The Enlightened Heart)
*I generally refrain from recommendations on physical remedies; for one thing, it’s not really my specialty; for another such promotions tend to work from an inherently false premise, viz., “it worked for me so you try it.” That said, here’s what I use for physical detox (aside from meditation and exercise); the benefit I’ve had from it is supported by research and the experience of others. I’m currently taking colloidal silver (less than a teaspoon a day); black cumin seed with garlic; activated carbon; and black walnut extract. I also see an acupuncturist regularly, who does a detox treatment with his (mostly painless) needles.