August 15, 2012
I can recall sitting in a project meeting one day a few years ago. I was the Business Analyst, the fellow responsible for creating documentation that would become the “project book” — the functional, business-oriented, technical, and performance specifications or requirements for the application that was being developed for this project. We were doing some high-level planning: identifying stakeholders to interview on both the business and IT side of the house; outlining our schedule and resource allocations; and threshing out some structural basics for the documentation. On the last point, we had worked out some sectional structure and were about to leave that topic when the Project Manager asked, “is there anything else we need to capture for documentation?”
I said, “Yes, we need a Glossary.”
“A Glossary, prominently placed. Something to orient everyone who reads the documentation on what the major terms used throughout the document actually mean, in the context of the project. You’d be amazed at how much confusion and miscommunication can be avoided when people understand what words mean.”
“Interesting, we’ll try it, though I don’t see any urgent need for that kind of thing. Most people do know the meanings of words, after all.”
I bring up that story because of my strange belief (strange to this culture of ours, anyway) that words and their meaning really, really matter. A lot. If you asked a random group of people what are the top 3 things that differentiate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, “language” would probably come up on most everyone’s list. So if language is so unique to our species, why, then, do we so often use our words like toilet paper — one sheet the same as another, bunched together and sent down the same chute carrying the same aroma?
If you’ve read today’s news, our ruling elites are today twisting themselves into knots that would give pause to the most advanced yoga practitioner over a question about what their VP meant by the word “chains.”
Now, while GOP graphic artists begin to design and print all the “Hope and Chains” posters that will soon cover their convention floor; and while the rest of us are again reminded that the easiest job in the world is to be one of Jon Stewart’s writers; it occurs to me once again that the people who should talk the least in our society are the very ones who never seem to shut up.
The number one problem with political speech would appear to be the massive size and warp of the egos producing it. So is Joe Biden an ego? Can he be said to have an ego, big or otherwise? My answers to these questions would be, “No, and not really — not absolutely, anyway.” And that may require a little explaining. So it is time for me to put a little meaning where my own mouth is and answer the perfectly good and natural question: WTF is ego?
Ego is a Latin word indicating the pronoun I. It is taken from the ancient Greek word Εγώ, which has the same pronunciation. You may be interested to know that our English pronunciation of the ancient word is a distortion of the original — and that already offers a clue to its modern meaning. You see, in both Latin and Greek, the letter E (or epsilon in Greek) wasn’t used with the long-e pronunciation (“eee-go”), but always had a short sound (“eh-go”). The ancient languages used the letter I (iota in Greek) for that “eee” sound.*
And that linguistic distortion leads us to a discussion of the characteristics of ego. It is a noun, but does not represent a thing or a person. Ego, in fact, is an illusion, a non-entity with respect to Nature.** From a substantive standpoint, the best that can said of it is that, like many illusions, it tends to spawn appearances and effects that may seem real — and often are, unfortunately. Ego is best understood through a delineation of its prominent characteristics, which are as follows.
Distortion: This is ego’s primary and fundamentally defining trait. Ego is the funhouse mirror of intellectual and emotional life. It describes what is real, but with the features warped out of their natural proportion; it blurs the edges, twists shapes, and makes up things to obscure the original reality (see Invention and Disguise below). One of ego’s favorite activities in this regard is the half-truth. This kind of distortion infects our discourse like a virus, making what is relative into the definitive. Here’s a typical example: I recently discovered a half-truth that was affecting my emotional response to the job search that has absorbed me for so long. I was forcing myself to put up with endless delays and obstructions, and even blaming myself for not saintfully enduring them all, under the influence of the belief, “patience is a virtue,” expressed as an unconditional truth. Most of the cultural bromides under which our natural selves quietly groan are actually conditional truths that by no means apply to all circumstances.
Fabrication: Ego seems to delight in its capacity for making shit up. The baffier it all is, the better. Gods and Prophets and Saints and Martyrs and Heroes and Devils and Anti-Gods and Demons; and those great wrappers to all of these, Good and Evil. All these monuments made out of shadows: it is no wonder that our natural selves are covered in darkness through much of our lives. And then the monuments are arrayed in an org-chart style hierarchy, with you — you and your true and beautiful real nature, whose copy has never existed and never will — lying in (sorry, Mr. Biden) chains below this vast hierarchy of powerful Deities and Sub-Deities and all their earthly Priests and Gurus and Wordly Bosses. Along with all of this fantastical invention, however, comes emotional invention that is devious, destructive, and brutish to the extreme. The parade here is led by Guilt. In all of the great Cosmos and Nature, there is no such thing as Guilt. It is purely an invention of human ego, a vast pillar of poisonous, choking smoke created by an insular cabal, which I call the medieval ego, to oppress and wound the masses. I can think of no better example of the gross abuse of language than to simply point out the difference between plain remorse and guilt. Remorse is Nature at work: consciousness of error and recognition of the need for correction. Guilt is an indelible stain that becomes a part of you (most of our world’s religions make Sin and Guilt a part of your true nature, a primordial Fail that can only be fixed after you’re dead). What we see in this example is the action of ego-invention with the influence of distortion.
Disguise: Ego loves pretense; it loves to pretend. Like the Emperor of the popular children’s tale, it will stand naked and oozing poison from its every pore and tell you all about its beautiful raiment, its lovely body, its perfect structure and form. Cultural institutions are very good at this game, which is frequently played with — you’ve got it — words. We’re fair and balanced — see, there are the words, look no further than what is plainly visible on your screen. We build glori0us statues to Justice and Peace and Spirituality and Truth and Wisdom with such an Orwellian transparency and reversal of symbol and reality, and woe to the fool who dares to question or look beyond that surface!
Falsehood: Everything ego does, says, thinks, and emotes is either outright falsehood or is tainted with it. Falsehood is a very good thing for ego to have, because it helps us to detect its presence. Falsehood gives ego its discordant quality; and that’s a trait for which we can, as individuals, develop a very nice radar. What in our ordinary experience answers to this dynamic? The parent-child relationship is probably the best example: parents can deeply sense when their kid is telling a tall one, and kids can smell a line of parental or authority-based bullshit even before the first turd has hit the ground before them. But among our cultural institutions and in many personal and professional relationships, we tend to lose touch with that radar. For falsehood frequently joins forces with disguise, invention, and/or distortion to make what is manifestly false appear gleamingly, enticingly, flatteringly true. “We are God’s chosen people, it says so right here in this book, on the lintel of this temple, etc.” “Ours is the greatest nation on Earth, in History — I am the President (or the Pundit or the Patriot) and I know this to be true.”
Fear: Ego carries two emotional trump cards, one up each sleeve. One of them is Guilt, which we’ve covered under Invention, above. Guilt, to any reflecting person, can obviously be exposed as mere invention, something made-up to keep people afraid and subjected. Fear is a more nebulous factor. Is it real? It’s a very interesting question for philosophers. A famous treatment of the question was done by the American psychologist and philosopher William James, in his thought-experiment about running from a bear. James suggested that the fear-response is not a primary one, but rather a derived or secondary response to a neuro-physiological reaction connected with something else. Instinct? Natural caution? Who really knows? So fear’s status as a primary, let alone natural part of our emotional makeup is ambiguous. Thus, being cautious, we’ll set it aside here, allowing for the possibility that fear has a place within ourselves rather than being a kind of parasympathetic illusion derived from a particular combination of stimulus and response. For however that may all be, ego’s manipulation of fear is one of its emotional hallmarks. Ego and its institutions can, with scarcely a shred of evidence, make you afraid of other people, strangers, enemies, ideas, natural desires, feelings — even afraid of yourself, of your flaws and your guilt-inducing natural defects of character. Where fear is, there suspicion shall be. Ego trains us, drills us in fear and suspicion, and perpetually creates an ever-deepening vortex of both.
The Dichotomous Action of Ego
So there we have the prominent tools and attributes of ego. What about its action, its methods, its instruments of infiltration? In my own experience, I’ve seen that as defined predominantly by what I call oppositional dichotomy. Now dichotomy means, “division or cutting into two,” and many dictionaries will add: “…usually of two contradictory or opposing parts, opinions, approaches, etc.” That last is the ego-aspect of it, which I’ll explain further below. Ego just loves this splitting; for splitting complex, nuanced, layered things into two garishly separate parts is ego’s specialty when it comes to action. For or against? Republican or Democrat? White or Minority? Religious or Atheist? With US or with the Terrorists? On the bus or off the bus? Ego won’t tolerate anything that deviates from the dichotomies that it defines for you; and the dichotomous parts must always be opposed, the more violently and brutishly, the better.
Even science gets tangled up in two (sorry, Bob Dylan). I’ve written at length about the story of Schrodinger’s Cat, a classic story from the history of science in which a dichotomy was applied to a situation (a quantum state) whose reality firmly resisted the splitting. We all get confused about dichotomy, because our bodies seem built that way: we are one species composed of two genders, and each individual comes with 2 arms, legs, nostrils, eyes, ears, lungs, kidneys, heart chambers, testicles, feet, hands, labia, etc., etc. But ego adds that insidiously oppositional element or tone to natural dichotomy, and this is where ego comes off as laughably goofy: dexteram and sinistra — the Latin words meaning “right” and “left” — roots of the words dexterous and sinister. Ego wants us to believe that even the dichotomous parts of our bodies are opposed to one another!
But again, there is good fortune: oppositional dichotomy is another area in which you can train your ego-radar. If you feel like you’re being cornered with expressions such as “which do you belong to?” or “which side do you fall on?” or simply feel pressed by a yes/no / for/against mindset, then ego is trying to push you around, trying to take you out of yourself. For while we could debate whether opposition (e.g., between poles of an axis or current; between animals in predator v. prey situations, that kind of stuff) actually exists in Nature (I’d suggest that such a debate would be on a similar basis with the discussion of fear, above) — it should be obvious that there are alternative ways of looking at dichotomy than according to the iron terms of opposition.
One such alternative is the notion of complementarity. My own teachers, Carol Antony and Hanna Moog, have written at length about this distinction (see in particular Article #9 at that link). They make the point that there is no objective opposition or conflict (again, where opposition is, there conflict shall be) in a system defined by complementarity; and they use the cosmos at large as their primary illustration. There is no natural opposition between Heaven and Earth; between body or matter and however you may designate the Formless (spirit, soul, noumena, etc.); between body and mind or brain and heart. They remind us that there is no such thing as a division between our “higher nature” and “lower nature,” because such terms are judgments based on ego’s belief in opposition, and not at all on what exists within Nature. Finally, they point out that the term “higher power” is itself an ego-delusion, since both hierarchy and power (power as the controlling or dominating force of one being over another) are themselves falsehoods.
I’d add one point to that, which is about the illusion of division, of the dual. I have found that, when it comes to speaking of dichotomies, it makes sense to take the mathematics out of the discussion entirely. Which lung is your Master Breather? Which ventricle of your heart is the real Power-Pumper? Which leg or foot is the Number One Walker? Silly, right? So why bother to even talk about them as two? They are united, they are a Great One, right? And my answer is: not even that. Not in essence two, not truly one — just undivided.
The advantage of removing the mathematical aspect of the dichotomy from our thinking (I know it seems counter-intuitive, which is to say against how we’ve been trained to think, and believe me, I’m still working on it myself) — the advantage is that we weaken the opposition-potential, the conflict-tendency of our thinking about dichotomies; and by doing so we invite a new actor into our inner work with ego. That new actor is the heart, our feeling-nature, and the deep senses that we tend to deny or suppress but are actually present in our very language! We can smell trouble; an idea can sound false or wrong; we can see a way through a problem — when there is no external matter for olfactory, aural, or visual sensation. This is our animal-wisdom at work, and it reveals yet another reason why we need to reject any hierarchical division of our human and animal natures. Consider your own brain: the so-called “higher brain” — the cerebral cortex — does some great and essential stuff, no doubt. But it is your “lower brain” (sometimes called the “reptilian brain”) that is responsible for your basic life functions: breathing, appetite, heartbeat, temperature regulation, balance or kinesthesis, and sexual activity. That little “reptile” is why you’re able to wake up in the morning and live your “higher brain’s” life.
So again, these separate brains are not two, not one, not zero; just undivided. But if, for reasons of study or discussion, or merely because of the limitations of our language, we have to speak of them separately, we had better consider them as qualitative equals. There’s a far better case to make for them as functional co-equals within the living body than for the fantasy that they are feudally divided as king and subject or God and sinner. The more regard and even love that you give to your animal nature, the more freely will you live apart from the trap of ego; the more deeply you live the experience of wholeness, the further will your life rise from the shadowy distortions of ego.***
*This warping of pronunciation is quite common in English, and is amusingly present in reference to the name of a planet. The original Greek word Οὐρανός (ouranos), meaning sky or heavens, is properly pronounced “ooo’-ra-nos” with a little roll of the “r.” Somehow, in English this turned into “Your-Anus” as the way we say the name of the planet Uranus, much to the delight of children and comedians. The humor has persisted even in the face of an altered modern pronunciation (“Urine-Us”), so there’s no getting this poor planet’s name out of the potty anymore.
**This is important to remember, mainly because (as Anthony and Moog have also pointed out) people cannot be said to have egos. An ego is not a thing you possess, because it is not real. That is, because its nature is distortion of what already is, ego has no substance, no vitality beyond what it steals as image and energy from actual, often living, things. We cannot then speak accurately of a person’s ego but rather of his ego-behavior or ego-influence; that alone causes trouble enough.
***It has occurred to me that some mention of alternative conceptions of ego may be mentioned in passing. It’s been a long time since I studied and practiced Buddhism, but my feeling is that my description of ego harmonizes fairly well with most Buddhistic conceptions, though I prefer to focus on how a lazy or self-referential use of language characterizes ego. The other well-known delineation of ego is of course the psychological one, led by Freud’s strange description. I probably shouldn’t comment on it at all, except to point out that I have nothing to do with Freud’s ideas about ego. First off, he seemed to think of ego as something real, that is, something with a neurological substance to it. Second, he saw ego as a natural force for individual health and social good, which I obviously can’t agree with. But as you can see, I was influenced by the rhythm of one of his most famous phrases on this topic (“where id was, there ego shall be”); and I tend to agree with him that ego draws (or I would say, parasitically steals) energy from both the conscious and unconscious mind. But on balance, Freud’s concept of ego is itself a vast invention of ego (my idea of ego, that is); for it became a part of an ideology, a religion of sorts, defined by opposition (between id or what I refer to as animal nature and ego) and hierarchy among lower and higher elements of the psyche. In short, Freud’s entire system, his psychology, is one of the more tormented, confusing, and appalling creations of ego.