In my last post, entitled “Here’s the Thing,” I proposed that we think of the Ego in global terms. That idea seems to have a lot of folks scratching their heads.
Normally, we think of “my ego,” or “your ego.”
In that personal context, the ego is often thought of as a character defect.
You can see that in our use of terms such as “egotism,” or “egocentrism.” These terms represent distinct concepts in psychology. But when I focus my attention on any of those words, I can feel the subtle implication that the person referred to is being something other than selfless. Of course, very few of us feel that we can honestly apply that word, “selfless,” to ourselves.
Now, we’re often critical of what we think of as character defects in others, even though we usually keep those judgements to ourselves. And hopefully we can then find a way to forgive those others. When we recognize them in ourselves, however, we’re often find ourselves embarrassed, and then we feel we have to somehow make up for those supposed defects with apologies. Sometimes we then make resolutions to put the ego aside and thus be more present, truthful, or authentic.
All of this makes it seem that the ego is some kind of unwanted baggage.
Many of us attempt to hide this supposed character defect in ourselves. We pretend we’re not being egotistical, or selfish, or only interested in making ourselves feel good. We often try to cover up what we think of as our own egocentrism. Egocentrism is simply looking at the world from our own personal vantage point. Trying to cover that up amounts to pretending that we can see the world from somewhere else than where we stand. Since we can’t actually do that, we find ourselves stressed out in the attempt.
However, as I have previously suggested, we could also consider the Ego a global phenomenon, the water we swim in, that colors or distorts everything we look at. In that case, we don’t feel the need to apologize or make up for following the ego’s dictates, because we’re all in it together.
I call the global Ego the Egoic Field, or just “The Thing.”
The other day I received a great question from Brad, who asked, given that human cultures are so varied, how could we consider the Ego as a common, usually unnoticed “sea” in which we’re all embedded. I thought I’d take this opportunity to answer him, because others may have that same question.
To begin, I will say that he’s right, of course… human cultures are amazingly varied, and each of our cultures is reflected in the languages that flourish in the context of each of those ways of looking at the world. However, once you start looking for similarities, for ideas that are consistent across virtually all human cultures and languages, you can begin to construct a universal ground of being that all humans share.
Let me see if I can drill down into the bedrock of that universal ground of being and offer some sense of why the Ego can usefully be considered global.
So let’s think about that common bedrock, about what we all believe so deeply that we take it for granted.
Have you noticed, especially in the current context leading up to election season, the emphasis we place on the word “fight”?
We’re fighting for this or that, and we’re fighting against other stuff. We fight to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be respected. We commit ourselves to the fight, and we urge others to join us in fighting against all the things we believe are wrong in the world.
So I ask you: what if the word “fight” carries within it a hidden assumption we all make? What if that assumption, that there are experiences and conditions in life that shouldn’t be the way they are, and that they therefore have to be fought against, turned out to be a superstition?
We’ve probably all had the experience of watching other people’s superstitions control their actions, such as not stepping on a crack, not walking under a ladder, or making sure we “knock on wood.” How can I possibly suggest that regarding certain aspects of life as wrong, or that they came “out of the blue,” or that they’re random, belongs in the same category as avoiding black cats?
Actually, I’m suggesting that there exists another way to look at all the experiences and conditions that aren’t to our liking. Rather than thinking of them as wrong, or that they shouldn’t be, we can instead think of them as lessons, or challenges, or opportunities to open up new pathways along our life journeys. We can even think of these challenges as having a purpose, which is to afford ourselves opportunities to regain our personal power, our ability to live our lives, not as making the best of the hand we’re dealt but as a daring adventure in the possibilities of being human.
Now if you recognize yourself in the preceding thought, don’t be discouraged.
It’s just that ground of being I was referring to. We’re all in it, so we don’t have to be defensive about it in the least. We’re all living in a hidden assumption, that who we are can be injured, or prevented from living our lives to the fullest, or that we need to fight for or against anything. But I suggest that illusion of our common ground of being goes deeper than that.
Let me offer some personal background: I got excited about physics in high school, and by the time I went off to college I was what I’d call a determinist. In other words, at the time I believed that however the universe got started, it continues to evolve according to fixed laws that are always followed. Even the notion of free will comes into question when you acknowledge that our brains are made of the same stuff that obeys all those laws of physics.
However, about ten years later, I had a personal experience which threw all that into question.
I’ve told that story before, and you can listen to me talk about it in a previous episode, the one I called “The Road Taken.” To make a long story short, in the span of one morning, my belief in determinism got blown out of the water and I became convinced that there are “forces” at work in our lives that we can’t see or even detect with our instruments. I’ve spent the last 40+ years trying to get as full an idea of those forces as I can.
Along the way, I studied quantum physics, and in one of those wonderful “aha!” moments I realized that what I think of as the world isn’t what it seems to be, a fixed external reality about which I really have nothing to say. As they tell students these days in freshman college physics, “…quantum theory denies the existence of a physically real world independent of its observation.” That understanding, which has continued to deepen throughout these decades of inquiry, leads me to speculate that the idea that the world doesn’t care about our beliefs and expectations, that it simply is what it is, is one of those global beliefs that all humans share, no matter what culture we are raised in.
From my perspective, then, the idea that the world is senior to us, that it remains while we come and go, provides foundation for the global ego, that universal “Thing.” And because the world is believed to be finite and thus limited, everybody “knows” that life must be played as a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, the more I get, the less you get, thus requiring competition, some forms of aggression (hopefully socially-acceptable ones), and so on. These beliefs are common to virtually all cultures, and thus act as foundation for this “Thing” that all us humans are embedded in.
The problem for humanity is that when you have virtually the entire population of the planet looking at life through the “Thing,” we’re essentially doing its bidding.
It tells us how to think about our problems, and it suggests the actions we might take in attempting to solve them.
That, I think, provides the ultimate example of what Albert Einstein was referring to when he suggested that you can’t solve problems with the same type of thinking that created them in the first place. Popular cliches to the contrary, the “Thing” will never suggest that you truly think outside the box. That’s because the box that constrains our thoughts consists of what it suggests that you think about! So, in order to really “think outside the box,” we have to first understand that everything we think is true is actually being whispered into our ears by the “Thing.”
As I said last time, the task is not easy, but it is simple. You can come to know the “Thing,” to understand its behavior, and gradually even to free yourself from its hold on you. And there’s no time like right now to get started. In fact, I could say that there is no time other than right now. You’re embedded in “the Thing.” We all are.