What’s Really Going on Here?
The Ego and Evolution – Part 1
If you were to take a step back right now, and if you were to look at the whole world of human experience from a normal human perspective, what would things look like?
I like to watch the News Hour on PBS. It seems to me that the typical format for that hour-long show is a hard look at all things that appear to be going wrong, followed by 5 or 10 minutes of what might be called “feel good” stories. If you take that format as reflective of the daily human story, I think you might say that there are lots of very troubling things going on. The fires… the floods… poverty and homelessness… deadly viruses, civil unrest and rebellion, dysfunctional politics and other institutions, war, and so on.
One bumper sticker I’ve seen recently says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. Someone who displays that message or something like it probably feels that, from a certain perspective, things are pretty terrible right now.
One thing I’ve been thinking about is, what point of view is that? In other words, from what point of view might things look terrible?
A point of view from which things look terrible certainly starts with one from which things should be a certain way and they’re obviously not that way. There’s something wrong… maybe many things, and maybe very wrong.
The term I like to use for this point of view, the one from which things aren’t the way they should be, is The Ego. Now I know, “ego” has a specific meaning in the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. But I’m using it the way ordinary folks use it. The ego is that “independent agent” within us that feels like it’s out of control but also that it needs to be in control. It’s that place within us that perceives threats and devises measures to protect us. It’s also that place that needs to be constantly stroked in order to keep feelings of inadequacy at bay.
It’s useful, I think, to look deeply and dispassionately at this thing called the Ego, this point of view from which things can look terrible. We might start by asking, “Where does the Ego come from? How does it arise?”
Well, I would argue that the Ego gets its start in the newborn infant. It starts with an infant who is helpless, who depends on larger people for its every need. It can’t feed itself, it can’t clean itself, or keep itself warm. Every need must be satisfied through reliance on someone else. So the ego starts out feeling like it has no control at all, and as the infant grows, it tries to regain that control.
I’ve spoken in this podcast before of the infant representing a pure soul, a child of God, coming forth into the world with the purpose of expressing itself uniquely and authentically.
Here you have a powerful being, made from Being itself, seemingly without any power to control the circumstances of its own life. See the contradiction here? Can you feel the tension created by a being unable to express as itself? Yes, of course, it will be increasingly able to do so as it grows and matures, but we’re talking about these first few weeks and months of life on Earth.
Now how does the infant deal with this contradiction? It can’t yet think logically about its predicament. It certainly can’t yet deal with the line of logical thought we’re engaged in now. But as its unique blend of characteristics emerges, it develops a personality, a way of being in the world. And that personality gets drafted into the service of trying to help the infant recover its power, the power that was given away to those who helped it survive and grow.
How does the infant go about trying to recover its power? Remember, the power we’re talking about is the power to control its own life, its own circumstances. Well, very early on it discovers that it can dominate its environment by screaming. It discovers that it can bring attention to its needs by making noise that no one around can ignore.
As it grows, this Being finds new and more sophisticated ways of gaining more control. It learns ways to manipulate those around it, ways of bending others to its will. Some do it by whining and complaining, some by bullying, some by reasoning with others. This is the Ego, polishing its strategies for getting what it wants, finding ways to dominate others and avoid domination, masking its whining and bullying with socially-acceptable words and actions, and all the while pretending to be a grownup.
Does this sound familiar? It certainly does to me. I want to emphasize here that there’s only one way to recover real power, and that’s to stop giving it away. It’s to stop pretending that you don’t have it. And you can’t ask anybody to give you back your power, because in asking them to do so you’re just emphasizing that they have it and you don’t, which gives them the power all over again!
Anyway, It seems to me that this pretending to be grown up is what we see today on a global scale. We have been conditioned to see 7 billion or so rational actors out there trying to work things out. On the other hand, maybe what we really see is the same number of egos trying to recover personal power through manipulation while just pretending to be rational actors. And I would argue that we are all creating vast amounts of chaos and destruction in the process.
Assuming that some of this rings a bell with you, my next question is, how did things get to be this way?
Our history books tell us that the Age of Reason was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It very effectively dealt with one class of problems, which involved blind devotion to authority figures, usually religious ones. It started the process of getting people to think for themselves. Since then, we humans have become very proud of our rationality and problem-solving abilities.
But you need two things to solve problems. You need a solution of course, but you also need the will to employ it. And, of course, many people these days are asking if, for example, we have the will to do what needs to be done to deal with the climate crisis in time.
See, we have the benefit of several centuries of development of our rational problem-solving skills. And yet we have thus far been unable to focus our collective energies in such as way as to enable us to make much progress on these issues. Again, why is that?
Well, let’s think some more about that Ego I talked about earlier. You and I tend to think we’ve got one, like an individual ego, like I have mine and you have yours. From that perspective, we, or at least I, tend to feel guilty or ashamed of how “sticky”, how seductive that ego is, how hard it is to get it out of the way.
But let’s shift gears for a moment. I want to introduce a metaphor from physics that may help us understand this ego a bit better. There was a time when it was hard to understand how gravity could exert its influence over great distances with no obvious connection between, let’s say, the sun and the earth. This so-called “action at a distance” was difficult to grasp intuitively, but it got much easier when someone came up with the idea of the gravitational field.
Think about the idea of that field. It’s everywhere. It’s invisible, but at every point in space it has the capacity to affect anything that happens to be there. We are all immersed in the gravitational field, and you always know on some level that you are in it. We don’t puzzle over it anymore. We just take it for granted.
Now imagine that like those fields, the Ego is also everywhere. You can’t see it, but you sure know you’re in it. I like to call it the Egoic Field. You could say it represents mass consciousness. What’s it like being immersed in that field? Well, I think if we’re honest, everywhere we look we see people acting as if they’re mostly Ego. We humans try to manipulate those around us, even (or maybe especially) if they’re loved ones. We whine and complain, we try to reason with others to get them to agree with us, and we just generally employ the strategies we learned long ago to get what we want. And we often pretend to be truly listening to one another when what we’re really doing is trying to think of ways to win an argument or convince ourselves that we are right in our ideas.
I think you can see everywhere the effects of being in that field. But here’s a simple example from my daily life. Lately, when I’m driving out on the highway, I notice that the tone and manner of the communication among drivers has changed. Long ago, when my Dad taught me to drive, he showed me one example of the way things used to be. He showed me that if you were in the passing lane and you wanted to go faster than the guy in front of you, you pulled up to a respectful distance behind him and flashed your lights. Then you would ease back a bit and wait for him to move over. You might call this “getting your way through requesting”.
Now, however, the same communication seems to be delivered by pulling up to a separation that is both illegal and dangerous and staying there until the guy in front gets uncomfortable enough to move over. This might be called “getting your way through intimidation”. I picture that as the Egoic field getting more strident, more aggressive. And I see that “getting your way through intimidation”… everywhere.
A conventional viewpoint about all this would be that all changes or fluctuations in the Egoic field are a result of rational actors making choices in the aggregate. Much of the science of economics is based on that idea.
But if you stand back, way back, from that whole thing, and take into account the sense of powerlessness we tend to feel in the face of it, you can imagine that the Egoic field is somehow dominant, that it’s actually running things, that it has a purpose of its own. If so, what might that purpose be? What might the global Ego really be up to?
You can certainly think of the gravitational field as having a purpose, and that is to hold everything together. After all, without gravity we couldn’t walk, or dance, or play ball. We couldn’t lie on our backs and look at the stars, or experience our world as we know it.
So what’s the purpose, the aim, of the global Ego? I suggest to you that its purpose is… its own survival. It appears that in order to survive, the Ego, which is a function simply of the story we all tell about ourselves, cannot afford to be viewed, to be seen as a thing. So it has trained us to think of itself, the global Ego, as a character defect inside each of us.
See, the Ego wants to stay in control. It’s programmed to do that. So it masquerades as us. It speaks with our voices and it urges us to fulfill its aims. As long as we think that the voice with which it speaks to us is our voice, we don’t recognize it for what it is.
And make no mistake… the Egoic field is insidious. The word insidious means “proceeding in a subtle, gradual way but with harmful effect”. You could even say that the Ego has essentially enslaved us, it has insured that we will do its bidding by pitting us against one another, and it is really only interested in its own survival.
I admit, this is a pretty devastating picture of human life on Earth. However, I’m convinced that, in the sense of honest acknowledgement, if you don’t get there you don’t get any farther. So I’ll let this settle in for a bit. In Part 2, I’ll share what I believe to be the way out, and I’ll talk about how that might play out.