Taming the Ego

Religion is not Spirituality. Might be considered a companion piece to Science is not Technology.

People talk about their “lizard brains” and “monkey minds” as though those are the same things, namely these unasked for voices that draw us into behaviours that make us feel that we “weren’t ourselves”. In a very real way, though, those are different, and we would be well-advised to learn to deal with them in different ways. The Lizard Brain is the most “primitive” part of the mind… that is to say that it developed earliest and is most concerned with root survival. This is the part of the brain that runs the involuntary parts of our bodies, keeps us breathing, our hearts beating, and our systems functioning. It is also the part that triggers the “flight-or-fight” response, the heightened sense of awareness and agitation that evolved to keep us alive but now functions to keep us in a constant state of anxiety. This part of the mind has three main goals: get enough to eat, don’t get eaten, make babies. It is the root of our “baser” instincts, operating (literally) at the base of the brain. Anger, lust, hunger, fear. Out of control impulses, the kind of terror that induces nausea (even in the face of something as routine as walking into the office). Fight or flight.

The “Monkey Mind”, on the other hand, refers to the operations that developed out of becoming social animals, ones who stayed around to raise the babies they made, and increasingly lived in groups. These parts of the mind are devoted to looking outside ourselves, concerned with status, position, how other people perceive us, whether our social standing is threatened. In a very real way, though, the Monkey Mind sits on top of the Lizard Brain. These concerns are more sophisticated ways of dealing with the underlying fears and drives: get enough to eat, don’t get eaten, make babies. They refocus our energies on the ways in which we can enhance our chances of taking care of those drives, but they do them in social ways. The monkey mind is concerned with connection, power, dominance, and ingratiation. “Oh, I will never be lovable!” “What do you think he meant when he said that?” Anything about political machinations… Monkey.

And then, we have the neo-cortex. Oooh. Ahhh. That’s what makes us human, dontcha know? Rational thought, presiding over all those lower brain parts. Abstraction, pondering, hypothesizing, reasoning. Also justification, explanation, lying.

There’s a level of consciousness that has been observed in chimpanzees that manifests like this: When a chimpanzee spies a particularly tasty piece of fruit, sometimes he shares it with everybody. That is the “cultural” solution that ensures social stability. But sometimes he sees the piece of fruit, and looks around to see whether anybody is looking, and then if he has been seen, he *pretends that nothing is happening*. This is a complex state of mind… he not only sees himself being seen, but he also knows that the other ape, looking at him, will notice that he has noticed something. (“I know that you know that I know…”) So he dissembles. Deceives. Lies.

Don’t let them tell you that human beings are the only ones who…

But there is something more. There is something in us that can hear the voices in our heads, can hear how absurd they are, can work with them, corral them, placate, question, nurture, diffuse and defuse them. This is (depending on your story) the watcher, the true self, concsiousness, pure being, the heart… the number of ways of talking about it are innumerable. After years of exploration, my best understanding of The Religions in their various mystical traditions is that they are paths to listening, ways to still the voices long enough to hear that which lies beneath. In their more rules-based guises, these provide, rather than paths to the deeper self, direct strictures to deal with the voices, without having to address them directly.

If you look at the mystical, direct, immanent teachings across a wide range of religious traditions, you see the same things arising again and again. We develop practices to help the individual work with the voices, to limit the ways in which the ego gets around us, to limit the ammunition that it has in its arsenal. We choose particular restrictions on our sexuality to prevent the ego from seeking sexual proof of its existence and attraction. We make rules about meditation practice because there is good evidence (through the thousands of years) that inward-looking spiritual practices give us good ways to work with and see the illusion of the ego. We make rules against violence because it is ineffective. It doesn’t even have to be “wrong”; it simply doesn’t work if what we are seeking is an enlightened society. Or we develop highly specialized forms of violence (martial arts) in which it is a necessary component, but the ego is asked to step aside by years of conditioning and practice. In all these cases, though, the rules are transmitted from one generation of teachers to the next generation of learners in the capacity of seeking self-discipline. SELF. These are practices for working with one’s OWN ego.

But the ego as an entity is a sneaky thing. It reasserts itself in the most subtle of ways as a person (especially the student of a master) takes on the teaching role and assumes responsibility for the practices and development of his/her students. Then the practices become, rather than freely taken on sets of restrictions, rules that we attempt to assert on the people around us. As it evolves, and takes on the role of an institutional religion, the practices are asserted as tools of control even on the unwilling, and those who follow different sets of practices. In this way, the institution of religion, by taking on the responsibility for involuntary participants, does more to jeopardize these people. No longer free to find their own way to spirit, they are reduced in a lifetime to attempting to maintain a modicum of agency. It equally pushes the oppressors away from this form of development, away from the teachings of the original teacher, and thus another round of the emergence of mystical practices is necessary.

The other thing that we must remind ourselves of here is that these are practices. In the same way as a musician must practice, the student of the mystical tradition, committed to finding the divine in themself must work with the voices. Meditation, learning to disidentify, learning to find the inner control to steer thoughts, to override ego-driven fears and drives, to make choices in each instant… these rely on having chosen to practice, not having been forced to. Just as a student who learns to play under the domination of a parent may become technically competent, if they never make the choice for themselves, they will not choose to remain so. They can learn to follow the rules as a game without making the necessary internal changes. This leaves them ripe for failure, for abuse of their positions, as they can become quite successful in an institutional setting by following the rules and developing theoretical knowledge of the system, without having internalized its teachings. The position of spiritual leader is enticing, to have followers, to be lauded and placed on a pedestal… how many have fallen because they fell to the more subtle machinations of the ego, “decided” not to follow their own rules, or became so obsessed with imposing them on others that they betrayed their own deepest principles?

What we must learn is that, not only can we not do the practice for other people, we can’t even tell them which practices to follow. In being egoless, we can offer our own practices as possible paths to the divine, but it is not our job to make other people follow them. We cannot save other people’s souls; in fact, in attempting to, we almost certainly jeopardize our own.

There is a paradox here, because I am (in essence) telling you how to behave to save yourself, and telling you that you cannot tell others how to behave themselves. Here is how I resolve this. I am not trying to convince you that this is correct. If you are committed to saving other’s souls (even mine) and you determine to use force to do so, I cannot stop you. You can take over our shared spaces, create laws that impose your practices on my life and my body, and congratulate yourself on your certainty. But I assure you (according to my path), I am still closer to that consciousness by practicing non-violence.

A caution to the screaming preacher: If you are taking responsibility for the lives of the entire North American population, your ego is so enormous that it has learned to identify with the bodies of hundreds of millions of people. Getting from there to heaven is going to be an Eye of the Needle kind of situation.