Friday, March 21, 2008

Ego and Egolessness

"We could perceive the absence of ego at a single glance. But we would not accept such a simple truth. In other words, we have to learn in order to unlearn. The whole process if that of undoing the ego."
-Chogyam Trungpa, from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Ego asserts itself in subtle and various ways. Ego is persistent and cunning. One must always be wary of ego asserting itself. Ego, once it has fulfilled its basic function of providing a secure foundation on which one bases one's confidence, should be negated. This negation of ego requires vigilant awareness and tenacious training. Because ego, left to its own devices, will assert itself, over and over again. Without proper moral education, an individual is at the mercy of his or her ego. Ego is clever and powerful. Ego is the root of distasteful behavior, and of course, the root of much, much worse. Utter altruism, Christ-like sacrifice of self, Buddha-like cosmic consciousness — in a word, egolessness — is the goal.

Yet, one would be wrong to say, "Oh, yes, I have no ego" or "I am always egoless" because the self-asserting nature of ego is a part of human nature. Of course, one can train, one can practice the negation of the over-assertion of ego, one can doggedly avoid instances of the ego's over-assertion. Nevertheless, the assertion of ego itself is natural. The ego is this very tendency of the self to assert itself. The ego is that which asserts itself for the purposes of survival and dominance. The ego desires superiority.

Let us look at an example. A man and his attractive date walk into a crowded party. At this moment, the man's ego wants to demonstrate its position among the other egos in the room. The ego itself wants to demonstrate some form of superiority. This instinct, if unchecked, may lead the man to approach the host of the party in order to say hello. But perhaps the man is not even friends with the host, perhaps the man, in fact, has no real relationship with the host at all, and moreover, no genuine need to approach the host at that given moment. Let us assume the host is engaged in conversation with another guest, and in essence, the man intrudes upon this conversation, again, so that he, the man, might demonstrate his importance amongst the group. Generally the result is a form of awkwardness, a sense of something forced, the sense of something not quite right. This is the overreaching ego. One need not engage with another person without purpose. For example, if the man had brought a bottle of wine and simply desired to deliver this bottle of wine to the host, this necessity would provide a more natural occasion for their greeting one another. But, here too, the ego could very well have asserted itself. One must observe very carefully. What was the man's intention when he purchased the bottle of wine? There are only two options: a. Generosity. He said to himself, "I will bring my host a bottle of wine to show my gratitude." or b. Ego-assertion. He said to himself at the moment of purchase, "I will bring wine and this will make me look good and this will give me occasion to approach my much esteemed host in order to present him with a gift." (Or c. A mixture of a and b, a scenario that is little better that b itself.) Our task is vigilance. We must observe our motivations and intentions with the utmost scrutiny. In any act at all, one can look and see if the ego is over-asserting itself, or, if in fact, said act is rooted in a positive intention, such as generosity. Each and every human gesture is subject to this crucial examination.

Even as I write, I am ever wary of ego asserting itself. "Have I written this sentence to sound smart, to show off, to impress someone so that they think more of me?" or "Have I written this sentence with the express purpose of simply sharing my thought, with the goal (if ever so slim) of successful self-expression which may lead to some form of edification or enlightenment (or perhaps merely simple pleasure) in my reader?" Every sentence, every spoken word, every human gesture ultimately bends in the precarious winds of our original intentions. One way or another, a gesture has its root. (Often, sadly, a kind of mindless ignorance.) No gesture is free from such ruthless scrutiny. Tenacious watchfulness is our duty.

These examples, the man at the party, or the writer at his writing desk, are merely two examples culled from the whole spectrum of human gestures, the plethora of human activities. We would do well to observe our intentions in every moment, particularly, in more serious situations, when of course, such self-awareness grows increasingly difficult. I am thinking of situations involving sex and money. Ego can assert itself in the final moment of seduction, after a series of beautiful, mutually-pursued kisses, ego can rear its ugly, monstrous head, and turn something wonderful into a crime. Ego can also assert itself in even the most philanthropic of moments. One must ask oneself the question: Why am I handing this homeless man a dollar? Why am I donating ten thousand dollars to this foundation? Why is this money passing from one hand to another? We would do well to know the answers to these questions.

Ego is a sophisticated enemy. It has grown stronger and more clever over the thousands of years of its evolution. But the inner light, the personal conscience, the moral compass within, is stronger and more clever yet — so long as it stays awake.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Self-Reflective "I am" Statements

"If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so on, also, of self-description is thus false."
-Thomas Bernhard, from Walking

I cringe when I hear someone utter the phrase, "Generally I am a kind person" or "Usually I am a kind person". Chances are this statement is uttered when said person is either not practicing kindness or else relating a story in which he or she failed to practice kindness. The problem lies not with the person — who may in fact have a history of kindness, a verifiable pattern of kind gestures, a genuinely kind character — but with the nature of self-reflective statements themselves. Self-reflective statements — "I am" statements — cast back in on themselves in such a way as to render them meaningless. Someone could proclaim his essential kindness to me until he were blue in the proverbial face, yet these professions would never change the fact that only an accumulation of kind gestures over time make a kind person.

Take me for example...

a. I am philosophical.
b. The proclivity for philosophy is my dominant characteristic.
c. At every opportunity, my mind tends to appropriate the real for the purpose of practicing philosophy.
d. Observing my personal history, one notices a persistent predilection for the practice of philosophy, the dogged pursuit of wisdom, the rather dull task of the naming of this and that, etc.
e. I philosophize, therefore I am.

There are many ways in which I may express my philosophical nature. The worst of all of these ways is the self-reflective "I am" statement. Why? Whereas forms b through e above demonstrate the actual practice of philosophy, statement a is empty and meaningless, the sound of an echo in a cave. Statement b is closest to statement a, but in a weaker, and thereby truer, form. Statement c posits "my mind" as the subject, thereby avoiding the empty absurdity of statement a. Statement d actual offers possible definitions of philosophy, as well as positing the neutral third person "one" as the observing subject. Statement e achieves its meaning via allusion. Only statement a is flat and listless.

Why are self-reflective statements inherently flawed? The answer is complex and profound. I offer two brief explanations.

a. Ultimately, the self dissolves into the universal. The deeper one goes into one's self, the more one discovers the ocean of consciousness, the unified field, the totality of all things. Ultimately, then, the self is non-existent. There is no kind self, only kind gestures. There is no self, only character.

b. The problem with self-reflective statements is linked to the Liar's Paradox. The statement "This statement is false" refers to itself. Notice the paradox: If the statement is true, it's false; if it's false, it's true. Similarly, when language is appropriated by the individual solely for the purpose of verifying the existence of the individual (in one way or another, either one is kind or philosophical or beautiful, etc, either way, one is), language loses its meaning. "I am" statements, then, appropriate language in such a way as to falsify it. In other words, language in the service of ego is a false and lying language. Language speaks of itself, always and only in the service of truth. Through us, language sings.

This thought has bounced around the old noggin for years now. Philosophy, practiced correctly, ought to change behavior. Increased awareness causes the change. The next time I think of saying "I am such and such", I will think twice. That said, if the purpose of my claim is simply to uplift my spirits — "I am happy today!" — then, by all means, I'll cry out my self-reflective statement with gusto. But perhaps we could learn, ever so slowly, to wean ourselves off such statements. The next time I consider saying "I am kind", perhaps I'll simply be kind. The next time I think to say "I am philosophical", I'll instead actually practice philosophy. And the next time I want to say "I am happy", I'll just smile.