…You said recently in a talk in Cork that the ego is outside of ourselves. But then it would seem it’s not our responsibility to tackle it. Can you explain a bit more? Thanks. Mary
Thanks for reminding me of Cork. I remember that that question arose then.
The ego has been called “the fundamental lie,” which is a bit unforgiving, but I know what they mean. Everything has to be ‘at home’ somewhere, everything has to have a truth base; but the ego is a fictional self, so it is whatever you want it to be – or whatever other people want it to be. It is not your real identity, it is a construct. But it has this over other pieces of fiction: it never wants to end; it wants you to believe it is the one and only truth. In that sense it is the fundamental lie.
We all have had millions of experiences in the course of our life. I know that that is vague language, because you could ask: what is a unit of experience? But you know what I mean: if you were to calculate the number of hours you have lived, or the number of minutes, the number would be stunning. I used a calculator just now and saw that a 70-year old person has lived more than 36 million minutes. How many of those does the person remember? We were asleep for about a third of that time, but we were distracted and day-dreaming for a great deal of the rest. Even so, take all the conscious moments we have had, and it is still an astronomical number. From that vast number we select a handful, we put them in a kind of mental album, and we say: that's me! But why did we select those particular moments? It was quite an arbitrary selection, based on emotion and sensitivity and even on chance. That selection can also change - perhaps when there is some powerful new experience: a ‘life-changing experience,’ as we say. But the whole construct amounts to little more than a defence rampart (in most cases nicely decorated). How could that be your truth base, your real identity? It is “the fundamental lie,” yes, but it is a lie so all-embracing that it doesn’t seem a lie at all. It is not a deliberate lie in itself, but its defence leads to a lot of deliberate lies.
If you think of the ego, then, as a sort of defence rampart, it is easy to see that it is not in you but rather between you and the world. It is an arrangement, an accommodation with the world, a kind of conspiracy. It is not your truth base, your true identity; it is not your home.
Does this mean, as you ask, that we have no responsibility for it? On the contrary, we have full responsibility for it. It is of our own making since early childhood (but in collusion with others). Very early in life we begin to learn the manipulative skills we need to survive without too much pain. Over time these become like a second skin. But they are still not you.
In meditation we consciously try to stop telling ourselves this unconscious lie. When we persevere we soon begin to get glimpses through, or over, or around, it. What do we see then?
This is where it becomes very difficult to describe. What you see is not a ‘what’, not a thing or a quality that you can name. If it were, it would immediately become part of the ego’s story. The ‘seeing’ is a different kind of seeing. Ordinary seeing puts everything ‘out there’, like objects – even when it is ourselves we are seeing. But this other ‘seeing’ is much more like ‘becoming’. You are what you glimpse. You cannot put it ‘out there’, so it can never become part of the ego’s stock.
Why go to all this trouble? Are we trying to be better than other people? No. (What a trap that would be!) We are trying to ensure that we will not make the world a bigger mess than it is already. This is hard realism, and it has been known for a long time. In the 4th century a monk came with a question to one of the Desert Fathers, Abba Poemen: “I have found a place,” he said, “where my peace is not disturbed by the others; would you advise me to go and live there?” Abba Poemen replied, “The place for you is where you will not harm the others.”
Here is a luminous sentence from Meister Eckhart: “It is not things that hold you back: it is you yourself in the things. Therefore begin with yourself, and forget yourself.” If we haven't tried to loosen the grip of our ego we will bring it blindly into everything we do, thinking we are doing great things for everyone, when in fact we may be just messing them up more.
If the ego were in us rather than between us, we would have no escape from it. Thank God we have an identity that is deeper than the ego. Calling on St Paul’s teaching on the Body of Christ, we can call it “the Christ-nature.” If you want to investigate this a bit further, open the ‘Site search’ tab on the front page of this website and type in ‘Christ-nature’.
Take care, Mary. I'm sorry that this response is so long.