[The ego]

Dear Donagh,

…. I try to spend some time praying every day, but my mind gets full of distractions straight away, more than when I'm not praying.  I seem to be only inviting them by kneeling down.  People I never think of at other times come flocking in as soon as I start, and I'm going on with all kinds of conversations with them.  And I think of all the jobs I have to do, and I start planning how I'm going to do them.  A friend of mine told me this was my ego and I must think of Jesus instead.  Is the ego some kind of evil thing or the devil’s influence?  How can I get rid of it?  Margaret

Dear Margaret,

No, the ego is not some kind of evil thing or the devil’s influence.  It’s just as you described it: distractions.  There's no such ‘thing’ as ego; the ego is not a thing.  The word ‘ego’ (which just means ‘I’) is shorthand for all that mental distraction you describe.  Because all this mental distraction has been normal for us throughout our lives, it gives the impression that it is who we are – our identity, our personality.  But it is only passing traffic; there is nothing stable about it. 

Distraction is a normal state of the human mind.  Our mind is not a steady light; it is constantly flickering.  They tell us that our eyesight, too, is a continual trembling.  It might seem steady enough; you might think at times that you were even staring.  But nobody stares, strictly speaking; even as you appear to stare, your eyes are scanning the field with a quivering motion.  The mind is even giddier than the eye; it jumps continually from one topic to another.  This is normal.  And it is normal that when we stop working and sit still, the mind becomes even more restless than usual. 

Still, it is possible to let that restless movement slow down and even stop.  For thousands of years, spiritual teachers have been telling us how to allow this to happen, and how to enable it to happen.  That is the skill of meditation.  It is a skill that can be learned, but it is a very slippery skill – because it is impossible to get your hands on the mind.  It is not a matter of following instructions, such as how to bake a cake, or how to fix a puncture.  So those teachers (kinda) nudge us along with images and hints and a thousand other skilful means; but we have to develop the knack of it ourselves. 

fly paper imageA very ugly image occurred to me.  (This could be a kind of aversion therapy!)  Do you remember those sticky fly-papers that people used to hang from their ceilings in the past, to trap houseflies that perched on them?  Here’s a picture to remind you.  Disgusting.  Well, the mind is a bit like that.  Everything sticks to it. And the more things that stick to it, the uglier it becomes.  So it turns out in the end that it is ourselves we are trapping. 

How wonderful it would be to sit still and have nothing stick to you!  You would not be trapped into fretting about the past or the future: reliving things that are past, or trying, impossibly, to live your life in advance.  You would be living in the present moment, and moving with freedom and grace from one moment to the next, one hour to the next…. In other words you would be free in those moments from the compulsive flow of distractions that we call the ego.  So here’s the suggestion: just sit and let nothing stick to you.  When some thought or memory is about to perch on you, let it pass, don’t invite it to perch.  It is your invitation that makes you sticky.  Just remain calm and remember the presence of God, held in place for you by Christ. 

Of course there are as many ways of praying as there are people who pray.  We all have to experiment until we find a way that suits us, and then the Holy Spirit will take charge if given half a chance.  One way would be to follow the gospel reading of the day; you can find it each day on this website, and on lots of others.  If you have a day when the distractions seem impossible to keep at bay, try the clever trick suggested by St Teresa of Ávila: pray the distractions.  For example, if the memory of some painful event clings to you, pray your way through it: pray for the person who insulted you or ignored you or accused you in the wrong…. That's a good way to turn the tables on the ego. 

God bless, Margaret, and pray for me.


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