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The Ego

December 9, 2011

“Early man walked away as modern man took control.

Their minds weren’t all the same, to conquer was his big goal,

So he built his great empire and slaughtered his own kind,

Then he died a confused man, killed himself with his own mind.”

-Bad Religion “We’re only gonna die”

As Alan Watts explained, “You say ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t. You came out of it. So we have this hostility to the external world because of the superstition, the myth, the absolutely unfounded theory that you, yourself, exist only inside your skin…You are still the process…When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as–Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and- so,–I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it… You ARE a symptom of nature. You, as a human being, you grow out of this physical universe in exactly the same way an apple grows off an apple tree.”

If we believe the world is made of separate things, we believe we can take them apart and have ‘this’ without ‘that’. The belief that we are separate from the world is a consequence of the ego.

Steve Taylor writes about the impact of the ego in his 2010 book The Fall:

“The powerful new ego ‘gobbled up’ the psychic energy which had previously been devoted to present-centred awareness, to the act of perceiving the immediate is-ness of the phenomenal world. This energy was diverted to the ego; as a result we could no longer perceive the world the same intense, vivid vision, and our attention became ‘switched off’ to the presence of Spirit. The phenomenal world became a shadowy, one-dimensional place, and natural phenomena became lifeless objects. In Australian Aboriginal terminology, we lost the ability to ‘enter the dreaming’ of natural phenomena… In addition, because we live in our thoughts so much, we find it very difficult to live in the present, and to appreciate the reality and beauty of the world in which we live. The world becomes a dreary, half-real place, perceived through a fog of thought. As a result of this, most people feel a basic sense of incompleteness and discontent. And this negative state is the basic source of the cravings for possessions and power and status, which are a way of trying to complete ourselves and compensate for our inner discord. We try to complete ourselves – and make ourselves significant – by gaining power over other people or by collecting wealth and possessions… And in turn, this desire for wealth and power is at the heart of warfare and oppression. But just as importantly, our strong sense of ego means that it’s difficult for us to empathize with other people. We become ‘walled off’ from them, unable to ‘feel with’ them and to experience the world from their perspective or to sense the suffering we might be causing them. We become able to oppress and exploit other people in the service of our own desires.”(1)

Researcher Michael Tsarion takes the notion further:

“The ego is threatened by the phenomena of the external world. Because the ego gives us our subjective sense, we can set the parameters of how reality is registered. We can filter, censor, and distort whatever our senses perceive. In the end, the ideas formed by ego-consciousness about reality become more real than reality. As time goes by people lose all interest in the real as the real. Under the auspices of the ego, human beings are incarcerated within mental prisons… What exists in the darkened landscape that stretches around and beyond the ego’s ithyphallic ivory control tower is considered by the ego to be potentially threatening. In other words, the content of man’s own unconscious is considered a threat to the ego. This means that most human beings are subconsciously threatened by aspects of their own selves…From its remote tower, the ego looked out over Nature in order to find its reflection there, but could no longer discern it. This is because Nature contains or “reflects” back the self of man, not the ego of man. And so, search as it might, the ego cannot find its own visage in the phenomena of the world. Primitive man could see his own reflection in Nature because he did not have the same level of subjectivity as his descendents. He and Nature were one… The difficulty of egoic existence is that humanity has been gradually losing contact with reality. After all, animosity toward Nature is ultimately animosity toward the real. And reality includes man’s physical body. Ergo, existentially and psychologically speaking, western man is largely estranged not only from Nature – his true creator – but from his physicality. In other words, he has become a mental and ultimately technological creature. Losing touch with his body and world causes man to lose touch with Existence, as the sages and philosophers of antiquity defined it. Instead of being attentive to his Existence, man has become infatuated with essence and mystery. In fact, as a few Existential philosophers and psychologists state, man has altogether lost interest in the significance of Existence. Since the dawn of history, he has been preoccupied with the “mystery” of life, rather than life itself. Simply put, man is infatuated with mystery, not Being.” (2)

Morris Berman theorizes about the origin of the ego in his book Coming To Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. He professes that phonetic language created an inner narrative(ego) which severed our connection with the sensual world creating a void inside us(nemo). The nemo created ideologies because it needs a validation for existence. All the ideas we conceive to explain the mystery of the world such as God, enlightenment, fame, success, or higher meaning, don’t actually exist. Ideologies are constructs of the mind that we believe are autonomous and distinct from or own understanding. The need for meaning is a result of the primary loss of wholeness. The consequences of written(symbolic)languages are also explored in David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous  and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain.

The developement of the ego varies depending on the culture, with indiginous hunter-gatherers having the least inflated egos. Steve Taylor notes:

“According to the early 20th century anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl, the essential characteristic of indigenous peoples was their less sharpened sense of individuality. In his words; ‘To the primitive’s mind, the limits of the individuality are variable and ill-defined.’ He notes that, rather than existing as self-sufficient individual entities – as we experience ourselves – indigenous peoples’ sense of identity is bound up with their community and land. He cites reports of primal peoples who use the word ‘I’ when speaking of their group, and also notes that indigenous peoples’ sense of individuality extends to objects they use and touch. A person’s clothes, tools and even the remains of meals and their excrement are so closely linked to them that to burn or damage them is thought to death or injury to the person. (This is one of the principles by which witchcraft is believed to work.) Similarly, George B. Silberbauer notes that, to the G/wi of the Kalahari, identity was more group-referenced than individual. That is, a person would identity herself or himself with reference to kin or some other group…

Some colonists actually became aware of the problem, and realized that they would never be able to fully ‘civilize’ the natives unless they developed their sense of ‘self-ness’. Senator Henry Dawes put his finger on it when he wrote of the Cherokees in 1887, ‘They have got as far as they can go [i.e. they are not going to progress any further], because they hold their land in common. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.’ The English missionaries in Australia tried various measures to develop the aborigines’ sense of individuality. They made them live in separate houses and tried to stop going into each other’s. They baptized them so that they would think of themselves in terms of permanent name, instead of the fluid aboriginal names which could change and include the names of other tribe members. It didn’t work though – the aborigines never developed a sense of personal ownership over their houses and the possessions inside them. They wandered in and out of each other’s houses all the time, and continually swapped possessions…

The naming practices of certain peoples suggest this too. For us, a name is a permanent label which defines our individuality and autonomy. But Australian Aborigines, for example, do not have fixed names which they keep throughout their lives. Their names regularly change, and include those of other members of their tribe. Other native peoples use tekonyms – terms which describe the relationship between two people – instead of personal or kinship names. On the other hand, our sense of ego is so defined and strong that many of us experience a basic sense of separation to nature, other human beings and even our own bodies.”(1)

The ego is a major hurdle in becoming more sensual, more embodied. One way to quiet the ego is to simply perform a physical act, another way is through Zen mindfulness meditation which silences the mind. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced at any time, while doing anything,  it will be covered in future posts.

Taylor agrees that the quieting of mental chatter is imperative:

“In the same way that the natural quietness and stillness of the world around us is always covered over with man-made noise, the natural quietness of our minds is constantly disturbed by the chattering of our ego-selves. This chattering fills our minds from the moment we wake up in the morning till the moment we go to sleep at night an endless stream of daydreams, memories, deliberations, worries, plans etc. which we have no control over and which even continues (in the form of dreams) when we fall asleep. This ‘inner noise’ has as many bad effects as the mechanical noise outside us. It actually creates problems in our lives, when we mull over tiny inconveniences or uncertainties which seem to become important just because we’re giving so much attention to them, and when we imagine all kinds of possible scenarios about future events instead of just taking them as they come. It means that we don’t live in the present, because we’re always either planning for and anticipating the future or remembering the past… this constant inner chattering also means that we can never give our full attention to our surroundings and to the activities of our lives. Our attention is always partly taken up by the thoughts in our minds, so that wherever we are and whatever we’re doing we’re never completely there.”(3)

Mindfulness meditation can quiet the mind at any time, while doing anything,  it will be covered in future posts.

In my experience I have found sensuality to be the key ingredient in loosening the ego’s grip over our lives. If awareness is focused in the senses, the ego falls silent.


1. Steve Taylor, The Fall, 2010

2. Micheal Tsarion, Disciples of the Mysterium (Martin Heidegger and the   Question of Being) 2010

3. Steve Taylor, The Power of Silence New Renaissance magazine Vol. 8, No. 2

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