For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.
It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.
For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.
They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.
But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.
In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.
My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.
The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.
In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.
This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.
Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.
As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.
As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.
Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.
For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.
Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.
As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.
Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.
At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.
Or something else …
We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.
According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.
At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.