Friday, December 18, 2009

First There is No Mountain: Misunderstanding the Ego's Role - Part 1

Post modern spirituality misunderstands the role of the ego. Part of the problem is their attempt to use the terminology of 20th century western psychology as a template for understanding the philosophical and psychological traditions of the east. The average person is not properly grounded to adequately approach the subject.

What little knowledge they have is gleaned from books whose authors have less than second or third hand knowledge of their subject matter. They are simply commenting on the more scholarly commentators who are immersed in both culture and language from where the philosophy originates. Post modern spirituality is akin to a morbidly obese person at an all you can eat buffet. They skip the fruit and vegetables and pile on fatty, greasy and starchy foods. Needless to say their diet is not going to sustain them in a long term and healthy way.

The ego is neither good nor bad. It is simply a vehicle that allows us to maneuver through the material world with a certain degree of order and sanity. It is unwise to surmise the goal of Buddhism and other traditions as the annihilation of our understanding of Ego. Obliterating the ego would obliterate the individual. If they survived they would quite literally be insane. What we are really looking at is a transforming experience of the interconnected nature of being underpinning the reality we experience. In the traditions of the west we might refer to this as the atonement or reconciliation (literally “again with the eye lashes”) which implies that we have turned around to face each other and we stand so close we can feel each others eyelashes. Atonement has been described by some as at-one-ment or becoming one.

The Ego acts as a safeguard or a shield that prevents us from receiving too much transpersonal data while our minds are not capable of processing and assimilating it. A healthy mind works on the expansion of the ego allowing bits and pieces of the transpersonal in to their experience. Transformation occurs as the ego expands taking on more of “the stuff” that allows us to move toward an integration of our psyche.

Ego inflation – the exact opposite of expansion – is the malady of the psyche that we must safeguard ourselves from. This inflation is the problem with so much of what passes for spirituality these days. The term spirituality itself is western in origin deriving from the Latin spiritualis or spiritus – translated as “of breathing.” Spirituality or “of the Spirit” implies literally the breath of God. It is the breath of the tempestuous God of Western religion that moves and fills everything that lives. In fact some scholars suggest that the modern YHWH is a left over storm God from the Sumerian traditions picked up by the patriarch Abraham. It would certainly go along way in explaining the blustery, angry and blood thirsty nature of this deity’s interaction with his chosen people.

Even though there may be similar concepts in the East it is with the cultural centric notions of our Judaic and Christian faiths that we approach these subjects whether we realize it or not. The teachers of the east who have made the trip westward understand this and they often adapt and modify their teachings to accommodate our worldview. The late Tibetan Buddhist master and founder of the Shambala movement, Chogyam Trungpa notoriously exploited the depravity of the west to teach his brand of “crazy wisdom.”

The challenge to post modern spiritual seekers is that so many of its teachers are truly not qualified to be teaching. Spirituality has blossomed from a cottage industry to a multi million dollar industry. Enlightenment is for sale and often times it comes with a premium price tag. These self styled gurus – many who are, indeed, sincere –prey upon the more credulous among us who are ready to believe just about anything if it promises a way out from their existential crisis. They fail to realize that it is escapism and does nothing to return them to the ground of being.

Just because you have had some insight does not mean you are qualified to teach. Sometimes it is best to keep ones mouth shut and remain silent. In the Hasidic tradition of Judaism it is believed that teaching is way down on the list of things a seeker of wisdom should do. Christians have the warning found in the epistle of James who warns that the teachers will be judged the most harshly. Teaching should only be done after a person considers the lacerations one will receive while walking that razors edge.

Never trust someone who makes a living at being spiritual. It seems that the great spiritual leaders never charged for their teaching or services. As far as we know Jesus, Mohammad and the Buddha accepted all who came to them. They seemed to give rather than to take. The Apostle Paul may have encouraged collections to support the missions of the early church but he also counseled that believers work to support themselves so that they would be above reproach.

It’s the ecclesiastical mindsets that followed the initial teachers that traded practice for theological discussion and doctrinal cataloging. They preferred creeds and membership requirements to the love taught, be it the bodhicitta of the Buddha or the agape of Paul.

The minute a person hangs a shingle and sets themselves up as teacher, counselor, guru or coach their egos and their livelihood start to get in the way. There is no way around it. They run the risk of becoming too attached to their “work” and to their reputation. They esteem what they have to offer a little too highly. If they lack the critical skill of discernment their students will lack it more. Spirituality is often misleading. Delusion and fantasy is often mistaken for the mystical. We seek the sizzle of the peak experience. We fail to understand that the true nature of reality is far more mundane. Enlightenment is not in the peaks and valleys – it’s to be found in the monotony of our day to day existence. The difference is we learn to see it for what it really is.

Donovan paraphrased the meaning of the paradoxical Zen koan when he sang:

First there is a mountain
Then there is no mountain
Then there is…

First what we have our perception of a mountain. When we understand how our perceptions color our experience the mountain disappears or, rather, our perception of the mountain disappears. When our perception disappears then we see with clarity the mountain as it really is. What we see around us, what we think of reality is simply our categorization of our personal experience. It’s our interpretation of the experience of our shared reality that gets in the way. We see what we have been taught to see. Yet we really don’t experience it in the exact same way. My experience of the color blue cannot be said to be exactly the same as your experience. We have no way to evaluate it empirically so we make do with unreliably subjective agreement or hearsay. We simply assume.

The inflated ego always assumes. It always takes for granted that what it perceives is the reality – the truth – that everyone experiences. It sets itself up in a position of authority and treats critical analysis harshly. The priest, minister, rabbi or new age teacher need to be treated fairly, but with equal skepticism. Faith is anathema to truth. Faith is pure ego inflation. It requires no critical evaluation; no collection of objective data. It requires you to believe and responds harshly to those who chose to have a differing opinion.

To Be Continued…

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