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Growing Into Our Humanity, Part 3: The Myth of the “Ego-Free Project”

I haven’t been on the internet much lately, because I’ve been deeply engaged in a new project.  I’ve been creating a computer game with a friend.  It’s built around an adventure story, as many games are, but the main focus is my ideas about what the spirituality of prehistoric people was like.

Being a reflective sort of guy, as I’ve worked on this, I’ve been asking myself from time to time “why am I doing this?”  Two reasons have come to mind.  One is that I think this game could really stimulate the personal growth of people playing it.  The other is that I want to be recognized, and for people to think I am cool.

Are My Wounds Behind The Wheel?

The second reason has troubled me a bit.  If I’m doing this because I want people to think I’m cool, doesn’t that mean my ego is driving the project?  Doesn’t that mean my wounded child part — the part that feels abandoned and needs approval — is really behind what I’m doing?  And if so, is it healthy for me to keep moving forward?

I hang out with lots of folks who are “on a spiritual path,” or interested in self-development, and many of them are dealing with the same dilemma.  They worry that, if they work on a project they feel called to do, they’ll be feeding the “selfish” part of themselves, instead of doing the seva, or selfless service, they think they should do.

After a lot of thinking about this issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that an “ego-free project” is a pipe dream.  No matter what I do, I’ll probably be motivated, to some degree, by a desire for approval — and, I’ll also be driven by a genuine wish to serve.  In other words, there will always be a mix of “healthy” and “unhealthy” motives behind everything I do.

Real Self-Love Loves The Ego

Although I can’t totally get rid of these “unhealthy” motives, and the ways I operate from a sense of lack instead of abundance, I can choose how I relate to those motives.  I can choose to acknowledge and accept them, rather than pretending they aren’t there or beating myself up because they exist.

When I can admit, without self-blame, that “part of me is wanting attention,” a weight lifts from my shoulders, and my body feels lighter.  In those moments, I’m practicing real self-love, as opposed to just loving the parts of me that I label as pure and righteous.

On the other hand, pushing those “unhealthy” parts away, in my experience, just creates more unhealthiness.  When I pretend I don’t have a “selfish” part, I end up projecting my selfishness onto others — judging them as self-centered, and casting myself as superior.  That’s an unpleasant experience for everybody.

I often notice the same dynamic when I’m with people whose spirituality is all about “selflessness” — when they talk about the volunteer work they do, with no expectation of reward or approval, I usually notice an undertone of aggression that sounds to me like “and how much service do you do?”

I’ve harped on this theme lately, but I think it’s important — that personal growth in its highest form is about getting comfortable and familiar with all parts of ourselves, including those we tend to label as bad, inappropriate, embarrassing, and so on.  The more “okay” we get with those parts, I think, the more peace and focus we can find in all areas of our lives.

Being Angry and “Being Spiritual”

In the past, when someone said something to me that I found insulting or disrespectful, I tried to avoid reacting angrily.  I told myself I was probably just being thin-skinned, and that the other person probably didn’t intend to hurt me.

Besides, I said to myself in “spiritual” jargon, the anger I feel comes from my ego — my identification with my body, my accomplishments, my possessions, and so on.  In reality, I am all that is, I am consciousness itself, I am Atman.  How could pure spirit take offense at anything?  By letting myself get upset, I dishonor my true nature.

On one level, I think some of this “spiritual talk” is valid.  There have been moments when, in meditation, I’ve ceased identifying with the body and history that people arbitrarily label “Chris,” and experienced myself as limitless consciousness.

And yet, I can’t deny that, from time to time, I get pissed off.  I feel a tension in my shoulders and a dull heat in my lower back.  In moments like these, I can remind myself of my spiritual nature until the proverbial cows come home, but that won’t change how I feel.

Is It “Spiritual” To Deny Our Anger?

A little while back, it occurred to me:  is it really “spiritual” to tell myself I shouldn’t feel angry, even though I do?  If I, in my true nature, am perfect and complete, why isn’t my anger perfect and complete too?  If I’m really a “spiritual being having a human experience,” why isn’t it okay for that experience to include getting mad sometimes?

What’s more, I used to tell myself that, in my true nature as spirit, I am infinitely loving.  Thus, when I tell someone I’m angry, I’m acting inconsistently with my deepest self.  But does this make sense?

In fact, I find my relationships with people most loving when I can tell them what’s really going on for me, and hear the same from them.  How can I really connect with, and love, another person if I’m not willing to reveal my anger to them?  Doesn’t that render our relationship kind of a farce, or at least superficial and businesslike?

Anger and Intimacy

Acknowledging all this was painful, as I think most growth is.  But these realizations have led me to start dealing with people in a way that’s a lot more satisfying for me — and, I think, for them as well.

Over the past year, when someone has talked to me in a way I’ve found disrespectful, I’ve taken to telling them “I don’t like what you just said to me.”  I don’t call them names or otherwise attack them — I just share, matter-of-factly, how I feel.

Instead of destroying my relationships, doing this has actually led to deeper intimacy.  I’ve found that, when I tell someone what’s really going on for me, they tend to feel freer to reveal their own emotions to me.  Even if what they share is their own anger, that gives me a better sense of who they are.

This doesn’t always happen, of course.  As I’m sure you know, there certainly are people out there who just want to say something hurtful and leave, feeling like they “won” or became superior as a result.  But by and large, letting people know when I’m upset has actually brought me closer to them, and fostered a more genuine connection.

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 2: Content Needs Emptiness

I’ve written before about how it’s helpful, when you’re facing writer’s block, to just sit with that sense of creative emptiness, and allow it to pass away on its own — rather than beating yourself up for being uncreative, or distracting yourself from the emptiness by playing Minesweeper.  When we learn to just let the writer’s block be, instead of resisting it, we get more inspired and productive in what we do.

In this post, I want to expand on why this is.  One thing I often say is:  “If you can’t be with emptiness, you can’t be with content.”

Emptiness and Procrastination

What I mean is that, no matter what creative project you’re working on — whether you’re painting a picture, drafting a business plan, or something else — you’ll inevitably encounter moments when your mind feels empty of useful ideas.

Many people, in my experience, can’t bear those moments.  For them, staring at a blank screen, canvas, or other empty surface, is agonizing.  Because they know, consciously or not, that working on their project will involve empty moments, they find it easier to put the project off, or perhaps never to start in the first place.

So, because they can’t tolerate creative emptiness, they can’t generate the creative content they want to bring into the world.  It seems we need to get comfortable with emptiness if we want to make sustained progress in our work.  But how can we do this?

Why Is Blankness So Bad?

In my experience, it’s helpful to become aware of why emptiness is a problem for us.  When we closely examine the reasons why we see writer’s block as a threat, we often recognize that it isn’t so dangerous after all.

What I’ve found is that the fear of blankness is often driven by a sense of urgency.  We think “I’ve got to put my work ‘out there’ as quickly as possible.”  If you can relate, I invite you to ask yourself, in those anxious moments:  “What will happen if I don’t finish this project immediately?”

Often, the answer to this question is rooted in a desire to be seen and appreciated.  In other words, it comes from the ego.  “If I don’t finish this project, the world may never recognize my brilliance.  I may never get written up in the New York Review of Books.  I may ‘die with my music left in me.’”  And so on.

Now, I don’t mean to put down the ego — we all have one, and without some degree of concern for our own advancement we probably couldn’t survive.  But I do think it can impede our progress in our creative work.

Content Needs Emptiness

So, if you find this fear that you’ll “die with your music in you” arising, consider these questions:  what if it isn’t really “your” music at all? What if the ideas at the core of your project aren’t really “your” ideas?  What if you are simply an instrument on which the universe plays its music?

At a deeper level, what if you are not just the instrument, but also the music? What if you are not just a body, small and limited in time and space, but a limitless creative energy suffusing all that is — just as a wave on the ocean, in some sense, is the ocean?

If all this were true, why would a moment of blankness bother you?  A pause in a piece of music creates tempo and expectation — without space, music would be a confusing, unpleasant jumble of sounds.  Without emptiness, content cannot exist.

The next time writer’s block comes up for you, see if these questions help bring you peace and focus.

Where’s The Outrage? Not Here.

angry_pug

If I got my whole picture of the world from reading the news and people’s comments on it, I’d probably see the world as a place where everyone was in a state of perpetual outrage about something.  People even get outraged about a dip in the overall level of public outrage.  “Where is the outrage?” editorials demand.  “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” bumper stickers accuse.

One reason our culture sees outrage as important, I think, is that we tend to equate outrage with compassion and working for change.  If you aren’t outraged about this government policy, the situation in that country, the acts of this public official, and so on, we assume, you must not care and you must not be interested in doing anything about it.

Non-Outraged Service Is Possible

But do we really have to be outraged to be motivated to serve others?  In my experience, the answer is no.  When I used to volunteer at a homeless shelter preparing meals for the guests, I didn’t do it because I hated homelessness or blamed somebody for it.  I did it because I wanted a chance to serve, and I know many others who regularly do the same.

Mahatma Gandhi is a much larger-scale example.  Gandhi’s strategy for bringing about India’s independence grew out of his spiritual practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence.  Ahimsa, to Gandhi, didn’t just mean not killing others — it meant letting go of hatred and judgment as well.  Although he didn’t hate the British Empire, he peacefully and successfully opposed its rule.  Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King are two other well-known examples of people whose role in creating massive social change grew out of their spiritual practice and desire to be of service, rather than their negativity.

What examples like Gandhi and King also illustrate is that it’s possible to criticize some practice or policy without demonizing the people responsible for it.  If we disagree with what someone said or did, we don’t have to make them our enemy to say what we think.  We can calmly and firmly state our opinion without calling them a liar, idiot or sociopath.  We can also take action from a place of inner peace.

Outrage and the Ego

In fact, I think, outrage is often a cloak for our ego — for our desire to feel superior to someone else.  In a state of outrage, we’re almost always blaming somebody and portraying them as immoral, dishonest, selfish, or something else.  And this gives us the momentary high of feeling like we’re more righteous, honest, or caring than them.  Much of the news we watch and read seems devoted to giving us a “righteousness fix” — the obsessive coverage of scandals involving politicians, actors, and so on seems geared toward giving us someone to feel better than.

I’m not saying that anger, or even outrage, has no value and should be repressed.  There are moments when we need to defend ourselves.  If someone is physically attacking me, anger can be the fuel that mobilizes my body into action.

But the kinds of things we usually get outraged about aren’t threats to our lives.  Political debates, conflicts in our work and relationships, and similar issues don’t normally endanger our survival.  To put these situations in perspective — like I said in an earlier post — I think it’s useful, whenever we find ourselves getting heated and tense inside, to ask ourselves whether we’re truly in physical danger.  And to take a deep breath, relax our bodies, and let that burning desire to be “right” pass away.

Inside Personal Growth Interview

I recently did an interview about my book, Inner Productivity, with Greg Voisen of Inside Personal Growth.  We talked about many useful exercises for developing focus and motivation in your work, and how the ideas in the book can be useful strategies for living in addition to just getting your work done.  The interview was a pleasure for me to do and I hope you enjoy it.

Loving Your Ego

I used to be very unhappy with the way I thought about myself.  I was particularly dissatisfied with the egotistical thoughts I had.  Thoughts would come up like “I’m going to be mega-famous and fill 30,000-seat arenas,” “everyone is going to see me as their spiritual guru,” “I’m a figure of historical importance,” and so forth, and I didn’t want them in my mind.

I believed these thoughts were dangerous because they would fill me with pride and cause me to act recklessly, or give me unrealistic expectations and leave me disappointed.  I also thought that, in order to be spiritually healthy, I had to relinquish my grandiose visions.  I had to force myself to be humble to attain enlightenment.  Thus, I’d resist those thoughts, and shame myself, whenever they popped into my mind.

Constantly pushing my thoughts away required physical effort, and created tension in my body.  My jaw and shoulders would tighten when I resisted a thought I didn’t approve of.  This tension built up over time and caused pain and stiffness.  And the more I punished myself for having the unwanted thoughts, the more they seemed to pop into my head.

One day, I decided to try a different approach.  For a long time, I’d been choosing to love and accept my negative, self-hating thoughts when they came up.  When I’d think something nasty about myself, such as “I’m not successful enough” or “I’m not attractive enough,” I’d simply allow that thought to be, without laughing it off or pushing it away.  This was working well for me—when I’d fully accept a negative thought as it was, I’d no longer feel the despair I used to associate with that kind of thinking.  I decided to apply the same method to my egotistical thoughts.

Taking this step brought me the most peace of any spiritual practice I’ve used.  When I simply allowed my grandiose thoughts to be, without judging or shaming them, they ceased to feel as threatening.  They were just thoughts, like any other ones, and they were just as worthy of my love and acceptance.  The thoughts themselves were not hurting me—my resistance to them was the source of my suffering.  When I loved my egotistical thoughts, they ceased to be problematic.

Many spiritual teachers advise us to “love what’s so” or “love what’s true right now.”  We tend to take this maxim to mean accepting what’s going on in the outside world in this moment, without judgment or resistance.  For instance, it means we should adopt an attitude of acceptance if we have a car accident, our significant other leaves us, we become sick, and so on.  But this idea applies to your thoughts as well, including those you’d rather not be thinking.  Your thoughts, just like the facts out in the world, are part of your experience.

Suffering occurs when you create a category of thoughts that it’s not okay for you to have.  Some people do this with memories of difficult events.  “Shut up!” they say to their minds.  “Stop making me relive that!”  Others do it with thoughts that come up when they’re interacting with others.  “I’m trying to concentrate on what this person is saying,” they say.  “You’re distracting me by taking a romantic interest in them.”  Still others do it with self-critical thoughts.  “No, you’re wrong!  I’m a wonderful person.”  And so on.  When we punish ourselves for thinking in certain ways, our lives feel stressful and contracted.

One way to stay aware of the need to fully accept your thoughts is to recognize that thoughts and events in the outside world are—at the deepest level—composed of the same stuff.  They are made of the same energy that comprises everything in the universe.  Eckhart Tolle uses the analogy of the various forms taken by water to illustrate this point:

“Just as water can be solid, liquid, or gaseous, consciousness can be seen to be ‘frozen’ as physical matter, ‘liquid’ as mind and thought, or formless as pure consciousness.”

Because thoughts—like sunsets, ice cream and Caribbean beaches—are forms of life or consciousness, they are entitled to the same love and respect as all other forms.  To fully accept all of our thoughts, just as we accept other forms of life, is to draw nearer to peace.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://mind-mart.com/carnival/carnival-of-healing-134.)