Welcome back, it’s week four which means we’re half-way through!
So far we’ve examined our habit to avoid meeting the present moment because of our belief ‘that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’ (1) and how this causes us to stay identified with an idea of ourselves and buy into the illusion we are separate.
Last week we explored how this habit could be fueled by a misunderstanding that allowing ourselves to feel and process emotional pain in the present moment is akin to a survival threat, but that in reality it is avoiding this unprocessed pain that is the real and present threat to our survival. By not acknowledging and facing the pain within ourselves we feel compelled to re-enact it in our external lives. In this way we have seen how small-scale disconnection on an individual level accumulates to produce the collective large-scale societal disconnection we see in our world.
We’ve looked at why we disconnect and the results of our disconnection extensively, but it’s now time to explore how we disconnect. We touched on this in section two, but it is now time to address it thoroughly. By understanding the root of disconnection, we become wise to the myriad manifestations of avoidance that arise within our own minds and are less likely to be fooled. In other words, we strengthen our awareness and capacity for change. By examining how we disconnect, the route to re-connection becomes clearer, which will be the focus next week.
But for now, let’s focus on the how of disconnection.
How did we come to lose our connection to the present moment and hence our sense of belonging?
Pema Chödrön shares the following:
‘We are always seeking something to hold onto. But the fundamental state is always changing, fluid and open. The natural state is that it’s unfixated and open and there really is nothing to hold onto. And this is not bad news, there is no reason to freak out about this, but we all seem to be programmed in denial basically. We don’t like the insecurity. Somebody once said insecurity is ego’s take on wide open, clear, unfettered fresh space. And we find that extremely uncomfortable’ (2).
When looking at how we lost our connection to the present moment it’s useful to start by examining the fundamental state of reality. With the past already gone and the future not yet here, the present moment is the only reality we have. And the reality of the present moment is that it’s unfixated and always changing.
Take a moment to pause, quiet your mind if possible, and just witness how each moment is always rising up and at the same time falling away to reveal another.
It’s easy to lose sight of this truth when we’re lost in thought – planning for the future or mulling over what happened in the past. When we get up and repeat the same routine every day, we can easily buy into the belief that ‘nothing changes.’ But in reality, this could not be further from the truth. Let’s look at a few discoveries concerning the world in which we live to help wake us up to the fact that ‘the fundamental state is always changing, fluid and open’ (2).
From the largest to the smallest scale it has been shown that our universe is in a constant state of change. From the discovery that the universe is expanding made by Edwin Hubble’s measurements of redshift in distant galaxies (3)(4) (and predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity), to the world of quantum physics which has revealed ‘that once you peered closer and closer at matter, it wasn’t even matter, not a single solid thing you could touch or describe, but a host of tentative selves, all being paraded around at the same time. Rather than a universe of static certainty, at the most fundamental level of matter, the world and its relationships were uncertain and unpredictable, a state of pure potential, of infinite possibility’ (5).
Research is also revealing how a state of biological health reflects this unfixated state.
Since the introduction of the term ‘homeostasis’ by Walter B. Cannon in the 1930s we’ve maintained the principle that all bodily systems strive to maintain a static or constant ‘steady-state’ condition (6). However, more recent research has led to the understanding that even during ‘steady-state’ conditions biological processes vary in complex and non-linear ways (6). This has led to the understanding that ‘healthy, optimal function is a result of continuous, dynamic, bidirectional interactions among multiple neural, hormonal and mechanical control systems at both local and central levels. In concert, these dynamic and interconnected physiological and psychological regulatory systems are never truly at rest and are certainly never static’ (6).
Neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert, PhD, spent a lifetime conducting pioneering research, establishing the biomolecular basis of our emotions and their role in unifying body and mind. She writes in her book, Molecules of Emotion: ‘My research has shown me that when emotions are expressed – which is to say that the biochemicals that are the substrate of emotion are flowing freely- all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behaviour’ (7). Her discoveries reveal the role biomolecular flow and flexibility play in health and the detrimental effect suppressing our molecules of emotion has when we are run by the belief that ‘the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’ (1). A belief that undermines the natural intelligence of our bodies and throws us out of sync with the universe.
Looking at what has been discovered about the nature of our world and states of optimal health we can begin to wake up to the truth that the fundamental state of reality really is always changing and that healthy biological systems reflect that. So why is it, rather than feeling free to flow with this world of possibility, we often find ourselves stuck and fighting against it?
Something in us finds the insecurity of an ever-changing reality extremely uncomfortable. It is this part of us that believes ‘the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’ (1). Rather than joining the flow of life it struggles against it, desperately searching for something to hold onto. Consequently, we are out of sync with reality. A more accurate statement would be this: the ego within us it out of sync with reality. But, given that the majority of us are identified with ego, you could easily say that humanity is out of sync with reality. It is identification with the ego that causes the ‘stickiness’ in this fluid and open reality. But what is ‘ego’?
‘Ego’ can feel like quite an abstract term and the way it’s thrown about in day-to-day life can be confusing. So whatever connotations or associations you have with the word ‘ego’ let’s wipe the slate clean and allow Eckhart Tolle to cut right to the point: ‘Ego is no more than this: identification with form, which primarily means thought form’. Although it can also mean emotional form or physical form (8). We’re going to focus on how we identify with thought form in order to gain a better understanding of what ‘ego’ is.
Ego is actually, at its most basic level, the Latin word for “I”. Words are a product of speech and speech is a product of thought. The most fundamental misunderstanding Tolle describes in, A New Earth, Create a Better Life, is that we mistake who we are for an idea of who we are. The word idea means ‘mental image or picture’ and originates from the Greek word ennoia which directly translates to ‘act of thinking’ (9). We touched on this earlier in the series and now might be a good time to revisit figure one.
Our error is confusing the ‘act of thinking’ or the mental image we create of ourselves (the person in the thought bubble) with the whole of who we are, thus producing an illusory sense of self. This is ego. Complete identification with the ideaof “I”. It would be akin to mistaking who you are for the reflection you see in the mirror. It is not the reflection that is the breathing, living being – it is just a reflection.
Take a moment to ask yourself: “who am I?”
Notice the voice in your head reporting its findings to you? That is ego – an idea of “I”.
Maybe it goes something like mine: ‘I am Ruby, a 26-year-old female living in the UK.’
Don’t get me wrong, having an identity is very useful in this world, but if we become identified with that idea of self, that’s when we run into problems. For example, if I had my sense of self hitched to being a ‘26-year-old’, turning 27… 28… 30… 60, i.e. undergoing the natural process of aging, would cause me suffering – it’s important to understand that the aging process itself wouldn’t be causing the suffering, rather my attachment to a self ‘aged 26’ would. Consequently, I would try to hold onto my youth rather than surrender into the reality that is aging.
By mistaking who we are for an idea of who we are, we box ourselves into a mental construct, becoming identified with only a small part of the whole. By identifying ourselves with the act of thinking, we unconsciously create our own suffering. This is demonstrated in the examples below:
– ‘I am Bob, a total loser and loner. I’ll never get it together. I’ll never be happy. There’s no point in trying.’ Bob’s identification with an idea of himself as a loser is causing him to behave as a victim.
– ‘I’m Gus, I have a job that I enjoy, a family I love and enough money to live comfortably. I don’t know why; I don’t deserve it’. Gus’s identification with an idea of himself as unworthy has him believing he doesn’t deserve what he loves.
– ‘I’m Jane, I’m better than Sophie because I have a well-paid job, an expensive car and a new flat. Sophie just lost her job’. Jane’s identification with an idea of herself as superior (resulting from the thought that having more ‘things’ means you’re a better person) allows her to feel justified in degrading Sophie. The belief is in fact untrue, but as it is not in Jane’s awareness it has her fooled.
If you look closer, the belief ‘having more things means I’m a better person’ is the flip side of ‘without things, I’m not enough’. Jane’s identification with an idea of herself as superior, hides beneath its surface an identification with the ideathat ‘without things, I’m not enough’. As a result, the idea of superiority causes her own suffering. But because she is not aware of this (or willing to acknowledge, investigate and process the pain that led to her taking on the belief that ‘I’m not enough’) the idea that she is superior (ego) re-affirms itself by projecting the unconscious ‘I’m not enough’ externally onto Sophie by saying (verbally or non-verbally) ‘you’re not enough’. By degrading another the idea of superiority lets out a sigh of relief (felt as a temporary comfort or ‘puffing up’ of the ego) as it lives to fight another day.
Jane is not bad; we are all Jane in some way. Jane is merely a victim of the unwatched mind that believes the aim of life is to avoid pain and get comfortable.
We each have our own egoic make up which is a result of two parts: What we were told (verbally and non-verbally) by our care givers and society growing up and how that information was received, processed and assimilated to form a concept of “I” in relation to the world.
Now let’s make something clear here. There is nothing inherently wrong about having a mind that forms an idea of self. The problems stem from becoming identified with it. Having a sense of ourselves as separate to some degree is important as it enables us to view ourselves individually and thus experience ourselves relative to the world. It also enables us to protect ourselves from external harm. An example of a misunderstanding that arises from rejecting the idea of “I” (ego) – which ironically enough is the ego itself- is demonstrated below.
To use the statement ‘we are all connected’ whilst allowing someone to abuse you (be that physically or emotionally), rather than voicing that the abuser must change their behaviour or simply leave, is the ego in you avoiding having to set a boundary. The idea of self you are identified with might be saying ‘nice people don’t get angry and I’m a nice person’ or ‘if I get angry, they’ll leave, and I can’t cope with being alone’. When you buy into that, rather than protect yourself (which may require getting angry or having to leave) the ego tells you ‘we are all connected in love, I love this person, so it’s ok for them to do this to me’, thus bypassing the emotional pain you might have to face if you did stand up for yourself. Phew says the ego, pain avoided.
It’s important to realise that when you play into this cycle you are not only boxing yourself into a smaller version of who you are, you are also facilitating the other person boxing themselves into a smaller version of who they are. If they were in touch with the whole of who they were, they would not abuse you. By refusing to honour the fact that we are unique individuals and separate entities to some degree, which have the right to be free from abuse, not only do you sell yourself short, but you enable the other person to sell themselves short too (although when completely identified with ego they may be unable to see it that way).
To say, ‘the ego is bad and I shouldn’t have it’ (further to it actually being the voice of the ego) is as much a misunderstanding as mistaking yourself for the ego (the mental concept of “I”). Having an idea of “I” is useful, but we must hold it lightly and with flexibility, for it is through attachment to the thought forms that we lock ourselves into a small, separate, false sense of self.
So, as we’ve explored, when we become identified with the idea (‘act of thinking’) of who we are, we mistake ourselves for something smaller than the whole. Eckhart Tolle succinctly summarises it this way: ‘By a monstrous act of reductionism, the infinite depth of who you are is confused with the sound produced by the vocal cords or the thought of “I” in your mind and whatever “I” has identified with’ (8). Remember the chair in the room that can only be experienced because of the space in the room? When we’re identified with thought, we’ve forgotten the space that is inherent in our existence (eg. the space in the room), instead believing we are the thought (eg. the chair).
The present moment is the only reality we have and it’s always changing. Ego identification is ‘a dysfunctional relationship with the present moment’ (8) which keeps us out of sync with reality by always seeking something to hold onto, something to make things a little more comfortable.
How do we go beyond this false sense of self that arises from identification with a mental concept of “I”?
Awareness is the doorway to discovering the infinite depth of who we are beyond words, and re-synchronising with our world. By training in returning to your present experience again and again, with kindness and patience, you begin to contact reality and ‘disentangle your sense of “I”, of Beingness, from all the things it has become mixed up with, that is to say, identified with’ (8). It is only by making this ‘clearing in the dense forest of your life’ (10) that you begin the work of disentanglement.
Developing awareness, cultivating heart, and taking responsibility for your own share of pain is the greatest gift you can give to yourself, others and this world. It is the real work.
- Chödrön P. Awakening Loving-Kindness. 3rd edition. Colorado: Shambhala Publications Inc; 2017. pp. 1-2.
- Chödrön P. Getting Unstuck, Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. [Audiobook]. USA: Sounds True; 2005.
- Bahcall NA. Hubble’s Law and the Expanding Universe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015;112(11)3173:3175. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1424299112.
- Hubble E. A relation between distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 1929;15(3)168:173. doi: 10.1073/pnas.15.3.168.
- McTaggart L. The Field. London: Element; 2003. P 12.
- McCraty R. Science of the Heart Volume 2: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance. An Overview of Research Conducted by the HeartMath Institute. CA: HeartMath Institute; 2015. p. 3.
- Pert CB. Molecules of Emotion. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd; 1998. pp. 273-274.
- Tolle E. A New Earth, Create a Better Life. 2nd edition. UK: Penguin Books; 2016. pp. 22, 141-143.
- Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/idea Accessed October 10, 2019.
- Postlewaite M. The Clearing. Original source unidentified.