What your ego is, Part 2: How it causes Separation and obstructs Compassion
Is there another way to find compassion? So far, we’ve been working with exercises, meditations – things to do. Is it possible, though, that a simple shift in perception, a different way of looking at things – can let you see yourself, see life and see those who hurt you in a kinder light? Is it possible that peace can be found in such a simple manner?
We’ve previously discussed the ego; but that perspective was purely practical, and a large portion cross-referenced with the psychological manuals. The filters we discussed in that post, the distortions that cover the way we look at the world cognitive psychologists call them beliefs and schemas.
This time, however a different perspective at the ego. And this is not meant to challenge your world, or your knowledge and beliefs. This is not meant to do anything – just to provide something for you to think about, to see if it rings true in your heart, to see if it doesn’t provides a better model to live your life by. I make no pretense of having done more than basic research for some of the analogies I use – if they are wrong, please forgive me!
The Great Interfusion
The first thing we have to look at is the nature of existence, of reality. And in particular – we have to look at you! You and how you tie in with existence.
“No man is an island” – a common quote, from a Christian named John Donne. And the interpretations of that saying – a fragment of the entire meditation have been so superficial, so selfish and materialistic – and even worse, sometimes disguised as compassion.
And here are the standard interpretations: We cannot thrive without others. The clothes on your back, the chair you are sitting on, the computer you are using – they couldn’t have been made without an entire army of people, the factory workers, designers, engineers, technicians, coders. And the materials they use – again they come from the labor of other people – the miners, farmers, other factory workers. And so the circle continues – the giant roundabout of interdependence. The message here seems to be, one has to be nice to those people – or you won’t have anything to eat, and no chair to sit on!
Another interpretation: When you are upset, don’t handle it on your own. You need to find someone to talk to; a problem shared is a problem halved. So find friends, join a little social club, start dating, get married. And then you can talk and cuddle, and you feel a little bit better. Once again – be nice to people, or you will have no-one to lean on.
How self-centered, how egoistic! Perhaps if we took that quote, and put it back in its place in the entire meditation… here is a more condensed version, but fuller nonetheless
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Allow me to offer a third interpretation. An island think of it; picture it in your mind’s eyes. A small, isolated block of land, surrounded by water. The very feeling it conjures is of difference, of alienation and separation. Water is liquid, a different element from the solidness of land. Me against the world; surrounded by something alien from three hundred and sixty degrees isn’t that the feeling?
And so – if we are not an island, what are we? We are not islands, looking to build bridges with other islands. We are the continent! We need build no artificial constructs, because there is no span to bridge. And each man’s death lessens you – for you are the whole.
A similar quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher we are the ocean, we are the waves that arise from the water. We live the life of the waves, but we live the life of the water each man, each woman, each child – just part of one great expanse – something so vast we cannot see it.
The False Barrier the Great Illusion
We think there is a solid line between us and the world. Where do we end, and where does the world begin? The skin is seen as the most common barrier, the line of separation between the internal and the external. And yet; how solid is this distinction?
The air in your lungs was once condensation in the sky. The water that makes up most of our physical form once flowed in the rivers. And this is not poetry – this is science – the atoms inside our bodies were once burning inside the stars themselves. Each decision we make, each word we utter, has the possibility of affecting the world. How many wars were started and ended with words, how many scars have we left in the hearts of our loved ones with our words?
Where does the sun end, where does sunlight begin? When the sun shines on us, nourishing our skin, where does sunlight end, and where do we begin?
We don’t exist in a vacuum. And we don’t just rely on others; we are indivisible from the others we are existence. The Taoists have a most fitting name for this; they call it The Great Interfusion, the Great Mergence.
The Great Mergence isn’t made up lots of little individual objects. The Great Mergence is one giant whole, one totality, one grand design – that we, using our language and names and labels, using our limited perception have cut up into separate objects, people, and names.
The Great Movement
And so, too, have our actions and movements been cut up into little pieces. Every movement is all part of one giant action, one giant flow of existence.
We lift our hands to our faces, we open and close them. When does the closing begin, when does the opening end? Closing, opening, they are just arbitrary distinctions we have made for our convenience. It is just part of one giant motion that we have been making since the day we were born.
One human motion – our body comes into the world, grows into adulthood, and fades away in old age. And this blends into the one natural motion of all existence. Expansion, contraction. Growth, then fading away.
And there lies another source of our suffering. We dissect the movement into fluctuations. Our limited perception makes it nearly impossible to do otherwise, and once we do that, so we call one motion the expansion good, and we think contraction bad.
Our business grows, our profits expand; we label it as good. The motion continues, and the sales begin to fall – and then we think it is bad. The body grows, the body reaches the peak, our physical prime. Then disease and old age sets in – but we do the opposite. We cling to the healthy body, the youthfulness, and we shun the bodies of the diseased and the old. But it is just one motion.
Please think deeply on this: Expansion without contraction – what would happen?
Use your mind’s eye again, and think about the human body for a moment. Let’s forget the sick, and the dying, and the old – let’s set aside all those for now. Imagine, if you can, the perfect, healthy, young human body.
And that same human body is made up of countless little cells. And right now, inside that human body, inside yours some of them are growing, multiplying. And still others are dying right now.
Do we get upset? Most likely not, but why is that? It might be because we don’t see it, we don’t think about it. It might also be because it is healthy and natural. And lastly – which we shall discuss later because we don’t attach an identity to each individual cell!
If all our cells grow, without limit and regard for the natural order – what happens? Cancer, tumors – that is how they come about. They are just cells that grow abnormally.
What if, just what if, you let yourself think of the possibility that all expansion and contraction, all the good and bad that has happened to you, that is happening to you now – all of it was part of the grand design of existence? What if we were all cells in one organism, and everything that was happening was simply part of the perfection?
And after all that wandering around, we finally come to what was promised in the title – the different perspective of the ego.
We are the individual cells in the body of existence; we are part of the Great Interfusion. Some cells die, some cells grow – but ultimately the totality continues to grow, to evolve.
And what is this ego? An illusion that comes upon each cell – each cell gets its own mind, and with that, an exaggerated sense of “I”. The ego sees itself as individual, as separate, as different from the others. Not as part of totality, but as a dot inside it.
And therein lies so much of our problems. One cell awakens inside the body, and looks at her neighbor. “Why?” she begins asking immediately. “Why is that cell multiplying at a faster rate than I am? Why am I the cell that fades; why can’t she be the one to fade?”
And this will begin to sound like a comedy – what if one cell awoke inside the anus? What if it looks up to see a cell, toiling away inside the brain? The beginning of low self-esteem, of blame, of rage! And all the cells awaken in your nether regions – and they begin to blame all the cells in your head for their problems. War, racism, religious intolerance.
And what if – this is how we are operating? What if this point of view is our point of view?
And the constantly moving organisms inside a human body will make an excellent analogy for another concept: possessions and the concept of ownership. This concept is just as strange if you think about it. What belongs to us? Think about it for a second before you read on how do we know what belongs to us, what defines something as ours?
For smaller objects, and sometimes even people, mere proximity is all that’s required. Have you ever picked up a newspaper that had been left on a café table? You looked around, no one seems to be coming back for it, and so it becomes yours. That is how flimsy our concept of ownership is; simply the number of people who stake their claim and how many people agree!
And so many lovers do the same thing to the people they want to own – they cling, hold hands, put their arms around each other – not as a gesture of affection, but to prove ownership to all the others; a sign for all competition to back off.
And for bigger properties – land, buildings, vehicles. What defines ownership for those? Eckhart Tolle described it perfectly in A New Earth. If you stand on a street in New York, he says, and you point at a skyscraper and proclaim it yours, what determines if you are right or wrong?
The answer is simple; how many people agree, or perhaps how influential they are. If you have enough on your side, you have a slip of paper, signed by all those in power – and then it is yours. If nobody agrees, then you are a liar, you are delusional.
And again, I’m not saying that you should throw away all your possessions, or never to lock your doors, or that you shouldn’t enjoy what you have – but you should not seek to find yourself in them. Being attached to them is the cause of so much of our suffering.
There are so many people out there – good, honest, people – who have taken too much pride in their possessions and their achievements. There is nothing wrong with that, of course – they worked hard for it, and their accomplishments should be celebrated.
But they seek to boost themselves with those. They seek to find themselves in their achievements and possessions. It can come across really subtly – casually dropping names and mentioning possessions in conversations, for example. For others, it is overt arrogance and a flashy display. In the end ownership is all a mental concept, a product of the ego, which is a mental concept in itself. The more attached one is, the more pain is caused when these things leave them.
So many of our human relationships are seen in the same way. Our children, girlfriends and boyfriends, wives and husbands, we seem to think they belong to us in a way.
But could you allow yourself to see the two of you simply as two cells that have come in contact for a brief period in their natural motion? The blood keeps on flowing; it comes into the heart, stays, and leaves once more does the heart mourn?
And ultimately that’s all we are to each other – visitors. Some dalliances last decades, others last a physical lifetime, and yet others last minutes. And let this not bring suffering; if seen deeply, it will have the opposite effect.
I remember seeing a gorgeous ice sculpture on a holiday once. It was a miniature palace, intricately carved and detailed; the product of so much love and care and attention. And yet we all knew it was destined to melt by the end of the day. I watched the sculptor as he was hard at work, and I wanted to ask him why he did it. But a part of me already knew the answer – the impermanence of it all made him appreciate it so much more.
And if you see this deeply, maybe it would increase your compassion and your joy. It lets you enjoy and appreciate everyone – both your lovers and your enemies even more, regardless of who they are and what they have done to you.
Think of your own life – is there anything that you cherish? Anything that you are proud of, that you mention to others, hoping to impress them? Is there anything you would be particularly anguished to lose? Just be aware that you have such attachments; that should be the first step.
Fatalism and defeatism
Let everything be allowed to do what it naturally does, so that its nature will be satisfied ~ Chuang Tzu
And this is important – this is not a cause for fatalism, or defeatism. I’m not saying, if you lose your job, you should just sit down and give up. I’m not saying, let that man punch you in the head, or let that disease rot you away.
All I’m saying is – allow yourself to think of the possibility that it is part of the overall life. Can you do what you have to do, but from a state of inner surrender? Can you live a life of non-resistance – knowing that it was all part of existence?
The first level of reasoning, one that is applicable even to a person who has no spiritual beliefs: What is more beneficial to you? If you get sick, do you complain, get grumpy, and force yourself to go to work – and then do a bad job? Or do you listen to your body and stay home to get some rest?
If you think you have cancer – do you panic and cry and wear yourself out while you await the doctor’s prognosis? Or would you prefer to await the results and take the treatments, if necessary in a state of calm?
This is a common analogy; you might have heard of it before. Two men, one drunk to the point of unconsciousness and the other sober, are in a car as it goes out of control and smashes into a tree at top speed. Which one gets hurt the most? The sober man stiffens up – it’s like throwing a piece of glass against a rock; whereas the unconscious man flops around, he goes with the flow, it’s like throwing a wet towel.
And the second level of reasoning: Go with the flow of life – let the wind be at your back, gently taking you to where you have to go; rather than trying to walk against the wind, for that is when it turns into a gale. The power and grace of the state of surrender is core to many eastern schools of thought, and I have seen it many times in my own life. Years ago, many things conspired to make me lose my passion for my previous path in life, and I fought it for a long time, in utter misery, before surrendering – and it led me to find my heart’s calling.
There is another way you can look at it: these events – many that we think of as bad – have been given to us as weights. Weights to push against, so we can develop as a person. It is no different from the same way a body builder pushes against heavy iron to develop his muscles. This was the reasoning behind an old post, Little Secrets of Gratitude.
And so we come to the end of this post. If you choose to adopt this perspective, then please do so. Feel this belief, don’t just intellectually agree. Let it really sink in to your whole body.
When you say yes to stress and frustration when they comes, then that is the paradox: they dont stick inside you any more they just pass right through. When you say yes to whatever is already inside you the pain, the sorrow they begins to let go of you. Isnt that one of the messages of the emotional mastery series?
Say Yes with your entire being, your entire body, with every cell in your body to life, and let it bring you to a state of surrender.
Many thanks go out to my friend and mentor Kenton W who helped tremendously during research and writing of this post. In addition, his latest post on the perfection of life and acting for peace is an especially relevant read on this subject.