We are not who or what we think we are
“Egos exploiting egos is the source of all our problems.”
The deeper we look the more distilled and obvious Rinpoche’s insight grows. Whether our focus is personal depression, illness, greed, jealousy, addiction, crime and rage or global conflicts including compounding environmental poisoning, the feelings, images and perceptions we hold about ourselves and others affect everything we do. The therapist couch, doctor’s office, substance abuse center, our prisons and politicians, not to mention the global military-industrial complex are all sustained by this image and its effect on the human body, emotions and mind, encompassing the full spectrum of human relationships including our relationship with nature. We mistakenly reify the abstraction as an independent and very concrete reality. As central and pervasive as this image-as-self is, precious little attention is given to its actual form, structure, how it originates or what our lives would be like without it. The assumptions that surround what we call ‘me’ are often tacit and therefore reincarnate unquestioned. Quite strange when you think about it.
It became clear some years ago that what we experience as our personal identity and the larger cultural identity are reciprocal mirrors. Culture is a meme, an image or collection of concepts that are shared, in this case forming meta-ego field that gives rise to and is mirrored as our personal macro-ego. The personal and collective are in fact one field, looked at from different perspectives. Nationalism, for example, expresses all the characteristics as one’s personal ego; pride, anger, racism, revenge and more. Catching a glimpse of this reciprocal mirroring is rare and elusive. Like water to fish the phantom image, macro and micro, become an integral part of one’s reality, its form, content and structure. We do not see the eyes through which we are looking, and yet, the form and structure of the eye determines what we see. Not seeing the underlying form and structure that gives rise to both the outer culture as ego and the personal experience we call ‘me’ keeps the process hidden, repeating generation after generation, century after century. Not realizing what we are doing, we become the source of our own misery while pointing fingers and blaming someone or something else.
Of course, various wisdom traditions have understood this for thousands of years. In Vedas and Hinduism for example, 1000-500 BC, ignorance of one’s true self (avidya), leads to ego-consciousness of the body and the phenomenal world, egotism and desire. The state of illusion that gives rise to this false becoming is called maya, a mental image that appears to be true.
Within Buddhism, originating in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth, death, and an intermediate bardo state that arises from ordinary beings’ generating and fixating on a mistaken concept of self and therefore all experiences. Samsara arises out of wrong knowledge about reality (avidya) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction.)
The mythic overlays in Christianity are so layered that it is difficult to leach out coherence. The fall of man, Eve with her apple, might refer to the emergence of the neocortex with its capacity for symbols and imagination. The tree of knowledge may be a metaphor describing the emergence of new and very powerful mental images, avidya, ignorance of one’s true nature and maya, a mistaken concept of self and experience, the original sin or fall. If the ego and egotism is the root of so many problems and this has been known for thousands of years, why does it persist? I asked David Bohm, PhD, Einstein’s protégée, this very question.
I suggest that thought works like a conditioned reflex. As the reflex gets more and more automatic, it becomes less and less intelligent, less and less adapted to the particular situation.
The problem with the self is based on the assumption or concept which, if it were real, would be extremely important, would be the highest value of all things. Just think of the word, ‘self;' its basic meaning is the quintessence, the essence of all essences and that would, of course, have supreme value. If we assume there is a self, this stirs up the whole mind and brain inside so it feels, just from that assumption, that something is going on inside which corresponds to this assumed self and gives it an apparent reality. Once it has been assumed that this self is real and not merely an image, it takes first priority and everything else comes second, so everything is distorted.
If the self were really there then perhaps it would correct to center on the self because the self would be so important, but if the self is a form of illusion, at least the self as we know it, to center our thought on something illusory which is assumed to have supreme importance is going to disrupt the whole process and this will not only make thought about yourself wrong, it will make thought about everything wrong. In this way, thought becomes a dangerous and destructive instrument all around.
Because this image and concept of the self is assumed to be all-important, the brain starts to develop a defense mechanism to defend the image against the perception of its falseness or illusory nature. You can see if somebody says, "You are an idiot." There is an immediate response to say, "I'm not an idiot." It is painful to have an image of yourself as an idiot, therefore you will say, "You're wrong," and start adopting all sorts of false of explanations to show that you are not the problem. The other person is the idiot. This is a minor point compared with the tremendous energy that comes in when the very existence of this image is threatened by some evidence that it is only an image, it is only an illusion. Then, the entire brain and nervous system is disrupted. A defense mechanism comes in to block or wipe away the threat or to turn attention somewhere else. This defensive reflex renders it almost impossible to go any further. We forget about it.
A major form of defense is simply concealment of what's going on. If we could see what's going on, how thought creates the image of a self or thinker, it would be obvious that the self as we experience it is an illusion; similar to seeing through the trick of the magician. A major part of defense consists in making the whole process unconscious.
What is being suggested is that the thought process is real, it is going on in the brain and nervous system, and this thought process contains in it the assumption of a thinker who produces thought. Think of thought producing a television program of a thinker producing thought and the mind is watching that program so intently that it takes the television program to be reality.
David Bohm with Michael Mendizza
It is worth repeating:
If the self were really there then perhaps it would correct to center on the self because the self would be so important, but if the self is a kind of illusion, at least the self as we know it, then to center our thought on something illusory which is assumed to have supreme importance is going to disrupt the whole process and it will not only make thought about yourself wrong, it will make thought about everything wrong so that thought becomes a dangerous and destructive instrument all around.
Not seeing the magician’s trick we are playing on ourselves, we construct a self-world-view based in this deception and treat that deception as reality. The more this is done the greater the assumed reality grows, reinforcing the false perception that both culture and our individual ego are much more than images. The stronger and pervasive this self-deception, the greater our problems and suffering become. Media and technology, as they are used, compound and exponentially, this fundamental deception, rendering it more and more difficult to catch the magician’s trick. Of course, our personal, social, political and ecological worlds are in a mess.
Returning to David Bohm:
We are faced with a breakdown of general social order and human values that threatens stability throughout the world. Existing knowledge cannot meet this challenge. Something much deeper is needed, a completely new approach. I am suggesting that the very means by which we try to solve our problems is the problem. The source of our problems is within the structure of thought itself.
The fly in the soup of human consciousness, and therefore our personal and collective lives, is the self-deception described above and how, like King Midas, this core deception distorts everything it touches. Discovering and negating this deception changes everything. Ignore it, as David describes, and nothing changes. The Mad Hatters Tea Party grows louder and more destructive each passing day. There is a way out, however.
To be continued