If there is one thing that meditating and living in community can help us with it’s the awareness of just how the ego can move and work within us and our relating. This is certainly the case for any group of people committed to spending time and energy together – husbands and wives, families, work colleagues. If left alone, ego will always be attempting to influence things towards its own self-interests.
Lately at Meditatio House I have been experiencing a heightened sense of my ego as it dips and weaves in and out of perception and action. This heightened sense is the fruit of living as part of a community that values meditation, silence, and the minimisation of distraction.
I can be in a conversation with someone and, before too long sense self-consciousness (or ego) rise in me. This self-consciousness attempts to grasp and influence perception and action in that moment. It attempts this with a movement of emotion and/or with thoughts and images that rise to influence attention back to my inner life at the surface of consciousness. As this happens I can lose touch with a deeper sense of other-centred connection and being. Ego doesn’t want attention to be in these deeper places and away from it. It wants the light of attention to remain on it. An ego too caught in its own reflection can view a lack of self-consciousness as, ultimately, a threat to its existence.
Recently a request was made to do some raking of autumn leaves. I hesitated to volunteer. Why? Who was hesitating? Who was being served by not volunteering? By not volunteering I missed out on an opportunity to be an active community member. I also missed out on a chance to gently, and with grace, act in a way which truly loved everyone (including myself) rather than do what ego wanted (to stay in my room and read a book). As I read I sensed regret.
Because ego can view a lack of attention as an existential threat, it wants to be in the driver’s seat of the inner life to control where attention goes. And it is very effective at claiming attention, often doing so subtlety and anonymously. Ego is a chameleon, always shifting colour and direction, attempting different ways to influence attention for its own end: that it stays as the indispensable centre of our life and relating.
Sometimes ego can be this gentle ‘inner breeze’ subtlety encouraging attention back to itself. Sometimes the breeze blows stronger. At other times it can be like a hurricane using all the energy it has been given as a whirlwind, sucking attention back to the ‘safer’ surface of things.
In the end, though, ego is a kind of illusion, an enigma that requires attention if it is to be seen as existing. While it is, paradoxically, a necessary part of being human, it’s centrality to our psychology is unnecessary.
Theologian Sarah Bachelard* in her book Resurrection and Moral Imagination describes the ego as “the felt need to grasp at our identity for ourselves”, rather than to “discover ourselves given being” by Divine Being (p99, italics added). Ego avoids this discovery because it means the beginning of the ultimate undermining of its attempts at being central to our psychological life. Divine Being-in-Love is becoming the centre at the expense of egocentricity.
The wonderful thing about the discovery of our self as given being by this divinity is that we experience this giving’s free gift. There is nothing to prove. We don’t have to be good enough for it. We are not required to work for it, to maintain the life of this being through effort. Being is not the ego “self-making”. Any “desire to secure our own righteousness” (or worthiness) is foreign to being and completely unnecessary (Bachelard, 98-99). This need to self-make and in doing so prove ourselves as worthy of attention and of love, is a project of the ego.
Life lived in a deeper and growing grounding in the gift of being and the de-centring of ego, frees life to be a loving adventure to be experienced for its own sake. We are here to participate in the great creative adventure of love. We are not here to prove our human life as worthy of attention, as worthy of this love.
The challenge, of course, is that our humanity, from its earliest stages of development, is trained in this lie of unworthiness, of self-justification. We end up making psychological and relational concessions to this lie. The hardness of this lie and the way it is lived wounds us. This wounding requires healing. This healing is a part of the attention’s journey into being.
Meditation is a wonderful way in which to practice the grounding of attention in the Goodness of God, in Divine Being. It is the giving of attention to the mantra that grounds attention in Being. It is the giving of attention to Divine Being that nurtures the healing process. As we grow in this grounding and healing there is less and less need for us to justify our own existence. We discover that we never needed to and experience our true liberation in Christ.
Faithful practice sees ego becoming less and less opaque. It grows in a subtle, simple, and graced clarity. This allows the bright jewel of being that each of us uniquely is to shine more and more in the world through ego. As this happens a forgetfulness of self-consciousness grows in us. This forgetfulness is a sign that ego is (with grace) letting go of the desire to be at the centre of things, to have attention all to itself. Ego is finally relaxing into being at the service of the divine within. It can function without attention. Humility grows in us. Our psyche is being healed and integrated.
* Sarah Bachelard is an Australian Anglican priest, a Christian meditator, and the founder of Benedictus Contemplative Church.