Thursday, November 19, 2009

The many FACEs of Ego

I've always figured -- or maybe hoped -- that I'd never be in danger of getting too cocky about anything, because there's always been something in me that seems to rush forward and derail me if I get too close to success or perfection.

My mom used to have a phrase for this: "From the sublime to the ridiculous" -- a phrase usually attributed to Napoleon apparently, but actually it comes from our own Thomas Paine: "The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again."

I'm thinking of this partly because this was the image that jumped out for me this morning -- shot when I was working on my miksang project, had run down to a deadline, and was out in the yard looking for anything, ANYTHING, that could be remotely described by the concept of LINE. And frankly, I don't think this image has much to say for it: some intriguing lines and textures, that curious imprint of the spider... And I think the part of me that selected it this morning just wanted to say "Wait. Too many good things happened yesterday. Time to step back and remind yourself that you're not perfect."

I'm reading in Richo's book this morning a chapter called "Life is not always fair," and he has a section on "The art of taming ego" in which he says, "The neurotic ego is not an identity but a set of encrustations: Fear, Attachment, Control, Entitlement. This is the FACE we keep trying to save and will do anything not to lose... but the FACE of ego can be transformed with spiritual commitment. Fear can be replaced with love. Attachment can turn into letting go. Control can soften into allowing. And Entitlement can become working for justice without hate or retaliation."

Now I know I'm not the only one who has one of these internal derailment systems. And I suspect those of us who are aware of them might tend to assume they are what keeps us from getting too caught up in ego, and that they're therefore a good thing. But reading this, I found myself wondering: what if that internal derailleur isn't anti-ego at all, but actually ego? It could come from fear -- fear that people will expect too much of me, and I'll fall flat on my face if they do, so let's lower expectations.

It could also come from control -- a sort of "you can't fire me I quit" phenomenon. I remember learning from a dear friend who struggled with her weight that one reason she stayed fat was to protect herself from disapproval: as long as she was fat, if people didn't like her she could say it was because she was fat, and it wouldn't have to touch or damage her internal sense of self.

If I were a different sort of person, it could come from entitlement: "I have a right to put anything I want out there and call it good" -- like one of those Preference by L'Oreal commercials: "I'm Worth It!"

Which means it could probably come from attachment as well -- I could be very attached to my image of myself as a humble person, and so I put this out there as proof that I'm willing to fail -- at everything except being humble: God forbid someone might discover my pride!

As Elizabeth Lesser says in The Seeker's Guide (which my spirituality group is still reading; we're up to Chapter Four), "Unhealthy ego converts spirituality to its own misguided uses in tricky ways....As soon as its territory is seriously threatened, ego will appear, hungry and determined."

Which then reminds me of something once said to me by the priest who counseled me through my divorce, years ago. "You can't trust anyone, not even me. The only One you can trust is God."

Unfortunately I took that saying to heart, having learned in several hard ways the truth of his statement. So perhaps the task of what Richo calls "spiritual commitment" is to accept that truth -- to know that so much of what we do and say stems from ego, even when we think it doesn't -- and then to work to move past that, to accept that life is what it is, and people are what they are, and that the miracle is that the Divine can still speak through all of it: we just need to choose to listen; to learn to love one another anyway, to let go of our grandiose visions of ourselves and our purpose, to allow ourselves and others to be as they are, and to work together to bring about more of that level of tolerance. It's all about losing FACE.

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