Wednesday, January 12, 2011

At the mall of discovery

I grew up with a father who collected a variety of puns called "Answer Jokes" which he culled from Carmac the Magnificent on the Johnny Carson show.

So the first time I heard Billy Collins read this poem (at one of his appearances at our local high school), I fell instantly in love with it, because it really is a perfect, poetic, answer joke:

Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days.

Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe.

Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips.

The title, of course, is "Oh, My God!"

... which I mention this morning only because (since I have daughters) that was the phrase that leaped unbidden into my head when I was reading John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening this morning.  Oh. My. God!  I finally get it!

The gift -- which seems ridiculously simple, but for me was like a puzzle piece falling into place -- was just this: He's talking about the difference between the Western concept of ego -- as something that needs to be strengthened -- and the Eastern concept of ego -- as something that needs to be overcome -- a difference I'd never really worried about, to be honest -- and he says these magical words:

"The ego is a transitional mental structure that serves a useful purpose in human development; an interim caretaker, a managerial function created by the mind for the purpose of navigating the world.  Initially this allows children to survive, function, and develop during their early years when they cannot yet fully recognize or draw on the power of their larger being...The tragedy of the ego, however, is that we start to believe that this manager, this frontal self that interfaces with the world, is who we are.

...There is a certain poignancy to this.  As an imitation of our true nature, ego is a way of trying to be.  If we lack the true strength to deal with difficult circumstances, we try to be strong -- by tensing and tightening.  Lacking true confidence, we try to get ahead or be on top -- by forcing and pushing.  Lacking direct knowledge of our value, we try to be lovable -- by compromising ourselves, trying to save our parents, or pleasing people."

"Criticizing the ego," he goes on to say, "is like condemning a child for not being an adult... Instead of indulging in ego-bashing, a more helpful approach is to appreciate how ego tries its best; to have some compassion for its ultimate failure."

Wow.  I'm not quite sure how I managed to miss this basic concept, but OMG it clarifies SO MUCH for me -- and finally frees me, not only to recognize the ego at work, but also to be much more sympathetic to its efforts on my behalf.  Somehow, now, I can more easily recognize it -- and see beyond it to the strength, the confidence, and the lovableness of the larger, more connected being that lies beneath.


Maureen said...

That may be the best definition of ego I've read; a keeper quote.

I was just reading at TED blog a Q&A with Karen Armstrong, who mentions our problems with egos. She's got a new book, based on 12 steps, on developing a compassionate life.

Louise Gallagher said...

As always, our syncrhonicity is compelling!

thanks Diane.