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The Ego Loves Improvement (That’s Why Nothing Ever Changes)

I want to make the observation that the ego is not averse to improvement – that improvement, a sense of becoming – better, faster, wiser, more insightful, what have you – is integral to it. The ego is about movement away and towards – it is not satisfied with the present condition and so envisions a better future and then attempts to move towards it. Time is very important to the ego – time in terms of past, present and future.

But the ego never arrives, because the future never arrives. Emily Dickinson was right – eternity is composed of nows. We are always in the present whether we realize it or not. The future cannot, by definition, arrive. And so the energy of becoming – of projecting the better and brighter and more winsome – never ends. It can’t end. Not of its own volition anyway.

The ego is simply the way we think – it is the conditioned brain with its grooves and habits, its set patterns of reasoning and concluding. It is thought. It is really the movement of that thought – the process of that thought. It is like this river into which we step and then are swept along, following it wherever it goes. And at some point we think: this is not so good. This is bad. Sometimes this flow is really painful – sad or frightening or disturbing.

And we want out. We all want out. That’s why Jesus and the Buddha and A Course in Miracles and Eckhart Tolle and whatever else are so popular – we hope they will get us out. They are the flotsam we grasp at. We hope that by following them or practicing their precepts or studying them will somehow get us out. What we don’t see is that there are structural flaws in the way we think. A major overhaul is called for. There are no external solutions, no matter what the priests and gurus tell us.

In a sense – a painful sense (though ultimately liberating) – there is no Jesus. There is no course.

The thing is – and this is hard to realize and harder still to sustain as realization – the ego cannot help us with the overhaul. The ego is the problem. And the ego says, yes, there is a problem but it refuses to see that it is the problem. And then when the implication enters that it is the problem, it gets very creative about solutions: therapy, medication, better exercise regimens, more Ken Wapnick, yoga, less Gary Renard, road trips, and so forth.

But all of that – whatever the particular merits – remains the egoic flow. It remains the projected future. We have a new idea and it feels nice but the problem is that we have ideas. And we don’t see that. Or we do but we then we quickly allow the insight to be subsumed by new ideas. Awakening is about letting go of all the structures. That’s all. And it’s tricky. It really is.

I say this in part because I have written about the ego as vicious and mean and fighting for its life. That language is helpful in that it catches our attention. But it has the effect of separating us from the ego. And more and more I am appreciating the simple need to accept the ego’s presence. It is more in the nature of a tic than an enemy. It is like a record that skips (remember records?) and so rather than hear the song we hear he same stuttering lyric.

If you close your eyes for a moment, you will encounter what the course calls the ego. Sit with it. It is just your particular mind – the conditioning, the thoughts, the memories, the knowledge. All of that converging and bubbling and spewing. Maybe you will look at it and think: I don’t want this. But remember that your wanting release from it is part of it. All that noise up there is not going to help you. It is the problem itself and the problem is always replicating. It is always moving, always regenerating.

When we see that – when we are aware of it – then we begin to intuit a space beyond that, and a voice beyond that. “Space” and “voice” are blunt words and I apologize for that. We are trying to get at something that can only be hinted at with language. But what the course might do for us is allow us to begin moving away from the egoic flow simply by seeing it and realizing it cannot be other than what it is and that what it is is itself the problem. The ego cannot undo itself. Period. Knowing that opens up the possibility of contact with that which can undo the ego.

Many years ago a neighbor briefly had a unicycle and from time to time I would ride it. I had to go quicker than felt safe in order to maintain my balance. You couldn’t really think about it – you had to do it. And when I was doing it – riding – it was exhilarating in a sort of fluid electric kind of way. And when thought entered – look at me! – it was over. I toppled over.

For me, that is a little like what discerning the ego – and creating space for the Presence – feels like.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Bet Carbery April 18, 2013, 6:48 am

    I agree with you Sean. To see the ego as a murderous enemy may not helpful because if we believe we harbour a terrible foe a vicious circle can be created – feeding upon itself. Although this can work occasionally.
    More useful perhaps is to see the ego as so frightened and misguided and even sometimes trying to remedy things that its actions are ineffectual, plain daft or totally crazy. Seeing it in this way we may be able to dismiss it gently and without concern. No guarantees of course.
    Thank for your posts

    • Sean Reagan April 18, 2013, 9:39 am

      Thanks Bet. More and more I move into the space of seeing the ego as harmless – confused, misdirected and so forth. More like a child trying to run an adult world than a vicious murderer. Dismissing “gently and without concern” is paramount I think – we really do have to find the means to let it go without investing in it or doing battle. I appreciate, too, your cautionary note: no guarantees! Though if we are faithful and attentive it does seem that we get closer and closer. I don’t think God is trying to hide from us or make the way home difficult!

      Thanks for reading & sharing. It is much appreciated!


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