Ego is not a thing – an object or actor making decisions affecting us – so much as a pattern of thinking. It is a form of mental conditioning that guides behavior and brings forth a certain world. Critically, ego is not the only way to think and act, and the world it brings forth is not our actual home.
The most effective tool for seeing this – and allowing it to be undone – that I have encountered is A Course in Miracles (though I stipulate that my personal study and practice of the course differs, sometimes substantively, from more traditional applications).
Ego owns the quality of a whirlpool: its energy tends to suck everything into meaningless repetitive cycles. When we are given to egocentric thinking, we view everything through the lens of a single conditioned pattern. Everything appears according to the dictates of the lens. The lens literally becomes a dictator of perception. It is like wearing blue glasses. Everything is not actually blue but does appear blue so long as you wear the glasses. Then imagine the glasses can talk and are constantly arguing that if you take them off you’ll be blinded or worse . . .
That’s a helpful analogy because it makes clear that our subservience to the so-called dictator is a matter of choice (even if we can’t presently see the choice). It’s a decision we made and, because we have the power to make that decision, we can make a different one. We can – as ACIM puts it – choose again (and better 🙂 )
For most of us, this “single conditioned pattern” becomes so pervasive that we forget that other ways of thinking and perceiving exist, are viable, sustainable, loving, gentle, helpful et cetera. Subject to the whirling violence of the ego, we become unhappy, anxious, depressed, guilty and fearful. Under those circumstances, Bill Thetford’s insight – there must be another way – becomes truly revolutionary, even though in another sense, it is perfectly obvious to the point of being mundane.
I use “violence” with respect to egoic patterns of thinking here specifically. The ego is a way of denying “another way.” It insists that there is only one way to see things, one way to know things, one way to experience things and that way is its way. When we refuse to consider something on its own terms, when we insist that something is only the way we think/see/say it is then we deny that other thing’s actual existence. Denying the existence of something is a form of violence. Not allowing the existence of others is violent. The ego’s insistence on itself and its prerogative – which by definition denies the existence of anything else, let alone “another way” – is violent.
So ego-based thinking is a pattern of thinking that is inherently violent. And because we are actually inherently gentle, kind, nurturing and loving, we feel acutely the pain of egoic thinking and acting. It is deeply contrary to the fundamental truth of our being. We feel guilty on its account and then repress (through projection and denial) that guilt and pain which makes it that much harder to heal the guilt and pain. We cannot love what we refuse to see.
A Course in Miracles is a way – not the way but a way – of thinking creatively about about how mind works and does not work, and then bringing that insight to bear on the question of love-as-our-being. It is clarifying and its clarity naturally undoes many of the pernicious effects of confused, misdirected and dysfunctional thinking. It is a way of healing – by undoing – egoic thinking.
Students of A Course in Miracles are called to a kind of attentiveness. We are called to witness our thinking in order to restore to awareness our fundamental unity with Creation, which is Being Itself.
As you share my unwillingness to accept error in yourself and others, you must join the great crusade to correct it; listen to my voice, learn to undo error and act to correct it. The power to work miracles belongs to you (T-1.III.1:6-7).
Thus, we give attention to our thinking in order to discern errors in thinking that bring forth projection and denial and the refusal to be responsible for love. That is what a miracle is: a shift in thinking away from fear and towards love. They occur when we actively give attention to them as possibility; in a sense, to look for a miracle is itself a miracle.
In this sense, “giving attention” can function as a spiritual practice effectively instantiated by A Course in Miracles. This can be formal, integrating traditional mindfulness and meditation practices, but it doesn’t have to be. The important thing is to trust the process, and to allow it to arise as a spontaneous expression of our creative unity, our integrated Being that includes God, Self, Other, Jesus, Buddha, angels, Arten and Pursah, whales, starlight and electric lawnmowers. Nothing is excluded – that’s how we know it’s divine.
Giving attention becomes a means of perceiving that what we call “ego” is not as solid or inflexible as we are trained to think (as it trains us to think). It is not as impregnable or unassailable as it asserts. Perceiving this truth naturally undoes the ego’s gravitational pull. Ego is weakened every time we question it, every time we make even a little space for “another way.”
More specifically, a spaciousness emerges in which egoic patterns of thought and behavior can actually be assessed for helpfulness and relevance. Seen clearly as dysfunctional and unhelpful, who wants it? A sense of freedom obtains because we are less caught up in unreflective living. We become intentional and our intentions are guided by a sense of equality, inclusiveness, kindness, gentleness. We are less blocked, less defensive. We are happy, and our happiness gives itself away.
Together, this spaciousness and freedom are love – not the personal love that excludes others by choosing favorites but an impersonal love that eschews conditions and qualifications. Love abides; its expression and welcome is natural and ongoing. It lets go and lets be. Egocentric patterns of thought cannot prevail against it.
As Humberto Maturana observes, “We talk about love as if it were special and rare, something difficult to achieve – but it is a really ordinary thing.”
But it is special in a different way. When the emotion of love is there, then vision expands . . . the legitimacy of the existence of the other does not mean you have to like, or want to be near the person, being, or circumstance to love it – it means that you have to let it be, to see it (The Biology of Business: Love Expands Intelligence).
Thus, we are not trying to banish the ego or vanquish the ego or negotiate with the ego or anything like that. We are merely noticing it, noticing its effects, and trusting that our noticing contains powerful seeds of healing. There are other ways and we are not alien to them. As we slip the ego’s constriction, those other ways appear to us. They are already given.
Ultimately, the gift of attention is the gift of love. Ego is a way of saying “no” to this gift, but the gift remains. Love remains. Attention is a way of saying “yes” and accepting – by offering – the gift again.