I remember when I first began meditating and people tried to explain to me about the ego in meditation...
I was one of those hardcore leftwing atheists who had been writing about European Intellectual History and who had studied religion almost entirely as an epiphenomenon of culture. "Spirituality" was something I associated with far too much uncomfortable hugging and that unnerving New Age perma-smile and determinedly upbeat behavior that invariably seemed to mask profound anger, passive aggression, and depression. I had admittedly responded with an odd sense of recognition when I read Coleman Barks' translations of Rumi in the 1980s and 1990s--why did I experience a chill when I read certain poems, as if I had just uncovered something both profound and inexplicable?--and I had been deeply interested in Sufism during an MA in Islamic History in the 1980s...But for the most part any mention of the spiritual would cause me to roll my eyes.
So, when my world imploded in the way it sometimes does in middle age--divorce, unbridled fury towards the mindless "family evaluators" in the county divorce bureaucracy, dating for the first time in 20-some years, court-ordered financial chaos, and a sense that I had been living in an alternative reality for my entire adult life--I decided to look for ways to relax a little. Thankfully, the shrink I began to see had grown up in Sri Lanka as a Buddhist and he seemed to think that some mindfulness could help as long as I also showed some inclination to address the alarming chasm that existed between my rather fantastic notions about what would make me happy and the miserable reality I was living. He wanted to see some concrete adjustments in behavior, not just more talk or internal noodling.
I was listening to some podcasts about entrepreneurship at the time--Tim Ferris, e.g.--and it seemed as if all of the successful entrepreneurs had a mindfulness practice. So I followed their example and assured myself that I also wasn't interested in any of the "woo woo" spiritual stuff because I'm an atheist and a critical thinker. Just focus on the breath, body scan, mindful walks, ideas floating by like leaves on a stream...Et voilà, after a while I actually began to relax. I even began to sleep the night through, which was something I hadn't done in a decade.
And by a somewhat circuitous route, after about nine months of mindfulness, I began David Harshada Wagner's nine month course called Living Meditation, which was an intensive meditation and spirituality course. It's not clear to me, at this distance of years, why I enrolled in this course. Living Meditation was nine months of meditation and spirituality with a teacher who was clearly not doing mindfulness-based stress reduction. The course was all the things I had said I would avoid--yoga, meditation, mantras, chanting, the soul, Sanskrit words attached to spiritual concepts...But something certainly drew me to Harshada's course. Perhaps some intuition that the response I had had to Rumi and to Sufism many years before may have been more authentic than the rather more conformist academic pose as a radical atheist...
At any rate, as someone with a long engagement with critical theory and intellectual history, I was surprised to find myself an infant when it came to spiritual concepts. I had to struggle with the reorientation away from a philosophical and political approach that revolved around "rethinking Marxism" and postmodernism to one that involved a long history of spiritual thought and practice deriving from India. And one of those foundational concepts, after we had addressed spirituality versus religion, was the ego.
I was familiar with the concept of the ego from Western philosophy and psychology, of course--the sense of personal identity or status as a thinking subject--but the ego in this context was not the same. I read something about the ego from Ramana Maharshi, I believe, and was confused. I asked someone else in the course what it meant and they said, "The ego is who you think you are, but it's just an illusion. It's not real." I remember being utterly puzzled by this. How can my present sense of self not be real? It's right here before me. My experience tells me that it is real and there is no other experience to take its place. If it's not real then I have no access to reality. "Well, yes--but it's just an illusion."
I wasn't getting it. Perhaps what eventually helped me to understand the ego in spirituality was the combination of my experience with my shrink and my engagement with postmodernism--I had read plenty of Michel Foucault and Edward Said in the 1980s and 1990s. Postmodern thought certainly makes the construction of identity a primary concern--the notion that subjectivity is constructed out of experience, and experience is always located in a context of power. There was also the postmodern concern for language and how we internalize culture and identity from our culture's language and narratives--Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of dialogism comes to mind. Thinking about the ego in this context helped me to understand the ancient Indian concept of the ego, to some degree--the identities we have internalized from the culture around us are not the essence of who we are, but rather fleeting and changing ideas that have no more abiding substance than any other passing ideas we have about the world.
But perhaps the thing that finally brought the concept home was the insight I had from my ex-Buddhist shrink: there was a very fundamental conflict between the stories I told myself about who I am and what would make me happy and the rather miserable reality I had been living. Where had those stories about what would make me happy come from? Literature, history, biographies, movies, parents, television, peers, the college town I grew up in...It became so obvious that I had internalized a raft of stories and fantasies and expectations about life that were completely contingent--they are about as essential to who I am as the leaf floating down the stream is to the stream--and I had called these stories and fantasies "me" and "my life." My shrink wanted me to understand what it is that would really make me happy and to adjust myself to this more authentic context of behavior out of the web of neurotic associations.
The ego was not just an "illusion," in other words. Not just something that wasn't "real." It was a reality constructed out of contingent experience to which a more profound and abiding character has been assigned. The idea that I am a father, a brother, a son, a grandson, a nephew, an Arab-American, the son of a mother who grew up in the Salvation Army, an ex-husband, an "intellectual," a writer, a faculty brat, an expatriate, a traveler...These were not illusions about my experience, they were illusions about what constituted my deepest and most profound self. An abiding self that we can only come to experience in meditation.
In other words, as our meditation practice deepens we can see that, while our contingent identifications melt away, we experience not a sense of nothingness or unreality, but a sense of profound recognition. The illusion was not that we had experienced reality; it was that we had mistaken a contingent experience for the most profound one. The ego is that floating congeries of ideas about the self. It's an idea about ideas that is wrapped up in associated emotional and physical experiences. We don't stop having experiences; we stop identifying with them as if they are the end of what is possible for us. As we peel away these identifications in meditation, we feel more grounded in reality, not less.
And that is the essence of what the ego came to mean to me: identification with contingent experience in a context of profound and soulful possibility. The ego is not an illusion; it's a mistake, a misunderstanding, like thinking that a stick in the path is a snake. The stick is there, but when we recoil in fear from it, it's because we mistook the stick for something else. Once we know that there is no snake, we can just see the stick for what it is and move on. No need to scream at the stick or be angry at the misidentification. Meditation allows us to peel away the layer of misidentification and to open to a new sense of self and possibility.
The ego? Still there, of course. But it now looks more like an object of awareness than the essence of who I am. And when I get angry because the dogs won't stop barking or irritated because life isn't what I want it to be? I am prone to smile after a bit, and to think, "There he goes again..."