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When I Struggled to Understand the Ego in Meditation

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.