Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Ego and the Substance of Nothingness

One of the challenges in discussing “the ego” is that everyone means something different by the word, which makes unambiguous communication difficult. And yet, precise definition is elusive, as is true of most things above the material plane. How does one exactly describe something which is by definition subjective anyway? As I mentioned last week, the philosopher of science Stanley Jaki said that words are like clouds, in that from a distance they look as though they have sharply defined edges. But the closer you get to them, the more they lose their edges and become indistinguishable from fog.

This is one of the reasons why intellectuals are more often than not confused people -- not just intellectually confused but morally confused. They are lost in the fog of speech. No place in America, for example, is more anti-Semitic and secular than the university. You might think that the two are separate issues, but they clearly aren’t. A religious person is much more likely to be able to recognize good and evil when they are staring him in the face.

Today Dr. Sanity links to a piece that touches on this obligatory anti-Semitism among the educated elites of Europe. The author writes that “At a dinner after my lecture, a professor remarked, as if it were a generally accepted platitude: ‘Of course, the only terrorist state in the Middle East is Israel.’ Nobody contradicted him. The delegitimization of Israel in the British academic world has become one aspect of a new and more powerful wave of outright anti-Semitism....”

Yesterday I heard a wonderful interview with the historian Niall Ferguson on the Dennis Prager show, regarding his new book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds quite good. It seeks to answer the question, “why, if life was improving so rapidly for so many people at the dawn of the 20th century, were the next hundred years full of brutal conflict?” Why, for example, was Germany, of all places, at the vortex of this unprecedented storm of human evil? After all, by 1900, they were without a doubt the best educated and most culturally sophisticated people on earth.

Now, among other things, I am not historian. That’s just one of the many things I had to pretend to be -- others including physicist, biologist, anthropologist, and theologian -- in order to write my book. Many of my ideas would undoubtedly offend the rank and file historian, so it was extremely refreshing to hear an eminent historian agree with some of the broad historical outlines in my book.

For example, you will often hear professional historians such as Elton John make the demonstrably false assertion that religion is responsible for more death and destruction than any other force in history, when the opposite is true: in the twentieth century, some 200 million people died as a result of wholly secular, atheistic, and anti-religious ideologies. This figure dwarfs the number killed in religious wars, both in absolute and relative terms, as a percentage of the population. In fact, Ferguson agreed with another one of my conclusions -- that one must go all the way back to man in his pre-civilized state to see murder rates this high. (This was another controversial assertion in my book -- that human beings in their natural state were hardly innocent “noble savages,” but homicidal maniacs from the outset: Homo psychosus, as it were.)

It is no wonder that in Genesis 6:6, God expresses sorrow that he created human beings, to such an extent that he “grieved in his heart”: the world “was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” Here is a fine example of how much more wisdom there is in a single line from the Bible than there is in entire anthropology departments of elite universities. God is not a multiculturalist. He despises almost almost all of them.

Amazingly, Ferguson -- who teaches at Harvard -- said that the taxi driver transporting him to the airport was likely to possess more wisdom than the entire Harvard history faculty. (He must have realized he was safe in making this assertion, as no elite leftist historian would ever stoop so low as to actually listen to talk radio.) Ferguson also highlighted the truism that -- then as now -- it was religiously committed people who were far more likely to recognize and fight the evil in the world. In the 20th century the great evils came from secular and atheistic ideologies, but this century the greatest threat comes from a “religious” source, Islamism. But even that’s not quite accurate, because Islamism is specifically a weird blend of Islam, Marxism and fascism. Furthermore, it is greatly enabled by secularists all over the world, from the sophisticated elites of Europe to the idiotorial pages of the New York Times (which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its helpful propaganda on behalf of Stalin; at some point along the line they will undoubtedly be awarded another for their invaluable assistance to the current enemies of civilization).

“Yes Bob, but what does this have to do with the ego?” I’m getting there. Every religion, properly understood, has precisely to do with the “extinction” of what we are calling the ego, and it’s replacement with another center of consciousness. In my book, in order to avoid the linguistic confusion alluded to above, I simply employed the “empty symbols” of (•••) for the ego and (¶) for this other being that is “behind” or “above” (•••). (By the way, the multiple dots stand for unintegrated mind parasites; the (¶) is inherently unified [relatively speaking], as it is the otherwise inexplicably unified part of us that mirrors the divine unity -- “as above, so below.”)

So, if I were your spiritual teacher -- which I am not, but that’s another one of those things I had to pretend to be in order to write the damn book -- I would tell you this: yes, the “ego” of which various traditions speak does exist, but it is for you to discover it and understand its nature. And yes, this other entity -- the (¶) -- most definitely exists, but in the latter case, it is even more critical that you discover and “become” it. A religious practice can provide you with the means to discover it, but it cannot simply give it to you. Or, to be perfectly accurate, there will probably come a time (or two or three) in your life that it will be spontaneously given to you by something called “grace,” another word that requires an empty pneumaticon so that we don’t pretend to know what it is. [In my book I used the downward arrow symbol for this gratuitous “cause,” and the symbol (?!) for its startling effect on (•••).]

Now, after the conclusion of the Ferguson interview, I began brooding on the mysteries of language. It was a long drive, and I had about another hour to kill or give birth to, so I opted for the latter. It occurred to me that it is not a Big Mystery that clever human primates are able to use mouth noises to stand for for things. To a certain extent, many animals can do this. For example, my nineteen month old can howl like a coyote and respond to his missing mates prowling the hills around my neighborhood.

But the much more mysterious property of human language is that it is not just able to convey symbols but to convey the substance of thought. No, even more, it is able to transmit the substance of being from one being to another.


Take, for example, a comedic genius, a Richard Pryor, a Groucho Marx, a Jackie Gleason -- even a Howard Stern (a pox on his merely profane imitators). Have you ever noticed that they don’t actually have to make an explicit joke in order to be funny? Rather, when they speak, their language somehow conveys the “substance” of comedy -- a very real and palpable substance that inferior comedians cannot transmit. For example, you will notice that Al Franken thinks he is one of the people who can do this, when he manifestly cannot. Which is why he evokes wincing, not laughter. Jack Benny he is not.

It is the same with music. Technical proficiency has nothing to do with the ability to convey the substance of music. Not only that, but perhaps you may have noticed that when a great musician speaks, they even convey music in their speech -- as if they cannot help being musical.

Naturally, the same holds true of intelligence. There are many people who, no matter how educated, cannot convey the substance of intelligence in their words. And there are other people who can speak very simply, and yet, their words make intelligence palpably present.

And of course, it is exactly so with spirituality. The key in writing about spirit is to convey its reality directly from being to being -- language must not just symbolize it, but partake of its rhythms and proportions.

Now, one of the most mysterious and inexplicable things Jesus ever said -- at the time, it would have been dismissed as “insane” -- was that some day his message would be known and taught throughout the world.

What? Why? An anonymous peasant who never wrote down a word of his teaching, ignominiously put to death as a common criminal? And yet, the bizarre prediction came true. Not only that, but these words will still be remembered and spoken long after the words of most any living academic.

What we call genuine scripture or “revelation” is language that conveys the substance of spirit. These words endure because they embody timeless truths that we are not only able to “understand,” but to “make present.” But not with the ego.

To be continued.


The Substance of Joy. Hey, it's the reason why we keep him around, because he can also be the Substance of Annoyance.

Yes, cows are known to break dance when they are particularly overjoyed.


will said...

I'm always a little wary of the voice that conveys substance, irrespective of the words. Hitler's speeches, if read, are simplistic in the negative sense, flat, boring. When he spoke them, however - or hurled them - at German audiences, the effect was, as they say, electrifying, super-charging. Obviously, his voice, the overtones, its "hidden" resonances, must have conveyed a substance of the mystical ideal of the "Volk", bringing to the fore that same insanely proud ideal that had to have been in the German collective unconscious at the time.

I'm sure Christ possessed a subtle commanding voice with a similar range of hidden resonances, but his words and phrases themselves make for a unique, spare poetry - and it's real poetry, too, replete with eternal wisdom.

Seems to me that a certain poetic effect in words themselves indicates a full dimension of spirituality. The great comic routines do have a certain poetry to them (unlike Michael Richards's routine). The voice speaking them has to be decent, of course, but when we hear poetic words and phrases spoken, it's as if we're hearing another, "higher" voice speaking on a different plane of being, an Original Voice. Given that Christ was an Original Voice made flesh, when we hear - or even read - his words today, it's as if we are hearing him speaking them. Well, not "as if" - we *are* hearing him speak.

ximeze said...

Just gotta say it:

That cow suit is WAY cute!

Gagdad Bob said...

A couple days ago he discovered the tail and actually began chasing it. Kept him out of trouble for about five minutes....

Gagdad Bob said...


Yes, there is a Word that shatters speech as well as speech that shatters the Word. The latter has an perverse infectiousness all its own, as there seems to be a frisson involved in both conveying and receiving it. The fall into nothingness is exhilerating until one reaches the end, my friend. Like in a bathtub in Paris....

Lisa said...

Holy Cow!!!!!Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone!

jacob churosh said...

Bob: It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop at the end.

tsebring said...

I think another thing that makes comics "geniuses" is their ability to take everyday life and illustrate the inherent absurdity contained it it, or take everyday life and turn it inside out. Good examples of the former are George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, David Steinberg, and the other "observational comics"; these are the ones who often start a sentence with "ever notice how...". The latter type are the ones I call "surreal comics", who start sentences with "what if....", or simply beam out to another universe; these would be Robin Williams, Ed Kirchenbauer, Stephen Wright, Carrot Top, etc. By taking ordinary life and exposing its absurdity or making it absurd, it seems to me that truly gifted comics take ordinary horizontal aspects of like and lend an air of verticality to them, allowing us to forget our horizontal plight for a while.

NoMo said...

Bob - I have a grandson that age and "JOY!" is definitely the word. We get to see him often, but fortunately we time it so that we generally miss the "annoyance" part. Hey, we did our tour (having had 3 sons ourselves) -- its only right.

Regarding the communication of spiritual things, what has always fascinated me is how people tend to pray in public. Generally, I just find it weird. Its often as if they forget who the audience is. But more interesting is our individual communication with God. We pretty much have to use words, whether out loud or in our head, and they generally seem to come up short, yet, He understands perfectly (since He shares our heads - so to speak). Its the communication from Him to us, that is the challenge. I'm expecting to find out a LOT more about this subject and the mind of God in the next "life" -- if it will even matter at that point.

will said...

re the Lizard King and those of his ilk - the perverse chase after the dark sun, I think, is really a form of paganism in which the object is to become "one with nature". I'm sure it's exhilarating, an overload of the senses, etc., but ultimately becoming one with nature can only mean self-annihilation, becoming one with the fire, having your atoms scattered to the wind. I have to think that the L.K. and company are aware of this on some level, and they do get what they're trying to achieve.

The modern paganism that is Iran's islamofascism is, I'm sure, on the same desired path to self-annhilation. Has to be a real rush.

jwm said...

Nothing of any weight to add this afternoon. Bob, Will, Dilys, Ben, Tom, and everyone else: Have a wonderful day tomorrow. Y'all are a big part of what I am grateful for.


walt said...

Regarding studying history, you recently recommended The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock. I re-read it per your suggestion, and thought that Nock went a long ways toward clearly identifying the historical forces/trends that shaped the first and second half of the last century. The adjective "pithy" comes to mind. You have a way of touching on references that I simply don't see elsewhere, but that seem very pertinent.

shoprat said...

Elton John's statement would take on more truth if one regards Atheism as simply another religion (albeit a completely material one).

River Cocytus said...

Wait... F stood for Frithjof? Wow. Now that is a name.

It means 'peace-thief'. Hahahahaha! Wow. We're all 'happy' in our horizontal world, and he has to come along and steal our 'peace'.

I'm starting to see ego as kind of a machine, kind of like a car; if the car has too much 'personality' -- I mean, like, rusted flapping doors, broken exhaust, bent axles-- nobody could become 'one' with the car and drive it well, or even at all.

It's not to say that we are becoming one with the car, but rather, like a prosthetic arm, the car is becoming and extension of our will (which is, of course, to peel rubber.)

I would say: "Don't become 'one' with nature, but nature will become one with you, as all are drawn upward into the spirit."

The downward way maybe, is a reversal; forcing the spirit to become one with us; forcing ourselves to be one with nature.

Ah, click! You could write to no end on this subject, just as a fractal pattern has no 'end'.

The issue is actually getting somewhere when I write. Like I always say, I'm workin' on it.

I talked about the 'word' and the 'substance' with my mother tonight. I call it 'playing the music' versus 'hearing the music'. Playing it is just reading the notes. Hearing it is traversing the Music and using the notes as a map.

Or is it mapping the notes so you can hear the traversal? Or hearing the Music so you can traverse the map?

It's just so... round. You could approach it from any side.

Bob, this is going to sound like an odd question, but how is it that one reaches a narcissist? Is there 'someone' to actually reach at all? The concept of what narcissism is (incomplete formation of the self?) I find confusing. I know what a narcissist does, but what is one actually?

Paul G said...

River, it occurs to me that a better analogy would be that of an owner and their dog. The presence of a human in the life of the dog seems to be an opportunity for the dog to "transcend" its natural dogness and become something else, either for better or for worse, depending on how the owner approaches the situation.

An owner who dotes endlessly on their dog, refusing to discipline it for fear of "losing the dog's trust" or "abusing" the dog actually seems to pull their dog down to a level lower than nature. We see the end result all the time. Usually, in the case of smaller dogs, the dog is visibly miserable (I would be too, if I had to wear that ridiculous crap and have my hair cut into ludicrous shapes), or in the case of larger dogs, the dog is very aggressive, anti-social, and "out of control". Watch "The Dog Whisperer" some time to see endless examples of these dogs and the owners who drag them down to this level. At least in the wild pack, there is a semblance of order and proper behavior.

Human influence can work in the other direction as well. Take, for example, the shepherds who have trained their dogs rigorously to help them herd sheep, or even cattle. Putting their dogs to work, training them, and disciplining them has transformed the dogs into something else entirely. With the influence of the human in their lives, these dogs overcome their natural instinct, are "drawn up" past their mere dogness. A quick whistle from the shepherd and the will of the dogs instantly reflects the will of the shepherd. These dogs control and chase vast herds of animals. That feat must seem inconceivable to your average dog. Additionally, these dogs must live incredibly happy lives, running around outside all day, chasing prey animals (albeit not killing them), being petted and praised by their owners when they do their jobs well, and going to bed every night with a full stomach.

If we indulge our Ego (and boy, will it yowl and snarl and snap to demand attention!), cater to its every whim or otherwise let it run rampant, we are not "dragged down into nature." I think we fall further than that into Evil. However, if we are willing, we can listen for the voice of our Master, relish His training and correction. Soon we find that we are becoming something else, being drawn up into that higher vertical plane. In the process, we also find that we are doing exactly what we have wanted to do all of our lives. Even better, what we were made for.

To take the analogy further, you can see that same false pride (which was being discussed yesterday) in the dog that has been indulged all of its life. It feels that it has the run of the house, but threaten the dog's sense of superiority and it will probably try to draw blood, and quickly.

However, you can also see a glimmer of genuine True Pride in those herding dogs every time they are praised by their shepherd. There is no insecurity or falsehood to be found there. They are happy inasmuch as they are doing the shepherd's will to the best of their ability.

The difference is, we get to choose our Shepherd. Therein lies the incredible beauty and the vast danger of our situation.

geckofeeder said...

Also River, for more insight into narcissicm, go to the left bar at

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, we are blessed

Van said...

Gagdad said "What we call genuine scripture or “revelation” is language that conveys the substance of spirit. These words endure because they embody timeless truths that we are not only able to “understand,” but to “make present.” But not with the ego."

Will said "Seems to me that a certain poetic effect in words themselves indicates a full dimension of spirituality. "

NoMo said "But more interesting is our individual communication with God. We pretty much have to use words, whether out loud or in our head, and they generally seem to come up short, yet, He understands perfectly (since He shares our heads - so to speak). "

The concepts we form in our heads, the swelling of thought which is then clothed in word, be it English, German, Greek or Hebrew... those concepts we form, are an attempt to realize a Thought - tell me I'm not the only one who feels deep thought to be akin to two sensations, one like an archeologist brushing away the dirt and rock to painstakingly reveal the artifact, the other the sense of a sculptor chiseling away stone to reveal a form, as Michelangelo put it: he gazed upon the Marble for days until he "Saw" the form of the sculpture within, then it was just a matter of revealing it by skillfully removing the spare marble that hide it.

This is something I haven't fully considered yet, it's been dancing about the edges of thought for a while, I seem to be suffering from a severe lack of slack, never having the time to think and write except when I should be sleeping. That caveat said, why does the Bible, and not just the Bible but as our relevant religious example, why does it use such images to tell it's tales, often repetitive ones; the slaughter of infants where the chosen one escapes; a meeting at a well, often reveals a wife as with Moses, the wandering in the desert; and of course the finest examples being the parables of Jesus... why convey thought in poetic images, rather than words alone - perhaps words which could be better chosen, more erudite?

Because words can be lost in translation, but the imagery of the good Samaritan, of the seeds cast upon stone or good soil, he who is without sin casting the first stone, the last supper, and of course the Crucifixion itself - these poetic images travel from mind to mind, soul to soul, faster and with greater clarity than all my beloved prose of Aristotle, Cicero. It is the Poetic Imagery that (similar to a picture being worth a thousand words, but that is a pale comparison) that is able to find immediate root in heart, soul and mind in an instant!

It is seeming to me, that it is poetic imagery that is the true language of thought, of dreams, of belief - and which our orderly prose labors to take apart in analysis, before reassembling for another kind of understanding. I once heard Education described as the process of disassembling a Whole One of understanding from within a Teacher, and by way of words, transmitting them one by one into the student, where they struggle to reassemble them into the same Whole once again.

The Artist & Poet looks upon such an inefficient process and fashions a Whole Image in material or poetic form, and hurls it in its entirety into the onlookers skull in one fell swoop, and leaves it to them to explore this new sphere of understanding inhabiting their soul as best they can, and in their own time.

Once the imagery has been transmitted, it is then the slow work of words to clear away the dust to reveal, to Articulate the thoughts into words that can be examined more closely by the Ego, and at first narrowly, by directed thought, rather than the swift Revealed Thought of Poetics.

I wonder if one test of the Ego might be, does it hold up its many scattered and disassembled words of analysis as THE understanding; a job only half done, or does it then seek to reassemble those pieces within themselves, trying their best to get them back into the whole that originally existed outside of themselves to begin with?

I'm rambling, sorry, 2:15 a.m. There is something there though between music, numbers, poetry and laughter… something happening there.

Ah well, good night, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Anonymous said...

roger g said...
paul, yo, dog, well said. and to add my two cents to Bob - the point, as i see it is not to communicate information, facts, knowledge, etc. which our western culture is so enamored with but to impart life, hope, love, being. We can philosiphize about it till the cows come home but only one with life, love, etc can impart that to another. Just as we can talk about investing, the markets, economics, etc. but i can only give you money if i have some to give.

Anonymous said...

Bob, you are a boob.

Gagdad Bob said...

Thank you for keeping me abreast.