Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Fool and His Ego are Soon Parted

Continuing with the musical question of Ego! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!, I need to correct a misapprehension right at the outset. In response to yesterday’s post, George wrote, “I suspect that I may have an ego dysfunction; in my music and writing I am constantly aware that a part of me is hoping that I achieve some renown and riches from my efforts. Another part of me looks at that hope with a bit of disdain, knowing that the song or story should be given as a gift. Even the disdainful part is wistfully aware that it wants at least a taste of glory. And, all parts of me crave an audience.”

None of these things are pathological per se, and certainly not as they pertain to the ego as such. There is nothing wrong with achieving success or renown, so long as one keeps perspective and puts everything in its proper place. And much depends on caste and temperament. There is a form of yoga proper to each person, yoga being the most generic and universal description of the various paths of ego transcendence.

In fact, where I part company with certain spiritual schools is precisely over this question of the ego. I am sure this results from my psychoanalytic training, which appreciates just how much of an accomplishment it is to develop a healthy ego. For Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was quite modest; on one occasion he said words to the effect that it was to convert intense suffering to garden variety unhappiness. In a less cynical mood, he said that it was to develop the capacity to work, love and play -- which is to say, cultivate productivity, creativity, and deep and satisfying relationships. None of these things should be minimized. They aren’t chopped liver.

Speaking of chopped liver, one of the beautiful things about Judaism is that it systematically elevates all of these activities to the center of spiritual life. It is a very “worldly” religion, but at the same time, it specifically attempts to illuminate this world with the light of another -- to see the sanctity in everyday living. There is no monastic tradition in Judaism, no attempt to escape, even vertically. Rather, the task is to create a life in which vertical energies descend into the day-to-day activities of this world, regardless of whether one is engaging in a business transaction, eating a meal, or raising a child. Everything becomes an occasion to vertically “re-member” the divine and therefore “forget” the ego.

In this sense, Judaism is very much a form of karma yoga (which is not to say that it doesn’t have its bhakti, hatha, raja, or jnana aspects as well, as all religions have each but tend to emphasize one; in passing, let it also be said that each religion can also become a shadow of its dominant mode, which is why, for example, Judaism can veer into legalism, or “bhakti” Christianity into a mindless and sentimental fideism, or “raja” Buddhism into an impractical escapism that sees the world only as illusion).

Mere ego transcendence without discernment will inevitably lead to foolishness. Remember, all religions evolved within traditional cultures, so one must be very cautious in isolating a particular spiritual idea from its overall context -- not just its scriptural context, but its culturally embodied context.

Let’s take the wrongheaded idea that the ego is the source of all our difficulties, something we must jettison entirely. It is one thing to do that in a supportive community of fellow spiritual seekers who are all "on the same page,” another thing entirely to indiscriminately apply it to the wider world. Doing so will lead to moral idiocy.

We see this, for example, in recent statements by the Dalai Lama that "There is a perception among the Western media that Islam is militant but that is not true,” that “All religions have the same potential for peace," and even that “The concept of war is outdated. Violence is unpredictable and it can go out of hand. Conflict situations should be resolved through negotiations.” This is the same sort of dangerous moral lunacy that was promulgated by Gandhi, and it is manifestly false. Not only that, but believing it would clearly lead to more evil in the world, not less.

But as I said, if you believe the world is simply “maya,” or an empty illusion, it should not be surprising that your moral categories are going to be a bit muddled, since morality specifically applies to this relative world that we inhabit. The Dalai Lama is undoubtedly correct in affirming that the concept of war is outdated in the land of samadhi, but it takes a lot of nirvana to say that this world would be a better place if we would simply negotiate with Islamists, nazis, or other implacably evil monsters of depravity.

If the Dalai Lama were a manava his word, he would have stayed in Tibet and negotiated with Mao. Yes, Mao was the most evil man who ever lived, having been responsible for the murder of some 70 million human beings. But hey, conflict situations should be resolved through negotiations, not by safely jet-setting around in countries that believe evil is real and must be confronted.

Do you see the problem? Frithjof Schuon wrote that “The reduction of the devil to the ego amounts in practice to the devil’s abolition…. The door then stands open to a puerile optimism, which is all the more dangerous in that it is mingled unsuspectingly with progressivist optimism.… Moreover a too exclusive -- and in any case inconsistent -- ‘satanization’ of the ego entails a too simplistic ‘divinization’ of the ‘other,’ which means that replacing the devil by the ego goes hand in hand with replacing God by the ‘neighbor,’ whence an ‘altruism’ that appears as an end in itself and thus loses all contact with metaphysical truth, and so with genuine spirituality.”

Is this not self-evident, both in theory and in practice? It is not only a certain type of Buddhist who is susceptible to this kind of moral foolishness. Obviously it can also afflict Christians who take this or that statement by Jesus out of context in order to support the deeply immoral idea of pacifism. In reality, there is no right superior to truth. Therefore, if your morality is not grounded in truth, it will cease to be moral despite your good intentions.

This, of course, is precisely what is wrong with all forms of leftist “do-gooderism,” and why their ideas do not work in practice. To be perfectly accurate, like the Dalai Lama’s ideas, they will work, but only in paradise -- as will Mao’s ideas. But if you willfully confuse the herebelow with paradise, a lot of people are going to be hurt and killed. And you won’t get paradise anyway.

As Schuon explains, if brotherly love becomes the highest ideal, the distinction between truth and error is attenuted if not obliterated. Since the ego is considered “error” per se, “there is then nothing wrong with believing two and two make five, provided one ‘does good’ or ‘renders service.’” This amounts to an escape from ego “from below” instead of above, since it is not possible to simultaneously transcend the ego and “abide in error,” as it were.

“From here,” as Schuon explains, “it is but a step to acceptance of the Antichrist out of humility or charity, even for the sake of being ‘nice.’” While these lovers of mankind are technically correct in appreciating the dangers of intellectual pride, it is another thing altogether to try to transcend intelligence along with the ego.

Doing so merely replaces one kind of pride with another. The other day, ShrinkWrapped had an excellent post on what amounts to the “pride of pacifism” or the selfishness at the heart of selflessness. You should read the whole thing, but the gist, for our purposes, is the idea that there is no one so proud and narcissistic as the pacifist who demonizes the war or President Bush as a means to morally elevate himself, thus spuriously converting cowardice to courage.

You will notice how incoherent this becomes. The Vietnam war, for example, was supposedly a terrible, immoral thing. And yet, because of it, we have “great” war heroes like Jons Carry or Murtha who can instruct us on the ways of war. Somewhere in their hearts, these people must believe that great good came from great evil, since they believe that no one who hasn’t fought in an even immoral war is morally qualified to either lead or avoid war. This means that if we follow the pacifist and eliminate all war, we will eventually have no one qualified to either fight or capitulate. But we needn’t worry. As we speak, there is someone fighting in Iraq who, twenty or thirty years hence, will be morally qualified to make cowards feel courageous.

To be continued....


NoMo said...

Again, Bob very enjoyably takes my mind in various directions.

Judaism (as well as every other religious pursuit) is entirely based upon the fulfillment of legal obligations -- the meeting of some set of prescribed behaviors -- in order to earn a ticket to a relationship with God (here and hereafter). Invariably, this "way" leads to the strictly defined rules and ritual of religion (foolishness), rather than the true freedom of a relationship with the Living God (wisdom). Obviously, not all rules and rituals are foolish -- just any that are deemed as having value against the price of admission.

Pride is the very core of evil -- in fact, it is the origin and sustenance of evil. It is pride that created the initial spiritual gulf between the creation and the Creator (Satan's "I will be like the most high" -- and his subsequent deception of the original humans through their belief in the lie.) "Egotistical" is commonly used to mean unjustifiably proud.

One of the aspects of Christianity that gives it such resounding credibility in the face of all the "noise and competition" is the quieting simplicity of its core message -- a message that does, in fact, effortlessly transcend all contexts -- whether historical, cultural, intellectual, emotional, etc. It is a message so simple that it can be comprehended by anyone anywhere anytime who desires to do so. That is, the only human act of will that can "earn" admission to relationship with God, is believing that admission can only be and has already been paid by God. This belief does not end ego, but radically transforms it --pride becomes humility. Further, this is the only way for us to begin to fulfill our true purpose of glorifying God -- giving Him the credit for all that is good, pointing others towards Him by our words and deeds, etc. This absolutely distinguishes the Christian way from virtually every other.

At least that's the way I break it down.

Lisa said...

Nomo, I think your characterizations of Judaism are incorrect. It is not ENTIRELY based upon fulfillment of legal obligations in order to earn a ticket to a relationship with God and I have never heard it described in that way by a Rabbi. Jews are free to accept whatever part of the Torah they choose to live by. These "rules" are more like guidelines to fine living. Interpretations are up for debate. There are even levels of Orthodoxy that differ from each other. Sometimes a cultural tradition is also mixed in with the religious. Your relationship with God is a personal one and no other human can deny you admission to God. But if it helps you to identify Christianity as superior then so be it, just know that you wander away from the One when you do so. Not to say that some religions are superior/inferior, you just happen to be wrong in this case because Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism. ;0)

Michael Andreyakovich said...


Penn and Teller's series on Showtime has one episode containing an insightful takedown of the Dalai Lama and other supposedly "spiritually advanced" beings - all idols with feet of clay. Mother Teresa was brutally inhumane to the people whose pain she was supposed to be easing, Mahatma Gandhi was a racist with odd sexual quirks, and the Dalai Lama's dream of chasing the Communists out and re-establishing the old order in Tibet would not effect any meaningful improvement over the Communist regime. As Penn says: "Of COURSE he wants Tibet back - he's got his own CASTLE there."

NoMo said...

Lisa -

Didn't mean to sound "superior", really. Narrow, yes. Obviously, I would substitute "offshoot" with "fulfillment". "The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed. The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed." - Augustine. Sorry, but it just seems so clear to me now. It didn't always.

dilys said...

Really a shame to veer into implied Replacement Theology etc. Deep waters.

One of the best Christian descriptions of The Law, rooted in the 10 Laws, is that it is a means to clear the way for and ground (anti short-circuit) the Vertical connection on Earth as it is in Heaven. My blog, Good&Happy, was inspired almost entirely by the idea that virtue is a handmaiden of true happiness. I am convinced that revealed, or collective genius, the genuine kernels of commandments or precepts are great gifts from Beyond to the human mission. As well as behavioral observations of great utility.

Forensic and Substitionary Atonement are not coextensive with redemptive Christianity. That pre-fabricated understanding is widespread, incomplete, and generates untold mischief at large. If my statement of this problem strikes you as wrong or mysterious, investigation is called for before evangelizing and doing comparative religion in public.

NoMo said...

dilys (since I think you are referring to my comments) -

I understand your words, but have no idea what you're talking about. Not sure about you, but I attend these classes because Bob stimulates my thinking in a positive way. Sharing some of the resulting insights and connections (however small or simple) is what it appears most of the students are about.

I'm just not that smart. If I'm boiling things down at the wrong temperature, sorry. I wouldn't want to become "personomo non grata". I appreciate this place.

bugs said...

Commandments aren't there to make God happy or to keep you from going to Hell. They are for spiritual training - they help you to keep your ego in its proper place in relation to God. Austerities don't earn you brownie points - they help you concentrate on God instead of all the other distracting stuff in your life.

Judaism isn't about the necessity of following a bunch of rules (although it and every other religion can be approached that way). It's about using the rules as a guide to help you get closer to God. However, it requires a sincere belief that God made the rules, so that when you follow the rules, you think about God who made them. The more you think about God the better. So the more rules you follow, the better for you. Assuming you believe God made the rules. If not, then your practice is just legalistic and not really spiritual.

Of course, this comes from a non-Jew who also doesn't understand the whole Christian "belief" thing. So take it for what it's worth...

Jenny said...

nomo, I understand what you're saying - and I agree.

ben usn (ret) said...

Great series, Bob!
Not coincidentally, Bob was speaking about containers before ego...ergo, the ego is a type of container.

To be cont.,,

ben usn (ret) said...

My ego should never be the one navigating.
Trust me on this, egos make for bad pilots.
Spirits don't let egos drive, period.
It just isn't neighborly, and Dad won't be happy about it.

To be cont...

ben usn (ret) said...

Now, why is it that so many of us, myself included, feel compelled to convince others that God exists and how best to:
A. Get to God.
B. Get God to come to you.
C. Meet in the twain, or tween.

To be cont...

ben usn (ret) said...

There are many reasons, I'm sure, but we should never try to "con-vince"
anyone about God or how to "get" God.
Remember, don't let that ego pilot your vessel.
Actions (our lives; our attitude, and our egotude) speak louder than words, and words expressed properly (ie not to convince) speak louder than mere words.


ben usn (ret) said...

The Spirit convicts, and the convicted decide to accept or deny.
That is not the job of humans, try as we might to make it our job.
Our spirit knows this, but ego thinks it knows better.
Which is why the spirit should make sure that ego doesn't get any junk food (or the keys).
Pride always forms in the ego, so take it from me, and don't allow your ego access to pride.
Egos are part animals, and not always in a good way.
There will always be regrets if we let ego take the wheel, even in the name of humbleness,
because if we truly are humble, we won't even consider letting ego drive.
That's not ego's job.
For good reason.

will said...

>>Frithjof Schuon wrote that “The reduction of the devil to the ego amounts in practice to the devil’s abolition . . . "<<

I have recently reduced the devil to my *&#% modem, which exploded like a bomb. I'm now on temporary dial-up. Dark Night of the Soul.

Anyway - no, obviously evil is, in a distinct sense, exterior to the ego. Evil manifests in nature itself, in fact. However, evil manifests through the ego, has, I think, its main conduit in the ego, at least as human affairs go. Which is to say if all the prickly egos in the world were moderated/balanced, human evil in the world would be reduced perhaps to nothing, perhaps would be reduced to only manifesting in my modem.

ben usn (ret) said...

Party animal, but part animal works, sort of.
And yes, I was talkin' 'bout you.

ben usn (ret) said...

Welcome to my world, Will.
Dial-up is all I have access to.
Dark night indeed...
Oh the humanity!

NoMo said...

Modem or nomodem -- that is the question. What's dial-up? Just havin' some fun wit'ya.

stu said...

"Judaism is entirely based upon the fulfillment of legal obligations -- the meeting of some set of prescribed behaviors -- in order to earn a ticket to a relationship with God."

Remember that whole, "Light unto the Nations" thing?

Judaism is a way of life that recognizes that God is infused within the lower realms we inhabit. But only if we choose to see Him and nurture His Presence.

The laws and customs are there to stimulate recognition of God's immanence in our everday lives. The purpose of Jewish tradition is to bring righteousness to the world.

Schneerson said that God is necessarily already in the world. But that it is our job to make his house a home.

Of course, Judaism has a fairly well developed transcendant side as well. But the laws relate to the down-and-dirty parts of everyday living.

As an aside, has anyone seen the trailor for Aronfsky's new movie, "The Fountain." It struck a spiritual cord.

will said...

Well, Ben, it's just to be our modum operandi.

Curious George said...

Bob, you seem to have in your last two posts first indicted and thencondoned ego. I sense the implication of a middle road. Your salvo has straddled the target.

Ben USN states that the ego should not "drive" the life, and I sense that this rings true.

But, as you say, neither should we abdicate ego entirely. Like so many things in life, there must be a nuanced middle path. This I presume you will address if there is to be a part 3 on ego.

gumshoe1 said...

nothing personal,c.george,but -

it might be "a middle path",
or "a nuanced path",
but please...
not "a nuanced middle path".

that kind of hair-splitting serves the ...uhhh...ego.

wouldn't you say?

is the dujour weasel-word
for "whatever i just did" or "whatever i'm about to do,regardless of the consequences".

...hasn't "nuanced"
passed its sell-by date?

"an intellectual is someone who has been educated beyond their level of competence".

Van said...

NoMo said..."Pride is the very core of evil -- in fact, it is the origin and sustenance of evil."

This is a tricky one... difficult to keep from slipping and falling on it.

It isn't Pride that's the problem, in fact True Pride shows a reverence for, and commitment to, Truth and reality. For such a person, Rituals, Codes and Laws are actions and beliefs adhered to because they are expressions of the Rightness, Excellence, Virtue, the Arete' that you strive to achieve in all you do. Honestly doing your best in your thoughts and actions produces true Pride as reverence for the fruit of those efforts. As Bugs said "It's about using the rules as a guide to help you get closer to God." This is the type of person who doesn't hide their light under a bushel of either false humility or false pride - they delight in what is real and true and make no pretensions or denials.

There is a tricky part in this true Pride as well, in that it is a simple thing to deceive yourself into thinking you are Better than others in the sense of semi-deistic pretensions, rather than only more skillful in one art or another than most others may be. It requires an ever faithful commitment to Truth to realize what you are, and what you are not - what you should, and what you should not do. Which requires a strong, balanced Ego, one with Integrity, a uniting of the Vertical with the Horizontal in order to navigate the honest path.

Which brings me to what actually is the problem, that of False 'Pride'. The desire to be given or to take credit for what you haven't earned or done. To be thought of and treated as Better than others, when you know it really means that you are only more skilled in some one thing than most others are. To be thought a Moral Giant in others eyes, even as you realize that your intense ‘on stage’ persona results mostly from illicit drugs and a desire for the cute assistant in the wings. To be thought 'Heroic' when you know you're just a two bit actor relying on a clever editor to hunt for the few feet of film that makes you look good while letting the hundreds of yards of other shlock remain forgotten on the cutting room floor.

False pride, as all sin, is seeking to avoid identifying and adhering to Truth not only in your own eyes, but more significantly, to cloud the eyes of others, of those who are not you and who don't know the truth - those whom you can fool into believing your fibs and lies ("Please GOD don't let them know the truth... you don't think they suspect do you? Oh God! DAMN IT!"). It necessarily leads to all semblance of self respect and 'esteem' being removed from yourself, where you know it is a lie, and existing only in what you can con others into believing about you... and preferably they will display their belief in you often, so you can 'enjoy' it through them... sort of.

False pride and other forms of faking reality in order to enable you to appear effective, worthy and moral to others (again, only to others, you bitterly know better) sets you at odds with reality, with Truth, with anything Holy. All Rituals, codes, laws will be followed by you only insofar as they are actions taken for appearances sake (probably with a few extra dramatic flourishes thrown in here and there to make it more convincing).

The True purpose and meaning of the rituals, codes and laws will be lost on such a person - Truth is discarded at the outset, it is the ever-present enemy always threatening to expose them and bring them down (again in others eyes, not in their own, they already know how low they go), the Vertical is just a biter desire, which a flaming sword bars you from ever attaining... "no, a figment, that's all it is, yeah, it's a LIE! Only FOOLS believe in that!"

That desire to fake the Truth, to tell the Lie in such a way as to make it appear True so that others will believe it, I think that that is the very core of evil, its origin and sustenance.

Van said...

dilys said..."the idea that virtue is a handmaiden of true happiness. "

So true, it is a self sustaining and self strengthening circle. The error most people make is that they try to 'Get' Happiness, without producing happiness.

It's as if they were given the equation '2X2=4' and say "I don't need to do no silly '2X2' stuff, that's for losers, I just want the '4', and I want it now! And they go about getting it by acquiring or apeing all the toys and actions that they associate with happiness, never realizing that Happiness is the result of sustained Virtuous behavior, it is the state of mind and spirit that results from thinking and doing what is True and Right and doing so with harmony and style - the wedding of Beauty and Truth in thought and deed; Matthew Arnold's Sweetness and Light.

People have forgotten that in the "Pursuit of Happiness", 'Pursuit' didn't mean chasing Happiness, it meant engaging in the actions required for producing happiness; the use still faintly echoes on in phrases like "...intends to pursue a career in Law".

al_miller said...


Pride is anything that denies God and his hand in what we do and accomplish. Call it false pride if you will...

Van said...


Not to be too picky, but language is defined by people, not God, and in this case by English people; how it is used, depends on the user.

As you can see from the first two uses below, the actual definition supports both opposing interpretations, so one does need to be clear in how you are using it.

From Webster’s:

Etymology: Middle English, from Old English pryde, from prud proud -- more at PROUD
1 : the quality or state of being proud: as
a : inordinate self-esteem : CONCEIT
b : a reasonable or justifiable self-respect
c : delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship -parental pride-
2 : proud or disdainful behavior or treatment : DISDAIN
3 a : ostentatious display
b : highest pitch : PRIME
4 : a source of pride : the best in a group or class
5 : a company of lions
6 : a showy or impressive group -a pride of dancers-