One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my 40th birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”
As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.
A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?
The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.
One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.
The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.
For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking,” and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.
This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”
Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.
Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.
Phase One: Inspiration
I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.
Phase Two: The Work
Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.
Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.
What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.
Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…
The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego. ¥¥
(Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com. Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.)