Monday, July 7, 2008

Ego and vanity

One of the chief themes in Ecclesiastes is man's vanity. We are firmly and forever hypnotized by our own self-importance, even when we stare up at the sky and are confronted by the incomprehensible scale of the cosmos.

Pondering this question, it strikes me that the pervasive vanity spoken of by the author of Ecclesiastes is roughly equivalent to the ego of modern psychology ...I have a problem with the word ego, because in spiritual works it tends to get slung around like hash in a cafeteria. Everyone uses it as though they understand what it means-- as though we had enough distance from it to be objective about it.

And nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

In studying the idea of the three minds, or three centers, that Mr. Gurdjieff proposed, it occurs to me that labeling the deficiencies of our vanities with a single word, "ego," may fall well short of what we need to understand. We speak of the ego as though it were a single thing... as though, in other words, we had an inner unity, which it is indubitably true that we do not have.

Let's suppose, for a moment, that each "mind" of man -- the body, the emotions, and the intellect --has an ego, that is, a motive force based on vanity -- that is peculiar to it. There is an ego of body. There is an ego of emotion. There is an ego of intellect.

The idea isn't a big reach. I think if you look around you, you may see that most human manifestations arise from vanities whose centers of gravity can be found in one or the other of these three centers.

In each case, the centers have a conceit that they are powerful. We see the extension of this conceit of the body in the myths of the super--powerful: bodies that live forever, can perform impossible tasks, and that exude a health and vitality far out of proportion to what is realistically possible. A great deal of modern culture goes into the worship of this ideal, in sports, health and beauty products, and so on; not to mention comic book super-heroes.

The emotions, too, fuel their vanity on exaggerated ideas about what is possible: this is especially visible in the world of popular music, where massive amounts of amplification are used to convey an invincibility of emotional sincerity, whatever type of emotion it may be. Love lasts forever, and sentiment replaces effort wherever it can.

The intellect is no different. We live in a society that is built on the unstable foundations of an endless number of theories, almost all of which fail when they collide with reality.

Given the proclivity of these "center based egos" to project themselves so forcefully on the larger canvas of popular culture, we should probably expect to discover similar features in our own psychic life. We do, I think; or at least I do. And it is these features of vanity within these three centers that I need to become aware of.

More often than not, the breaking down of the ego is cast in terms that suggest there is only one ego. Gurdjieff's own theory of the multiplicity of "I"'s suggests that perhaps there are many different egos. In any event, the breaking down of the ego is by no means just cleaning the furniture out of our psychological attic. That activity stems from forms, words, and understanding that are all born on this level, and it is our very entanglement with this level in itself that lies at the root of the problem. Every one of our centers is too invested in attempting to draw all its sustenance from the external, and, even worse, firmly believing that it can do so. In the absence of an alternative, the centers become more and more diseased, as they attempt to fit life to the form of their own desires.

Reframing it in somewhat new terms, all three centers must lose their ego in order for something new to take place. Each one of them has to learn to submit to a higher authority. It is a mental, physical, and emotional process, involving dreams, sweat, blood, and tears. A great deal of suffering is necessary in order for us to begin to understand this. Suffering taken not only in the ordinary terms, that is, things that are objectively difficult for us both intellectually, emotionally, and physically, but also taken in extraordinary terms.

The extraordinary form of suffering is in allowing: in accepting the conditions we find ourselves in, and willingly engaging in them, rather than struggling to escape. And perhaps the real "terror of the situation" is that, even long after this is understood with a more than just one part, the wish to run away does not leave us.

To stand up within our self, to learn how to occupy a vertical position between the inner and the outer, is the beginning of being willing to see what we are. And until, I think, we suffer our vanity for a very long time, we will continue to make terrible and terrifying assumptions about who and what we are. And we are so far gone, on the whole, that it is only the great equalizer -- death itself -- that can bring some of us back to sobriety.

I have mentioned this before, but I'll say it again. The most memorable sitting I was ever at was many, many years ago on a Thursday morning at the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York.

Peggy Flinsch led that particular sitting, and she began it with the words: "We are tiny little creatures."


May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

1 comment:

  1. I will only comment on one small section of your post, where you declare the following:

    "And we are so far gone, on the whole, that it is only the great equalizer -- death itself -- that can bring some of us back to sobriety."

    Perhaps "some of us", but on the whole, I think that this statement is completely contrary to my own sense of the "terror of the situation."

    Mr. Gurdjieff refused to answer Ouspensky's repeated inquiries about reincarnation or recurrence, finally explaining that the only opportunity that a man has to work on himself is now -- today, and a man who thinks that he has endless lives in which he can postpone this work is gravely mistaken.

    Emanuel Swedenborg has some very interesting things to say about death, which are consonant with Mr. Gurdjieff's ideologies. He declares that when a man dies, he is set free from all the constraints of the social condition as well as those of the body, and then the inner man is revealed.

    Sadly to say, in most cases this inner man is grotesque and is full of nothing but loathsome desires. He then becomes a devil or demon and as water finds its own level, he joins those who are like himself. The old saying applies: "the tree falls where it stands."

    And what is a man to do if the first death shocks him into sobriety? -- he no longer has the physical world with which he can leverage change in himself -- he is doomed to remain as he is for all of time. This is the equivalent of Mr. Gurdjieff's statement that the soul of an ordinary man goes to the moon, where nothing ever changes except in vast geological time. This is true hell.

    I agree with you that all of the centers have their own egos; in fact, I would proclaim that all the internal organs within a man have their own egos, and the ego of the heart is different than the ego of the liver etc..

    All of this has to be taken into account when a man takes it upon himself to begin work on himself.



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