I am in some kind of war zone. I see there are a number of compartments of some kind. One of the enemy soldiers approaches with his rifle and bayonet and tears open one of the compartments. He goes inside. I hear shots and the sound of someone being punched. Now I am fleeing. There is a young boy about 12 or 13 beside me. He is being reassured by someone that everything will be okay. I tell him, “there is really no guarantee of anything.” Something shifts and I am now in a position where I seem to be constrained and somewhat suffocated. I feel panicky.
Suddenly, I wake up. I can feel the adrenaline pumping in my body. I am in an alarm state. However, quickly I become aware of the part of me that is frightened, the part of me that is the oppressor, and also the part of me that sits back a little and sees the whole. My ability to come quickly back to the present and be conscious is at work here. At this juncture, an insight comes to me unbidden that oppression of the life force is endemic in our culture. The dark force of oppression that I feel is also aligned with my schooling experience as I was growing up, my experience with my religious background, peer culture, and with my home life where my mother often cautioned me to slow down and to get ‘hold’ of myself. She seemed to see me as out-of-control. Was I really out of control? Perhaps I was just too much for her? Whatever the precipitants were she was certainly regularly cautioning me to slow down. Her constant cautions were certainly an unfortunate and no doubt unintended contribution to my eventual tendency to oppress myself and my vital energy. My heartbeat is now decelerating. The oppressor part of me has transformed into another part that is alert and ready for anything. The victimized, oppressed part of me is awake to my own ability to be aware and sense my experience. My consciousness sees reality in a very different way than those egoic selves already mentioned, and sees the world more clearly as a whole, and perhaps increasingly close to how it actually is.
Perhaps a few words about the young boy that is beside me in the dream are important to share. No doubt he is a part of me, and I would say represents the part of me that is learning to be present in the moment and see life as an unfolding event that is teaching me to be ‘ready for anything,’ recognize what I can and cannot control, and how to be with whatever life offers. For sure, there is a lot more that can be explored in my dream but I will leave it here for now, and perhaps another Field Note that might focus on dream work.
This dream and my work with it represent what we might call ‘ego death.’ I prefer to call this ‘ego transformation.’ The view that what is unwanted in consciousness and life offers a doorway to personal transformation and is an important aspect of many Wisdom Traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism. It is also a central aspect of the humanistic-existential process-oriented approach that I am offering here, and in my work. Central is the seamless integration of mindfulness and deep psychological work that has life-changing potential.
Philosophers, historians, culture investigators, psychotherapists, and many others have spent have spent large amounts of time looking into what I believe are the questions that lie at the core issues that lead to life force suppression, oppression, and eventually I would hope full expression. I would frame these questions as: “What matters?” and “What are your most deeply held values that underlie what matters to you?”
The problem with the term, ‘ego death,’ is that it is a misleading notion. What we call egos are in most instances structures in consciousness that are already dead. What matters is breathing life back into these dead structures; re-vivifying them! Egos are reified personality structures. ‘Reified’ means something that’s not solid and concrete is taken to be so. A visual metaphor might help here: water is liquid and flows but when it’s frozen, it’s solid. When our personality structure becomes rigid, yielding a ‘permanent’ sense of identity (“this is who I am”), it becomes an ego. No doubt you have all heard expressions about ‘too much ego.’ Traditionally most frequently applied to men, but women are certainly not exempt. Ego is the defensive structure that has been unconsciously built up to protect the self from the exigencies of the overwhelming interactions in your personal history (and perhaps genetics, too) and is seamlessly interwoven with your emotions, body states, and behavior patterns. It is important to remember that all this ego construction is done in the service of your survival from the earliest days. Egoic structures develop and ‘harden’ over time over many years and become what you and I most likely think of as “who I am”: your personal identity.
I suggest to you that who you are is none of these egoic structures. Rather, these structures, when not hardened as ego, canbethe forms that provide fluid and flexible expressions of your true nature as it fits context and the moment. The real problem is not that you have these structures, but that these structures have you. This, to me, is the meaning of a person becoming an ego and having no ideas that this is not who they are.
Comments about ‘too much ego’ are mostly said in a tone that indicates a judgment about poor moral character and that is seen as ‘you/he/she behaving ‘badly.’ If this were taken as truth, then most all of us have poor moral character and behave badly. In these instances, how you are is mostly dictated by the unconscious automaticity of these egoic structures. I would add that these structures include almost all our ways of being, including the ‘nice’ and ‘likeable’ ones. I further suggest that such judgments be left aside as they offer little, in my view, to any transformation to a better morality, better behavior, or a better life experience for either the accused or the accuser. The real test for the possibility of your egoic structures performing “better morality, better behavior” and so on is how conscious you are about them, how rigid or pliable they are, how freely you are able to access them and flow between them, how able you are to put them on and take them off like a fine piece of clothing or jewelry, and so on.
I have described above, briefly, what an egoic structure is and how it can dominate our lives. As I already suggested above, we all have such structure, and the vital investigations for us are: 1) how rigid and imprisoned we are; and 2) how to soften these structures and support their softening, so that we are no longer permanently stuck inside. To work with these questions, I would suggest that, first of all, you recognize and discover how these structures came to be, how they represent a stopping point in your development, how they were very functional at the time, and how their fulfilling growth and development can be re-initiated at this point in your life. This, of course, would open up many more questions as to how this is all done. Not a simple and straightforward matter. One certainly can’t google up to find out what to do and how to do it! This is not an informational issue. From the work I have been doing, professionally and personally, for 50 years, I will just say that an integrated and engaged process of inner work is what would be most useful. I have given some hints about this in previous Field Notes. Given the format of these Field Notes, I will just offer a first step in this particular entry. Engage your awareness to study yourself! Your awakening awareness is the beginning point and will almost certainly have a profound initial effect. Think about the effect of shining a light into a dark corner of a room where you have dropped something. Inner work is like that.
In closing: our theme for this Field Note, egoic discovery and transformation (inner work), is really about discovering more and more of ourselves, living as fully as possible, and contributing to our own lives, the lives of others, and anything beyond this, which is probably everything. Consider that at the core of this inner work are the questions, such as “What matters?,” and “How shall I live?” From this perspective, ego recognition offers a doorway to the discovery of your own egoic structures, your false sense of who you are, an opportunity to access your own life force, and to know living more fully.
As always, many thanks to Heesoon for her help with this Field Note.