"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nature of the Ego: "Lions All Around Us"

In one of the best lectures I have had the pleasure of attending, Dr. Bruce Perry (a devlopmental neurobiologist) spoke of humankind's evolutionary context as hunter gatherers in an environment where stressor events were intense but far between. Someone would shout, "Lion!." and the 'wary' lived to pass their genes on to the next generation. The 'slow' were an evolutionary dead-end . . . i.e., lunch.

His point, however, was that our bodies and brains have not evolved significantly since then (except, perhaps, for the weeding out of the slow and tasty). As a result, we go through our modern life with a huge volume of stimuli that we "need" to pay attention to - co-workers, cell phones, traffic, bill statements etc., and our psyches are screaming, "Lion! . . , Lion! . . . Lion!," on a more or less continual basis. As it turns out, we are not really built for the way that we now live.

Modern humankind therefore tends to be in an almost continual "fight or flight" modality, with little time in the "rest and digest" mode where we formerly spent the vast majority of our time, evolutionally speaking. (Indeed, studies of modern hunter-gatherers show they spend very little time foraging and a great deal of time sleeping.) The result of all this? It appears to be a mind in a perpetual state of alert motion, ever searching for (or manufacturing) "something" that requires our further attention and further thought. This "mind" is, of course, the human "ego" (or small "self") that we mistake for our only identity, and an 'individuality' that is separate and apart from everything and everyone in the outer world.

And, of course, "the ego" is always restless, looking for lurking "dangers" and for opportunities to gratify its instincts. (As such, it is small wonder that virtually all the "news" we consume is bad news, and "sex" still "sells," no matter who is doing the peddling or what is being peddled.)

In a now classic translation and commentary of Patangali's 'Yoga Aphorisms,' Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda (of the Ramakrishna Order, now the Vedanta Society) discuss the operation of the unawakened mind of modern man, noting:
"The truth is that we are all inclined to flatter ourselves - despite our daily experience to the contrary - that we spend our time thinking logical, consecutive thoughts. In fact, if at any given moment, we could take twenty human minds and inspect their workings, we should probably find one, or at most two which were functioning rationally. Most of us do no such thing. Consecutive thought about any one problem occupies a small portion of our waking hours. More usually, we are in a state of reverie - a mental fog of disconnected sense impressions, irrelevant memories, nonsensical scraps of sentences from books and newspapers, little darting fears and resentments, physical sensations of discomfort or ease. The remaining eighteen or nineteen minds would look something like this: "Ink-bottle. That time I saw Roosevelt. In love with the night mysterious. Reds veto Pact. Jimmy's trying to get my job. Mary says I'm fat. Big toe hurts. Soup good. . . ." etc., etc. Because we do nothing to control this reverie, it is largely conditioned by external circumstances."
This was written in 1953, long before the true beginning of the Information Age, with its multiple demands - human and electronic - for our attention playing through our psyches, turning the gentler "reverie" that Isherwood and Prabhavananda describe into a mental landscape of, "Lions, lions . . . everywhere, and never a moment of peace."

There seem to be two conclusions, and one synthesis of conclusions, that one can draw from this. Either the human mindscape (and thus the "reality" we create for ourselves) is getting much worse; or, because of an increasing (and, not uncoincidentally, interconnected)  awareness of the inner mental disharmony our global culture creates, things are getting much better.

The synthesis, paradoxically, is that things appear to be getting both much better and much worse simultaneously. And, as Eckhart Tolle observes in an audio interview (below) which he gave on the afternoon of 9/11/2001, "Even the Sun Will Die," things have to get worse in order for them to get better.

Tolle and other spiritual teaches, both now and in ages past, all say that there is a tipping point, a 'critical mass' of consciousness, so to speak. Hopefully, as they predict, we are nearing a point where the collective consciousness of individuals who are "awake" and not in a state of "reverie" will trigger a global awakening. Certainly, with the interconnectedness that virtually all of humankind now has at least some access to, when (not if) this occurs, it will be very rapid and, one suspects, astonishing spiritual awakening.

1 comment:

  1. This is brilliant..it reminds of the quote - At the brink of disaster do we evolve...