35. Ego

     We have looked abstractly at the game as a formal structure, an ordering process for play, deliberately leaving out the competitive aspect. Now let's consider what it means to play with other players, since this is our experience in life.

     To view the game as a formalism is to see it as a whole, with detachment, from the outside. To view the game from the inside is to adopt a single point of view, to identify with the interests of a particular playing piece in competition with others. In the game of life I believe myself to be this body, not that one, and certainly not all bodies. I agree to enter the game by becoming not only a player but a playing piece, and I become such by agreeing to the game. It is a process of incarnation-- in a windowless prosthetic body, a complete virtual reality device mediating my interaction with what I believe is a world "outside". The X-Man becomes his exoskeletal space suit. To have a body is to take on the point of view, the purposes and values, the judgments of an organism-- a discrete playing piece in the game of life. Before incarnating I am free to look upon the game as a curiosity, perhaps a beautifully intricate structure, of which "my" body is merely an integral part. This is the consciousness reported by people who have near-death experiences of serene detachment from the physical body, and also of those sages who have "lost the self" while still living in the body. Once incarnated, I forfeit this freedom by becoming, for all practical purposes, the body. The "before" and "once" here refer to logical priority and consequence, not to time. Incarnation is a relationship of the subject to experience. But the subject is a point of view, not an entity. I believe the notion of the transmigration of souls (reincarnation) is a misinterpretation of the timeless logical relationship of subject to object-- another symptom of the MBP.

     There is a particular type of consciousness associated with the body, that has to do with adopting its point of view and interests as a player in the game of survival. The name given to this consciousness, in various spiritual traditions, is ego. The sense is different than in western psychology, where the ego is considered the part of the individual psyche whose job it is to juggle the internal demands of the organism with those of the socially constructed conscience and those of the environment. In other words, in western psychology the ego is part of the plumbing of a human being, who is already assumed to be a body. But we are using ego to mean a set of beliefs or premises about (experiences of) the existence and importance of the body and the material world that is its playing field. The ego is the sense of particularity, separateness and self-centeredness that come with identifying with the playing piece and its priorities within the game. Above all it is the unconscious choice to see oneself as a body, and as the personality or psyche that is an extension of that body and a product of its history. It is to accept the body and all its concerns, along with the material world of which it is an inseparable part, as real. The ego, in other words, is the belief in the reality of the game itself, and all that implies.

     Well, what does it imply? First of all, separateness. If I take the game seriously (which by definition one does in the game of life), then I am pursuing my body's particular interests. As a disembodied observer outside the game, one would have no interests within the game (interests may lie elsewhere), no reason to be partial to one player or outcome over another, and the game itself might seem meaningless. All this changes once one enters the game. One is then competing against the other players and/or against the game itself. I am then a separate self-centered concern as my attention becomes focussed on the actions of playing, on the needs of my body, and on me winning instead of you. In a zero-sum game, if I win you must lose-- which definitely underlines my belief that I am not you! If we are bodies, then of course I cannot be you. As bodies, we must be separate and opposed, because bodies are separate in space and opposed in interest.

     The second point involves this focussing. Ego consciousness is narrowed and constricted to the setting and pursuit of goals-- to playing the game. It is about problem solving and doing the things defined in the game. In the logic of the game of life, identifying with my own interests has survival value, and makes going after what "I need" an unquestioned matter of common sense. Within the ego's purview-- that is, within the confines of the game-- it is hard to imagine anything else. The ego tends to crowd out any other state of consciousness, such as just being, or any other goals than the off-the-shelf ones.

     We began with the notion that "realness" is a quality with which experience is imbued by the mind. The mind we are talking about is the ego. It can only look outward to a reality it experiences as external and separate from itself. Since all that exists for it is what is defined in the game, its attention is glued to the world of the game, which it is committed to experiencing as real. It only believes in the reality of what it perceives as not itself. Consequently, it can only see what is inside itself by projecting it outward. So, the third point is that ego has the nasty habit of disowning responsibility through projection. Believing that the world "out there" holds all the cards-- it sees itself never as actor but only as reactor. It has given up its identity as a free agent and sees its role as victim. A victim can only blame. And in the blaming game, attack will be met by counterattack from other players believing themselves victims.

     Ego believes that good and bad lie out there with other players because, as a fictional playing piece in an imaginary game, it really has no substance of its own. (Of course, the other players and the whole game itself have no substance either, but they seem to, for the game is predicated on accepting illusory goals as real). The ego aims to wrest from other players their imaginary treasures, and to get them to accept responsibility for having and withholding what it believes it lacks. Of course they cannot do this, for they are just as insubstantial.

     If the ego is but an empty shell in a shell game that is itself an empty form, where is reality? We have seen that the ego's sense of reality comes from embracing the terms of a game. Ironically, it is this very sense of reality that is illusion-- what the Easterners call maya or samsara. In itself, from an absolute point of view, the game is an arbitrary and meaningless recreation, an exercise of inventive imagination, neither here nor there. All the importance we attach to it is something we make up. Then the ego must also be imaginary, along with all its hopes and fears, preoccupations and reactiveness. Where does that leave us? Who indeed are we? Do we have some identity that is not ego?

     In the gaming metaphor, a player "poofs" into the world and body of a playing piece, provisionally forfeiting his true identity as a player with his own larger reality. This true identity does not cease during his hallucinatory sojourn as a playing piece, nor does reality. The illusory experience in the game is like a dream, from which he does or does not eventually wake up. If we do have such a true identity, we hardly know it in sleep. We are in the dream trying to remember the waking state, in the game trying to recall and describe the real in terms of the illusory.

     Ego cannot know what is not itself. The intellect cannot grasp and contain that which by definition is beyond it. It must be content with mere names and metaphors, and the knowledge of its own limitations. God is a name that has been given our true identity, also: Self, Spirit, Great Spirit, Higher Self, Divine Essence, Allah, Tao, etc. In the dream (the game) we imagine ourselves separate-- not only from each other but from this true identity-- because we appear embodied either physically or at some other level of being (e.g. the individual soul). We imagine God the same way: as an omnipotent individual soul. In our true identity, we are simply the Dreamer dreaming itself to be awake in many bodies with many apparently differing experiences. Ego is the aspect of the dream that is an active player within it, that appears to perceive substance and analyse structure, see multiplicity and differences, compare and evaluate, judge and reject. (Even in approving it rejects, because its acceptance is conditional).

     It is said that God is love. "Love", of course, is not romance or need or pity, but the Dreamer recognizing itself as the "other" in the Dream. This is why the heart can understand what ego cannot: that others are not our adversaries in a world of scarcity, but mirrors reflecting aspects of our self. From the point of view of love there are no others.

     So, ours is like the consciousness of a player who is anxiously engrossed in the game most of the time, and only occasionally at peace in her true identity. On the verge of awakening, we have dual citizenship, struggling with a double identity, a split personality. All other struggles are but reflections of this one-- and often distractions from it!

     We can know the difference between these two states, as inner experience. But it would be a mistake to view them as compartments of the self, somehow on an equal footing. It may be impossible to understand God intellectually, for who is it that wants to know? Isn't it ego-- who would presume to stand outside and incorporate both possibilities as parts of itself, see the Absolute contained and expressed within its own terms? Understanding can be just another power play in the game. So, when I experience the struggle, between ego and "higher self", this is really expressed within ego's thought system. Struggle is what ego is good at, and it can never know anything else. Whether we conceive of God as a subpersonality, or as an  Old Man in the Sky, in either case this is ego's defence against the reality of the Absolute as that which is interior to all experience and prior to all concept, the Subject for all objects of consciousness, the essence of what we ourselves are.

     In many religious traditions there is a spiritual nemesis to God. Where God is the principle of go(o)d, the (D)evil is the principle of evil. We can suspect the ego as the originator of such dualistic conceptions, for it is its job to judge benefit and detriment to the organism. According to this thinking, God personifies what is good for the individual or collective, the Devil what is bad. Because ego knows only the realm of objects, and all experience is inherently experience of the world, ego objectifies both good and evil, projecting it into the world. (It is a relief to ego to know that, just as I cannot possibly be God, so I cannot be the Devil!). Ego cannot tolerate evil in its own house, but must disown its judgments as out there. Just as my interests (or those of my group) are good by definition, the others and their interests are potentially evil.

     Serious spiritual aspirants must go beyond such dualistic thinking-- i.e. beyond ego. The very goal of the spiritual quest is to transcend the body-mind to discover one's true identity. It involves a shift away from preoccupation with the contents and meaning of experience. This preoccupation is based on ego's presumed right to judge experience. But the pure subject does not judge and is not a content of experience. Finding one's true identity entails relinquishing identification with the mentality of ego. It means outgrowing a concept of God as "out there" and a concept of self as a substantial and separate soul. Along with this has to go all morality based on commandments-- which are ultimately the dictates of reality as conceived by ego. Ego views God in very childish terms, as a worldly ruler. A truer ethic is possible, based on heartfelt understanding of one's true identity.

     Ego, however, does not particularly want to be unseated from its command post, and correctly views this quest as a threat to its existence. Its resistance can be enormous and very clever. In fact, ego will do anything to keep its position which, like that of the Wizard of Oz, is tenuously maintained with mirrors. Specifically, it is committed to sustaining the illusion of a separate existence, as a body opposed to other bodies in the game of survival, which seeks control of the world (and hence of others) in order to regulate its experience within acceptable bounds. Like any tyrant, it justifies an iron hand in its own house in order to secure its campaign in the world. Stories of actual tyrants over the ages merely reflect the qualities of ego as self-centered, self-serving, self-indulgent, greedy, ruthless, brutal, heartless, cunning, malicious, underhanded, manipulating, power-hungy, haughty, etc.-- in short, the very profile of evil. The evil of the world is ego unchecked by forces such as nature, other egos, social convention, law, conscience, love, understanding, spirituality, etc.

     The Devil, as evil personified, is a negative portrait of ego (just as God is a personification of the good qualities of ego). Possession by the Devil is an apt metaphor to characterize the rule of ego as usurper in the house of being. Perhaps it is more than metaphor-- cases of demonic possession signifying the breakthrough of ego into uninhibited megalomania. Normally kept within "socially acceptable bounds", these bounds are themselves ego's creations in its compromise with the forces that would limit it. Ego creates and rules this world, and is not about to give up its position without a fight. Hence the stories of temptation of Jesus, Buddha and other saints. As surrender (to one's true identity) is approached, ego fights back with all its weapons, tailored to its intimate knowledge of the weakness of the individual. For Jesus, ego was experienced as Satan, the fallen angel. For Buddha it was the Architect of Illusion, understood to be his own mind.

     One of the most insidious of ego's weapons is the sense of reality entrusted to mind. We tend to be at the mercy of our thoughts, perceptions and feelings. Another is ego's chameleon-like adaptability, its hypnotic skill at playing any game so well that the fact that it is a game is forgotten, its clever ability to appropriate everything to itself, turn everything to its own advantage, impersonate anything. All these have been characterized in literature as attributes of the Devil. Even from a modern (ego-psychological) point of view, possession can be viewed as an impersonation of the true self.

     Ego is subtle enough to pose as the Devil in order to mask its real identity. The same mentality that pretends God is an alien if good spirit up there also holds the Devil to be His alien if malevolent nemesis down there. This projection allows ego to continue business as usual, essentially unaffected by squabbles between them. Thus ego protects its territory by keeping identity unquestioned. By flooding the stillness of the inner landscape with its own activity, it preserves its jurisdiction. In truth, ironically, the Devil abhors idle hands.

     "Dogma" is "am God" spelled backwards. It is ego's backwards way of understanding spiritual truth. Ego is addicted to the game of life, engrossed in the logic of survival. Being dedicated to its own survival, ego does not want to give up its power, its claim to the identity of the player. To ego, eternal peace is a bore. It approaches attempts of the player to awaken from the dream of the game as threats to its survival, and counters these by recycling them as mere moves within the game, as further sequences in the dream. The greater reality of the player is reinterpreted in the ego's thought system, seen through the warped lens of the dream. Through this compromise, the dream continues, the game goes on, and ego keeps its seat of power.

     The world of the game is external and literal. Every event must be perceived as a legal move on the playing field, within the definitions and rules of the game. Nothing is allowable which does not fit within its terms. There is therefore a great deal of distortion when something from outside the game is redefined as an element within it. The internal is externalised, the spiritual is materialised, the abstract is literalized-- by a process of reinterpreting experience through images familiar within the game. For instance, in trying to understand something of the "structure" of Being through the concept of the Trinity, Christians have familiarised the relationship between parts of this structure through the metaphor of the father-son relationship (leaving aside the Holy Spirit and the mother-son relationship). Of course, Being ultimately has no structure, but this has not prevented it from being thoroughly externalized and objectified by mind. God is seen as the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Jesus is seen in orthodox dogma as his only child. Not because we are inseparably one with him and with each other (so that by definition there can only be one "son"), but precisely the contrary-- because we are all self-contained "souls" and ego wants to keep it that way!  God and Jesus may be one, but we are separate from them as well as from each other. It is clear that, according to ego's conceptions, we cannot be God's creations and yet be of the same nature as God. Rather, we must be as distinct as the clay is from the potter. God is seen, through ego's eyes, as an intimidating Superplayer, the King of Monopoly. Jesus is the Ultimate Community Chest Card. The payoff for such mad conceptualising is that ego gets to continue unchallenged. All we have to do to be "saved" is to "believe". No essential change is required, only some mental gymnastics-- nothing that cannot be accommodated within the framework of ordinary life and relationships (for instance, the social event of going to church). We do not have to wake up, for the ego has made God just another character in our dream. The promise of salvation and the threat of damnation are just a prize and a hazard in the same old game.

     It is no different in other religions because all dogma is made by ego. Awakened players come into the world of the game from time to time to unveil the truth of our identity, and cause a stirring toward wakefulness for a while. But eventually the momentum of "the world" (that is, the ego) overgrows their message, distorting it into a new feature of the game-- just as a person disturbed in their sleep will dream of some disturbance but continue their fitful slumber. The message becomes veiled again in dogma, twisted into the compromise that a dream represents between wakefulness and sleep. Then new prophets comes forth to repeat the cycle.