Tag Archives: ego

The Cycle of Shattered Worlds and Individual Agency

On Easter morning, 2020 amidst the cloistered quarantine of the Corona virus pandemic, I finished reading “The Shattered Worlds of Standish O’Grady” written by my friend Christopher Boettcher. He sent me a copy of this book based on his PhD thesis several months ago and I have been meaning to get to it. But there was some hesitation on my part perhaps because this subject matter is not something I would normally seek out. To wit, Standish O’Grady is an obscure (at least from my frame of reference), turn of the 20th century, Irish author with no presently familiar work of literature. He is, however, thought to have influenced Irish authors who came after him (e.g., W.B. Yeats). But I have no background or interest in Irish literature per se.

No, I started to read this book mostly as an expression of my friendship. But I rediscovered that exposing myself to something I would not normally expose myself to can be an enlightening experience. Unfortunately, this is a world where it is easy to confine myself to an informational comfort zone / echo chamber and that is not where growth happens. And I believe I did grow by reading this book I would not have sought out on my own. I first found it interesting to read what my friend had written and what he thought to be of interest. I then found myself becoming (i.e., growing) interested in this subjectively foreign subject matter.

O’Grady became inspired to write and publish after reading a dusty history of Ireland he found in a private library. Apparently, the Irish history O’Grady knew at that point was English in orientation. Reading this history, inspired him to research and write his own history of Ireland. He later (after a non productive stint as a barrister) took on the management and content creation of a publication called The All-Ireland Review wherein the evolution of his ideas and priorities would be reflected from 1900 to 1907. Boettcher repeatedly emphasizes how O’Grady would edit and rewrite what he had previously written to further refine his evolving point of view. Sometimes this happened because his original content was not well received. Other times his point of view had shifted. This reflected on his part, an attitude of personal fortitude that would not let the opinions of others cause him to hide in shame. This aspect of his personality was one of the details in the book to catch my attention.

However, it took me a while to understand why Standish O’Grady was a person worth reading about as well as his broader significance. On the personal level, Standish O’Grady saw the cracks in his world. He observed how the Irish peasants, illiterate and incapable of paying their rents were caught in a system of debt and dysfunction. O’Grady had ideas about reforming society. He advocated land reform legislation and devised ideas about creating communal estates.  But his enthusiasm to create this change eventually turned to disillusionment as they never really came to pass. Perhaps his trajectory of enthusiasm was a function of his age.

But the idea I had whilst reading was that Standish O’Grady was part of a larger process at work. On a societal or cultural level, he is considered to be a father of the Irish literary revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But he set out to accomplish something quite different. There is the sense that history plays itself out in cycles and each individual despite his illusion of ego and agency ends up being an atom in the cyclical waves. O’Grady’s influence spurred the Irish Literary Revival but he did not intend to affect this course of events. Put another way, his agency did not work to advance his ideas but they did express themselves within a greater pattern.

I picked up this book at the beginning of Lent and finished on Easter Sunday. Easter is about renewal. The liturgical year is a repeated cycle of birth, death and resurrection. This book came into my life not through my own agency. My decision to read it had more to do with friendship than my own desire to learn about its contents. O’Grady had ideas he sought to see manifest in reality, took concrete steps to realize them, but ultimately did not succeed. Rather, his influence spurred or was part of the spurring of a larger literary cycle. Worlds exist and then shatter. But a new world remains after the old one has shattered only to eventually shatter itself. And amidst this cycle, individuals live their lives and pursue their aims but for the most part remain unaware of the larger patterns. This seems to be the case anyway.

The illusion of ego in this sense seems to be an illusion of control. There are forces at work stronger than the individual that sweep us all along. And yet there is a kernel of agency in there, is there not? There is the part of the individual that is dissatisfied with the way things are as Standish O’Grady was with the state of the Irish peasants and as I am with much of the work I find myself doing on a day to day basis. And this part convinces itself that it can change the world. And then this part takes action (or doesn’t). And then this part sees the results of its action or inaction. Whether the results are success, failure or regret for inaction the grander cycle plays itself out and the individual plays his small or large role.

The question, I suppose, is whether the individual’s agency has importance or significance? Certainly, the individual’s agency has significance from the perspective of the individual when he is not awake to or concerned with the larger cycles at play. Or perhaps, human suffering can be attributed to the individual clinging too tightly to the success of his individual agenda not wishing to understand that the larger cycle will always win in the end? Alas, a subject for another day. Thank you for an enjoyable and thought provoking read Betch!


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Is it Freedom or Ego that is the Problem?

There has been much discussion on various anti-liberal blogs that freedom (i.e., the idea behind liberalism) is the cause of all society’s ills. There is the notion that if only liberalism could be abolished then something better would take its place and all the social problems of modernity would be solved. I suppose the thinking is that anything is better than liberalism therefore there is no need to come up with a replacement for it. Or perhaps the reluctance to come up with a replacement reflects the subconscious knowledge that liberalism really is not the problem and that the same issues will come to exist under any type of regime.

One theory I see over and over again is that liberalism leads to evil and specifically mass murder because it is “incoherent.” The theory that liberalism is “incoherent” is based upon the premise that a government action is by its nature restrictive. Even if a government acts to promote the rights of one person or group of people it will necessarily restrict the rights of another person or group of people. Therefore, it is “incoherent” to say that a priority of government should be to protect the freedom of its citizens (as Western governments typically do) because in actuality a government cannot protect the freedom of one group of people without assaulting the freedom of another group of people. For example (the argument goes) if the government protects the right of one group to speak freely it will necessarily assault the right of another group to not have to listen to what the first group has to say.

Let us assume this analysis actually proves the incoherence of liberalism (and not the balancing of competing priorities). Does this incoherence really lead to mass murder as is claimed by the anti-liberals? The anti-liberal’s “go to” example of modern day mass murder is abortion. They argue that because liberalism is incoherent it can be used to justify abortion just as it was used (they argue) to justify the killing of Jews by the Nazis in World War II, the nuking of Hiroshima and the execution of opponents to Communist reform in the Soviet Union under Stalin. This justification arises under the “principle of explosion” apparently because under a contradictory logical construct such as is (supposedly) liberalism anything can be logically inferred to be true.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking. First of all, understanding the “principle of explosion” requires more than a bit of formal logic theory under one’s belt. It is not a theory that is readily grasped by the general public without this education. Therefore, to say that this principle is somehow used by liberals to justify their actions seems to be a bit of a stretch on its face. However, the argument might be that although expressing the principle of explosion in formal logic requires an education in logic that most people do not have, the principle itself is sound because most people on some intuitive level appreciate it to be true and use it to justify their beliefs psychologically. This too I think is a stretch because the intuitive level is governed more by emotion and ego than obscure rules of formal logic. But let us also assume this to be correct.

So then, we are now assuming it is correct that the belief in incoherent doctrines can lead to mass murder. It seems to me that from the perspective of the orthodox Christians who believe this this theory there is an obvious flaw they are ignoring. That is, the belief that incoherent doctrines lead to mass murder not only condemns liberalism (assuming liberalism is actually incoherent) but it would also condemn Christianity itself. There are many tenets in Christianity that are incoherent on their face (arguably). For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is logically incoherent. The belief that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man is logically incoherent. The belief that the Eucharist is actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the Roman Catholic mass is logically incoherent. The theodicy question suggests an incoherence to Christianity as well. These are but a few examples of arguments that could be made to demonstrate the incoherence of Christianity that are far more convincing (in my mind) than the argument that supposedly demonstrates the incoherence of liberalism.

All that being said, I do not consider either liberalism or Christianity to be incoherent. Nor do I believe that an incoherence of a doctrine logically leads to mass murder. So then the question arises what does give rise to these incidences of mass murder than take place in modern times? I think a far more logical explanation for the existence of mass murder in modern times is the modern technology that makes it possible.

The anti-liberals will argue that these acts of mass murder have only occurred under liberal regimes. But the fact that these events have (arguably) occurred only under liberal regimes does not prove that only liberal regimes are capable of committing acts of mass murder. Indeed the same people who argue only liberal regimes can commit mass murder are the same people who argue there are only liberal regimes in modern times. I think it is clear that this line of thinking easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy because if there are only liberal regimes in the world then any crime committed in the world can be blamed on liberalism. Moreover, examples of illiberal regimes committing acts of mass murder (albeit on a smaller scale) can be pointed to in the Inquisition and the Crusades. It is easy to conceive that these acts of cruelty could have been much more extensive had the perpetrators had access to modern technology.

I use these examples not to attack Christianity. I am a Christian. I use them to demonstrate that any political philosophy or belief system is capable of mass murder given the right circumstances and therefore to believe that the supposed incoherence of liberalism is responsible for these acts is a fallacy.

But modern technology is not the whole explanation. So what then is the discriminating authority that causes one person or group of people to commit an act of violence on another person or group of people? Might I suggest that it is ego. It is the voice within the self that says I am right and he is wrong. It is the voice within the self that says I am different than him (or her). It is the voice in the self that says I am better than him or her. It is the voice within the self that says if you disagree with me you must lack the capacity to understand me. It is the voice in the self that says you are my enemy. In my mind (and I would think most reasonable people would agree) this is the real problem.



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Essentialism and Egotism


From what I gather reading the Orthosphere and other related anti-liberal blogs, anti-liberals believe essentialism and anti-liberalism go hand in hand. To aid my loyal readers who may not be familiar with this term, Essentialism is a philosophy holding everything has a set of characteristics that define it and that this essence has an existence logically prior to the existence of the thing itself. For example, a dog has a set of characteristics that make it a dog and not a cat. In other words, there exists an essence of “dogness” that all things we call dogs possess which is why we refer to them by the same name. Put another way, the label “dog” is indicative of a pre-existing truth.

Essentialism is typically contrasted (by anti-liberals) with nominalism which is a philosophy holding that these essences are only labels or intellectual concepts without any actual corresponding reality and that only things (not the essence of things) exist prior to the labels man applies to them. For example, a dog is a thing man calls a dog because it makes it easier for man to conceptualize a grouping of similar things. In other words, the things man calls dogs exist but this label “dog” is a just a creation of man. Moreover, man could just as easily contrived some other labeling system that did not segregate dogs into a discrete category the way man is used to thinking of dogs.

I can see different appealing aspects to both philosophies. The appeal of essentialism is that it presumes a reality and truth that exists independent of the mind of man. The universe has an order to it and it becomes man’s job (if he chooses) to seek after this pre-existing truth of reality. By contrast, the appeal of nominalism is the presumption of a universe in which man is free (to a certain extent) to define and shape as he sees fit. Whether a person identifies as an essentialist or a nominalist depends upon their view of the world which is in turn determined by their culture, religion, education and psychology. I imagine most people do not consciously identify as either. Interestingly enough, I have observed that anti-liberals tend to use nominalism as a pejorative term.


There also seems to be a link between what anti-liberals consider to be orthodox (small “o”) Christianity and essentialism. This link has to do with there being one true definition (i.e., the essence) of the good which is reflective of God’s will and exists independent of man’s speculation or opinion of the good. Among essentialists there does exist some degree of agreement on at least part of the definition of the good. One can certainly look to the Bible and to the magisterium of the Catholic church (if one happens to be Roman Catholic) for guidance on this subject. Of course, not everyone happens to be a Roman Catholic or even Christian and so in this general sense there does not exist a universal agreement as to the definition of the good. Essentialists believe this definition exists none the less despite the fact that even they do not possess one hundred percent clarity as to what is in fact the definition of the good.

Even Saint Paul laments, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Based on this passage it seems to me to be extremely arrogant for a person to presume to know the mind of God which is the vault in which resides the exact definition of the good. I accept, certain aspects of the good can be discerned from various secondary sources but the entire picture remains (as Saint Paul accurately points out) inscrutable in part.


I am not convinced that liberalism (defined as the political philosophy espousing that the freedom and equal rights of citizens should be a nonexclusive priority of government) has a special relationship with nominalism. Perhaps one could argue that the very notion of freedom implies a rejection of the tyranny of labels. But one could also conceive of a person being “free” within a specific set of rules or parameters. It has been my experience that most educated and reasonable people understand the notion of freedom as used in political discourse to refer to Western political structures which are relatively more free than dictatorships, police states and authoritarian polities and not the non existent, straw man society where every citizen is absolutely free. As such, the “freedom” liberalism espouses is not a total rejection of authority and labels by any means and is therefore not incompatible with essentialism as far as I can see.

I am also not convinced that the essentialism / nominalism dichotomy is an accurate reflection of how people generally look at the world. Essentialism holds that a definition of the good exists independent of man’s conception of the good. Nominalism rejects this pre-existence of the definition of the good and thus leaves it up to man to make this determination. But I can certainly conceive of a person believing in freedom and a pre-existing definition of the good at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. I can also think of a third category where there is a pre-existing definition of the good that man does not have one hundred percent clarity as to the exact nature of the good so therefore there is room for speculation. I can even think of a fourth category where essentialism is true for some things but not others. I suspect, however, that the rejection of this dichotomy would be seen by an essentialist to be a symptom of nominalism.


Based on my admittedly limited experience the impression I get from many essentialists is that they have convinced themselves that they have clarity as to the exact nature of the good. The process of convincing themselves may have been augmented by their tendency not to converse with or take seriously anyone who might hold a different perspective or challenge them in any way. One can see how easy it would be for a person believing himself to have clarity as to the exact nature of the good to judge and criticize those with a different perspective.

It would make sense that an essentialist who truly believed his own dogma to be true would also have to believe that anyone who disagreed with him was either dishonest or lacked the capacity to understand his particular position. He might very well view the ability to see things from different points of view as smacking of the heresy of nominalism.

It seems to me that a true essentialist would be humble because he would know there are truths greater than the self and the mind’s ability to conceptualize. As Saint Paul reminds us, God’s ways are inscrutable. But for a man to have convinced himself of his own hold on truth and goodness seems to me to be closer to nominalism than essentialism. If given temporal power who knows what cruelties he might inflict on those he would condemn from his lofty perch. This (it seems to me) is the true danger of arrogant egotism combined with essentialism.





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The Prodigal Son’s Older Brother and the Conservative Mind

In a previous post I wrote about how Christ’s parable of the prodigal son gives insight into the dynamic of ego and shame. I recently re-heard this reading and was struck by how the older brother in this story provides valuable insight into the mind of the anti-liberals who write and contribute to the Orthosphere and other related blogs. I use the term “anti-liberal” rather than conservative because this group of people are far to the right of what would pass for an average Republican in the United States. For example, some of them advocate a return to Monarchy. Some reject the notion that freedom is a good that a society should strive for. What seems to bind them is their rejection of liberalism, leaving aside the fact that it is always unclear just what any one person on these blogs actually considers a liberal to be.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son of a rich man asks his father for his inheritance. His father gives it to him and the younger son then goes away and squanders his money on riotous living. He subsequently falls upon hard times, sees the error of his ways and returns to his father begging for forgiveness. Surprisingly, the father welcomes him home with loving arms. He clothes his son and orders the slaughtering of the fatted calf in celebration. Meanwhile the older brother who had remained loyal all this time arrives home from working in the field to see this new state of affairs and becomes angry. When his father tries to convince him to join the feast he retorts:

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

LK 15:29-30

We can all sympathize with the older brother. Surely there should be some reward for remaining loyal. At the very least there should not be a reward for disloyalty and sinful behavior. On the other hand, the older brother is using his loyalty to justify his lack of compassion and his judgment of his younger brother. In a very similar way the folks at the Orthosphere seem very justified in judging and blaming liberals for all the evils in the world.

Now the father in the parable represents God the Father. His attitude is love and compassion and does not seem to be concerned with matters of fairness, property or finances. To him, the important thing is that the prodigal son has returned. To the older son the father says:

‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

LK 15:31-32

Jesus ends the parable here leaving it unclear as to whether the older son was convinced by the father’s argument. I suspect that he is not, primarily because the father’s argument does not provide any new knowledge that the older son does not already possess. The older son already knows that he shares in the father’s property. In fact, this is probably part of what is upsetting him because the return of the younger son presents a challenge to the remaining portion of the father’s estate that he will eventually come to own. The fact that the younger brother was ‘lost’ and is now found probably does not change the older brother’s attitude either because while the younger son was lost he was doing all the things the older brother had the discipline not to do.

The part of the parable that does not fit the analogy where the Orthospherians are the older brother, God is the father and liberals are the younger brother is that the prodigal son actually returns to the father. In the view of the Orthospherians the liberals left with their inheritance a long time ago and never came back. They are the ones who remained loyal and are out working in the fields. Perhaps the fact that the liberals have not yet returned justifies the Orthospherian lack of compassion and judgment of them. Perhaps they would in fact join God in a feast if the liberals ever returned. But I am not so sure about that.

I suspect most liberals would interpret this parable differently as it relates to them. I suspect at least some of them would argue that they never left with their inheritance in the first place and continue to work the fields with their older more conservative brother. Perhaps they would argue they work on opposite ends of the field but are still working in the field none the less.



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The Solipsism of Creativity

img_0810For me, creativity is the joy of life. It is also a delicate fire that can be easily put out if not properly nurtured. Being creative requires a willingness to fail. It seems that for every ten failures there is one success. Very often that one success is not possible without those ten preceding failures. Being creative (at least for me) requires a certain level of exposure. There has to exist the opportunity to be judged by others to raise the stakes and risk catastrophe. This raising of the stakes gives it an energy that it would not otherwise have. This means that creativity requires a willingness to be vulnerable. In this way there are two counterbalancing forces at play. On the one hand creativity requires nurturing but on the other it must also risk negative judgment.

I make myself vulnerable in this way on a weekly basis when I write this blog. I write about what I am thinking. I enjoy the process of creating and putting it out there. The fact that what I write can be read by other people matters more than whether it is actually read because all of this is an internal and solipsistic process. In other words it is my own anticipation of my writing being read by others that (to a certain extent) fuels the fire of creativity

On the other hand there are very real, judgmental and sometimes hostile voices out there. These voices can manifest themselves as actual people in my blog’s comment section or as an internal critical voice. To a degree I enjoy their hostility because there is a power in getting their reaction. This is an ego based sort of enjoyment and as such is ultimately self annihilating in nature. As is the judgmental hostility it is interacting with. For this reason this enjoyment is something that I am not all together comfortable with. There is also a certain amount of defiance of this hostility on my part at play in this dynamic. This also fuels the fire. Moreover, if I were to not write and publish for fear of being judged I would only be stifling myself. This is a another form of self annihilation. So I must write.

These hostile forces share similar qualities. They all seem to take offense at true expression on supposed moral grounds. This is always the way with the ego who is threatened by the free expression of others. The ego is always comparing itself to others and placing everything on a hierarchy. It is threatened by the idea of equality and it employs shame to create this false hierarchy very likely because that weapon was used so successfully on it. I suspect there is jealousy at play here. The hostile force’s free expression had been shut down by shame and so it cannot bear to see free expression in others. It touches a point of pain that is too much to endure. Because it cannot be free no one else can be either. It sees freedom as rebellion and radical autonomy. It denies that freedom is actually the expression of one’s true nature which is the expression of God’s will.



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The Requirement of Beliefs Part II

pxA few posts ago I explored the topic that some religions require belief in order to receive or achieve salvation. The word “salvation” can take on different forms depending on the religion. For this reason, I am using the term loosely in the present context. Having personally been brought up in the Roman Catholic form of Christianity I approach this topic from that perspective but really my question as to why this belief is required is not strictly limited to Christian dogma. In the blog post I specifically referenced chapter 3 verse 26 in The Book of John which reads, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” To properly explore this topic it is first necessary to examine what a belief is.
Beliefs are essentially ideas or thoughts in the mind. Accordingly, the question behind the exploration has to do with why would the gatekeeper of salvation care whether its adherents experienced these thoughts called beliefs? If the gatekeeper of salvation is divine and not dependent upon any external factors for its existence why would it be so interested in this one particular external factor? I suppose one answer to the question is that the belief is for the benefit of the person trying to achieve salvation and not for the benefit of the divine dispenser of salvation. But John 3:36 expressly states that not believing brings about the “wrath of God” which implies that God has some stake in this thought called a belief existing in the mind of that person seeking salvation. This could be metaphorical language but that is not at all certain. As such the question remains unanswered.
It must be understood that I am not questioning whether these beliefs are valid. I am simply questioning why these beliefs are required. If the comment section of Part I is any indication, this distinction seems to be difficult to understand for some people. Interestingly, the personality type represented in the comment section seems to be very threatened by any exploration of this topic. A perusal of the comment section of Part I of this blog will provide examples of this. For questioning this requirement of belief I was accused of hating God. My question was rephrased as an argument on my part that hating God should carry no consequences and that the actual consequence for making this argument (that I did not make) was my own annihilation. These counterarguments (made against an argument I never made) were written in sporadic ALL CAPS which gave the impression that this commenter’s emotions were raised and that his emotion guided his rhetoric. Also notice that the emphasis on the counterargument was not the merits of the requirement of belief itself but rather on how I was wrong as a person for even asking the question. Another interesting point is that this accuser denied John 3:36 even expresses a requirement for belief in the first place. I think any reasonable person would read this passage to require belief in the Son in order to have eternal life. Moreover, the passage also clearly expresses that if this requirement is not met then a punishment will be meted out. But the commenter seemed to argue that interpreting this passage as expressing a requirement was somehow in error although he did not clearly articulate a logical foundation for this point.
Mind you, I do not want to engage in another pointless debate with this person because I have been down this road so many times on this blog and it is indeed pointless. Accordingly any comment he posts will be deleted. The only reason I brought him up was to provide an example of the egoic push back this question receives. This quality of being threatened when beliefs are questioned seems to be emblematic of the ego. The fact that the ego seems so invested in belief makes the requirement of belief for salvation questionable in my mind. Let me be clear. I am NOT questioning the validity of beliefs or really whether the reason for the requirement is sound. I simply do not understand the reason why this requirement exists and am exploring this lack of understanding by articulating the thoughts that come to mind as I explore it. (I have no illusion this distinction will be meaningful to everyone who reads it).
I think it can be argued that questioning beliefs or faith can lead to a deepening of beliefs. An unquestioned belief has a shaky foundation because it has not tested itself against the facts that may disprove it. As such, the unquestioned belief has no defenses to these facts. However, a belief that has been tested against facts that might disprove it has been inoculated against those facts. But really, this argument is just intellectual play. It is the reinforcing of beliefs (which are thoughts) with other beliefs and thoughts. It becomes circular after a while and brings a person who engages in this sort of thing only so close  to the truth. So again I arrive at the question, why is there the requirement of belief and why are there those who are so egoically invested in keeping this requirement unquestioned?
There are examples of Saints who have questioned their beliefs. Saint Mother Teresa wrote on numerous occasions about how she questioned her beliefs. Saint Thomas the apostle of Jesus also questioned belief without direct proof. Jesus castigated him for this when he said “…Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). Again we see this emphasis on belief and from the same gospel to boot. Interestingly, in the Gnostic tradition, Thomas is revered for his questioning attitude. Equally interesting is the fact that Gnosticism was declared a heresy by orthodox Christianity.
So the question exists. Why is there a requirement of belief for salvation? Moreover, there also exists a force which is interested in blocking this question. Why this dynamic exists I do not know. But I think there can be no sin in asking a question. I think this is true because logically, no amount of questioning can undermine the truth for the reason that the answers to these questions (if truthful) should only serve to reinforce the truth. I suppose one could counter argue that by asking questions and receiving false answers one could be misled to a dangerous place. But if that is the case, then these unquestioned beliefs are robotic and lack authentism. If God requires belief then I have to think that He would want a whole hearted belief that has been tested and found to be true as opposed to a belief that was adopted for no reason or because the believer was socially pressured into believing.


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Walking Meditation

TreesFor each of the past 36 days I have consistently meditated for 20 to 30 minutes. Usually I do this while walking although I sometimes meditate sitting in a chair.

The method I employ is simple. I focus my awareness on the present moment. In a sense I actively abide in the gaps between thoughts in a state of pure awareness that is not overlaid with chattering thoughts or judgments. That is the intention anyway. It is easier to describe what it is not than what it actually is. For example, it is not thinking or evaluating. I can usually capture it in a pure state for only a few moments at a time. Often I can capture it while my mind is commenting on it but I can sort of marginalize the commentary or allow it to exist in the background. When this happens, I am aware of the commentary but I am also in touch with the present. Sometimes my focus on the present involves observing the blueness of the sky or keying into the sound of a bird chirping or the gurgling of the stream that runs along my walking route. Sometimes I can expand this awareness to take in a wider appreciation of my surroundings. The point is that I know when I am there when I am there. I recognize it.

When I meditate I become aware of three internal minds at work. The first is “the commentator.” Some people refer to this as “monkey mind” but I personally find that term to be annoying. This is the mind that comments on everything (often it comments on the mechanics of meditation) or it flashes pictures of memories and the like. I like to think of the commentator as the mechanical brain. This brain takes in information, stores it and repeats it. It is basically a mechanical function and in a sense is “mindless” ironically. The second mind is “the evaluator.” Some people might refer to this one as the ego. This mind judges, categorizes and assigns value to things. This is the part of the mind that is critical of the self and others. It is also the part of the mind that strives to become better, sets goals and becomes jealous. The final member of the mental trinity is the observer. This is the presence of awareness that sits in the background. It is able to observe the other two minds at work. It is also able to observe itself. This last mind is the one that I  try to maintain contact with while meditating. This mind is essentially passive and tends to become dominated by the other two minds if I do not actively try to keep it awake.

The main pitfall of meditation is a wandering mind. Typically, I get lost in the chattering commentary and I forget that I am meditating. When this happens and I become aware of it I simply bring my awareness back to the present moment. Similarly, I might find myself evaluating something I observe or think about. I treat this the same way. I simply bring my awareness back to the present moment. I try not to judge myself when this happens. To do so would just be another distraction. In the same way, I try not to congratulate myself when I am successfully focusing on the present. Again that is another distraction. These distractions, however, are not bad things. In fact they are they are the means by which I deepen my practice. Every time I become aware that I am distracted and I bring my awareness back to where it belongs I am flexing my “meditation muscle” which is how it becomes stronger.

Every meditation instructor or book I have read on the subject seems to shy away from discussing the benefits of meditation or goals associated with meditation. I understand this is because thinking about the benefits of meditation or setting goals to become better at meditation simply becomes the content of distraction. This does not mean that it is necessarily bad to think about these things when not meditating. However, when actively meditating these thoughts become distraction and should be treated as such. That said, there are many benefits of meditation including improved concentration, strengthened will power, the ability to not be swept away by emotion, a relaxed mood, greater awareness in general and many other things. I have found that the more I meditate consistently the more an indescribable mystery sort of unfolds inside of me. It is as if my general state of awareness is akin to being asleep and meditation is a means of waking. This is difficult to describe to someone who has not experienced it for themselves.

A final insight that I would like to talk about is the concept of the self. I think of it this way. I am not really my body or my mind. I inherited those things and I am grateful for them but I cannot really take credit for them. I had no say in acquiring them (that I am aware of anyway). Similarly, my thoughts and emotions are all products of experience. They are external in origin. This is particularly true with memories, facts and figures and anything I learned. This is also particularly true with the feelings I associate with prior abuse or praise. So I really cannot take credit for those things either (even though in my normal sleeping state I tend to take credit for them). So what part of all this is actually me? The conclusion that I have come to based on my experience meditating is that the only real part of me is that part of me that can choose where to place my attention. I suspect most people (myself included) most of the time squander their attention in the sense that they allow the commentator and the evaluator to run the show. They allow the observer to fall asleep. When I think about it, the ability to direct one’s attention is a very precious thing because it is the foundation for the experience of life. Perhaps it is the most precious thing there is.

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The Meaning of Life and the Three Ways the Ego Folds in upon Itself

TreesWhat is the meaning of life?

It seems to me that this is a question the ego asks out of a desire to affix a label upon and categorize existence. This desire is rooted in the survival instinct. That is, in order to survive in the material world the ego must make sense of it. It makes sense of the world in part, by overlaying it with a complex system of labels and categories. In a sense the ego is putting creation in its place in order to tame it and survive within it. When the ego asks the question “what is the meaning of life?” it is categorizing life as something that must have a meaning. It then seeks for this illusive meaning with the goal of slaying the dragon by definitively labeling and categorizing life once and for all. This of course is probably an unattainable goal but this goes unrecognized by the ego.

The ego is obviously not comfortable with the notion that life might have no meaning. The fact that a meaning is not immediately forthcoming from life suggests that this is a possibility. But the ego is unwilling to consider this and so it wants put life in its place rather than letting life abide in the place it is already in. In truth, the ego has no power to put life in its place. All labels and categorizations are illusions in this sense. Because the ego is largely ignorant and unaware of its own motivations these labels are illusions it uses to trick itself. This is the first way in which the ego folds in upon itself.

I suspect that to ask the question “What is the meaning of life?” is really to ask “Am I meaningful?” By recognizing this I can see the desperate yearning of the ego to survive and reach immortality. I further suspect the ego (on some level) knows that it is mortal but does not want to admit this. The ego wants to survive above all things. Ultimately this is irrational because nothing of the material world survives in the material world forever. And the prospect of mortality brings with it the possibility of meaninglessness. But irrationality and dishonesty are the essence of the ego and so the ego goes on denying its own mortality and inventing meaning.

When I think about it I see two sides to the ego. There is the self-serving side and there is the judgmental side. When self-serving side acts through greed and indulgence it will inevitably feel shame. This is the work of the judgmental side of the ego. The judgmental side judges the self-serving side causing the feeling of shame. This shame must be then passed onto another person by judging them. In this way I can see that the ego and shame are intimately intertwined. This act of self-judgment is second way the ego folds in on itself.

The only way past the ego is through non-judgmental awareness. When one becomes aware of the ego he can observe it, separate from it and by doing so stop unconsciously doing its bidding. In this way when one feels the need to ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?” he can be aware that it is really his ego who is asking this question. He can then separate from his ego and no longer require an answer to this question. In this sense when one stops looking for the meaning in life he becomes liberated because he is abiding in his true self or spirit which is intimately intertwined with God.

There is, however, a trap here. When one starts to become aware of the ego he may then praise himself for avoiding the ego or judge himself when acts unconsciously and does the ego’s bidding. Both this praise and judgment are also the work of the ego. It is ironic that it serves the ego’s purpose to punish the self for following the will of the ego. This is the third way in which the ego folds in on itself. It makes sense when viewed through the lens of survival. The ego wants to survive and be in control. It wants to steer the ship of self. One way it takes control is through shame. Shame is punishment and atonement for breaking the rules of life. These rules of life are created by the ego through all the labels and categories it affixes to life. In a sense they are the illusory meaning of life the ego has given to life and for which it unconsciously seeks.

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The Prodigal Son: A Tale of Ego and Spirit

prodigalIt seems very clear to me that one way to interpret the parable of the prodigal son is as an allegory about the ego and spirit. The parable itself is found in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15 verses 11 to 32. In this blog post I will analyze the parable line by line within this context.

11 … A certain man had two sons: 12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

The assertion “Give me what is mine” is obviously very ego oriented. The younger son in this parable represents this aspect of the ego who is always interested in self-advancement, self-aggrandizement and its position or status relative to others. Notice how the father in the parable (who represents the spirit or the true self) readily gives the ego dominated son what he asks for without question. This is the nature of the spirit who acts with compassion, whole heartedly and without ulterior motives.

13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

Another quality of the ego is that it seeks autonomy from the spirit. In verse 13 we see the ego as represented by the younger son setting out on his quest for autonomy by abandoning the spirit who is represented by his father in this parable. When the ego is free from the spirit it tends to engage in self-annihilating behavior be it addiction, over indulgence, recklessness and racism to name a few. This is what the son proceeds to do.

14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

But when the ego is free to follow this path it always leads to a negative place because to follow the ego is to abandon the spirit which is the true self. Truth cannot be ignored indefinitely and reality will always catch up with the ego eventually. In verse 17 the parable talks about the prodigal son “[coming] to himself” which is to say he momentarily freed himself from his ego domination and returned to his spirit or true self which gave him a clarity of mind and brought him back to reality.

18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

By “coming to himself” he recognizes the error of his ways, repents and then feels shame. As is often the case, the ego will attempt to reassert itself once a person tries to shake it off. It does this through its most powerful and effective weapon; shame. Seeing that the son can no longer sustain the life of riotous living the ego hijacks his plan to make amends with his father. We see this in the way the ego makes plans and schemes and anticipates how his father will react.

20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

Notice how the son’s father (his spirit and true self) saw him from a far way off. The spirit is always watching because it is always there. This points out the fact that even though the ego can abandon the spirit, the spirit is not capable of abandoning the ego or the aspect of the self that has been misguided by the ego. Notice also how the son begins to recite his premeditated speech but his father cuts him off displaying how the spirit sees through the works of the ego and has no use for them. All that matters is that the once ego dominated persona is now reunited with its true self and this is a cause for celebration.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

The elder son represents another aspect of the ego. This is the judgmental, self righteous aspect that takes pleasure in judging others and takes personal offense when the rules of the broader civilization are violated. This self righteous ego takes cover in these “rules of civilization” because they give it license to judge other people without shame. Notice also how the elder brother complains that he has “slaved” for his father. In other words he did not work for his father freely but did so under protest and begrudgingly. This once more demonstrates how the ego never acts whole heartedly but always with ulterior motives and under false pretense. It is fundamentally dishonest which makes sense because it is not aligned with the true self.

31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

The ego creates a false world which may work for a time but always runs afoul of reality because it can only exist in reality because reality is all there is in which to exist. This is why the ego can abandon the spirit but the spirit can never abandon the ego. In actuality the abandonment of the spirit is a self-delusion of the ego. It has to be a delusion because it is not in accordance with reality. But as the father in the parable is ready to give and forgive so is the spirit and the true self. As in the parable when we come to ourselves and reunite with the father it is always a cause for celebration.


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Why I Blog

starRecently an angry “neighbor” accused me of blogging for “validation.” Implicit in this accusation (I think) is the idea that seeking validation from other people is somehow a bad quality. I am guessing this angry individual sees it as a form of weakness which is deserving of shame. As is the nature of my relationship with this angry person, his attacks are annoying at first but ultimately serve as a view into his mindset which is both unaware and shame based. This view then gives me material to write about in this blog.

All this interplay has raised the question, why do I blog in the first place? Inspired by the writings of James Altucher, I wrote down a list of ten reasons why I blog:

  1. I like to think that the first and most important reason why I blog is to exercise my writing muscle. That is, the more I write the better I get at writing much the same way that the more a body builder lifts weights the more muscle mass he will develop. From one perspective this motivation could be seen as ego based if the desire to improve is really a desire to look good in the eyes of others as opposed to a love of the craft. I think, however, awareness of this possibility is enough to counteract this ego based tendency for the most part.
  2. I must admit that my angry neighbor’s “validation” accusation is at least partly correct in that I blog because I do other enjoy people reading and reacting to my work. This is a form of validation and to an extent is a form of ego gratification. However, validation and ego gratification are not per se bad things. I do, however, think that they need to be kept in check through awareness and not be allowed to become the primary motivation because that becomes an impediment to spiritual growth.
  3. Practically speaking I blog because my blog can then be used as a resume when people want to see a sample of my writing. I have landed a few paid writing gigs using my blog and e-books as examples of my work.
  4. I blog because I simply enjoy the act of being creative. In my estimation, to enjoy doing something (with the exception of indulging in addictive behavior) for its own sake is an expression of the true self. By definition this is not the work of the ego.
  5. I blog because it has become a habit. I have a goal of writing one blog post every weekend. It has gotten to the point where I just naturally sit down at my keyboard on Saturday or Sunday mornings. At this point if I do not do this I feel like I have something important left undone.
  6. I blog because I feel I have something to say that I think would be helpful to other people who are experiencing situations similar to situations I have experienced. Readers of my blog will know that I write a lot about the topic of shame. In my life I have experienced and to some degree continue to experience an epic journey through this issue. I feel that I have accumulated some insight along the way and I find it meaningful to teach people what I have learned.
  7. I blog because a part of me enjoys baiting people. I am not particularly proud of this motivation. Obviously this part of me that enjoys baiting (i.e., making other people angry) is my ego. The last few months I have spent quite a bit of time writing blog posts at least partially intended to get a response out of my angry neighbor. Again, I am not proud of this motivation but it would be dishonest for me to deny its existence.
  8. By contrast, I blog also because I also enjoy honest and civil discussion with people where topics can be thoroughly explored and developed. I would say that the interactions with my angry neighbor although heated at times also served to explore why he believed the things he believed. I found that aspect of our interaction to be informative and interesting.
  9. I blog because I enjoy being a part of the community of bloggers that exists on the internet. Truthfully, I have not really gotten too deep into this world but I do find it interesting to explore it and to be involved in it from time to time.
  10. Finally, I blog because I experience a pleasant sense of accomplishment when I publish a completed piece of work. I suppose this is related to the “validation” my angry neighbor accused me of being motivated by. I would point out, however, that although some of this accomplishment is ego gratifying, much of it has to do with the fact that the work itself has become a new thing that did not exist before. True, I feel satisfaction that I had a role to play in this process. But I also feel satisfaction for the created thing itself. It is good to create as God himself acknowledged in Genesis.

That (in a nutshell) is why I blog.

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