Today was a beautiful day for a much needed drive. Lately, I’ve been going to introductory talks sponsored by the University of Denver Religious Studies dept on various religions at religious sites in the area. Today was one at the Hindu temple in Southwest Denver, about an hour’s drive away, near where I used to go biweekly for Jungian dream analysis training.
The drive took me along the tall, rocky, brown foothills, and I had the car windows down to smell the warm air and feel the sun on my body. There’s something about moving on an open road that’s very calming to me. It speaks of possibility and vision. It takes me out of my rut and my little neighborhood. I can feel it as I move, mile upon mile, working on my brain, expanding my field of vision, relaxing my eyes back into my head. Today’s route also brought back a feeling of fondness for that time I was in the training and the sense of meaning and depth and connectedness to the unknown that it added to my life.
How perfect that when I arrived at the temple that the first thing the speakers pointed out was the importance of transitions for creating sacred space. At the temple, you take off your shoes and observe an elevated standard of behavior. Silence (or low tones) is the norm. It generates an air of expectation and significance that even a young child would pick up on. It’s as if by approaching something with reverance, we make it sacred and it therefore becomes powerful. Not the other way around. (To be clear, by power, I mean, not “power over something”, but potency, the ability to create or effect change.)
Cognitive therapists and psychologists have known of this phenomenon for some time. How we think, the attitude we take, affects our experience of reality. It may not change the sum of 2 plus 2 or the chemical composition of my cup of tea. But it certainly changes one’s ability to think flexibly and move within the world. A situation can be at once paralyzing and then liberating, simply depending on how one relates to it.
I resented the hell out of this concept for many years. The implication would seem to be that if I only “changed my mind”, then I wouldn’t have so many problems in my life. The implication is that if I’m troubled, it is my own damn fault. As if my only real problem was an attitude problem. But not only does this sort of blame show disrespect to one’s current, very real state of being (and in doing so undermine chances for transformation), it places emphasis in entirely the wrong place: the ego.
Now, “wrong” is a strong word, smacking of dogma and legalism and inciting polarization. But before I get into breaking down my adoption of this word, I need to pause and be clear about what I mean by this thing called ego. By ego, I’m referring to the conceptualization of the piece(s) of the human psyche responsible for judgment, critical thinking, and the decision making necessary for functioning within the world of waking life. To those that believe in a “higher self”, the ego would be the means for manifesting one’s individual dose of higher consciousness in the world. The ego is great for things like driving a car, grocery shopping, and doing whatever else is necessary to survive in the modern world. But when it comes to making meaning out of the life our ego so carefully has built, the ego is way out of its league.
In the US, we live under the guiding cultural myth of the American Dream and the directive of Manifest Destiny. These are adolescent notions that anything is possible, our power is limitless, and we get to choose the guiding principles and the end “product” of our lives. It is a lovely, romantic notion, full of hope and potential. And it’s an absolutely necessary perspective for one who developmentally still has an unfathomable number of routes to explore on the way to selfhood. It helps transfer authority from outer, potentially oppressive forces to the realm of the individual. From this position, fate or nature or anything else that presents obstacles along one’s chosen way is something to be conquered by one’s will. By rights, nothing should ultimately interfere with one’s dream.
This kind of thinking puts the ego at the top of the psychic food chain. Perfection is a mind/body that has maximized its influence on the outside world to meet its own ends. But if ego is assigned the role of end-all be-all, where is an individuated person to go from there? I mean, after a few years (or decades) of proving to myself that I am indeed competent and effective and influential, then what? I climbed that mountain. Do I just sit on top now? Pedastals are pretty lonely places. And very ungrounded.
Here’s where most religions try to step in and give us some guideliness to keep us from wandering off of psychic cliffs, in particular by placing importance on compassion and service. What makes a finely honed, well-functioning ego divine is the offering of its skills up in service of something greater. Hinduism has, by way of its many gods, built into it the diversity of the many faces of the divine, and Hanuman, the monkey deity, is one whose story can help us out in this regard.
Hanuman is renowned for embodying both power and selfless service. As a young monkey, he abused his powers and created a bunch of mischief and so his knowledge of his own potential was hidden from him by Brahma (the creator god and a symbol of oneness). Hanuman’s ability to put his power to use was only later returned to him when he was mature enough to use it in service of something greater than himself. Interestingly for the metaphor of individuation, he then often outfoxed his enemies by becoming very, very large, so large that they had to go to great lengths to continue to match him and then he suddenly reduced himself a miniscule size and disappeared out from under their radar.
There is an experience for me upon entering a sacred space, be it a temple or a mountain pass, of the infinite vastness accessible inside me and yet my utter personal insignificance. It is both awesome and reassuring. In the space of a moment, I become something beyond what I was. No. Wait. That’s not quite it. I become so exquistely connected to a sense of something else larger, something beyond me, that I don’t give a damn about my own specialness anymore. And, let me tell you, after years of efforting to develop my ego and ability to move through the world, that is such a relief and really quite dumbfounding. It’s such a peaceful, pleasurable, blissful state that it makes me want to find ways to experience that again. And again. And again.
Religions have gotten a bad reputation for their social control aspects. But the stories and practices that belong to them were, at heart, intended to help people be open to and prepare for these sorts of states of awe and grace. Now, following religious laws doesn’t make me a “good” person of even a spiritual person. And I don’t acquire inner awareness by ascribing to them by wrote. In fact, that inner experience doesn’t come under my control at all. But I have found that I can cultivate an attitude so that, when such moments or opportunities arise, I am receptive and open to them when they fly by. In watching life with a loving eye, in learning to be quiet, to take off my shoes, to occasionally separate myself from my habitual space, and maybe take a long drive to a special place, I don’t invoke the gods, but I do invite them. And this attitude changes my perspective and therefore my experience of reality.
So, what’s “wrong” with an apodictic greatness of the ego? Well, it is sad state of inherent limitation. It’s like possessively holding on to a raft long after one has learned how to swim just because it feels familiar and safe and gratifying to be good at rafting and feel some sense of mastery that one can forever move through the water without getting wet. Big whoopee. These novitiate exercises are important, foundational work that should be enjoyed not skipped over but, in the end, a well functioning ego is just a sort of booby prize for having played the game of incarnation. Admittedly, I am still gonna have to hold on to my ego so that I can continue, in addition to my spiritual pursuits, to navigate through life and enjoy human-to-human relationships; but applied outside of its domain, the ego becomes my own selfish, paradoxical barrier. It disconnects me from my potential for inner expansiveness, responsiveness, and generativity, which all become so exponentially greater when tempered with humility and brought into relationship with a sense of wonder for The Big Something Else.
Today was a beautiful day for a much needed drive. I’ve been feeling interpersonally overextended lately, resentful of demands on my attention. I’ve been closing up, pushing away, turning off, and wanting to hide out. It’s not so much that I needed to be alone or have more hours in the day, but I needed to be fed. And with a destination like today’s in mind, the short trip became more than just another thing I decided to do. The mesas and mountains became portals, the road a path into infinite possibility, and my car the ferry that would carry me there. And I became filled with gratitude, which grew and grew and grew as I smiled at the road, thanked the mountains, and lovingly patted the dashboard of my little, green hooptie.