Culture, Inner Work, The Ego, The Mind

Anger & Ego Triggers

Today I want to talk about ego triggers and the wily, pernicious nature of the ego. The ego is a psychological entity that controls the vast majority of human beings, myself included. Spiritually speaking, the ego is the unique yet illusory identity we buy into as being our true selves. Living within the illusion of a false identity brings most—if not all—of the suffering we endure throughout our lives.

It’s like you’ve been playing Super Mario Brothers for so long that you literally believe you are Mario. Really, you’re a fully developed human playing a game. No matter how many times Mario gets wiped out by a turtle shell or falls off the edge of the Earth, the real you is going to be fine. “Enlightenment” is the sudden and abiding realization that you’re not actually Mario. The metaphor I described is experienced through your own consciousness, not merely understood conceptually. You step outside of all the limitations you were operating under during the many years you held such a delusive belief. It’s freeing and funny and if you want to keep playing you can, but you’re under no obligation, because jeez, it’s just a video game.

As you can imagine, it would create a lot of problems if you kept falsely believing you were Mario. You would be full of neurotic fear, only able to respond in pre-programmed ways, and constantly trying to stave off the inevitable “end of the game.” Now look around you and notice that almost everyone in the world believes they’re the characters they’re playing, too. This is the level of madness we are dealing with. The sincere belief in the ego as being ultimately real is the chief delusion in our species’ many layers of delusion.

Spiritual freedom comes down to becoming free of this illusion, free from the false you.

Usually, just as I’m feeling like “I’m actually kinda somewhat free,” something happens to prove me wrong. At this point, they’re trivial things since I’m no longer actively blowing up my life, but I still feel a sense of smallness and anger when they occur. Feeling small and angry is one of the most common ways we suffer in our culture, and for good reason: We were born into a giant machine of unconsciousness. Throughout our education we were systematically deceived and forced to be complicit in an order of subjugation we had no part in creating. When we become more conscious, the sheer enormity of all this can create a sense of powerlessness, and this is infuriating. What do we even do when the problem is this huge?

Back to the Mario metaphor: If we’re delusional enough to believe we are Mario, we’re definitely delusional enough to believe Mario’s world is real. Therefore, if Mario’s world (our physical world) is a disaster, we will feel acute anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear can be useful—if such emotions push us into growing up and tending to the world. Most of the time, though, we just feel paralyzed because we have to keep playing the game; thus we fall deeper into anxiety as everything falls apart. This is why truly seeing Reality is the long-term solution to suffering, as denoted by Buddhism and other Eastern religions. From this position we can use our characters to improve the state of affairs, but we also keep a peaceful perspective because we know it’s just a video game. We are most effective in this mode, when anger isn’t draining our energy all the time.

Prior to awakening from our egos but after noticing the rampant insanity of the species, we often want to do something good. It’s hard to know what really helps. Sometimes we get caught up in arguing with other people in the misguided belief that pulling someone around to our viewpoint will help. And yet, this so rarely happens: When people engage in arguments, particularly on incendiary issues, both parties usually just dig their heels into their existing positions. The result? Two delusive egos made more rigid, and zero shared humanity.

Before I began to really investigate my mind, anger was my predominant emotion. Until I was forced to, I didn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) face that this anger was related to many more things than the issue at hand… like, really really old things that had nothing to do with the present situation. I would take on any heated discussion, and became disproportionately incensed about a lot of things. This is partly because there was a mess of deeply negative energy that had been pent up in me for years, and it sought to release itself in any way possible.

This is the main concern with carrying around old, unprocessed pain: It leads us to project a lot of bullshit onto every unrelated person and situation. We can easily sabotage relationships of all kinds in this way.

When I say “deeply negative energy,” I’m talking about something very real.

Another one of the helpful books I’ve read in my healing process Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. The basic premise of this book is as follows: The traumatic events humans endure do not naturally release themselves the way they do in the rest of the animal kingdom. For instance, a gazelle’s life is threatened regularly on the savanna. Yet after every close call with a cheetah, they manage to return to baseline gazelle functioning without becoming hypervigilant and fearful at all times.

In human beings, the culprit of post-traumatic stress is the highly developed frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain that gives us the capacity to reason and think abstractly; we owe our current domination of the world to this structure. Relating to trauma on a personal level, the frontal lobe overrides an instinctual process which discharges traumatic energy in other animals. Until we acknowledge and consciously let go of this energy in the physical body, it remains trapped, subtly pulling the strings in our interactions.

And about this word “trauma:” It’s so heavy, and many people believe it only refers to acts of war or long-term abuse. While these definitely fall under the category, trauma can also be the result of something like surgery, an accident, or emotional neglect. The body certainly perceives surgery as traumatic, and we know by now (or at least I hope we do) that separating body from mind is impossible. I also believe we’re pretty much all subconsciously dealing with trauma because the foundation of our culture is trauma, and our energy is not actually separate.

If you’re coping with latent trauma, I highly recommend the book.

An ego trigger is anything that makes you aware of the fact that you are still clinging to a special, false identity. In this case, I’m mostly talking about anger, which is always felt due to a perceived threat. Truly, the only thing that can be threatened is the ego. Who you really are is invulnerable and immortal. You know these triggers as soon as you feel the need to defend something you did/said, the desire to make someone else wrong, or if you lash out even when nominally challenged. Even enlightened beings have egos—they are just totally conscious of their egos, and these egos are not as fixed as Mario.

On the path, rather than desire the world not to trigger our egos, we understand that having our egos triggered is an opportunity for practice. It lets us know that our delusional self still lurks in the mind, probably driving most of what we do in life. Ego triggers are like a blaring sign that say Keep doing your work. From here we can look at what triggered us and what false self-beliefs are wrapped up in it.

The solution, as always, is to be aware. I can reliably notice that my ego has been triggered when I become physically hot, flushed, and on edge. I start making up all kinds of reasons why it was wrong for someone to do or say whatever they said/did. It’s a dark kind of self-boost that I know makes me less pleasant to be around. I become preoccupied with the (ridiculously small) incident and agonize over it. I believe it is a literal form of temporary insanity to be caught up in this way of thinking and feeling. It creates a blindness to what is really in front of me. Luckily, the more I watch it, the less power it has to get me to continue a fruitless argument or run my mouth.

If someone’s unconsciousness creates an intensely charged trigger within you, it is because you have unconsciousness to dispel within your own being. It’s not “their fault” for “making you” feel mad. In order to be free, we have to look at ourselves instead of placing the blame elsewhere. For as much as we try, we can never change others. The spiritual path is one of great individual responsibility: You hold no one else accountable for your behaviors and feelings, but also learn not to self-blame. It’s a delicate balance, but very rewarding when you finally start to get your house in order.

It is a mistake to try and make the world psychologically comfortable for us. It simply cannot be done. Even if we succeed in doing this once in a while, we miss an opportunity to face our most difficult emotions and tend to them accordingly, thereby becoming more emotionally resilient. Though I would love to live in a vastly more compassionate world, we cannot control what hurtful words people may say. Trying to forcibly control people’s speech results in a sense of suppression and greater anger. I do not want to live in the culture where people use the “right words” yet feel coerced and pissed off inside. To some degree, I already am living in that culture, and it doesn’t seem to be fostering much more peace or dampening our collective anger at all… in fact, it seems to be doing the opposite.

Also, when you’re extremely sensitive (and I am), the entire world becomes an emotional trigger. For me, seeing a 2-year-old stare at an iPad during his lunch can trigger deep anger and sadness. Seeing construction for retail space on the lot I thought would make a nice community garden also triggers anger and sadness. Reading the same tired political arguments on Facebook triggers… you guessed it, anger and sadness.

My ego-identity is furious at seeing humanity in this state, and furious at how rarely people seem to regard their own minds as being just as problematic as anything else. What this highlights is that I still have some delusions to burn down. Fortunately, I do try to be wary of placing the problem elsewhere: These are my emotions to own and navigate; they are part of this life experience and no one else’s responsibility to deal with. They can be a blessing if I use them to fuel my growth and creative endeavors, or a curse if I stew in them, believing they are the fault of someone else.

One thing is for sure: If we wait for the whole world to transform before we can be at peace, we will be imprisoned forever.

– lish

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Consciousness, Culture, Depression, Inner Work, Mania, The Mind

Bipolar Disorder & Consciousness

I have tried to make this post as simple as possible since this topic is very important to me. It’s about bipolar disorder and the (incomplete) way it is viewed in mainstream psychology/psychiatry. It’s about how you can heal from it. It’s about how being diagnosed with bipolar disorder can have advantages, though it can be difficult to overcome without a sincere commitment to yourself.

My advice to anyone reading this who has the diagnosis (and really anyone else) is this: Be a badass, get to work on yourself, and become who you really are. Anything that is stalling your growth has to go. Yes, the cost seems high, but there is no other way, and in the end you will see that you didn’t really “lose” anything at all. I know, I know… “easier said than done.” But I promise, it is worth it a billion times over.

I hope this will be of use to some reader, somewhere, someday, who perhaps has had what we call “a manic episode” and cannot make sense of what really happened to them. That’s how I felt for a long time after I was hospitalized. My experience felt so real, because it was real, and to go along with the story that “I just have this illness because—oh wait, no one really knows for sure” felt unsatisfying and kind of like a lie.

I’ve read a lot about consciousness and bipolar disorder, but the most important thing is that I’ve lived it, just like I’ve lived addiction, awakening, and recovery. That is why I feel qualified to say these things. They come from my experience, and I don’t fully trust any authority who purports to understand that which they’ve never gone through on their own. I know these things firsthand, the same way you know you love your family and that the sky is blue:

  1. Ultimately, what you are is a thing called consciousness. You defy quality. You are limitless, formless, genderless, raceless. You are beyond mental constructs including “good and evil;” you are perfect beyond the concept of “perfection.” Also, you are not separate from anyone or anything else, except as the mind imagines it. In case it isn’t clear: I do mean this all quite literally, and I encourage you to realize these things for yourself. I would much rather you do that than take anyone’s word on it.

  2. In society, the “normal mode” of existence is called ego-consciousness, or the ego-identity, or simply the ego. Identity is just a thought. In this mode we do not feel limitless, genderless, or anything-less. We feel like particular people with stories and quirks and opinions. We have fears and comfort zones and certain people we close ourselves off to. There’s nothing “wrong” or “bad” about the ego—this sense of separation and individuality is what allows us to have our life experiences at all. This mode is useful for getting by in daily life: My ego is a writer who doesn’t use intoxicants, for instance. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a server who will move to an ashram in about a month… and yet I am also this Great Big Thing, not as measured by my “value” to society, but as to how I experience my own self.

    It is very important to know and remember that the ego is but a limited mode of being. It is like an ice cube in the ocean: Small, contracted, rigid, and ultimately subject to melting one day. When you believe this ego is all that you are, problems are created immediately. You worry about protecting this ego and everything that said “protection” entails. Here’s the thing: You can know your full, unlimited self and become truly healed, but doing so will require you to expand beyond the ego. This is an evolutionary process. This kind of growth is not something our society encourages, because the entire world order requires that we all take our egos seriously; that we believe sincerely in the machine we are a part of. Just as we have our individual egos, these little egos combine to create one big cultural ego. If that big ego were to be seen through in this instant, the world would probably look even more chaotic for a while, even though that is exactly what we need to survive as a species on this planet.

    One who transcends the ego (or who is trying to transcend the ego) can look “crazy” to those who have never seen beyond it. This brings me to bipolar mania.

  3. Bipolar mania occurs when we are unaware that we are trying to transcend our egos. This is evolution we’re talking about. It cannot be halted, and when we try to suppress it, it rushes up like a freshly released spring if given half the chance. Bipolar mania is an unplanned, unskillful expansion in consciousness, which explains why “feelings of expansion” is one of the main symptoms. These episodes can occur when our egos are severely threatened, like if too many changes in life occur within a short amount of time. They can also occur when we alter our consciousness through lack of sleep, drug use, or the abrupt stoppage of regular drug use. All of these things can trigger a deeper consciousness to emerge. The ego—not knowing that it is false, and not yet wanting to know this—believes it is dying, and rushes to defend itself. This is why we have delusions of grandeur and other self-beliefs that are out of touch.

    Part of this occurs because the mind is using every trick in the book to maintain that the ego is real, but the other part is simpler: You really are capable of much more than you were ever led to believe. When we are manic, we can catch glimpses of our potential, which might be much bigger than anything our small selves could’ve imagined. It is important to me to say that spiritual awakening/enlightenment does not lead to things like fame and wealth and all of these egocentric things. The highest “goal” is to become who you are, and whatever comes after that won’t matter in the same way at all. However, due to our conditioning about what “potential” means, the mind tends to go there if the ego is dying.

  4. Severe depression represents a contraction in consciousness. You think you’re worthless, small, and terrible. All of these things are functions of a mind that believes more strongly in the “little self” and is very caught up in what “we” have done or whatever we’re not doing that we believe “a good person” does. This contraction often occurs out of our awareness, so of course no one is to blame for any of their moods. Still, beneath all of this, consciousness is trying to emerge. The friction between consciousness and the unconscious ego can create depression in the first place. We resist change and/or looking at life in this new way because to do this represents stepping into unknown territory. The unknown is frightening to the ego, which likes to maintain and preserve its safety (even though its safety is an illusion.).

    Furthermore, our social/world structures—again, built from billions of little egos—are not currently interested in what is best or most joyful for human life. These structures are interested in perpetuating themselves, plain and simple, and in their unconsciousness they spiral onward even as they kill the host. One goal of a spiritual revolution is to create a world that leads to joy within humanity and other living beings, rather than this world where humans serve The Machine. Our structures (if we need them) should work for us, not the other way around. We should be quite clear about this: Even the people “at the top” live in service to this machine. They are not free by virtue of being at the top of the pyramid, and perhaps even less so than one who is “lower.”

  5. A healthy spiritual path should guide one to expand their consciousness little by little, until the entire ego is seen through for its ultimate illusory nature. I am a huge advocate for gradual, sane spiritual awakenings (when possible). Some of the kundalini-and-LSD stuff I’ve heard about really shows me that most people have no idea what it is they are dealing with or what their aim is in spirituality. This is not to say I’m anti-kundalini or even anti-drug, but that very often these things are approached naively, without the support of an experienced teacher, and these experiences can make us a little (or a lot) insane. Those of us who have had what they call “a full-blown manic episode” know that there is nothing fuzzy or cute about expanding in consciousness even though it is necessary, and even though doing so does lead to ultimate Truth.

  6. The solution to overcoming bipolar disorder (and other mental disorders) is to train in the gradual expansion of consciousness. We are on the path whether we want to be or not. The most hardcore atheist is on the spiritual path. Serial killers are on the spiritual path. There is no difference between that which is “spiritual” and that which isn’t. The sooner we accept this and consciously get to work on ourselves, the better.

    Finding your own path may mean things like giving up drugs and alcohol, taking your nutrition more seriously, meditating regularly, praying (whatever that means to you), reading books on consciousness, journaling, changing your friendships or your job, becoming more solitary, finding a doctor who actually supports and listens to you, talking to your family about what you really think is happening, finding a spiritual community, etc. It’s a whole new life, not a hobby, not a “take this but leave that” deal. The main takeaway here is this: We cannot expect to be healthy and well if we continue to live in damaging ways, or if we keep trying to live the way others think we should live. Every time we do this, we resist who we are. We push ourselves away, but this method is ineffective: Consciousness can’t and won’t go away. Unless we commit to a significantly different way of life, the cycles of bipolar disorder are likely to return.

    Another perhaps-difficult pill to swallow is this: There is simply no “halfway” when it comes to finding your true self, though we often like to act like there is. Many times in my life I have begged and wished to “just be normal,” ignorant of what it was I truly wanted. Turns out that God (which is also consciousness) is not interested in social normalcy or upholding our current world order—not in the slightest, and in fact the opposite. Any wish that is not in alignment with your true self will go unfulfilled, and this “just be more normal” wish usually falls into this category. We’re talking total transformation with the possibility of becoming Yourself, not whatever you and others expect that self to be. It is so important that we keep going, even when it feels impossible, even when it feels endless, and even when it seems like it isn’t getting better.

    I promise, even if it doesn’t feel like it, it is improving.

– Lish

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Conditioning, Culture, Spirituality, The Mind

Karma, Awareness, & Cultural Change

Apparently some people use words like “karma” to explain why others live in extreme poverty, or why awful things like human trafficking and widespread exploitation exist. I find this both ignorant and without compassion. It is very simple: We are collectively ill because we are individually ill, and vice versa. The illness I am talking about—as written about briefly in this post—can simply be called “conditioning.” We are conditioned to take on a great number of beliefs, none of which are rooted in our original being.

Discovering your original being and abiding in it is what “enlightenment” and sanity are all about. Doing so neutralizes all karma. I believe it’s Mooji who has a beautiful metaphor of pure consciousness being like a zero: Multiply anything by it and it is always zero. Even 10 billion times zero is zero. All the evil in the world, if it touches this thing, can become still, perfect, and empty. Everything is stopped and made new in an instant.

I never planned on writing about “karma,” for the same reason I didn’t really think I’d be using words like “spirituality:” It’s contaminated. It is not well understood. It is used, like many other concepts, to excuse people of their responsibility to their fellow human and/or to gloss over huge systemic concerns: Why do bad things happen to people? It’s their karma. This is a crazy oversimplification, and I really expect us to know better than this. In our culture, even if it we don’t call it “karma,” plenty of people believe that others have impoverished, difficult lives because they “chose” or “deserve” it. 

Yes, we either consciously or unconsciously create the situations in our lives. But we also collectively create this entire world (also either consciously or unconsciously). We can change the likelihood of certain events for ourselves and others by becoming more aware of this tremendous creative power. The things that happen to us—good or bad—are individually and collectively created, because every event depends on every other event. Everything inter-exists and inter-occurs. That means we are all responsible for the fact that poverty, war, starvation, and exploitation are a part of our world.

Breaking out of cycles of abuse, trauma, and dehumanization requires greater consciousness of these realities, plain and simple. This movement towards consciousness can be as grand as a “big-E Enlightenment experience” or as simple as becoming aware that you are breathing once in a while. Every little bit helps.

Greater consciousness alone can ensure a not-horrible way of being for our species. Every external change is a reflection of this internal movement, and the best way to create change is to approach our world from the inside-out: We start with our own minds first. If we do not do this, we run the risk of simply putting a fresh coat of paint on a house that is actually burning to the ground.

I’m going leave the whole “past lives” thing out of it as well, because this idea treats “lives” as if they are separate and different from one another. Everything is life; it is simply perceived through different bodies and minds across space-time. And we are never really individual threads of consciousness; it only appears and feels that way. Also, fixation with the past is one of the most insidious problems our conditioned minds have.

Along these lines, I find past-life regression—along with hypnosis and “channeling”—to be little more than a distraction from what needs to be done here and now. This is not to say that sometimes hypnosis and/or other forms of mind-work aren’t therapeutic—they surely can be. But if it is Truth we are after, we must know when we’ve done enough work in this realm. We must come out of our trances and be here, awake and in reality. And although meditation may look like a trance, it is not. Its goal is to help us become more conscious of this moment and of ourselves rather dipping into an un- or subconscious state.

We can go very, very deep into the conditioned mind without finding the Truth, and in fact are only more likely to get further away from it by these means. I don’t regard activities like “channeling” with any more seriousness than I do watching football or getting stoned. It might be fun to some people, but it’s delusional to imagine we know more about existence and/or the universe by doing these things regularly.

The way I think of karma is very simple, and not rooted in anything but common sense and experience with breaking out of patterns: We are bodies of energy exchanging energy. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we are constantly putting out energy and absorbing it as well. If we are unconscious of all this, we are likely to trap ourselves in certain unpleasant energetic loops when we do or say things rooted in anger, fear, or self-hatred. We will be forced to face what we’ve put out there (not to mention all the not-great energy that’s already out there) until we become more conscious of what’s happening. The way we “break free” from karma is by abiding in the pure awareness underneath all of this energy, which has no inherent “goodness or badness.” Awareness is that great neutralizer, that big zero.

When it comes to energy (which cannot be fooled or faked), actions alone are not the strongest part of the equation. It has more to do with intent and how separate we imagine we are from those we believe we are helping. Do we feel fundamentally different from the one we are helping? Do we fancy ourselves saviors for “those poor less fortunate folks?”

There is a lot of presumption in this line of thinking: First, it assumes that one’s external circumstances are a predictor of their happiness, and this is simply not true. I have seen some very miserable people and some very happy people in my life, and material comforts tend to play a small part in their attitudes. One’s true happiness does not correspond to wealth or societal status. Secondly, we become totally cut off from our kinship when we separate people into categories like “the needy” and “the helpers.” We create more division this way, and it is not an accurate reflection of our shared humanity.

If we donate some amount of money to the poor with the goal of “shoring up karma” or to brag about our good deed, our donation is obviously rooted in the egoic mindset. There is a different feeling we have when we act from the heart: If we help, it is because it just happens on its own. If we give something, there are no expectations that something will ever be returned. The “transactional nature” of life falls away. There is no more “I gave you this so you owe me that.”

From this state, kind deeds happen because they must happen. That is often how I feel about writing this blog, not knowing who (if anyone) will read it, what it will mean to them, or if I will benefit from doing so. Something wakes me up in the middle of the night and moves me to write something, and so I do that. It is not the same as when we give or create in the hope of some tangible reward.

The essence of of pure* doing versus egoic doing is as follows: One presupposes something better will come for the small “I;” the other bears in mind that the small “I” does not exist. One is full of effort to “do a good thing;” the latter just seems to happen. This is why people who commit “acts of heroism” don’t always feel comfortable with the flattery that follows: When they were being brave, they were just moved from an intuitive, deeply human place. They did what they felt anyone would do.

It is doing in this way that is probably “good for your karma,” but by this time we have already seen through the falseness of “your” karma and “mine.” These are all energy exchanges, neither good nor bad and neither “mine” nor “yours.” And why is this? Because, of course, “you” and “me” are just mental constructs. I have to keep coming back to this point, because we are encouraged to forget this truth all the time.

Still, we can be happier mental constructs and we can occupy a more beautiful and open collective dream, and that is what spirituality leads to when it is practiced honestly.

*The word “pure” has this kind of chaste, moralistic connotation. That isn’t how I mean it. The kind of purity I am talking about is a feeling, a certain unobscured clarity of mind. A synonym for a “pure heart” might just be an unconfused heart: There are no snags to its movements or desires, as well as no need to explain itself.

– Lish

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