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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Awakening, Consciousness, Culture, Reality, Spirituality, The Ego, Truth

Truth Takes No Sides

Writing about truth can feel repetitive. We chase our tails in a great circle trying to tidy truth into a package, yet find ourselves met with an impossible task: The closing of one circle immediately generates another circle within and/or outside, and this occurs until words like “inside” and “outside” lose all meaning. Here we must again bow our heads to the Unspeakable. We can revel in it, allow it to pulse through and brighten our cells, but we cannot replicate it without at first compromising it. Every definitive statement on God births a new God to explain; any smart 8-year-old knows this when they ask who God’s mother is. The logical mind finds its edges very quickly in this way.

Truly we neither contract or expand, though we may use such words for practical reasons. We are always going as much as inward as we are going outward; a Mandelbrot set illustrates this principle in a beautiful way. Mathematical models fail where computers hit their limitations, but nature knows not these limits, or any limits whatsoever. We are living in (and as) an endless fractal and bear witness to divine math every day. The structures of our blood vessels mirror naked tree branches which mirror systems of rivers. The trees have eyes; the eyes are held in place with spidery veins and sinews. In winter we see that our breath makes fog and fog is when clouds kiss the Earth. All that is natural has the mark of repetition, but no two things are exactly alike: In external expression, God is never the same twice.

It is clear that the physicist or mathematician loves God as much as any nun. They only happen to find their satisfaction with the Universe in numbers rather than in heart, song, or tradition. Neither is “better” or “closer” to what is true, and I find that numbers can be as elegant as music or art. Still, there is no way to judge by title who is most soulful: A preacher who finds himself becoming rote in his sermons is less in God than a passionate gas station attendant. An artist who creates for social praise is less in God than a child playing alone in her bedroom. The soul has no interest in the realm of labels and rankings; it strikes us equally no matter what others are watching, and bestows wealth in spades to those who appear poor and unknown.

This is not a hard rule either: One can be destitute in all ways (spirit and finance), rich in all ways, or rich in one yet poor in the other. There are more permutations for consciousness than we are able to dream up. We can say confidently, however, that a gold soul trumps all, and chasing money beyond one’s needs is both a symptom and cause of spiritual poverty. When we seek to “use” spiritual laws to enrich who we dream ourselves up to be, we are headed for disaster. It seems there is a growing trend to believe we can be made happy by using visualization and meditation to become materially well-off. Much of this discussion is couched in spiritual jargon, but its root is still the unconscious ego, which seeks to maintain that it is real at all costs. The problem, of course, is that it isn’t ultimately real, and until this fact is made experientially permanent, we live as hungry ghosts.

If it is the assumed identity we are appeasing and not the soul, our prize will forever be dissatisfaction.

Is the human body one organism, or is it an aggregate of trillions of cells working in unison? Is this body-mind its own cell within the greater organism of the human species, or does it stand alone and apart? Common sense points us to answer “both,” and as usual, this simple response is correct. Living life fully comes down to this common sense, of sharpening the mundane yet irreplaceable capacity to hold two different—even seemingly opposite—views within one encompassing awareness. We see all “sides” and we see, too, uncompromising Reality, which has no sides and takes no sides and laughs at the very idea of “sides.” One who dwells in truth knows this well and can be full of contradictions.

And when we catch ourselves mired in questions of “or” when it comes to God, we know we are overthinking: Is God within, or is God outside of us? Is God in Heaven, or is God on Earth? Is God accessible here, or at a temple? Again, we know the answer is “both,” but it is not often that we live from this answer. In awakening, we see that the answer is always both and are magnetized to a way of being that integrates us into a life of said “bothness:” Can I be both serious and playful? Can I be both intense and soft? Can I be both lazy and prolific? Can I see the sickness in the world and belong to it with love? The answer to all of these is yes; you can be all these things and more at once. One who is dynamic represents the fluid ideal of humankind. The only “both” we cannot have is ego—the sincere belief in the individual “me” with its petty wants—and enlightenment.

When I first started listening to spiritual teachers and reading spiritual books, I got confused because I was still trying to use logic: If this thing isn’t a sensation, a concept, or a feeling, and I am not a writer, a woman, or a person… what the hell is it and who the hell am I? That really is the question. It’s like you immaturely fall back to Philosophy 101: Who am I? What is the point of all this? Is there a meaning? What is it? Why? Most adults have learned to find sufficient mental answers and continue on as normal. But when the ego begins to die, none of these answers work; herein lies the crux of an existential crisis. You find that even in a previous “exploratory” phase of life, you did not uncover any real answers. Truth is the seed of philosophy but it is not a philosophy, and seeing it requires a complete renunciation of all former philosophies.

So, who are you? The intellectual answer is easy, but that’s not what it’s about. If knowing the “right” intellectual answer solved it, we would already be living in a Heaven on Earth.

Those who listen to spiritual teachers often look for the “category” in which to put them so that they can affirm their existing mode of thought: Does the guru agree with my politics? Is the wise person of the same views as I am? But those who know truth will not line up with your cherished opinions. They will often refuse to bolster the beliefs you align yourself with because beliefs are illusory things the ego affixes itself to in order to feel more real.

They do not take seriously the ways we cut ourselves off from one another: You may call yourself a Republican or a Democrat or an anarchist or a capitalist or any other “kind of person.” But one who is true sees you primarily as human and knows the vast potential locked inside of you, beneath all -isms and -ists. To them you are a God-in-process; they are constantly on the lookout for your innermost light, which shines through even the deepest ignorance. If we aspire to be more conscious people, we must accept that our responsibility is to do exactly this. When we engage with those who seem ignorant, egotistical, or even harmful, we are at our most powerful when we attend only to their glimmers of light. It is not my assertion that this is easy—it humbles and challenges our own egos, which is also why it is a great practice. Truth cannot be argued to and consciousness can never be forced. At best, it can be drawn out when we see it emerging. Our goal in interactions is to find these kernels of true self, which is always pure and perfect, and focus on them. If this feels impossible, it is best to leave.

Even if one’s light is buried under too many layers of delusion to make an immediate change, this strategy still works. Bringing awareness into daily life is like adding a few drops of clean water to a polluted lake: Little by little, even if it is not noticeable, this clean water dilutes the pollution until the water is purified. We seek to be pure awareness in the poisoned collective mind, knowing that this is the best we can do to affect change in the world. There is an unbelievable amount of poison out there. This makes it that much more urgent to stabilize in purity and take it wherever you go, whenever it is possible.

– lish

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