Like many of us, I find myself with intermittent moments of clarity, serenity and phenomenal awareness – what some would call God consciousness, what the Buddhists call mindfulness. There are also many other moments when I find myself wrapped up in endless internal chatter in my head and suddenly realize I am entranced with my own thinking. My unobserved mind or ego has been running amuck and I wasn’t even aware of it!
William Shakespeare described this thinking quite well in Macbeth when he wrote “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
A scene from Macbeth
Why do I pay attention to this monkey chatter my egoic mind continues to try to get past me? Why do I fall for the babbling of the “idiot,” “signifying nothing” except for distracting me from being awake and fully aware?
Sometimes I get upset with myself for falling for the ego’s scam, beating myself up for succumbing to my egoic mind, failing to observe the entrancement it has smuggled into my consciousness. Whether delusion, fantasy, escapism or exaggeration, it is all inflating or deflating my ego. The other extreme I go to sometimes is making a case for my mind being so powerful, like it has overwhelming power over me. This victimization leads to taking no responsibility for my ego whatsoever!
Between these two extremes is a place I find with prayer and meditation. It is a place where I go to ask for help in staying awake, being more conscious and being less susceptible to going asleep or numbing out. I cannot do this alone. I need guidance and support for maintaining this consciousness.
While my wished-for ideal is to be free of any control from my ego and be enlightened every minute of every day, observing my mind through all my waking hours, this is an aspiration of perfection which quite possibly is another product of ….you guessed it, MY EGO!
My ego thrives when I don’t pay attention to my thoughts, when I am not observing my mind, when I fall asleep. Egoic thoughts are almost always the harbinger of some thoughtless obsession, like overeating, overdrinking, over TV watching, over anything that takes me out of the present moment. Succumbing to ego numbs me out of my emotions so I don’t feel what’s there to feel and thus eliminate a vital feedback system for human aliveness.
My egoic mind is a tyrant. More accurately it wants to think of itself as being in control. In reality, it only possesses the power I choose to give it. That realization was sobering the first time I got it. But no one is responsible for my ego except me. My tyrant is a trickster, a darker part of me that can be a liar, cheat and bullshitter.
My tyrant is a petty “Little Caesar” – mostly a wannabe, not really powerful but blowing its own horn to project that image. If I allow it, it will run my life like a head coach.
I do not possess any degree of mastery over this tyrant. However, there are a couple of things which seem to have increased my moments of awareness, free of the all-too-familiar chatter.
One is to stop taking my thoughts so damn seriously. I have learned to watch my thoughts roll by like the billboards in New York’s Times Square. They are thoughts, like TV commercials. They are not me! They are the product of my mind. Some of them may be valuable observations and some may be completely worthless, or even harmful. The state of my consciousness allows me to discern which it is.
I have learned to distinguish between generative thought and obsessive thinking. One is creative and constructive, like when I’m at the podium giving a talk focused completely on the audience. Another is when I am deeply focused on my writing. Time stands still and I feel like a channel for energy running through me. This kind of creative thinking also occurs when I am problem solving, creating something new, or being in dialogue with others. My egoic thinking, in contrast, is about drawing attention to myself. It chews and chews on something usually quite irrelevant, like judging others, or complaining about something quite petty. It manufactures opinions, beliefs and attitudes that might appear to provide controls for how life works or, rather, how my egoic mind thinks life is supposed to work. A test for me: does this thought I’m having create value, bring me closer to others or bring me closer to truth? Or is it self-referential, distancing me from others or trying to use the truth to be more manipulative? The former is generative; the latter obsessive.
I sometimes use any unscheduled moments during the day to check in and observe my mind. This could be an unexpected time, on “hold” during a phone call, waiting for an elevator, standing in line at the market….there are so many opportunities each day to reflect, retreat into myself and check in.
Structuring quiet time into my day ahead of time is another issue. Right now, this is more talk than walk for me. I am so spiritually invigorated when I take time to be quiet yet I still find myself taking few opportunities to do so on a daily basis. This walk-talk gap is a puzzlement for me. When I take the time to be with myself with quiet mind I am always nourished spiritually, feel rested and refreshed, and find my mind has quieted down. Yet I notice that I get “caught up” in the activities of the day, the hustle and bustle of life. Part of it is the cultural influence in these days of multi-tasking and widespread busy-ness. But, I remind myself, I can be aware of the influence of these systems over me and choose not to conform. This counters my egoic mind’s pitiful excuses and feeble attempts to get off the hook.
When you are reading a book, do you ever catch yourself on a page and wonder what you’ve read in the past few moments? Do you go back until you recall what you were reading then wonder where you were during the pages in between? Some people have this experience riding a bus, wondering where their attention had gone as the bus passed several familiar landmarks which they cannot recall. This is how it can be for me, where I came out of my entrancement and re-entered present time surprised by my momentary holiday. If I’m going to be away like this I might as well go “away” consciously through prayer and meditation, filling myself with light and spaciousness, breathing vitality and positive energy into my body. The puzzlement for me is that meditation is enjoyable and rewarding, yet I displace regularly meditating for often less meaningful tasks and chores.
I know I haven’t mastered enlightenment. Perhaps I never will. All I know to do is catch myself when I leave, choose to wake back up, and re-engage life again, fully awake.
I know there are many people in the world who are too concerned with their survival to worry about this ego stuff, like most of the six billion of us. There are also large numbers of people, primarily in the West, who have the luxury of exploring themselves but choose not to. Then there are a few of us who have the luxury of time to reflect and know the value of regular introspection and self examination. Of this last group, many of us have reached varying levels of awareness, mindfulness, consciousness so the tyrannical ego has been taken out of the game. In varying degrees, it has been replaced as head coach of our lives. But it never leaves the stadium.
If I ever allow myself to think I have mastered my egoic mind or exiled my ego forever, this thought alone, if I listen to it, could re-invite my “Little Caesar” back into the head coach’s seat at lightning speed. The coach I want to oversee my life is my Higher Power, that source of Divine guidance and love to whom I pray.