Ego, Imagination, Condition, and Light

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Friends use the word Light a lot.  They use it as a metaphor to point towards an experience.  But Friends use this basic expression so casually that I fear it has become conventional and trivial. We don’t much think about what the Light (as experience) means or where it comes from or why we need it. Nor are we aware of how we got into the dark in the first place. Like many metaphors, Light is better understood when it is placed in a context. My experience is that ego, imagination, and condition are factors that provide a helpful context for considering the Light.

Photo by Rob Pierson. Tall buildings.Ego is that part of a person that defines itself as a personality, separates itself from the outside world, and considers itself (read: you) a separate entity. As basic as that might sound, it is important to note that an ego is not something a human being is born with. It is an artifact, a made thing. We know from many observations that an infant does not sense itself as anything separate from its mother. It is only when the infant is given a name and taught that the name applies to the actions, moods, and words coming from a particular separate location that the infant begins the task of building an ego. We don’t have an ego when we are born, but we are born with the capacity to build one.

To start this building, we have to begin imaging who we are. Until the ego is established, a child only uses the skills of sensing and thinking about objects to manipulate those objects to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Eventually, we make a shift in our thinking that turns us into an object of our own thinking. This usually begins in earnest at around age seven, well before we are able to think critically. We begin building an image of our self by imagining who we might be. Mostly, this process results from our incorporation of the interpretations made by the authority figures around us – our parents, older siblings, teachers, etc. Our sense of ourselves is a cultural artifact. We may reject a few of the interpretations that come our way, but that rejection is also an addition. What you deny is also a belief. By slow accretion, we build an image and then identify that image as the self that we are. No one escapes this. Like it or not, we are “culture-bearing animals” and thus, each of us is an ego-bearing animal.

Photo by Raph Levien (2013). Tall trees.So, our early image of our self is the neonate ego. Over time, other people add to that image and we keep adding, too. The image grows stronger, and we shape our actions to reinforce it. Maybe we are “ a tough guy” or “so sweet” or “a good boy” or “a bad girl.” Whatever the image, we tend to build on it. At the same time, sometimes we discover that our imaginings don’t fit together well, or they become boring or annoying. We then work to make our image of our self more coherent and comfortable. We begin to defend some of our early images against notions being advocated by those around us. This defensive activity hardens the image we have built and makes it more personal. We become less and less able to take in new information that might change our image of our self. We might remain slightly open to new ideas, but only if they come from people we trust to care genuinely for us, people who will listen to what we have to say. When we doubt that affection, we defend ourselves. The wads of presumptions we use to define ourselves as individuals become hard wired. And we cease to think about them.

By the time we are adults, we have “a condition.” We are conditioned to think of ourselves and of the world through notions that have become habitual. We are conditioned to employ mental habits to get us through our lives. This is not all bad. Some notions work fairly well in getting us from day to day. Nevertheless, because they are habits, they are almost totally unconscious. The beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge that premises and presumptions determine our understandings of reality, and that they are working continuously without our being aware of them.

We can think of our adopted ego processes as tools for translating our experiences of reality into workable information. These tools shape and filter our experiences according to the settings we have adopted. Our awareness of these tools is very limited. The more comfortable we are in our presumptions, the less we notice them. For example, one tool might alert us to a possible threat “out there,” so we take actions to avoid danger and gain comfort. In such an instance, we are only consciously aware of the threat, the unease, the action, and the relief. We think not at all of the ego tool that defined the threat. Unless the action we took brought us pain instead of relief, we don’t question whether the tool is working. Each person’s ego can be seen as a unique cluster of tools that link premises, presumptions, goals, and actions.

We might remain in a condition of habitual thinking our whole lives. Or, along the way, we may come to feel we are missing something, and in fact, we are. A life of conditioned, habitual thinking truncates our awareness of being in relationship with the totality of existence. A conditioned world of fixed interpretations can turn out to be confining and boring, and it can limit our power to change. We can feel unsatisfied – and we are unsatisfied – but we are stuck with the tools we have made. Though we may never say it out loud, we might complain, “I thought there was more to life than this.” Our condition is causing us to miss a large part of reality without knowing consciously why we are missing it.

The key problem of our condition is that we don’t know how to start to make a change. The ego tools that guide our behavior stay unexamined. Our ego views reality in two parts: one is “me” and the other is a part of “not me.”  Ego only allows a part of “not me” into my awareness; any parts of reality that don’t fit into my system of understanding don’t get in. It’s as if those parts of “not me” don’t exist at all.

This brings us to George Fox. This remarkable young man knew at an early age that his understanding of Divine Reality wasn’t working. He tried for years to develop a satisfactory understanding, through diligent study and by seeking answers from as many people with a reputation for learning as he could meet. These men gave Fox the verbal formulas that they themselves had been taught, but Fox wasn’t satisfied with this second-hand knowledge. After months and months of lonely wandering, something happened. He perceived a voice telling him that there was a person, Jesus, who could teach him directly, who could address and clarify his condition.

This experience emerged from within Fox, but he felt that it did not derive from the self he had previously identified as himself.  He was experiencing a new authority, which was connecting him to Reality. And he realized that the obstacle that had been blocking him from this experience was himself. Referring to this experience years later in his journal, he said, “I did discern my own thoughts, groans and sighs, and what it was that did veil me … and could not give up self to die by the Cross, the Power of God.” Because the tools of the ego are the only tools we know, surrendering the authority of the ego is scary and it can feel like dying. George Fox discovered a new power to see Reality and be a part of it rather than separate from it. He was confident of this connection and realized that it could be available to everyone if they would only sit quietly in silence and let go of the ego’s grasping. This experience within was so bright that he called it an Inward Light.

To be able to change, we have to be able to bring in new Light – new information, new thoughts, and new knowledge, which haven’t managed to get past our filters before. Such knowledge can only come through an opening experience – setting the ego aside, putting a pause on its work. This feels risky because it is risky. There is no change without the risk of having to surrender cherished notions, especially notions about ourselves. And when we let go of a tool we have learned to use, we must step into the uncomfortable presence of doubt. We don’t know if there will ever be anything to rely on. Many lack the courage to take a step into this new realm. The first step is to surrender control and let the mind fall into silence. Here, judgment is suspended and doing is undone. New Light comes to us only in the space where ego used to be.

In taking this step, this risk, we see glimmers of a new paradigm. Until now, we have been learning, gathering tools, and building up our mode of unconscious operations, our self. Our tools have been working for us without our awareness. Now we begin to do something of a different logical order and a different level of learning.  This might best be described as learning about learning.  At this level, we start to look with a critical eye at what we have learned and depended on so far.

This new paradigm requires us to stop projecting the causes of our behavior “out there.” Instead of saying, “That food was just too irresistible,” we start to ask, “Why do I see myself as unable to resist eating some things?”  We begin to ask, “Why did I do what I did in that situation?  What was guiding my choice?  Why did I experience the actions of that person as threatening?  Why was I attracted to that person? What presumption is hiding behind my choices?”

Warning!!!  Trying to answer these questions directly never works. We too easily fall back into projecting causes onto the world outside of us. Projection is one of the favorite defenses of the ego. But blaming the world for our troubles just keeps us in the prison of self that we have built. The answers aren’t “out there,” they are within. The answers will only appear when we allow them to emerge without our doing. The Light comes when the authority of the ego is set aside.

In experiencing the Light, you find you are still there, and you do not feel alone. There is nothing to defend, you belong, and you are perfectly safe, no matter what may come. If some of your environment comes into view –

things or beings – you will see them in a new Light, and that Light will bring you a feeling of compassion. This Light can change you, but you have to let it. This is not easy. Repeated practice is necessary. It helps to find others who are on a path away from the ego-run life, to talk with them and work with them. Your ego will come back and try to assert its views. But if you practice sitting in silence and letting go of the presumptive mind, you will learn to recognize the wiles of ego when they appear, and they will lose their power. A new power will arise, one that sees Divine Reality (including yourself) with awe and compassion. This will give you your chance to be – and to have your life. ~~~

Robert Griswold has been a convinced Friend since 1947. His particular interest is a deeper understanding of Quaker theology. He is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado (IMYM).

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