The paradigm we operate under, in this modern rational era of ours, is the ‘Ego-Repairing’ one. Any mental health problems we have are always seen (either implicitly or explicitly) as being due to a lack of buoyancy or resilience on the part of the all-important ego. Our ego isn’t confident enough and so this missing confidence – so it seems to us – needs to be reinstated (however we are going to do that). Our ego-strength is insufficient for the daily demands that are being made upon it, we say, and so we need to build it up again. This is all we need to know about the Ego-Repairing Paradigm – it is nothing if not obvious!
This approach doesn’t work, however. We’re nothing if not determined in our attempt to make it work but we’re also remarkably reluctant to look at the fact that we aren’t really getting anywhere with it. We don’t have a lot – if anything – to say about this, and the reason for this is possibly that we simply can’t see any other approach that we could take. We can’t see what else we could be doing and so we really don’t want to admit that we might have gone down a dead end. If it’s the only game in town then we are obliged to keep on playing it, no matter what secret doubts we might have on the subject. The important thing is not to talk about these doubts, and we don’t!
Our problem is that we are taking a very narrow view of things and can’t for the life of us see that we are. This is what the rational ego is – it’s a narrow view of the world that we can’t – from this self-same vantage point – see to be narrow; it is a narrow viewpoint that has on this account become subjectively everything to us, a viewpoint that has subsumed within itself the whole of what is possible. The rational ego isn’t really who we are, in other words – it’s just a narrowing down of attention that we can’t see to be a narrowing down of attention. It is a limited or superficial version of who we are that we can’t see to be superficial or limited. This being so, it clearly doesn’t make any sense to see mental health as being somehow synonymous with having a ‘new and improved ego’. The robustness of the ego isn’t really the thing here. Bolstering up the beleaguered ego isn’t the healthy thing to do – it isn’t healthy because ‘healthy’ means whole and that is exactly what the rational ego isn’t. The ego thinks that it is ‘the Whole of Everything’ (it’s ‘a fraction that thinks itself to be an integer’, as Joseph Campbell says), but it isn’t. It thinks that it is (or should be) the boss, but it isn’t. It’s a fake boss, a usurper, just like the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham was a usurper. Our ego wants to be ‘It’, as Alan Watts says, but it isn’t ‘It’. The self-construct can never be ‘It’! That I am It (or could be It if I try hard enough) is a vain fantasy that I keep on buying into; this is what repairing the ego construct is all about – ‘making the ego great again’, when the plain truth of the matter is that it never was. The over-inflated, over-valent ego is a sickness we cannot see as such – we are busy worshipping a false god here!
The rational ego-identity is essentially nothing more than a boundary or dividing line, when it comes down to it. Thought fragments, as David Bohm says, and the ego-identity is the fruit of that fragmentation. The rational identity is constructed on the basis of the boundary between self and other and – whilst we might not disagree with this (how could we?) – what we don’t tend to think about, or talk about, is that where we draw this dividing line (or how seriously) we take it is entirely up to us. That depends upon how free we feel, how relaxed we feel. On a ‘good day’ we don’t bother hiding behind our ego boundaries so much at all; on a good day we can even ‘forget ourselves’ for a while. We can get ‘out of our heads‘. The times when we are happy and at ease are not the days when we are busy affirming our thought-created identity! What we don’t want to look at – in other words – is the way in which the concrete identity or ego is our own construct.
How sharply we perceive the boundary between self and other depends upon the state of mind that we’re in, it depends entirely upon our ‘inner state’. It depends upon how ‘up tight’ we are – when we feel that we are threatened then we retreat back into our shelter (so to speak) like a snail going back into its shell or a sea anemone snapping back into its thick protective trunk or capsule, and when that threat has passed then we slowly and tentatively come back out again and extend ourselves into the world. So the sea anemone’s trunk isn’t ‘who we are’ – who we are is the gracious flower-like creature that we see when there isn’t a threat. When we’re in the grip of fear then we retreat into the Domain of Thought – we retreat into the Domain of Thought and straightaway become sharply defined and thereby isolated – the pain or distress that we’re feeling isn’t due to the fear (contrary to what we might believe) it is due to us narrowing ourselves, it’s due to the sharpness of the divide between the self and the rest of the world, and the acute sense of separateness that this has created. We’re too ‘boundaried’, in other words. We might think that being boundaried is a great thing, but it turns out that it isn’t at all. How can being fragmented (or being isolated from our environment) be a good thing after all? We obtain the rewarding feeling of ‘increased psychological security’, but this safe place – as every psychotherapist knows – turns out to be our prison.
We exist somewhere between the two extremes of ‘being total trapped’ and ‘being totally free’, it might be said. In the first case, we experienced a profound suffering that comes when all we know is ‘the self in its isolation’, and in the second case there is the incomprehensible relief that comes when there is no more dividing line. Where we exist on this range of possibilities is dependent upon how tightly we are clinging to our boundaries (or contrariwise, upon how willing we are to let go of them). The former is a ‘positive’ act in that it has to be carried out deliberately whilst the latter is a ‘negative’ one since it involves surrender rather than aggressive self-assertion. It is incongruous therefore that our default position (the position that we as a culture insist on) should be that our mental health comes out of the healthiness or robustness of our mind-created boundaries, the mind-created boundaries that separate us from what is actually real.
This isn’t to say that the answer to our difficulties is simply to erase the boundary between self and other (in the spirit, it might seem, of the Buddhist slogan ‘no self no problem’) – the process by which we go beyond our notions of who we think we are (or the process by which we extend ourselves, as Scott-Peck says) is a very slow one and it proceeds in an organic way. This type of change cannot be achieved ‘convulsively’, as Jung puts it, as a result of us willing it to happen. That is merely the characteristic hubris of the ego-construct. The natural order of things has to be respected and that natural order is in no hurry to get to some crappy mind-created goal! The Dao cannot be rushed, but the point is not to ‘rush’ it but to trust it and stop trying to impose our own ideas on it quite so unreflectively. To keep on trying to repair the ego past the point where this endeavour becomes pragmatically untenable is only making more trouble for ourselves. We are creating ‘New Improved Suffering’, so to speak. We are in fact guilty of ‘socially engineering narcissism’ under the guise of promoting mental health!
If on the other hand we were to reverse our tactics and try to get rid of the egoic identity then this also backfires on us – who is it that wants to get rid of the ego identity other than that same ego identity, after all? Who wants to get rid of the self apart from the self? Where does our intention to change our thinking come from apart from this very thinking itself? Despite appearances to the contrary, there’s nothing that needs to be repaired – when we get to the point where we feel that we need to repair the ego (or shore up the boundaries of the self) this means that we have in fact outgrown it and so the helpful thing to do here is to see this and assent – to whatever extent we are naturally able to – the process that it is – of its own accord – unfolding. This is ‘trusting the natural process’, and nothing comes harder for us than this! The ‘Non-Repairing’ (or ‘Non-Fixing’) Paradigm is a subtle approach in a world where subtlety is not part of our repertoire. The ‘Non-interfering Paradigm’ is a subtle approach in a world where the only thing we seem to understand is having a great big hammer, and not being shy to use it…