Change and Ego Death

Posted on 08 December 2015

One of the most potent and unused metaphors for our time comes from the understanding that light is both a particle and a wave. Now more than ever, we need to recognise and respect everyone’s individuality. Now more than ever, we need to learn how to recognise our commonality and join forces to create change. Each of us is a particle and a wave.

Our current culture has been perverting both our “particleness” and our “waveness”.

Cog and Machine

We are taught that it is important to be a “self-made man” that we are to respect those who are “islands”: separate and apparently self-sufficient. We are divided in order to keep us frightened of one another, because it’s easier to sell products and destructive political policies when people are fearful. We are taught to compete, because the few who are in power know they will always win and know they can manipulate you in this manner. None of this is the same as cherishing uniqueness or supporting diversity.

Even with the worship of individualism our culture nurtures fear of stepping too far outside the mainstream. To be anything but “normal”, based on the power elite’s definitions, is to invite ridicule, harrassment, ostracisation, and physical danger. Sure, people will cheer for a crazy rock star doing his thing, but he is usually white enough, male enough, and rich enough that it is his privilege to act outside the norms that his elite has set.

These ways of interacting only recognise people as being both the cog and the machine, as we are all ground into metal dust.

So how do we reclaim being light?

The Problem

We are living in a time when many people are writhing in the agonies of both wanting change and fighting against it. The US is in the midst of a guerilla civil war without central leaders or overt ideologies. The Occupy movement, which was peaceful, was criticised for lack of leaders and ideologies and was smothered. The US largely decided it felt more comfortable with mass shootings.

When people readily commit suicide to defend a toxic lifestyle and outlook, clearly they are more frightened of ego death than of physical death.

At some point in most people’s lives they become invested in things being as they are, and their being a particular way that seems to help them successfully navigate this type of life. If you were a pygmy shark, you would be quite happy preying on herring in a little world where only the two species exist. If you were then dropped into an aquarium with great white sharks, you would be scared but you would also understand the general structure of life. If you were dropped into an aquarium with nothing but manatees and seaweed, not only would you have nothing to eat, you couldn’t intimidate the gentler creatures nor would you be likely to understand their way of life. Both scenarios could mean death to the pygmy shark, but the second represents something so alien as to go beyond familiar fears, which can be accepted, and into something more terrifying. That’s how the leap to a non-competitive pluralistic world looks to some people.

Our particleness is fragile. On an everyday basis we think we know where others end and we begin, but do we really? We are born into circumstances and think, this is who I am. We take on our family’s culture and go, this is who I am. We choose clothes, music, a job, and think, this is who I am. We take on philosophies, attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies, and think this is who I am. Much of what we have taken on comes to us from our parents, and how often do we stop to think where do my parents end and I begin. We have our friends and alliances with whom we agree to share outlooks and experiences, how often do we stop to think where do my friends end and I begin. We then have children and pass onto them everything we think is important without wondering where do I end and they begin?

The thing about relying on all these networks in order to create your sense of identity is that you have little core self to rely upon when any of these are pared away from your life. You become no one, because you have never been yourself. I’m not saying these networks can’t be useful, even important to our well-being, but if you get too attached to them and don’t do the groundwork in understanding yourself, growing in any way feels terrifyingly dangerous. Worse, our networks extend beyond ourselves. Dismantling parts of our networks feels like we are cutting off some sense of immortality. This is how our “waveness” is threatened.

Accepting Ego Death

Right now the Earth needs big change to survive, not stick a Winnie the Pooh bandage on it change. Big change requires being able to let go and drift into the unknown. It means being willing to let go of control. It means accepting unfamiliar feelings and situations without any expectations. It means ego death.

The TV show Dr Who represents ego death well through the “regenerations” of The Doctor. When the title character dies, he doesn’t really die. He goes through a process which results in a new Doctor who looks different, has a different personality, but usually retains his values and his memories. At the end of The Doctor’s ninth regeneration he tells his companion: “Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.”

I was raised in an arch-conservative family. I went through many changes of mind to become a far-left pacifist progressive. Each time I changed my mind I had to be willing to feel like a fool, willing sometimes to even apologise and atone for actions I felt I was mistaken in having taken. It took some time for the uncomfortable feelings to go away and to forgive myself for who I had been, but I did it. What made these “deaths” possible is that I am dedicated to being consistent with certain values, the main one being universal love–something I was taught in Sunday school. Now whether or not I feel entirely comfortable with everything Christianity has come to represent, I am deeply grateful for that lifelong compass. And through all of this I always found new communities with which to connect and re-establish my waveness.

We all have to learn how to listen to ourselves and to listen to others. We all have to learn the humility to accept critique and the kindness to give critique in as compassionate a way as possible. Some will have you believe that it’s compassionate to say nothing at all and just live with destructive behaviour. Real compassion takes courage and patience. Accepting the destructive is hardly compassionate to anyone. We need to understand that ego death can mean we regenerate into something kinder, wiser, and ultimately happier.

I think we should all take classes in values, self-examination, emotional management, growth-support, cooperation, and daily humility. These are core to change. You can’t force people to do the right thing. How well did Prohibition work? But we can make available the skills and knowledge that may lead people to the most life-affirming direction.

In peace, kindness, and friendship,


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