Tag Archives: ego boundaries

My “Skewed View of the World” and Marriage

Marriage has been so important to me, a gift from the heavens designed to penetrate my isolation and introduce me to reality.  When we married 27 years ago, I quickly realized just how skewed her view of the world was and at times wondered, “Now what in the hell have I gotten myself into?”  But almost immediately the first of many life lessons was on the table for me, “Lewis, look how skewed your view of the world is.”  That was disconcerting for I had been comfortably ensconced in my uncomfortable life of isolation and suddenly it dawned on me that my very view of the world was skewed, including my view of myself and of my wife.  This process of disillusionment is now a 27-year journey into the world of “reality” which my life experience had taught me to avoid, a “reality” made up of billions of people all with their own “skewed” view of the world.

Another way of approaching this phenomenon is as the discovery of “difference”, that the difference I had always known, superficially having achieved “object separateness” (more or less), extended much further than I had thought.  For “difference” included the realization that someone who I dearly loved and was devoted to, and thought I knew, was always beyond the pale of that ego-ridden cognitive apparatus through which I viewed the world, my ego.  Conrad Aiken described it this way, “We see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.”  Aiken realized that to engage meaningfully in any relationship is to venture into darkness, to recognize that one is approaching a “darkness” and that the approaching one is in turn a “darkness” in reference to the other.    Marriage, and any close relationship, might be described as two “darknesses” bumping into each other and beginning the process of venturing into another world, penetrating the barriers that each had set up to protect his/her splendid isolation.

“Difference” is a difficult phenomenon to comprehend.  For, if we begin to realize just how “different” another person is, it will entail the understanding and experiencing of just how profoundly alone we are in this overwhelming and incomprehensible void that we live in.  It will be venturing into and exploring the existential solitude that each of us is plagued with, a solitude which the owning and experiencing of can provide the only meaningful human connection.

So, how does “a hand reach across the abyss” and make contact?  Well, it requires body and soul, but the body is often the easy part as it provides physical intimacy and the various contrivances of culture–gender rules, sexual mores and sexual politics.  And these physical “contrivances,” though essential, can be an obstacle to true connection. For the soul part of the equation is more challenging as it will include language; for it is with words that we can reach across that abyss and learn that, “Hey, there is somebody out there.”  This involves “wrestling with words and meanings”  (T. S. Eliot) including…to put this in personal terms…who exactly is “Lewis” and who exactly is “Claire.” This entails understanding that to some degree I have no idea, for “I am not who I ‘think’ I am” and she is not who she “thinks” she is.  For, personal identity is not a rigidly defined quality; it is quite amorphous, and can never be captured with a mesh of words and conceptual formulations.  The individual, and the other person is always a mystery if there is to be a dynamic quality to the relationship.  Auden had this in mind when he posed the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives, but certain patterns in our lives…?”

Marriage by Wendell Berry

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them

in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

A friend has proof read this posting prior to publishing and I’m going to include a poem that he shared with me in response to the Berry poem.

A love poem by Bertrand Russell to Edith Finch Russell (his fourth and last wife: )

To Edith

Through the long years
I sought peace,
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.
Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace,
I know rest,

   
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep,
I shall sleep fulfilled.

 

 

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“The World is My Oyster” (Not)

I hardly know where to start.  This Donald Trump demon that has been unleashed on the American psyche has tripped all of my triggers too and “literarylew” has “more offenses at my beck than thoughts to put them in.”  So I’m reaching into my stuffed “beck” and pulling out, “The world is not my oyster.”

To Trump, the world is his oyster.  He is a two-year old boy who never had limits set when he went through the developmental stage of the “terrible two’s” and so remains a two year old boy, “breathing out threatenings and slaughterings” anytime he is faced with a limit.  All of us go through this developmental stage, very much related to what we clinicians describe as the Oedipal transition. Though this is a challenging moment in our young lives, most of us learn to control our rage and acclimate to the external world, accepting deferred gratification over immediate gratification.  Without this willingness, we fail to fully enter the human race.

I know it was challenging for myself and even remember a dream in my early thirties when I was beginning to address my early childhood repression.  In this dream I was a furious little tyke, red-faced, shaking my fist in defiance when denied what I wanted.  It took a girl friend at the time to point out, with a laugh, what that dream was about.  She knew me very well!  And I can tell you very clearly now, in my mid-sixties, I feel the frustration of dealing with the experience of the world not being my oyster.  I often declare, “I want it all” and add, “Why should I have to accept limits” as I deal with the frustrations of aging, especially the realization that the river Styx is fast approaching.  But mercifully, back in my terrible two’s, the gods (i.e. “God”) recognized he did not need to unleash a redneck Arkansas Trump on the world and tied me down with a fundamentalist Christian load of guilt and shame.  And, central Arkansas, you better be grateful to Him!

But Trump has used wealth to create a world for himself in which he could get by with the assumption that the world is his oyster.  And, now given to the severe pathology of the American psyche, the Republican Party finds itself willing to cater to his narcissism to the point that he is their nominee for the Presidency.  Furthermore, and gravely troubling to me, evangelical Christians are lining up behind him in over whelming numbers displaying a profound lack of critical thinking skills.

Accepting the fact that the world is not our oyster is merely accepting limits.  Watching Trump allows us to see an impulse that we all have, if we could only come unleashed for a few minutes.  I think Trump’s fanatical following by the Republican extremists represents their unconscious desire to become unleashed, to give vent to their darkest, most violent impulses which are a very “human” response to the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  But this is a dimension of the “human” experience that must be kept in check and certainly does not need to be encouraged by demogogues.

The Ego and “Distinction Drawing”

Fr. Richard Rohr today offered observations about the ego which are relevant to my present focus on the “distinction drawing” that is an essential part of our identity.  He pointed out how the ego is concerned only about itself which is just a basic dimension of being human and only becomes toxic when it metastasizes and begins to project its shadow outside onto “them” and in extreme attempts to obliterate “them.”  The best example is Isis but the same phenomena is found with any extremist group.

Ordinary ego functioning is, yes, “egotistic” but it is usually benign and helps provide group/tribal coherence.  It provides an identity which always sets one apart from “them.”  I shared recently about my upbringing in a conservative Landmark Baptist Church and it does provide an example of an inordinate need to “draw distinctions” and thus overly emphasized the biblical admonishment, “Come out ye from among them and be ye separate” and “Be ye a peculiar people.”  I often facetiously note to friends that my little church clearly succeeded in this endeavor and, with chagrin, admit I won the prize for “peculiar”!  But let me assure you that in my little central Arkansas community these people were not toxic, were very good people, and did a great job in providing me the social and educational structure that would allow me to now be able to “discourse” about them.  Conservative groups, with non-toxic ego needs, are the backbone of any tribe and even of the entire world.

But when the toxicity metastasizes, we find phenomena like Isis and Westboro Baptist Church, the latter of which is a caricature of Baptist churches.  In these groups the “distinction drawer” has become so powerful due to repressed fears and anxieties from the reptilian brain that there is a need to strike out at somebody.  In a way they are so much under the grip of the unconsciousness that they are powerless which is how Rohr interprets Jesus’ dying words on the Cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus knew that those who hated him to the point of wanting to kill him merely were not conscious of what they were doing.

When distinction drawing becomes too rigid, when the need for boundaries becomes paramount, it always leads to an over emphasis of what sets the group apart rather seeking for common denominators with others. It is not accidental that one of the most appealing dimensions of Donald Trump is his promise to “Build that wall” to keep out the Mexicans.  And it is not often remembered now but not long after he started this emphasis one of his competitors went to the absurd extreme of proposing to build a wall between our country and Canada also!  Trump’s message appeals to frightened people who see their out dated certainties threatened.  The message of “building a wall” is a symbol that resonates with the need to “set boundaries” and keep change from happening, not recognizing that “change” is an essential dynamic of life and must be embraced rather than opposed.  Otherwise we would still be living in the Stone Age.

Letting the “Bud” of Life Blossom

A friend of mine posted last week a quote from Anais Nin quote that has always really grabbed me, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
This brought to my mind several other literary references to the “bud” of our life, referring to life at its earliest point when we had just taken that quantum leap from non-being into being. At that point we were the quintessence of vulnerability, a vulnerability that will always be present in our heart but one from which we are protected with the “fig leaf” of an ego. Then later in our adult life we have the task of loosening the pernicious grip of that ego to the point that some of that vulnerability can come to consciousness and invigorate an otherwise barren life. When that happens, what my spiritual tradition calls the “Spirit of God” begins to come forth and we find that we can engage in the “flow” of life, no longer tyrannized by subterranean fears of annihilation.  T.S. Eliot described this “bud” as, “that tender point from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes.” And in another poem he offered another relevant thought, seeing this “bud” as, “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”

But Shakespeare so brilliantly described this “bud” in his first sonnet and the peril of not allowing it to open and blossom, letting the essence of our life flow into the Void that we all live in, into the Great Round. In this context, the “blooming” he noted was in reference to some unknown friend who refused to get married and start a family. He described this friend as being unable to escape a narcissistic shell, accusing him of being “contracted to thine own brights eyes,” or seeing only what he saw…not able to see beyond the private world that he lived in. This is related to the Conrad Aiken line I quote so often, “We see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.”

Shakespeare believed that in getting married and having a family a person had the opportunity to let one’s tender “bud” break open and blossom into the unfolding of life, to participate in the “mundane” task of perpetuating the species. In one of his plays he described a character as being unable to “spend himself” and that consequently said he, “spills himself in fearing to be spilt.”

In the first sonnet, he chided his friend for feeding “thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel, making a famine where abundance lies, thyself thy foe, to the sweet self so cruel.” He saw this friend cowering within his bud, feeding himself with “self-substantial fuel” and not participating in life, not engaging in meaningful relationship, having “fled to a nutshell” where he could there safely be the “king of infinite spaces.” Shakespeare lamented this friend’s narcissism, seeing that he was his own worst enemy, to his “own sweet self so cruel.”

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Now, speaking from experience, it is possible to find other ways to open that bud, that “tender point” without marriage or family. I utilized the Shakespearean sonnet merely to note one “contrivance” that life has afforded us to “die to our selves” and focus on a greater end. But, I will admit that, personally, getting married but not having children illustrated this “cowardly spirit” that Shakespeare had in mind. And perhaps that is why that late in life I am finding the vulnerability in which life appears to be flowing, my “bud” timidly and often half-hearterdly trying to open and blossom.

Nin vividly discovered the painful quandary of not letting that blossom come forth in some dimension of one’s life. The pain becomes so intense that we feel we are about to burst. The “einfall” (see a recent post on the subject) is so persistent that we cannot but surrender and find a symbolic death offering us the hope of resurrection. Jesus also grasped the importance of letting this bud die and then blossom, noting that unless a grain of wheat, “fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

Life often appears to be merely about finding a meaningful way to slowly die, to artfully approach the end of our life and in the process leave something meaningful behind. Now I certainly do not think that life is a grim enterprise in which we morbidly focus on our brief span of life and ultimate death but that we do need to realize that death and life are always intertwined. And I am made to think of the wisdom of a very astute psychologist of several decades ago, Irvin Yalom, who noted that in his practice he had discovered that those who lived in fear of death were actually very fearful of being alive. But when unconscious fears rule our life, we cannot acknowledge our vulnerability and spend our lives glomming onto whatever contrivance our culture affords us in order to avoid that “tender point”, that bud from which life wants to emerge, that “bud” that Nin so pithily referenced.

 

 

Ersatz, Ego-ridden, Spirituality

I’ve shared here several times that Richard Rohr steal’s my thoughts. He continues to do that and is rich and famous and I am still poor and unknown. Life is just not fair! In today’s email he again chides Christians for their “dualistic” thinking and points out how the ego is hard at work in this process. It is really unnerving to realize that something as personal as one’s faith can be little more than an ego function, an escape from life, and not the expression of the Divine that one purports it to be. And that is what I’ve had to learn and am continuing to learn about my own faith. But when this truth began to sink in, the first faint glimmer of light dawned in my soul allowing me to see the darkness in which I lived. And I still live in this “darkness” and will always do so even as that “glimmer of Light” brightens each day. For, I now know…and feel…more clearly what the Apostle Paul meant when he declared that “we see through a glass ‘darkly’”.

Let me explain just one facet of the ego’s presence in the spirituality of my early life. One of the first things I learned as a child was the distinction of “saved” vs “unsaved”, a distinction which paralleled the infinite variety of other distinctions I was learning as my innocent world was being carved up into various categories. And, of course at some point I learned that I could recite the correct syllogism, the magical words, and presto I would join the club of “the saved.” This bifurcation of the world followed me through the first half of my life as I hid behind the facade of being “saved” and from that subjective prison lived and felt separate from the whole world, radically disconnected. Now, I didn’t know about this disconnection as I participated in a “saved” culture which daily reassured me that I was “one of them” because I spoke the right language and lived the right life…at least out in public! However, there was always unrest in my soul, an unrest which in the middle of my life began to grow and became a veritable tumult which is now blossoming fully in my life. But this “tumult” is merely the experience of life unfolding in my heart as it opens up and becomes, “filled with penetrable stuff” as Shakespeare once put it.

Rohr presents spirituality as a “personal” phenomena, not an ideology. Spirituality is not a mind-set or a template through which we are to view the world as “out there” and needing to be made like me. Spirituality is the process of letting boundaries down and seeing the connection between “me and thee” and between the whole of God’s creation. And the process never ends. We never “get it” as there is nothing to “get”. It is a process. “Saved” and “unsaved”???? Well, the concept does exist in Christianity and most religions have some way of setting themselves apart and reassuring its followers that they are “special.” I now feel that the only “saving” I am responsible for is the saving of my own soul…a life long process which always involves relationships with other people…and which the Apostle Paul had in mind when he instructed us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” This “fear and trembling” is the tumult I alluded to earlier.

Here is Rohr’s observations for today:
DUALISTIC THINKING

Resistance to Change
Friday, March 21, 2014

Sadly, the mind trapped inside of polarity thinking is not open to change. How else can we explain the obvious avoidance of so many of Jesus’ major teachings within the Christian churches? Jesus’ direct and clear teachings on issues such as nonviolence; a simple lifestyle; love of the poor and our enemies; forgiveness, inclusivity, and mercy; and not seeking status, power, perks, or possessions have all been overwhelmingly ignored throughout history by mainline Christian churches, even those who so proudly call themselves orthodox or biblical.

This avoidance defies explanation until we understand how dualistic thinking protects and pads the ego and its fear of change. Notice that the things we Christians have largely ignored require actual change to ourselves. The things we emphasized instead were usually intellectual beliefs or moral superiority stances that asked almost nothing of us—but compliance from others: the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement theory, and beliefs about reproduction and sex. After a while, you start to recognize the underlying bias that is at work. The ego diverts your attention from anything that would ask you to change, to righteous causes that invariably ask others to change. 1 Such issues give you a sense of moral high ground without costing you anything (e.g., celibate priests who make abortion the only sin). Sounds like an ego game to me.

Whole people see and create wholeness wherever they go. Split people split up everything and everybody else. By the second half of our lives, we are meant to see in wholes and no longer just in parts.
1. Adapted from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, p. 94
2. Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
p. 151

 

Ego-Ridden, Ersatz Spirituality

I’ve shared here several times that Richard Rohr steal’s my thoughts. He continues to do that and is rich and famous and I am still poor and unknown. Life is just not fair! In today’s email he again chides Christians for their “dualistic” thinking and points out how the ego is hard at work in this process. It is really unnerving to realize that something as personal as one’s faith can be little more than an ego function, an escape from life, and not the expression of the Divine that one purports it to be. And that is what I’ve had to learn and am continuing to learn about my own faith. But when this truth began to sink in, the first faint glimmer of light dawned in my soul allowing me to see the darkness in which I lived. And I still live in this “darkness” and will always do so even as that “glimmer of Light” brightens each day. For, I now know…and feel…more clearly what the Apostle Paul meant when he declared that “we see through a glass ‘darkly'”.

Let me explain just one facet of the ego’s presence in the spirituality of my early life. One of the first things I learned as a child was the distinction of “saved” vs “unsaved”, a distinction which paralleled the infinite variety of other distinctions I was learning as my innocent world was being carved up into various categories. And, of course at some point I learned that I could recite the correct syllogism, the magical words, and presto I would join the club of “the saved.” This bifurcation of the world followed me through the first half of my life as I hid behind the facade of being “saved” and from that subjective prison lived and felt separate from the whole world, radically disconnected. Now, I didn’t know about this disconnection as I participated in a “saved” culture which daily reassured me that I was “one of them” because I spoke the right language and lived the right life…at least out in public! However, there was always unrest in my soul, an unrest which in the middle of my life began to grow and became a veritable tumult which is now blossoming fully in my life. But this “tumult” is merely the experience of life unfolding in my heart as it opens up and becomes, “filled with penetrable stuff” as Shakespeare once put it.

Rohr presents spirituality as a “personal” phenomena, not an ideology. Spirituality is not a mind-set or a template through which we are to view the world as “out there” and needing to be made like me. Spirituality is the process of letting boundaries down and seeing the connection between “me and thee” and between the whole of God’s creation. And the process never ends. We never “get it” as there is nothing to “get”. It is a process. “Saved” and “unsaved”???? Well, the concept does exist in Christianity and most religions have some way of setting themselves apart and reassuring its followers that they are “special.” I now feel that the only “saving” I am responsible for is the saving of my own soul…a life long process which always involves relationships with other people…and which the Apostle Paul had in mind when he instructed us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” This “fear and trembling” is the tumult I alluded to earlier.

Here is Rohr’s observations for today:
DUALISTIC THINKING

Resistance to Change
Friday, March 21, 2014

Sadly, the mind trapped inside of polarity thinking is not open to change. How else can we explain the obvious avoidance of so many of Jesus’ major teachings within the Christian churches? Jesus’ direct and clear teachings on issues such as nonviolence; a simple lifestyle; love of the poor and our enemies; forgiveness, inclusivity, and mercy; and not seeking status, power, perks, or possessions have all been overwhelmingly ignored throughout history by mainline Christian churches, even those who so proudly call themselves orthodox or biblical.

This avoidance defies explanation until we understand how dualistic thinking protects and pads the ego and its fear of change. Notice that the things we Christians have largely ignored require actual change to ourselves. The things we emphasized instead were usually intellectual beliefs or moral superiority stances that asked almost nothing of us—but compliance from others: the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement theory, and beliefs about reproduction and sex. After a while, you start to recognize the underlying bias that is at work. The ego diverts your attention from anything that would ask you to change, to righteous causes that invariably ask others to change. 1 Such issues give you a sense of moral high ground without costing you anything (e.g., celibate priests who make abortion the only sin). Sounds like an ego game to me.

Whole people see and create wholeness wherever they go. Split people split up everything and everybody else. By the second half of our lives, we are meant to see in wholes and no longer just in parts.
1. Adapted from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, p. 94
2. Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
p. 151

Poetic Thoughts re Intense Emotion Running Amok

In Hamlet, Laertes knows that his daughter is “palling around” with that wastrel Hamlet and cautions her, knowing something himself about masculine rapacity:

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.

Laertes did not want his daughter to give into emotions, but to “stand in the rear” like he did and keep her distance. For, he feared that letting go of that detachment would lead to overwhelming emotion and take her totally out of control, just as he feared it would do to him. Laertes was speaking of an “observing ego” which he knew monitors our impulses and keeps them from running amok.

For, Shakespeare knew that “feelings know no discretion but their own.” (W. H. Auden) When feelings predominate…and begin to tyrannize…they cannot submit to “monitoring” and insist on fulfillment of their own needs and desires. Adrienne Rich wrote of this immersion in emotion when she said, “when we enter touch, we enter touch completely.” And e e cummings agreed with Rich, noting that, “since feeling comes first, he who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.”

I suggest some balance is needed. (Yes, my “observing ego” is doing its magic today!) We need intense emotion, we need to be “carried away” with passion, but the “balancer” must not be discarded. When this “balancer” or “observing ego” is discarded, or lost due to neurological impairment, Shakespeare might note of us, “The expedition of his violent love outruns the pauser reason.” Or, to put it in my words, “expression of his passionate intensity outruns the pauser reason.”