The Ego and the Self
Where does Resistance come from? Seth Godin says it arises from the “lizard brain,” i.e. the primitive reptilian stem that knows only fight-or-flight and thus resists all attempts by the organism—you and me—to ascend to higher realms. There’s something to this, I think, but not, in my opinion, the way Seth sees it.
The source of Resistance, to my mind, is the clash between the ego and the Self.
A definition of the ego
What is the ego? The ego as I would define it is that identity-center that runs our lives in the here and now, the material dimension. When we say “I want,” “I need,” “I am,” the “I” we’re talking about is the ego.
(Significantly, when we say “I love,” we’re not talking about the ego.)
The ego runs the show in the real world. It’s the boss. It’s got an enormous stake in remaining the boss.
Now: what is the Self?
An “I” beyond the ego
The Self is a deeper “I,” a greater “I.” The Self, according to Jung, contains infinitely more than the ego. The unconscious (personal and collective) resides here. Dreams come from the Self, as do instinct and intuition. From the Self spring visions, myths, archetypes. The Self abuts the Divine Ground—neshama in Hebrew, the soul.
In the Kabbalistic view of the world, the soul, which is the source of all wisdom and goodness, is constantly seeking to communicate to us—to our consciousness on the physical plane, our ego. The soul is trying to guide us, sustain us, restore us. But there is a force operating against the neshama. This entity, called the yetzer hara by the great Kabbalistic teachers, is a self-contained and self-sustaining intelligence whose sole aim is to block us from accessing the neshama and to block the neshama from communicating to us.
My breakfast with Rabbi Finley
I was having breakfast a few weeks ago with my friend, Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah congregation in Los Angeles. I asked him about this very subject. Here’s part of what he said:
“There is a second self inside you–an inner, shadow Self. This self doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t love you. It has its own agenda, and it will kill you. It will kill you like cancer. It will kill you to achieve its agenda, which is to prevent you from actualizing your Self, from becoming who you really are. This shadow self is called, in the Kabbalistic lexicon, the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara, Steve, is what you would call Resistance.”
I’ve been publishing these Writing Wednesday posts for over a year now. Here, in a nutshell, is my artistic (and personal) philosophy:
Our job, as souls on this mortal journey, is to shift the seat of our identity from the ego to the Self. That’s it.
Art and the ego
Art (or, more exactly, the struggle to produce art) teaches us that. How? Because we start off, as neophytes, stuck in our egos. We’re trying by force of will, lust, ambition, greed etc. to come up with something that we can show to the world and be rewarded for. Ah, but it ain’t so easy. The process begins immediately to humble us. Like a stern but loving master, the struggle itself nudges us, shifts us, reroutes us. We’re seeking our true voice, our power, our authenticity as artists. We realize–through blood, sweat and tears–that betting on the ego is not going to get us there.
We have to go deeper. We have to surrender, give up the illusion of control, get out of our own way. We have to conquer our fears and jump off the cliff. Call it the Muse, call it “flow,” call it whatever you like. This is the Self—instinct, intuition, the unconscious. When we hit it, it’s like striking a vein of solid gold. We lose ourselves—that is, our egos—and we find something greater: our Selves.
The lover experiences the same exaltation in her perfect embrace of her beloved. She loses herself by giving unconditional love—and discovers a greater Self that is simultaneously her and not-her. So does the mother, the warrior, even the drunk and the drug addict. For an interval they all obliterate the little self and submerge themselves blissfully in the Big One.
Alas, this happy union vanishes the instant we resurface, just as a vision flees from the mystic emerging from his trance or a dream fades from the sleeper when he wakes. We have completed our miniature version of the hero’s journey and we’re back home. Now what? Try again tomorrow—and keep doing it till we get it right.
Resistance and the ego
The ego likes being in charge. It doesn’t want us to seat our identity within its rival, the Self. The ego produces the yetzer hara—Resistance—and strives with all its force and cunning to keep us bound to it and not to the Self.
The pursuit of art, originality, selflessness or excellence in any ethical form is, beyond all its other aspects, a discipline of the soul. It’s a practice. A means to and method for self-transformation.
If you ask me personally, Have I myself achieved anything like this … hell, no. I’ve still got both feet in the ego and they’re mired in mud and mucilage. But I’m trying. Like Rabbi Finley and those hard-thinking mystics from the sixteenth century, I’m shuttling back and forth to the Self as often and as mindfully as I can–and trying to hang on as long as I can when I re-merge to the earthly realm.
When you and I struggle against Resistance (or when we try to love or endure or give or sacrifice or face down an enemy), we are engaged in a contest not only on the material plane, but on the spiritual as well. It isn’t just about writing our symphony or taking care of our child or leading our team against the Taliban in Konar province. The clash is epic and internal, between the ego and Self, and the stakes are our lives.