Mi amigo, ego – The Empire Strikes Back
The previous post, based on what I had picked up by attending the three-day MAPS (Multi-disciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) conference, offered a summary of some recent work in neuroscience about the effect of psychedelics on the brain and outlined some of the emerging ideas about the ego that are arising from this field of study.
In this post, I want to return to the theme of the ego – but this time by offering a more personal account of the images of my ego offered to me by Madre Ayahuasca.
Before doing that, though, I want to make a general observation about the ego. It seems to me that any spiritual discipline and any process of psychological transformation is essentially concerned with the relationship between the ego and the wider psyche.
What is the ego? One simple definition, which I like, was offered to me by an Italian cognitive psychologist. He said the ego was a mode of cognition – that is a necessary way of perceiving and making sense of the world. The ego enables us to negotiate the world, make plans, and take decisions.
A similar view is offered by Ian McGilchrist in his masterwork “The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World”. He locates the ego in the left-hand brain hemisphere, along with survival, self-interest and the capacity for rational, logical, linear thought.
For McGilchrist, the problem in our current cultural epoch – initially Western but now going global – is that the left hand side of the brain (for which I would substitute the ego) has become the master of the wider psyche rather than its servant.
The unfettered ego becomes a tyrant attempting to subjugate the rest of the psyche to its control. Ego and control are intimately related. This sense of the tyranny of the ego is what I was trying to capture through the medium of creative writing in my earlier blog called “Trapped”.
I would say that a constant theme – possibly the most central and constant theme – in my relationship with Madre Ayahuasca has been the role of my ego. I sense that Madre Ayahuasca is constantly trying to decenter my ego, and make it only one mode of many in my psyche rather than the dominant mode.
Generally, when my ego moves off center stage, it is a relief. Other perceptions and modes of being become possible. I feel more at ease and at peace with myself, less driven, more trusting and not having to make the effort to remember everything and think it all through.
The way I see and experience my ego also changes from ceremony to ceremony. Once I saw him – and it always is ‘him’ rather than ‘her’ – as a jackbooted fascist strutting around, assuming control of everything. When someone asked me afterwards about this ceremony, I said it was called “The Empire Strikes Back”.
At other times, he has appeared as a needy little boy, desperately wanting attention and recognition. Once Madre Ayahuasca told me that she was taking me on a roller coaster ride. She looked at my ego, told me he is coming to and strapped him into the carriage calling him “mi amigo, ego”. My ego looked at me with a wide grin on his face. Another time, when I was far away from my body and immersed in another world, I saw him as a bejeweled prince waiting for me to come back to my body and guarding it for me whilst I was away.
I have learnt, especially through attending workshops with and reading the work of my intellectual mentor James Hillman, to allow and take seriously all these different personifications of the ego – tyrant, needy child, fascist, friend and prince. In fact, the more ways I can imagine the ego, the better I sense my psychic health will be.
Hillman’s work is an extended engagement with and blistering attack on the heroic ego, its inflation in Western culture and its buttressing up by most contemporary psychology. He shows how the way we experience our ego in Western culture is profoundly linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition and the positing of a transcendent, monotheistic God. Our ego, like the Judaeo-Christian God, wants to assert itself as the only valid mode of consciousness, and deny all the other Gods both as they appear in the world and also as they express themselves within our psyche.
I am sure there are other ways of reducing the importance of the ego and freeing itself from its shackles. Meditation, especially, springs to mind. Once, in fact, when I felt over a number of ceremonies stuck in my mind and unable to break out of it, I was told to meditate, to remember a simple technique that I had been taught by a past Master, of just sitting with whatever was happening to me and dis-identifying with the mental struggle that I was caught up in. This was very helpful advice.
The real challenge I have found is to take the mode of consciousness offered by Madre Ayahuasca and live more in it outside of ceremony. Perhaps, though, this is just not possible with the complicated life I lead. This is where I suspect that a spiritual discipline might be necessary.