Life as Story-but not quite so fast…

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’

And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves 

Under pressure

-Under Pressure- songwriters-Mercury, Taylor, Deacon, May, Bowie

Many writers have put forth the idea that our lives and identities are a story we are telling ourselves. David Loy has a new book out called The World is Made of Stories and I hope to be reading that some time in the near future.  These stories can be related to the concept of shunyata in some ways.  (later)

This life-story concept tends to encompass things like we are not who we think we are, identities change, everything changes, the solidity of the social person is not all that solid, the conditioned being as illusory, the function of the aggregates and so forth.

In a Shambhala Sun article Loy wrote:

In other words, our normal sense of self-consciousness is the delusion at the root of our chronic unhappiness, because it involves a misunderstanding of what the self really is. But this type of dualistic self-awareness is what has distinguished homo sapiens sapiens from the other primates, and has been responsible for our extraordinary evolutionary success. Today, however, we can also see more clearly than ever before the limitations of such deluded self-awareness, and the collective need to go beyond it.

from “A collective awakening?” (Buddhist reflections on Copenhagen)

This theme seems to be reflected in his new book as well as in the works of many others.  And the increasing urgency with which it is stated is accurate. However to rush headlong into dismembering the ego or conventional sense of self without understanding it can bring up quite a number of unpleasant and even dangerous scenarios. There are some New Agey types who hold expensive courses with the express purpose of killing or dismantling the ego in one weekend seminar or whatever and should that actually come about for anyone I would hope they have a room reserved in the nearest Psych ward because that would be as catastrophic without appropriate preparation or aftercare as any natural disaster. The ego is something we can’t “kill” (I so dislike that erroneous notion) because it’s not a thing but a process, a necessary process.

I am not suggesting that killing or dispensing with ego is what Loy is putting forward. From what I gather the book is more of an exposition on the necessity of these stories which make up our social and psychological frameworks. And that perspective is similar to the viewpoints that most responsible Buddhist teachers hold.

Much of this might fall under the rubric of “dispositional narrative” and its various dysfunctions which are terms Clarke Scott has used in presentations and which I have mentioned a couple of times before. So in some ways I’m examining and unpacking that term here so I get a better grasp of it. Here is an abstract of the paper Clarke presented on this topic at a recent conference.

The stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, often lead to dysfunctional cognitive states that may lead to misunderstanding our place in the world. Because this dispositional narrative is rooted in a misconception, the question may be raised: can meditation effect dispositional narrative in such a way as to lead to a flourishing life? Clarke’s talk will present current research that suggests this is indeed the case, and details the efficacy of meditation as both a diagnostic and therapeutic tool used to extirpate dysfunctional cognitive states that obstruct genuine happiness.

from Workshop on Dysfunction, Dispositional Narrative and Meditation

There’s a  lot of people looking into these topics right now, particularly at a scholarly level. It is only a matter of time before more generally accessible works become available. Perhaps Loy’s work will further that. I really look forward to the time when these aspects of Buddhist teachings become more widespread.

This “kill the ego” thing is just another sort of delusional self-consciousness. But a real tricky one for people on the Buddhist path. What I’m talking about here specifically is that notion of “no ego” or “no mind” (as Osho Rajneesh puts it) in that it’s gone, kaput, finished but much of it also applies to the normal view of self we have been conditioned to adopt. It’s all about trying to hold onto a solid thing which is not solid at all, nor is it a thing. A “no ego” person is the same as an ego person if they are holding onto and trying to reify that concept. I don’t actually think that a “no ego” person is possible.  It seems to be a bit of a semantic game to use that kind of descriptor.

The story of the self, when clung to in an allegedly solid form, as ego, is a complex and interrelated phenomenon and some problems arise mostly  from the clinging part. Identity or ego itself has a function within a larger scope. That scope is outlined in Buddhist doctrine. *

Scope encompasses both the individual and the social. For this post I’m going to write mostly about the individual situation.

This story situation  is founded on Buddhist theory.  I mentioned shunyata above, which would be the third item on the list you’ll read in a moment,  but it is only a part of an interrelated set of theories that properly contextualizes how the stories can be explained. This set of theories are the Four Seals of Buddhism.

The Four Seals of Buddhism or the Four Seals of Dharma, that is those things to which all Buddhist schools subscribe, and according to  Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, in his book What Makes You Not a Buddhist? are the set of beliefs or teachings which comprise the theoretical core of Buddhist practice. Here is a summary of what he expounds in that book Buddhism in a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma

These are, in summary form:

  • Impermanence of all compounded things
  • Unsatisfactoriness of attachment and clinging
  • Emptiness of self-existence of phenomenon
  • Nirvana offers cessation of the suffering caused by conditions and attachment to conditions

Barbara O’Brien at has supplied an accessible description of these items in her article The Four Seals of the Dharma:Four Characteristics That Define Buddhism  And here is a further explanation by HH Dalai Lama The Four Seals.(pdf)

The “ego killing” or separation from one’s story by way of suppression is not nirvana. Some seem to think it is and that doing such psycho-emotional contortions is a necessary prerequisite to enlightenment. It’s not.  One can read about the effects of this kind of suppression in a lot of places. It can be depersonalization or any number of other psychological states that occurs if one attempts to escape from the ego (which doesn’t actually exist as a thing) without understanding it.

You can’t “kill” the ego. It’s that simple. To be without “ego” would be to live in a state of catatonia and confusion in a manner similar to an infant. It would mean one is mentally rather blank or perceptually disorganized and simply perceiving without being able to make any sense of anything beyond perception. Once one has grown up and developed the apparatus of consciousness to “drop body and mind” or simply perceive is not a position of difficulty because we have understanding of what is going on. We don’t have to mindlessly react.  But without that consciousness, where the ego plays out its role, either beyond our understanding (the delusional self) or with our understanding (the enlightened or insightful or whatever view),  one would be rather like a zombie. [I’m not saying an infant is a zombie-infants are way noisier] There would be little we could identify as consciousness, in the Buddhist sense in an infant. [There’s a blog post a Wildmind which sort of relates to this and includes some interesting comments.  It is called Is meditation about making your mind go blank? ]

If we were to “lose the ego” suddenly it seems to me it might also be something like a really strong drug trip or to be  sooo wasted that there is only undistinguished perception left. Both those states-trippy or wasted- can be pretty uncomfortable. (And I’m not saying infants or zombies are tripping either)

Chogyam Trungpa stated:

If we regard meditation as just getting into a fog so that you do not see, you do not feel, something is terribly wrong. In that case meditation would reduce one to a zombie. The enlightened man would have to be rescued. Someone would have to feed him and take him to the bathroom. We would have to have an enlightenment ward.

in Glimpses of Abhidharma

So you get where infants/zombies/really tripped out individuals might have a few things in common. The main one being an inability to fully interface with the rest of the world. And the second one would be the inability to perceive one’s self in any sort of context. 

Shinzen Young made this observation when being interviewed:

When we first come into this life we form a self in order to cope with the world. The baby has rather scant self and commensurately little ability to deal with the world. We develop a self to deal with the world, but we also develop the habit of solidifying that self, and that solidifying habit congests the flow of nature, leading to suffering.

from Meditation and Consciousness: A Dialogue Between a Meditation Teacher and a Psychologist

I tend to think of the ego as something like a computer interface. If we were all dealing with each other’s “code”  directly on a neurological level, well we’d be a hive mind. But we’re not, so something has to be constructed to bridge and facilitate interaction between consciousnesses. And that interface and the symbols used have to be mutually intelligible. They do not have to be consensual however. [Here I disagree with those who would posit that shared reality is a consensual state- that’s another blog post tho] That’s where we get into conditioning and such. The ego is an input/output system in a larger interactive social system in this rather mechanical view.

So the story is part of the social interface. We can use it to locate ourselves within some social situation and adopt the appropriate behavior for that scenario and we can understand the situation itself. It would be quite horrid to have to learn everything anew in each situation every time. Memory is part of the story too.

Losing some or part of the story suddenly might be like losing your operating system on your computer when you’re in the middle of a video conference. Maybe there’s some pictures still on the screen but they’re all pixilated so you can’t figure out what they are and maybe there are some sounds but they have no meaning to you. Maybe you sort of remember what the conference was about, or at least you don’t have a hostile feeling towards where you are or what’s going on but you don’t know what to do about it.

On another level maybe that stuff is all intact but it has no personal meaning to you or you are having the sense of being very distant from it. So distant that you don’t remember what’s been said for the last 30 minutes. Not even like watching a movie but more like when the TV channel shuts down for the night (do they still do that?) and there is just a test pattern and a high pitched hum. 

These are the kinds of things I mean if one were to suddenly lose their ego. (There’s stuff about alzheimers, brain damage and psychological problems like amnesia which could fit into all this too but I won’t go there for now)

Now disowning one’s story my not be the same thing as seeking to enter a state of depersonalization wherein one is detached not only from surroundings but from one’s own reaction to surroundings. But to rapidly attempt such a feat is a step in that direction.

There is a huge difference between realizing something and distancing from it. They are actually quite opposite. To realize the self from the perspective of the Four Seals requires going right into it and as has been metaphorically stated coming out the other side with the understanding of it. (symbolized in enso, ox herding pictures etc from the Zen side) It’s an immersion versus an escape.

Joko Beck Roshi has a great video where she talks about the teacher helping the student to turn a curve and return to themselves. It’s here if you want to watch it.

To distance from the self is to try to get outside it without ever penetrating its essence. It is to try to divide one’s self in two-the distanced (the villain) and the distancer (the hero). That only gives double the problem because there is a constant war then of the distanced as they attempt to express the fact that there is no division, it is completely illusory. That approach also further enhances the notion of solidity of self, that is the independent self-existence because if I can distance from myself then myself is a something/somewhere identifiable, like a dot on a map as representing a real place. The dot and the place are different but if we try to make the dot into the place mentally we get pretty lost.  It is a further process of reification of the unreal.

Some other related things came to mind when considering the efforts we make to try to disown our story or the collective story by which we all live and in which we all participate. These are just sort of random notions that came up.

It’s a strange kind of paradox but one actually gets more involved with a dysfunctional story the more one tries to escape from it rather than face it and take the time and make the effort to understand it. Until people understand just “how” one’s life and identity is a story there is the chance of distancing one’s self from important people and life events.  Probably you’ve encountered the story of a Zen monk, which appeared in an official Soto-shu publication,  who when faced with the choice of remaining with his dying father and going to a special retreat decided upon the retreat. A lot of people got quite disturbed when they read about that.  I dug it up on Brad Warner’s blog. The piece on it that Brad wrote is called Fuck Institutionalized Zen . Brad wrote about that situation:

What I am addressing here is the presence of an article like this in an official publication of the Soto organization and the utterly fucked message it sends. Got that? I know some of you don’t. But I’ll keep going anyway.
I have no idea what this guy’s relationship to his dad was. For all I know maybe dad beat him with a coat hanger every day until he was big enough to hit back, and that’s the real reason he skipped out on him during his last moments on Earth. But even if that was the case, all of us have a far bigger commitment to our families — our real families not our fake “spiritual families” — than to some big corporate religious institution that’s throwing a jamboree.
The article makes it sound as though our friend was so dazzled to be one of the elite few allowed by the Masters in far off and oh-so-truly-Zen Japan to participate in the event that he lost sight of his real duties. . The Soto organization seems to want to promote the idea that we should run away from the suffering and frustration of our real lives and hide in the warm and protective bosom of big mama Sotoshu. This is what whacked out religious cults do.

…There is no place for this kind of nonsense in Buddhism.

So that’s the kind of disconnection that can happen that I’m talking about. The likelihood for future regret, guilt and resentment for many people in this kind of scenario is huge.

When we try to reject the identity that has been collected over the years and all the attached story lines involved we have no choice but to live more in our heads than ever. This is because we are always on patrol trying to guard against that sneaking up on us. So we spend time worrying about what to do about it, making plans, formulating opinions, constructing oppositions to counter it, rather than just opening up to ourselves, letting it be as it is and observing the ebbs and flows within the context or social sphere in which we are at that moment enmeshed.  We become frantic with trying to distract ourselves from ourselves in exactly the same way that the various “-holics” (alco-, shopo-, worko-, etc.) do. We become the hero struggling with that villain of the self and its story (the evil ego) which we wish to elude. It becomes a dramatic epic rather than just an ordinary drama.

Kill the ego often means suppress that which arises and replace it with another, more idealistic set of behaviors. That can be a little bit disconcerting not only to the person but to those around them as well. Sometimes it leads to a lot of self-righteous holier-than-thou kinds of behaviors but it can be like living a lie. We see that an awful lot from the highly homophobic types for example who later either come out or are revealed to have been actually warring within themselves in just the way I described above.  This can happen to the “holy” Buddhist too though maybe not so dramatically. It usually consists of “Bad Buddhist” admonishments regarding details of behavior though explanations of context tend to come up rather short. “Because Buddhists don’t do that!”  OK.

Monks, nuns, teachers and others who have leadership roles and are…well professional Buddhists if I can put it that way…generally adopt some kind of behavioral code for themselves knowingly. It is a role. We all have dozens of roles in the collective story. Hopefully leaders have sufficient understanding both of the dharma and themselves to navigate within that adopted framework as well as a certain maturity with which to encounter and interact with the general public who don’t have the benefit of that insight.  That isn’t always the case though, but that reflects upon their own ignorance, immaturity and perhaps pathology in some cases, and not on some gigantic flaws in the dharma. 

The “professional” case is quite different from the average lay Buddhist who likely has not had lengthy training or study or practice time or personal mentorship in order to find some kind of balance and insight. In the “amateur” case there is plenty of room to misinterpret things such as the need for the appearance of “holiness”.  [Personally I find “holiness” and excessive piety highly suspect in pretty much every case. I have a friend who used to be a reporter in Calcutta and met Mother Theresa numerous times. He says she was holy alright and when she didn’t get her way she was a “holy terror”. She didn’t “act” like a saint in other words but just was who she was. ]

Sometimes I wonder if that need for putting on the holy show is a particular problem with converts. In order to get some distance (that word again) from previous religious experience/indoctrination etc. (a former part of identity) a certain amount of exaggeration and pronounced demonstration of the new belief system or practices is desired. It’s like trying to convince both the world and one’s self that this is the new truth.  In converts of many kinds this seems very common. An overcompensation.  Sometimes it settles down and sometimes it doesn’t. (Would be kind of interesting to test the degree of that in a controlled experiment.) I’ll call it The Zeal Factor.

Something else that can happen when we depersonalize or disassociate or try to disown the ego is that others in our lives become objectified and replaceable. People become characters or props in our dramas rather than actual people.  They are recruited to play roles that neither we nor they understand but that support what we might think an “egoless” or “spiritual” or whatever kind of person would be like.  This can get really bad when it involves whole populations. I see it in India a  lot. The spiritual tourist setting up a line of locals with whom they might be photographed and then making a big report about it to whomever will listen. I wrote something about that kind of junk here Poverty Porn, Dilettante Charity and a Holiday in Cambodia.

One also sees this in some spiritual teachers who set up a situation to support their own delusions of grandeur, which often includes a lot of claims of egolessness which itself comes to be a grandiose descriptor in many religious circles (same as “enlightenment”). Strange how something so small and ordinary can become such a great prize and attractive lure for so many. Seems to me when that is the case there is some huge distortion going on.

This feigning egolessness or dropping the story  (which is really constructing another more insidious story) can happen in one’s personal life as well.  Partners as spiritual decorations, collections of photos of great teachers with whom one has studied displayed prominently, friendships limited to some ethereally defined enlightened clique, criticisms of partners or friends for not sharing in the “spiritual” life and so on.  Spiritual materialism and enlightened achievement and sacred prestige, the latter being subsets of the former, on the home front tends to consist of spending a great deal of time taking everyone else’s spiritual inventory “for their own good” in an effort to avoid one’s own inventory process.

On a smaller more domestic scale the apparently egoless person can become so self-involved with their attachment to their own image that partners, roommates and friends often live in a state of being constantly evaluated, judged and found wanting in the purity department. I’ve run into this situation personally.  I once had a close friend, a yogini, who studied with quite a number of well known teachers around world for a couple of decades. I liked her a lot when we met and we became very close. At that time she had a realistic viewpoint about her “professional” activities as a teacher and the rest of her life. But over the years she became more and more rigid in terms of attempting to become what I can only describe as a warped personification of compassion and enlightenment. She got overtaken by her idealization of that saintly role as egoless caregiver to the world and started to become rather insufferable. After a few more years of “advice” and “suggestions” the friendship became rather stifling.  I couldn’t help but to take note of those uncomfortable elements.  In private, and especially if there wasn’t any audience around to capture her generous tutelage of all and sundry, she generally had quite a sneer on her face. And a lot of behavior that had been labeled by her as “practice” became highly judgmental passive-aggressive nastiness. It became hellish to spend time with this newly minted “saint”. It’s really unfortunate because she was a great yoga teacher and friend. I miss her but the only thing I encounter when meeting her now is this shell of a person with little warmth or depth left.  I did try a few times to bring up some of these changes but even to broach the topic met with such resistance and hostility I knew there was just no possibility of going there to discuss anything.

To disown our story, or attempt egolessness is a lot like trying to exercise some kind of option to become godlike. We then choose what is and is not relevant both within ourselves and with regard to others. This viewpoint allows morality, although relative, becomes passé.

And it leads to a certain kind of nihilistic perspective wherein nothing really matters. If we disown our story we also disown any and all social connections to it. That means no one else’s story is relevant or important or even to be acknowledged either. Some spiritual teachers (Andrew Cohen I am thinking about specifically but others as well) operate on this kind of twisted level.

There is an inability to distinguish in an specific situation what is and isn’t important to someone else. This lack of discernment comes from a lack of empathy and compassion. For without the ego we cannot fully appreciate human experience. Discarding story or ego, that is remaining outside of it also causes us to remain outside of empathy. There is no place to connect with other human beings. There is only something of a bubble in which we then live.  And we can’t even penetrate to the heart of that bubble for that would mean engaging in the aspects of the human story which we wish to discard.

So without entering our stories fully and working through them and understanding them we are left with a rather shallow existence and no way to make a deep connection with the rest of humanity.

Another thing that gets distorted is the concept of intention. If we do not thoroughly know ourselves and our stories it is not possible to formulate realistic intentions. We end up with half hearted efforts to do “the right thing” or whatever everyone else is doing that is similarly labeled but we don’t get to know how that actually applies and we end up with mixed results, to put it mildly. Consider the implications for karma in that instance.

Authenticity  is another version of the self that we hear thrown about a lot.  Being “authentic” 24/7 is a lot like being “egoless” 24/7.  Authentic is kind of a code word for being in touch with some ultimate truth or absolute state of understanding. The “real you” underneath the story in other words. We cannot relate to each other in the absolute on any kind of lasting basis since we cannot share consciousness space with anyone else. We may be able to momentarily touch the same point of understanding with another but that is fleeting and not sustainable. This is because our consciousnesses are enmeshed/immersed in the social/material whole of the universe. Other stuff will always interfere with those moments. I’m thinking like dokusan moments or a connection between lovers or a parent and child reaching some kind of breakthrough in understanding and such-maybe there is a passing second of understanding where that sliver of consciousness is shared-it can never be wholly shared except in fragments-but then it’s gone-a noise outside-the sun shifts to change the light in the room-an itch-about a million things can happen as the big boiling universe keeps on moving.

Authenticity, in its popular format, tends to be about self-indulgence and disregarding the reality of others. By example, here’s a silly video about The Authentic Man, which is a real program for jerks who are trying to pick up more women.

Another thing that comes up is addiction to the story of one’s self. This seems to be the way most of us operate in the world. Craving more and more in order to bolster up who we think we are. That more and more can be anything from material objects to spiritual endeavors to huge numbers of Facebook friends or lists of sex partners. That’s the clinging to the story part I discussed at the beginning of this post. 

I also think of the catch phrase “We are already Buddhas” or however it goes as something similar to the authentic self or the notion of egolessness. While we all have a Buddha nature that doesn’t mean it’s expression is without distortion without quite a bit of work on clarifying exactly what is meant by “Buddha” .  That seems to be where a lot of confusion arises.  Buddha is not a set of behaviors. Being Buddha is not adopting a false persona based on something a teacher says or is written in a book. Being Buddha is not about pretending. It’s not about rejecting anything in one’s experience.

Dogen wrote:

What was given to him was given solely for the purpose that he might master the wise perception of a Buddha. It was solely the wise perception of a Buddha which he was to master

from Shobogenzo, Butsudo  quoted in The Sole Purpose of Zen Buddhism

Being Buddha is about mastering the wise perception of a Buddha. That wise perception is what provides understanding for the stories we are, we enact and we react to. So trying to “be” something or someone else is a big waste of time and effort. Being Buddha is about seeing things as they really are.

I’ve rambled in a circle, with a few byways explored, as is my habit. Have close to 5400 words here, written over a couple of days in between making tea, doing laundry, having a bath, going for a walk, fixing the bed, eating meals etc.-that’s why I get so rambly by the way.  I could probably go on a lot longer but will save it for another time.

*This is for another blog post probably but for now I’m saying doctrine not dogma, there’s a difference which some people don’t seem to get. Doctrine means dharma-teaching. That is something provided to assist with deeper understanding. It is to help with the unfolding of realization. It is one of a number of methodologies to relieve people of a deluded perspective. Dogma means parroting phrases without knowing their meaning, context or applicability in general or to a specific situation. An example, “…if it agrees with you accept it otherwise reject it…”  allegedly from the Kalama Sutra, used to justify nearly anything. The quote, however garbled, has a context which when ignored renders it as an excuse for hedonism, self-indulgence and shallow understanding. Following that, and only that, invents something that may superficially resemble Buddhism but isn’t. There are way too many of these snippets to get into (ie. Be Here Now, Kill the Ego, Just Sit, Text is Dogma and so on)  Dogma is what you hear when people are too lazy to challenge their own understanding of something and then try to force that ignorance upon others.

Musical Accompaniment

David Bowie-Annie Lennox-Under Pressure


Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure – that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
Um ba ba be
that’s o.k.
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’
Pray tomorrow – gets me higher
Pressure on people – people on streets
Chippin’ around – kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours
People on streets – ee da de da de
People on streets – ee da de da de da de da
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’
Pray tomorrow – gets me higher high high
Pressure on people – people on streets
Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence but it don’t work
Keep coming up with love
but it’s so slashed and torn
Why – why – why ?
Love love love love love
Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance
Why can’t we give love that one more chance
Why can’t we give love give love give love give love
give love give love give love give love give love
‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
Under pressure

2 comments on “Life as Story-but not quite so fast…

  1. Perhaps instead of “kill the ego”, something like “make peace with the ego, understand it, and don’t take it as seriously as it takes itself”.

    Any suggestion to “kill”, “separate”, or other violent language applied to a part of ourselves is unlikely to be very resourceful. Ego is not “good” or “bad”, it just is.

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