Doing No Thing, a Path Past Ego Death

We are caught up in urgency. We do good things. We are good people. What we strive after needs to be done!

Yet we are exhausted. We are frustrated. We are pressed by the futility of our actions and have no idea how to change anything in a worthwhile way.

Double-binds rear their ugly heads. Damned if you do….

Some have strong constitutions and can keep this up indefinitely. At least for a long while, decades, well into middle-age…. They are considered successes. They are rewarded, either financially or with praise.

Some are not strong enough and they break down. They fall into more blatant intoxications – let’s not forget that urgency itself is an intoxication! They succumb to addictions and add “failure” to their list of woes as their sense of guilt compounds and their health suffers further. They fall-away into the margins of society.

There is a continuum running from extremes on either end of this spectrum. This continuum describes everyday life for most people, most of the time.

Dissatisfaction, whether it is perceived as ambition or despair, haunts us all no matter where we find ourselves in this range. There is a persistent feeling that something is wrong, but what?

Find someone to blame! Some of us are predisposed to look outside for culprits, others look inside and blame ourselves, many cycle though all the possibilities, such is the urgency driving us to seek an escape from our suffering!

Seeking a culprit holds us to conflict, maintaining or strengthening our sense of separation from others, increasing our discomfort, raising our sense of urgency. Eventually this scrubs people out of that first group, the successes, and drops most of us into the category of failures. Especially now that our entire cultural and institutional edifice is collapsing around us due to our failures to find another way to respond to our predicaments. We are all pressed, and pressed harder than we can bear, at least that is how it feels.

We can see “in the abstract” how Egotism in its various forms has at least contributed to our predicaments. Whether we look at this as a failure of others, or ourselves, or both; tends to follow the same pattern outlined above regarding our predilections for aiming blame.

When it comes to going beyond blame, our resistance becomes eerily magnified! We are frightened by our own anxiety as we begin to doubt that the whole contrivance of striving and responsibility has done anything but screen us from what is really at stake! This fear quite easily returns us to cycles of fresh blame, of doubling down on our striving. Surely we just haven’t tried hard enough!

Somewhere we find a simple yet perplexing counsel,

“If you know not what to do, do no thing!

It arouses our curiosity, and our fears, in almost equal measure. We are like any baby primate, caught between fascination and fear, as we circle this thought that seems so nonsensical, but also in a strange way potentially powerful. If it weren’t why would we fear it so?

Stopping the rush, to give it a tentative try, is so much harder than we might have imagined! A life-time of striving and urgency cannot just be turned off like a switch or even choked off like closing a valve. Even the attempt, whether done in the quiet and relative security of our bed, late at night, or in some safe and peaceful spot, away from our usual triggers, still seems to spark a sharp peak of anxiety! Our efforts, caught in our habits of striving, turn to trying to calm ourselves, willing ourselves to be quiet so we can sample this strange concept of doing no thing. It doesn’t work. At least not well. We return to striving and give up on such a foolish thought!

Yet we run into it again, in some other guise, from a source we have found we can trust in other things that at first seem odd and strange and counter-intuitive….

We bump into the idea, and often, for many at least, we bounce off it again. How can we stop trying? Isn’t that just giving up? Isn’t this the ultimate failure? What about our responsibilities?!

It’s curious how everything else may seem so hard, yet justifying maintaining our present course, even in the light of so many signs that it is killing us, killing the world even, turns out to be so easy? The justifications are just waiting there to be invoked. Their comforts are quick, but not lasting. Still we’re ready and willing to fall into their arms again when our cycles of rebellion bring them back around. We’re reminded of that definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.”

These are ample hints that these justifications are props. We lose trust in their ultimate verity.

“If I am so indispensable, if my responsibilities mean so much to me, why doesn’t the increasing evidence of the futility and sheer inappropriateness – relating to the Enormity we face – of my being wed to my old habits not convince me to give something else a chance?”

This is the question left begging when we confront our sense of futility and then skulk back into our old ways, defeated, yet hollowly justified.

What is really at stake here?

Let’s try this on for size – and please, nothing ever said here is intended as a prescription! These are all just the traces of one person’s stumbling about, looking for the questions behind our predicaments.

What if our reaction to the whole business is a case of our Ego doing what it knows best, defending itself?

There’s no need, at least not here and now, to go into the how’s and why’s of the existence of our Egos, or of why we are in such a state of imbalance because of a predominance of a particular aspect of our psychological being. These are interesting questions, but in the absence of our pushing ahead and addressing the underlying issues, we can easily end up just amusing and entertaining that same Ego. Nothing it likes better than to be the topic of conversation!

Any overindulgence in Ego generates some level of shame response, no matter how we might deal with it or avoid it, we do have this clue. If we are ashamed of something then Ego has had a hand in it!

Isn’t there shame hovering about as we confront, however peripherally, these questions around striving and futility?

Since Ego has no concern for the well-being of its host…. It’s just as satisfied by our abject prostration as it is by our ascent to some impossible height. Ego will tend to want to use our shame as a starting place for wearing down our resistance further, hitting us with another bout of guilt, throwing in a lovely shame spiral. Yes! That will do nicely!

Who gains by our being worn down? Where does the power behind the coercion we feel, and that we dish-out to ourselves and to others, come from? Whom does it serve?

Funny how when we begin to ask these questions, in some stolen moment of quiet amidst all the striving, Ego is ready and willing to stand up and take credit!

“Guilty as charged!” It seems to say in that smarmy Narcissist’s voice! We may even smile, a wry and sarcastic smile, the beginning of another entire set of potential displacement activities. We can fall into archness. Get into comedy!

The end of that route brings us back to where we started eventually, either as “successes” or “failures.” Ultimately unable to distinguish between the two. That much older….

Anger. That’s another path we can take…. We’ve been over that one quite a lot, so let’s skip to the punchline, We’re angry at aspects of ourselves we consider out of sorts. We may express it towards another, or towards our self, but these are just ways to avoid addressing the reason we’ve expended so much energy in the first place, there’s something we want to change about the way we interact with the world. Our unconsidered anger is just another way to maintain the conditions that suit our Ego’s urges to dominate.

So, we find a way to confront doing no thing. What happens?

This takes time. It is fraught with false starts and relapses, panics and fits of anxiety play over us, repeatedly threatening relapse. The habits of a lifetime do not simply change over night!

One thing that begins as a threat and then starts to rise up as a potential benediction may be a sense that we are not as indispensable as we thought, or the loss of our sense of control, begins to deliver opportunities to actually be more effective.

Our rising fear, and then its release, is a death of sorts. This is why the imagery of drowning is such a good metaphor for the changes we are going through. As in drowning, our fear of loss of control, of giving in to the necessities of floating, bring us to a point of choice. We can either insist we will not “give in,” or we go through a mini-death as we lose that habit of finding security in the falseness of expecting control to save us. The choice is between death, real death, and this little death, this death of the Ego. Our lives are in the balance.

What can only be glimpsed from the other side of this moment of decision is that none of the reasons behind our previous justifications for remaining mired in futility have been abandoned. Behaving rightly is still as much a concern for us as it ever was. Our compass is still there, if anything it is more readable and perhaps more steady. Our growing trust in our own organism – as opposed to this illusion of a self that is Ego – allows us to become stronger and to see more clearly how to sidestep futility and accept that which is truly beyond our abilities as we enter into actions that find traction and help others.

Whether we do good things or not is not something we now ignore. It is a question we approach with a fresh clarity and fresh vigor. Perhaps most importantly, we begin to sense the place of empathy and compassion in all this, as central to life, and how our engagement with these qualities brings us a sense of well being grounded in sufficiency supported upon an availability, a relationship, with Joy. We have engaged the sorrow underlying existence and we lessen it, through forgiveness as well as in acts of compassion.

We begin to see how our old grim satisfactions, mired in coercion and destruction as we strove after means to meet fictional ends has been hollow. It could never have led to satisfaction. It could never lead us into true right-action. For every step towards fulfilling some good, it led us to commit acts that were no more than adding to the violence tearing at the heart of our world.

In letting go of control as an imperative we find, paradoxically, how much we can actually do. This little death brings us into vital contact with the wellsprings of life.

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

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