So I’ve been reading Reginald Ray’s Touching Enlightenment for the past few weeks, picking it up and putting it down, mulling it over. A day ago I came to a section that led me to consider that there might be a planetary counterpart to the individual ego — something like a meta-ego — that conjures and defends a meta-self, e.g., a nation-state, a dominant culture, a way of life that is otherwise indefensible vis a vis the wisdom of the natural world.

Wandering down that trail is what prompted yesterday’s post, the one about the USA being the ego of the world.

Since you’re not reading the book along with me, I thought I’d offer a little more context for that post. I am playing with a thought here. If you’re into that sort of thing, maybe you can play, too.

Here’s the excerpt that triggered my contemplation:

“What happens to all that denied and rejected experience that our body has already received? (…) As we have seen, we literally freeze the body — which knows and is aware of the totality — so that we don’t have to feel more than the very small portion we can accept. The experience of the body, however, has not been destroyed by our rejection, nor has it somehow disappeared. Rather, it continues to live in the patterns of mental avoidance and physical tension that we have developed around it.

(…) “The experience that our body has taken in but our conscious “self” has been unwilling to receive dwells in a kind of no-man’s land or bardo (“intermediate”) state in our body. There, we do subliminally feel it, primarily as an abiding threat and source of subtle anxiety that runs throughout our life.

(…) “Our ego maintenance, then, represents the ongoing activity of rehearsing and repeating, over and over, the “narrative” of our personal “self” — who I am, who I should be, who I want to be, who I must be, to survive as “me.”

And here’s the rabbit hole I went down:

I started by considering the story told by the dominant culture about the European conquest of the Americas. The framing of it of a “discovery.” The assumption of “destiny” and inevitability. Such a very small portion of the vast experience spanning hundreds of years has been retained as “history.” What happened to the rest of the story?

The rest, to borrow from Ray, continues to live within the dominant culture in what he calls “patterns of avoidance.” In other words, we don’t talk about these rejected aspects in any consistent way that would fold them into an understanding of our true shared history. We in fact actively avoid such enfolding.

But the body (of the Earth) knows. The body retains it all. And as creatures of the Earth, we feel it. Subliminally, viscerally, we know this information is there. Yet we can’t let it in without shattering our sense of meta-self.

Which makes us — as a people, and as a country — defensive, anxious, unable to feel safe anywhere, perceiving threats to our survival everywhere.

Our national identity, our origin stories, our patriotism, nationalism, all of these might be seen as the work of the ego writ large, the meta-ego that must defend itself against the knowledge of the world, all those traumatic experiences that have been forced into hiding by a meta-self that requires constant reinforcement of who it is and why it is and how it must survive. These defenses play themselves out as continued dysfunction and hypocrisy and war and brinkmanship and misogyny and the incessant, almost manic, urge to turn the living planet into dead numbers on a ledger.

Can we begin to heal the meta-ego in the same way we begin to heal the personal ego, by slowly working to relax its stranglehold on our perceptions, our lived experience? And can we do it without demanding that everybody sit on a cushion? Because any solution that requires everybody to do anything is no solution at all.

Does any of this make sense to you? It feels so unwieldy.

And yet.

I might have more to say about it later. For now I think I’m going to sit with it a little longer.


4 thoughts on “Meta-Ego

  1. I haven’t read the book so my comments may miss some of the points the author makes. My immediate sense is that I’m not sure a meta-ego is needed (or terribly useful) to explain civilization’s ills.

    I think our bodies, our biological communities and our environments have had billions of years to evolve together what Cohen & Stewart call “complicities” — collective “agreements” that have been found to serve the greater whole. The fact that they work and tend to self-perpetuate is tautological — if they didn’t work to the benefit of the collective whole they would be evolutionary dead-ends.

    Human cultures, on the other hand, are novel, fragile (eg they are dependent on very new, very imprecise abstract language), and not yet proven to stand the test of time.

    There is some compelling evidence that the ego, and the self, are not real at all, in the sense that bodies and creatures and environments are, but rather accidental exaptations of large brains. Evolution favoured (at least in the short term) creatures that have feature-detection systems to alert their members (the cells, organs and organisms in the body) to important survival information. The senses and the brain together have evolved as a particularly effective feature-detection system (for them not for us).

    But when a brain gets especially large, in its scan for features to make sense of and report to its ‘stakeholders’ (the plurality that we have come to call ‘us’ and, ironically, to call ‘individuals’), it can come to turn its attention on ‘itself’ (ie on the feature detection system). It then tries to make sense of that, and, just as it creates simplified models to represent the reality it detects in terms of ‘colours’ and ‘times’, which its constituents can use very effectively (“that yellow moving thing is probably a tiger — run, feet!”), it creates a model of itself (or more precisely of “its self”).

    However, just as we can get so immersed in a movie that it becomes for a time ‘real’ to us, the feature detection system can also get so immersed in its simplified models of reality that it starts to mistake them for reality. That is where, arguably, the ego arises. The ego (or ‘self’, what the feature detection system perceives when it turns attention to its self) believes it is real and in control and making decisions over its perceived (modelled) ‘reality’. It believes that flower is absolutely ‘red’ and that events happened absolutely in the ‘past’.

    As neuroscience is beginning to demonstrate, what we think of as ‘our’ decisions are in fact after-the-fact rationalizations of the ego for what the body’s members collectively and intuitively, in the context of the situation of the moment and its embodied and enculturated ‘nature’, had already begun to actualize. The ego, believing itself to be real and in charge, has to make sense of what it thinks are ‘its’ decisions, even when the rationalization is tortuous. The ego’s sense that something isn’t right and shouldn’t be so is where suffering (as distinct from pain) comes from — a cognitive dissonance between what seemingly is and what should/could be/seemingly used to be etc. This suffering is felt in the body (as anyone with stress-related illness can vouch) — it is what Tolle calls the “pain-body”, the basis for emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness — and also felt/experienced in the egoic mind. Tolle describes a vicious cycle of the egoic mind’s self-aggrandizing rationalizations (“Oh I should never have done that!”) and the pain-body’s visceral reactions (“Oh I feel so bad!”).

    As Ray notes, the consequence of this chronic cognitive dissonance is a partial or total shut-down. The ego blames the body for the chronic stress-related disease and starts to block features (perceived sensations, feelings, ideas) that seem to do nothing but hopelessly aggravate the dissonance between what it wants to be and thinks should be happening, and what it (mis-)perceives to be actually happening — which it mistakenly thinks is happening “to it”.

    So ego and the false sense of separate self are a “disease”, and cultures of egoic creatures are similarly afflicted with what I’ve called “civilization disease” — the enculturated activities, thoughts and feelings (blaming, wars, judgements, hatred, fury, terror etc) that stem from pain-bodies and egoic minds reinforcing each other’s suffering. No meta-ego required — and no blame. Just the ravages of a contagious disease that crept in, unexpectedly, with the evolution of large brains, and for which, alas, there seems no cure except the extinction of the afflicted species.

    Thanks for the invitation to play.

    1. This is my second time through Touching Enlightenment. It lacks the juice of Ray’s guided meditations (which you can find at but it’s thought-provoking. (At least, it provokes me.) Tho I’m not sure what he’d say about a meta-ego. Perhaps that it’s over-conceptualized and — as you say — unnecessary. Wasn’t it John Gray who wrote that there is no “humanity,” there are only humans? So in that sense of course there’s no need for a meta-ego overlaying (a nonexistent) humanity. There are just humans, acting as humans do. No cure for that.

  2. Thanks Peggy. I have obtained some solace from the belief (which may be just another rationalization, but which seems intellectually and intuitively ‘sensible’ to me) that there are no humans — there is no ‘one’ at all. There is just the appearance of everything out of nothing, outside of time. That may sound stark and soul-less and “detached” from reality, but my sense, from glimpses of this, is that it’s the opposite: it’s wondrous, liberating, and the real truth. Those I know who don’t have this ‘sense’ and who don’t know what these ‘glimpses’ are find it really annoying when I describe this, and I apologize if this strikes you that way.

    From reading Ray’s essay on somatic meditation it seems possible that his ‘bottom-up’ approach to meditation, drawing from the ‘exogenous’ (body-centred, self-less) part of us, might open us to some glimpse of/resonance with this self-less reality. I’m going to try some of these meditations — since after all ‘I’ have ‘no thing’ to lose 🙂

    So, no humans, no thing apart. Only this. No need for a cure, just a letting go, if only that were possible.

  3. Not annoying. What you describe is not detachment at all — there is far too much detachment in the meditating world – but something more like full embodiment. The dropping down into the body of the Earth that Reggie uses as one of his core meditations is liberating and wondrous in the way that you describe. Honestly, I find these concepts hard to navigate in words that make sense to others and so I don’t talk about them much. I don’t fully “get them” — which is why I need to poke at them and see what’s there. Thanks for your willingness to poke at them with me.

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