Photo by Dallas Reedy on Unsplash
The fortress of the ideal self is also a prison.
We move from goal to goal and want to want—seeking, achieving, acquiring. No success satisfies the unnameable vacancy we harbour.
Meanwhile, we each defend the ‘me’ at the centre of this search, protecting it from outside attack and disciplining ourselves to maintain its ideal against internal shortfall. We must be good enough; others must understand us.
What we unknowingly seek is our own wholeness—to express and experience all that we are. What stands in our way of finding it? Our own childish definition of the ‘me’ who seeks it, the labels we hide behind and the priority we give comfort over curiosity.
Fully experiencing Life without the filter of our storyteller
is what we all deeply long for.
—Mary O’Malley, What’s in the Way Is the Way
Half the Picture; Half the Story
At times, I have been strong. As an infantryman, I routinely endured harsh conditions. In leading teams of business colleagues, I’ve often set a moral example in challenging situations. I love that label—‘strong’. How about you?
And yet, too often, I’ve been glaringly weak. This weakness surfaced in similar settings, just in different instances. Strength has gone missing in my roles as father, husband and friend as well. Although I bring myself to apply it here, this label—‘weak’—isn’t one I embrace with comfort. How does it sit with you?
My anecdotes might as easily have contrasted ‘giving v selfish’, ‘compassionate v heartless’, or ‘mature v childish’. Throughout my life and in my current days, observers of my behaviour could cite examples of all these.
Each of us has an image of what we think we are or what we should be, and that image, that picture,
entirely prevents us from seeing ourselves as we actually are.
-J. Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known
My self-image, though, chooses one half of each pair, usually—but not always—the favourable one. Why would the ‘bad’ half ever make it in? Negative labels can serve the self-image by claiming the role of underdog or by excluding me from positive but scary experiences.
Let me give this self-image the name we better know it by—my ego. We each acquire one as we navigate our childhood worlds. We spend much of our ensuing lives protecting them. The characteristics we identify with and defend are those that secured us love or excused our unworthiness of it.
The ego sprang from unconscious ground, and my protective efforts to keep it intact are also mainly below conscious awareness. Okay, so I define myself a certain way and protect that definition, all without realising it. What’s the big deal?
I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.
—Byron Katie, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life
The cost? Well, in any battle between reality and make-believe, all-powerful reality wins. The truth is that you and I—like all life—contain both halves of each pair of opposite characteristics.
[He] is not made up of two characters, but of hundreds, of thousands. His life, like that of every human being,
does not oscillate between two poles only — say between the body and the mind or spirit, between the
saint and the profligate — but between thousands, between innumerable polar opposites.
—Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
Strength and weakness live within us, as do all their cousins. Pretending and defending otherwise is a Sisyphean task. Our unwanted aspects always find a path to the surface. Life is simply too majestic to give way to conceptual filters. Refusing to answer the door with your attention when the unwanted visit doesn’t make them go away.
Sandcastles, Sand Prisons
Reality flows. It is alive. So, of course, are we. But our egos are frozen constructs, born and locked in a childish world. The ego is a fragile sandcastle, washed by wave after wave of reality’s untameable sea.
These fortresses of self-definition need constant maintenance to keep them from crumbling. The insistent flow of Life splashes against them and drags at their foundations incessantly. What else do we expect to happen when we try to set fixed positions in a reality that rushes, dancing and laughing, at and past it in perpetual renewal?
So we work, repairing bulwarks, patching holes, mopping salty puddles.
Reality’s waves deliver pain and pleasure—the full spectrum of all good v bad polarities. Our castle walls, to the extent they hold back the sea at all, deny entry to both the negative and the positive that life offers. In seeking to avoid what contradicts our self-image, we also close ourselves off from much of what would bring us delight. Every fortress doubles as a prison.
If we are to have intense pleasures, we must also be liable to intense pains.
—Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
Yes, the sea contains pleasure and pain, but suffering doesn’t live there. To suffer is to feel the encroaching water splash on sandy walls and towers. It is the effort of maintaining this always-crumbling, conceptual construction. Without the sandcastle, there is no suffering.
Captive to Security
Sisyphus rolled the boulder uphill, and we shovel and pack psychological sand, building and endlessly rebuilding our own prisons. The gods damned Sisyphus to his fate. Who sentences us?
We imprison ourselves each time we choose comfort and security over reality and freedom. We opt for the comfort of a filtered and distorted truth that conforms to our outdated self-definitions. Equally, we prioritise our fortress’s imagined security over the full richness of life’s offering.
Notice that I say, ‘imagined security’, and remember: Life is wild and powerful. There is no security. The sense of insecurity is nothing other than the desire for security, for something that does not exist.
Through these choices, we set ourselves against reality—an unenviable position. More personally, we sacrifice the freedom of being exactly who we are, as we are, in each moment. Life delivers a new truth to our existence every instant, but we turn from it, shackling ourselves to a childish cartoon of the ideal self.
If our routine choice of false security over real freedom imprisons us, then choosing otherwise can free us. Our suffering is the experience of defending and repairing an outdated and one-sided self-image in its continual battle with full-spectrum reality. Our egoic sandcastle is the prison, so let’s put down our spades and buckets.
You can get out simply by letting everyday life take down the walls you hold around yourself.
You simply don’t participate in supporting, maintaining and defending your fortress.
—Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
That’s right. We don’t have to dismantle our sandcastles. No wrecking balls required here, just the ability to withhold our participation in propping up the edifice. But let’s face it, refusing to take part is tough. When reality’s waves crash onto our castle wall, we reach for the spade as if by reflex: defensive self-narrative and action ensue. How do we break that reactive chain?
The Body Holds the Key
Many have found that the critical elements in the cascade from reality’s splashes to defence of the ego are intense, uncomfortable bodily sensations.
A wave rolls in: perhaps something someone says, maybe a set of circumstances contrary to your hidden self-image. That splash prompts thoughts, it’s true. The storyteller kicks into action. But more important is the gripping sensation it triggers in your body.
Since childhood, you’ve associated this feeling with existential fear. It threatens to overwhelm you. You find it unbearable. In unthinking response, you reach for the spade to shore up your castle walls.
Doing so relieves the urgent discomfort, not least by distracting you from the reality of the wave’s impact, the truth of its message.
… neurosis is always a substitute for experiential intensity.
Whenever [we] become aware of a complaint, I suggest [we] ask [our]selves:
‘What am I feeling right now that I don’t want to feel?’
—Bruce Tift, Already Free
Here is something concrete to work with. When we encounter these threatening sensations, we can ground ourselves, breathe and ‘let them settle’—not looking to make them disappear but staying with them until they spend themselves. At first, we may only stay with them briefly before succumbing to our habitual panic.
Over time, though, we prove to ourselves that these apparent threats are not what they seem. As we upgrade our conceptual interpretation of them, we short-circuit our own defensive reaction. The ego’s losing battle with reality generates potent sensations. As we learn they are bearable, they less frequently spur us into supporting and reinforcing our frozen and dead self-image.
This leaves reality to disassemble our fortress one wave at a time. Our job as it does its work is to bear the discomfort and disturbance of personal growth.
Another way to say this is that you and I needn’t change ourselves. Instead, let’s study ourselves. This includes learning about our self-image, and we do that by noticing which waves damage our sandcastle. We don’t do this to defeat or erase the self-image—only the ego can fight the ego. The power is in curiosity and openness.
… it does take practice, courage, curiosity, and the cultivating of radical new levels of kindness toward yourself.
—Matt Licata, The Path is Everywhere
Nor do we study in order to judge—either the waves or ourselves. Our curiosity is most powerful when it is kind. Aimed at judgement, it freezes and loses its openness.
Some waves will appear too large, some sensations too strong or persistent for us to accommodate. Similarly, sometimes we won’t be kind. In these cases, we may take up the spade and shore up the walls.
These moments call for a special self-kindness. In time, we realise that such a moment of ‘failure’ is simply another wave of reality threatening our fortress. The crucial next step is to be kind to the judge in you that failed to show kindness, or to accept the defender in you that panicked and shovelled more sand onto the castle wall.
Understand that the waves will not stop. Reality continues, and it always contains the full spectrum of possibilities—positive and negative. Over time, we absorb these splashes as aspects of ourselves, and realise that our self-kindness extends to them as well. Even ‘external’ waves (the words and deeds of others and unsatisfactory events) are our own selves. How? In the sense that the projection of our egoic conditioning colours our experience of them.
Energy for Life
When we put down the spade and give up the defence, we surrender. But that surrender is to Life itself, which we may come to see as our higher self. From this perspective, our acceptance of all life’s offerings transmutes into a love for what we recognise as aspects of our true selves.
The upkeep of our fortress walls has been soaking up untold energy, and all of that becomes available if we relax our defence in surrender. Our shift from pretend perfection to recognised wholeness releases energy and liberates us from the prison of our self-image.
Above and beyond any degree of understanding, the greatest demonstration of your true divine nature is a
body that feels safe enough to participate in life with openness and enthusiasm.
—Matt Kahn, Whatever Arises, Love That
We never cross a finish line, but we adopt a perspective and an approach to life that helps us stay open to our whole selves and life’s full wonder. Each moment, we turn to face the sea. Surf’s up!