Yesterday I learned that there may be an effort by members of my condominium association to remove a tree that stands directly outside my unit. When I woke up today, the first thing I found myself thinking about was the tree. The more I thought about it, the more exercised I became. I could not stand the thought of losing the tree. I spent most of the day dwelling on the problem, envisioning various strategies to protect the tree, and considering fallback positions if the tree should in fact come down. I put in a work order to have some groundcover cleared away by the landscaping crew so as to determine whether the root system of the tree poses any threat to the sidewalk or nearby driveway. I called a tree surgeon to arrange an appointment so I could get an expert opinion on the health of the tree and whether it ought to be removed. I was so distracted by this problem that I found it difficult to work, even though I'm overburdened with projects at the moment and have several deadlines I'm trying to meet.
And then at some point in the evening, a little ray of clarity broke into the turbulence of my thoughts. I found myself thinking, What the hell, man? It's only a tree.
At that point, I was able to step outside of my emotional connection to the tree, my feeling that any attack on the tree was an attack on me personally, my egoic attachment to this tree which is an extension of my home and therefore an extension of myself. That's not to say I was suddenly okay with the prospect of the tree coming down, if it is in fact healthy and not posing a threat to the sidewalk, etc. But at least during this period of clarity I was no longer fuming and obsessing.
Later, I happened to look out the window at the tree, and the simple sight of it immediately brought back a lot of the rage, frustration, and exasperation I'd been feeling. I could easily have gotten caught up in another whirlwind of negative thinking if I hadn't consciously pull back.
What this little episode illustrates, I think, is a simple point that has been made often enough by Eckhart Tolle and similar writers, but remains insufficiently appreciated–namely, the ego is insane.
I mean this literally. There is a sane part of us, but it is not the ego. The ego is capable of lucidity when lucidity serves its self-defined interests. But it is equally capable of brazen irrationality when irrationality serves its perceived interests. It is also very adept at disguising irrationality and making it appear perfectly sensible, at least to ourselves, and sometimes to others.
The ego is not our friend. The ego is looking out only for itself. The ego wants to enlarge itself, and it does so by getting us worked up, angry, righteous, obsessed, vindictive, frustrated, and defensive, among many other things. Occasionally it may actually be beneficial for us to experience one or more of these states of mind, but most of the time it is not helpful. Not helpful to us, that is. It is very helpful to the ego.
It is true that most of us identify with the ego and have trouble drawing a distinction between the "I" and the ego. And that's just the way the ego likes it. The more we identify with it, the more power we give it and the less able we are to resist its siren song. People who are totally in the grip of the ego, without any ray of clarity from the higher self or true self, are psychotic. They may be walking around in public, they may be successful in their field, they may even be admired and envied, but they are still psychopaths.
It is entirely possible for a person to be very successful in a material sense, outwardly normal and even likable, and still be, in fact, insane. Actually, I think this state of affairs is more common than we like to admit.
But all of us have an ego, and all of us are insane to one extent or another. Maybe there are a few very enlightened gurus who have overcome the ego completely, though I wouldn't count on it. But the overwhelming majority of human beings on the earth, and probably every human being you or I will ever meet, is in the grip of the ego much of the time, and therefore is functionally insane for a good part of his or her life.
People wonder why they see so much cruelty in the world, so much craziness, so many examples of man's inhumanity to man. But if you consider that nearly all of us are insane at least part of the time, and many of us are insane most of the time, the cruelty, craziness, and inhumanity of the human species is less surprising. To be honest, it is a little surprising that things aren't even worse. The better angels of our nature do seem to temper our egoic tendencies more often than we might expect.
Lately on this blog, I've been talking a lot about manias, and specifically the idea that the heyday of Spiritualism as a cultural, social, and religious movement may have been characterized by an atmosphere of mania, or perhaps more accurately, by recurrent waves of mania erupting at different places in different times, not unlike the witch hysteria of an earlier era. But how can otherwise rational people become subject to any sort of mania? Well, perhaps they can't; but the trouble is, people are not “otherwise rational.” As creatures of the ego, they are insane for a good part of their lives, so it's not surprising that their individual insanity should sometimes coalesce into a group insanity, and that this insanity should seem perfectly reasonable to the people who are subject to it.
That's why I have to treat with skepticism even the most sober accounts of séances and other purportedly paranormal experiences if they were supplied by people whose rationality and objectivity had been compromised either by excessive personal enthusiasm or the larger insanity of a mass movement. These people were convinced that they had witnessed paranormal or supernatural phenomena of epochal importance. Naturally they became intensely committed to the reality of what they had seen. Their commitment was reinforced by sharing their experiences with others who felt they had seen the same things. This commitment became an extension of the ego, and any attack on that commitment–any questions raised about the validity of the phenomena–were felt as an attack on the ego. And the ego will go to astounding lengths to protect itself from such an attack. It will marshal all of its resources, including all of the intellectual capabilities of the mind it is using (and I do think the ego uses the mind, not in a symbiotic relationship but parasitically; the ego is, in a sense, an alien entity that clings to the mind in order to sustain itself).*
A mind that has been hijacked by the ego can believe itself to be entirely lucid, objective, even unusually perceptive–while spouting sheer nonsense. Some behavioral psychologists use the term “thought attack” to describe the cascading avalanche of irrational thoughts that can lead to severe anxiety, depression, violence, etc. But all ego-based thinking is a thought attack to some degree. And while we are caught up in it, we are no more able to extricate ourselves from our racing thoughts than from a descending mountainside of snow.
I think we need to keep this in mind when we evaluate any eyewitness accounts or recollections of paranormal events, especially those from the frenetic halcyon days when Spiritualism, like Revivalism before it, was burning like a prairie fire across the nation. Again I have to say: the ego is not our friend. It is not interested in truth or facts or even logic and reason, except as these may be used to serve its own purpose, which is to survive and grow stronger. The ego is not a reliable guide. It will intentionally mislead us if, by leading us astray, it can aggrandize itself. The ego is not honest or rational or moral, though it may speak in the language of reason and morality when it pleases.
The ego is really the devil in us all, the original sin that taints us. We ignore it at our own risk. And nowhere is this more true than when matters of ultimate spiritual significance–the nature of life and death, and the meaning of it all–are at stake.
*It's possible that the relationship orginally was symbiotic, i.e., mutually beneficial, but it does not seem to fit that description today. At the very least, the relationship seems to do much more harm than good in modern society.