Grounding one’s contemplation of experience on the foundation of relational being-ness leads to an inescapable point of recognition, an acknowledgment that how we talk about our experiences, particularly how we talk about people, is not accurate. Recently I noted in a discussion about personality disorders that so much of the language was concerned with the person as being cut off from their context as if the therapist could interact with the client in an “I and you” space. My comment then and now was to bring up the inter-relational reality that is not just a descriptive of our behavioral interactions, but a foundational principle of our existence. Our ego is a point of reference, not a state of being.
We are so caught up in the seemingly intuitive notion that we are all billiard balls of individual egos, bouncing off of one another in the cacophony that is society, we never stop to look at how this idea utterly fails in providing a truly nuanced and honest appraisal of our existence. The simple fact of the matter is, the individual ego is not a state of being, it’s a referential locus, like the fulcrum of a teeter-totter, important and what is often keenly felt in awareness but completely inadequate to fully understand the whole of our experience.
In discussing the so-called mind/body problem, Leonard Peikoff notes:
“Mind is consciousness; consciousness is nothing but the faculty of perceiving that which exists; so if you grasp the relationship of consciousness to existence, that would obliterate the whole idea that there’s some kind of war between the two.” (“Understanding Objectivism“)
I use this quote not to draw commonality between myself and objectivism, as there are many dissimilar ideas, but to point out a rare proper conflation, that of mind and consciousness as a perceptual tool. Further, in bringing up the mind/body problem, I am directing attention to how a misunderstanding of ego leads to a faulty conceptual understanding of who we are and perpetuates the feeling of separation that is at the heart of shame and doubt.
Let me break that down further. When conversing about people and ourselves, there’s almost always at the core of it a desire for understanding the why and how of a particular action. We become prophetic armchair philosophers and psychologists, pedantically excoriating the behavior of others and/or ourselves, exclaiming “how could she?!” or “but that just isn’t the real me!” with varying degrees of emotional hysteria depending on the consequences and emotional bonds involved. In either case, the entirety of the analysis is based on a feeling of separation, whether that be between us and the other or between the “ideal I” and the “actual I” of our personal narrative. The separation between people, or between our mind’s “I” and our body’s behavior, leads to shame over our actions or projected judgment about another’s, coating the entirety of the situation in a miasma of unfortunate and needlessly painful recrimination.
I say needless because once we remove the notion of our egos as states of being or of actors engaging with the universe in a game of chess, replacing it with the idea of our egos being like pinpricks upon the canvas of potential experience, any self-recrimination and hate-filled judgment of others becomes not only irrational but also unhelpful, if not outright unethical. When we take stock of how we live, when we truly pay attention, the feeling of being in control is just that, a feeling, a phenomenological experience that we take for being intrinsic to humanity, something that is deeply and profoundly tied to a sense of self. Stepping back but a little we can immediately see the countless variables required to be in place for any particular behavior to come about. Making the situation more complicated, much in the same way that different neural maps can result in the same behavior, so changes in environmental variables can still result in the same behavior manifesting. Yet, just as in neurology, this in no way removes the requirement that the behavior in question needed and was a direct result of, the context provided by all those variables.
Without going any further, what is immediately noticeable here is how profound the effect of a single principle can have in the framing of our experience. If we are billiard-ball egos, then dialogue becomes combat and judgment becomes about separating us from them. If we are bound in a singular reality, our egos simply keyholes to view a select section of possibility, then understanding another person becomes about compassion and empathy, and recriminations are replaced with thoughtful determination to shift what needs to be shifted to provide the impetus to behave differently next time.
In a relational universe of perceiving egos we open ourselves to a shared living.