Melancholia, ego and compassionate life

As Richard Beck wrote in “Kenosis,”

I’m tired. Of myself.
Not sad. Not depressed. Not suicidal. Not dark.
Just tired.
Tired of being an ego. Having an ego.
I’m tired of filtering everything through myself.

Granted, as one of melancholy temperament, it is far too easy for my brain, when it notices the symptoms Beck describes, to seek reasons for sadness, depression, darkness…and to find them.

I wake up in the morning, I sit at my work desk. My brain scans tasks, responsibilities, which I know I should work on. They obligate me but they don’t interest me. I feel as if my “true self” is elsewhere.

Ha! “True self.” That’s a good one.

Drawing spurious boundaries across the boundless horizon of awareness, and preferring “that over there” to the landscape through which I move at the present moment.

There. There is the illusion of “self.”

That it has boundaries, and that those boundaries can exclude the passages we don’t desire to experience.

Just do it.

At 65, I look all the way back to my teens and recognize melancholia. I also recognize a number of difficult, undiagnosed periods of clinical depression over the decades.

It is always so easy to find real world “reasons” for feeling depressed. Even after 15 years as a clinical counselor, I didn’t recognize the neurobiological dimension of my depression until 2008, after my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s meant we had to move her first to my sister’s care and then to mine. I had probably been clinically depressed for almost a year before I identified the symptoms and found treatment.

This is why I wrote: “It is far too easy for my brain, when it notices the symptoms Beck describes, to seek reasons for sadness, depression, darkness…and to find them.”

Our brains are storytellers. They help us to survive by making “meaning” out of what happens. However, emotions are always also chemical. They can be responses to actual events, to misleading stories we tell ourselves, to chemical imbalances, or to a mixture of all of these. To stay spiritually centered, I have to be mindful of the brain’s storytelling: circumstances may be objective realities, but the stories I tell myself are at best interpretation and at worst self-deception.

I appreciate this comment from a friend on the Empty Path version of this post :

I’ve seldom been “tired of myself…tired of being an ego…having an ego….” [When] I become disheartened with life, especially with the horrors of religion and politics, etc., it seems that the self of each of us, at least the positive Dr. Jekyll side of our personality—that “self” or “ego” is one of the few good aspects of tragic human existence. The ego-negating, opposition to “becoming,” that defines some religious movements seems strange to me.

“Ego” or “self” is essential to human engagement with the world. The human brain’s capacity for conscious observation of experience and for imagining and choosing among possibilities gives us the potential to act independently of the consequences to ourselves. In other words, we are not driven only by survival instincts. We can act for (or against) others even when instinct demands otherwise. We can let moral judgment intrude.

I think that speaking of “ego-negation” is a Western misrepresentation of Buddhism’s psychological and ethical teachings. Similarly, I think traditional Christianity’s tying of self-sacrifice “in this life” to the rewarding of the soul “in the life to come” misrepresents what Jesus intended when he addressed the role of self in community.

I exist as a human animal. My brain constructs a necessary sense of self so that I can act independent of animal instinct. Yet when I draw a boundary around “myself” as opposed to others, I introduce a fiction. I tell myself a false story about a win-lose game. Buddha taught that the win-win lies in seeing that boundary of “ego” as a fiction, so that we can allow ego to suffer while still living compassionate lives. Jesus taught the same.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Views: 144

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 3, 2015 at 7:01pm

It's a complex relation between body, emotions, thoughts -- and spirit. In the model of Kabbalah, these are conceived as four distinct 'worlds' -- but clearly what happens in one relates to whatever happens in the others.

On a physical level: The same neurotransmitter that makes for anger makes for fear, or for simple excitement, depending on what context a person is experiencing when he's injected with it.

Certainly the brain's circuits will tend to fire in the mode it's accustomed to firing in -- It will even learn to act in ways that trigger any strong emotion that's become 'like an itch' -- I don't really understand how this works; but Doc Fraud described the phenomenon as 'The Return of the Repressed' -- and I've certainly observed it at work in myself & others! [Something like 'smoker's lungs,' where after a month of healing the tissues may feel a strong craving for further irritation. ]

But the prime direction of influence is not downward, but up! Real causation happens in the world of spirit; and the worlds of physicality, emotion, and thinking follow suit like shadows of what happens there.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 3, 2015 at 7:21pm

Wait a minute! Maybe I do understand?

A scratch reduces the itch, but when feeling returns to the site, what it's feeling is still inflammation. After a month without smoking, a person's lungs have healed enough to restore feeling -- but what they're feeling is not good; and a cigarette has become his habitual response for that.

Neurons that have become accustomed to occasional stimulation from a certain firing pattern may be exhausted by a intense series of discharges... but after some interval with nothing happening, they become more sensitive.... and less picky about what they react to? If a neuron is part of a stable sort of 'loop', such a loop would have to be self-perpetuating in some way?

Not necessarily proving how this works -- but highly suggestive: Unlike what we used to believe, people form new neurons all the time. Unless these get incorporated into some new activity (preferably some task entirely unfamiliar to the person) they die.

Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 5, 2015 at 10:29am

Thanks, Forrest.

In your first comment you write:

It's a complex relation between body, emotions, thoughts -- and spirit....

On a physical level: The same neurotransmitter that makes for anger makes for fear, or for simple excitement, depending on what context a person is experiencing when he's injected with it....

But the prime direction of influence is not downward, but up! Real causation happens in the world of spirit; and the worlds of physicality, emotion, and thinking follow suit like shadows of what happens there.

This is a common way of conceptualizing the relationships between what we believe we can know directly (body, emotions, thoughts) and what we believe we cannot know directly (spirit). An alternative view is that the former and the latter are not different realms but One.

In my post I wrote:

“Ego” or “self” is essential to human engagement with the world.  The human brain’s capacity for conscious observation of experience and for imagining and choosing among possibilities gives us the potential to act independently of the consequences to ourselves.

The catch is that we usually "forget" that we are temporary bits of consciousness in a changing mortal world. We imagine a separation between these incarnated "bits" and "the spiritual." An alternative view (what Buddhism calls remembering "original self") is that these "bits" are just that; not separate entities but sparks of the One.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 5, 2015 at 10:58am

The thing is, in this one realm there's a certain correspondence in how things will work at different levels. So what happens with the brain will (normally) have a similar causative structure to what happens spiritually.

Seeing how the brain operates doesn't 'explain' the way we think -- but it does suggest the patterns and qualities we see in what we do, think, feel -- (and intuit?)

Anyway, I think we do know spirit 'directly' -- but we don't recognize that it's a separate category, not something that can be explained by the physical, emotional, or mental factors it responds to, the things we better understand the words for.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 5, 2015 at 11:26am

We don't recognize the spiritual things we talk about because we confuse them with the physical, mental, and emotional words we try to 'explain' them by...?

Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 6, 2015 at 8:23am

This is helpful for me, Forrest:

I think we do know spirit 'directly' -- but we don't recognize that it's a separate category, not something that can be explained by the physical, emotional, or mental factors it responds to, the things we better understand the words for.

We don't recognize the spiritual things we talk about because we confuse them with the physical, mental, and emotional words we try to 'explain' them by...?

Perhaps what I am doing is simply turning the model around and looking at it from the other side.

What we usually call “the spiritual” is “everything that is,” and we experience it directly, whether or not we are conscious of it or have metaphorical names for it.

The “physical, emotional, or mental factors” are that smaller realm of phenomena which our bodies experience through our bodies’ senses and the neurochemical interactions—and which our conscious minds label as “reality,” simply because this is what we can sense with those physical organs.

Put simply, my concern is to open awareness to what we cannot sense or name yet experience in profoundly direct ways.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment

You need to be a member of QuakerQuaker to add comments!

Join QuakerQuaker

Support Us

Did you know that QuakerQuaker is 100% reader supported? If you think this kind of outreach and conversation is important, please support it with a monthly subscription or one-time gift.


You can also make a one-time donation.

Latest Activity

Kirby Urner posted a blog post

A Campus Curriculum

I'm reaching out to Friends in higher education with my recent Youtubes, which I'm free to…See More
4th month 13
Keith Saylor posted a blog post

Definitions

Iconography: The process of guiding and informing human relationships and interactions through…See More
4th month 10
Patricia Dallmann posted a blog post

New essay at Abiding Quaker: "A Colony of Heaven"

The following excerpt is from a new post titled "A Colony of Heaven" which can be found at…See More
4th month 6
Mike Shell posted a discussion
4th month 4
Patty Quinn liked Mike Shell's discussion Weekly Online Worship with Quaker Universalist Fellowship
4th month 2
Patty Quinn liked Kirby Urner's discussion Quakerism and Religious Freedom
4th month 2
Kirby Urner posted a discussion

Quakerism and Religious Freedom

I've only recently learned what a lot of people already know:  the well-advertised Shen Yun dance…See More
4th month 2
Jonathan Smith liked Mike Shell's discussion Weekly Online Worship with Quaker Universalist Fellowship
4th month 1

© 2019   Created by QuakerQuaker.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service