Who ‘We’ Are, Part Two: Ego: Our Debilitating Self-Deception

why we do what we do

I should have realized that my recent post on Who ‘We’ Are would get me embroiled in a discussion on ‘free will’. So here’s Part Two of this existential rant, to hopefully explore and clear up some of the comments and questions the first article provoked.

In Straw Dogs John Gray writes that “free will is a trick of perspective,” based on the self-delusion that there is “an inner person directing our behaviour.”:

We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.

These ‘fragments’ that are conceived by our minds are what Stewart and Cohen call “figments (simplified, invented models) — of reality“. Our ‘minds’, they argue, are nothing more than processes that produce these figments (originally for the benefit of our cells’ and organs’ survival, but now, with the increasing power of our culture due to language, also appropriated by our culture).

This is what I was getting at in the previous article when I said that one’s ‘mind’ is a battleground, without any ‘natives’ to defend the territory, where a ceaseless battle rages between the cells and organs of our bodies which evolved our brains as a feature-detection, protection and mobility management device for their purposes, and our culture which uses every available form of propaganda and coercion to try to seize control of our minds for their purposes. As our culture accelerates over the edge of a cliff, these ‘purposes’ are increasingly divergent.

That we have a ‘choice’ between doing what our cells and organs would have us do, and doing what our culture would have us do, hardly constitutes ‘free will’, as humanists would have us believe. It is hard to imagine anything further from ‘freedom’ than to have to make a Sophie’s choice between two irreconcilable alternatives, the choice of either of which will inevitably hurt us, either through damage to our physical and/or mental health, or the angry opprobrium of the well-brainwashed majority in our culture.

In Tolle’s model (above, left), the constant traumas inflicted upon us by our dying, ruthless culture produce a vicious cycle: Our brains invent stories to try to ‘make sense’ of our suffering, and these stories in turn provoke negative emotions (anger, fear, grief etc.), our experience of which reinforces the ‘validity’ of these fictional stories. Many stressful events in our culture (e.g. attacks on us or our loved-ones or our beliefs, bad news about the planet, and a million others) trigger these negative emotions and the stories that we’ve invented to try to make sense of them. Our culture puts its ‘spin’ on each event’s story to pressure us to do its bidding, or to make us believe there is nothing we can do. As a result we are intellectually and emotionally incapacitated, often to the point of chronic mental and physical illness.

So the battle between our biology and our culture for control of our minds (and hence control over our beliefs and actions) is further aggravated by these incapacitating triggers, which take our minds (our intellectual and emotional ‘selves’) hostage. Many of us dissociate, and, in order to try to avoid the triggers, endeavour to live inside our heads, disconnect the four aspects of our ‘selves’ (intellectual, emotional, sensual and intuitive) from each other and from the ‘real’ world, and hide away in a ‘safe’ world of our own making. Except it’s not really our own making: We are really living inside our culturally ‘dis-eased’ mind. This ‘we’ that is doing so is, of course, another fiction — our ego, a cultural construct that exploits a brain that is too smart (and too vulnerable to stress) for its own good. As Gray explains, this ego is just a self-delusion that an inner person is directing our behaviour.

It’s very difficult to shake the delusion that our ego is ‘real’ however, because our culture constantly tells us it is real — and as long as we all believe our egos are ‘real’ we will go on reinforcing that delusion in our every contact with others. The culture tells us that we must take responsibility (as our culture defines responsibility, which in today’s overwrought world is tantamount to self-induced imprisonment and slavery), that we must do what those in power tell us (on threat of punishment), and that we must conform and be like everybody else (or be shunned and ostracized). It also tells most of us that we are sinful, vulnerable and only worth what our culture deems us to be worth.

Inevitably and endlessly our culture fills us with feelings of guilt, fear, shame and self-loathing, and false stories that support these feelings.  When the egoic mind and the ‘pain-body’ (the chronic negative emotions the egoic mind’s stories provoke) churn fast enough, we slide into depression (a form of disengaging from our emotions and thoughts when they become too much to bear), or lash out against others (in personal violence or collective wars), or retreat into paralysis or denial (consumed by fear, or nostalgia, or irrational magical thinking). Our culture knows how to pull the triggers and exploit the ego only too well.

Much has been written about how to ‘realize’ that the egoic mind and pain-body are not real; they are just, as Stewart and Cohen say, ‘figments of reality’ — false models, self-constructed and culturally-reinforced fictions. Even more has been written about how to free ourselves from them.

If we can do so, if we can get rid of the fictional egoic ‘gunk’ that our culture has, throughout our lives, layered on us, our ‘selves’ begin to look more like the ‘present’ self on the right side of the illustration above. With the deception of the ego gone, we are free of the controlling and debilitating effects of culturally-induced triggers. Our senses, instincts, intellects and emotions are reconnected with each other and with the ‘real’ world, and we become healthy and fully functional — that amazing combination of relaxation and awareness that allows us to be fearlessly open to what our instincts, senses, emotions and intellect perceive (not what they conceive, nor what others conceive and urge us to take as ‘true’), and at the same time calm, comfortable and competent to assess what they mean, without bias, judgement or expectation.

In this ‘frame of mind’ we can be both fully present and at peace in the world (the way I believe most wild animals live, most of the time), and able to bring a mindful approach (rather than a reactive one) to each event we face, such as the 7-step process I have tried to use: Sense, self-control, understand, question, imagine, offer, collaborate. The knowledge (instinctive, emotional, sensory and intellectual) we have and can draw on can then be integrated and appropriate actions taken, in the moment.

But if we are just a collection of cells and organs who have evolved a ‘mind’ to create useful (to them) figments (models) of reality, a mind that is, to some extent or other, invaded and controlled by our culture, who, then, is taking these ‘present’ actions?

I would argue that it is our cells and organs, ‘speaking’ to us through our cleared minds. Our senses and instincts are primeval, and the knowledge they convey to us requires no mental model, no ‘figment of reality’. Our minds, when they are as free of cultural baggage as possible, use our instincts’ and senses’ knowledge to decide on actions that are in our cells’ and organs’ interest. These need not be selfish actions — our bodies are ‘smart’ enough (consider e.g. the urge to procreate, to socialize, and to nurture) to act in concert with others in the greater good of all-life-on-Earth, which they (we) instinctively appreciate — our biophilia is innate, an evolutionary prime directive in our genes, at least when this biophilia is not overridden by the nature-fearing stories of our culture.

Our cells and organs prompt us in integrating this knowledge by producing chemicals that evoke strong emotions (in the natural world these are mostly positive, except in fight-or-flight situations) to goad us into appropriate behaviours.

Our culture is of no help at all in this process. In ‘less-civilized’, healthy societies the culture of the people rarely interferes to compel its members to act against their cells’ and organs’ interests. Individuals in such societies are trusted to make their own decisions, without coercion; the purpose of the culture is to provide objective knowledge through stories, not to advise.

So what’s wrong with our ‘civilized’ culture, that it has so overstepped its bounds of helpfulness, and now tries to control ‘us’ to the point we are mostly ill, disconnected, imprisoned, and dysfunctional?

My guess is that our culture became, as a consequence of our own inventiveness, perverted, deranged, cancerous. When our species faced crises that threatened our existence, our response was to invent the arrowhead, and then agriculture, and then settlement — ‘civilization’. Without these inventions we might not have survived the ice ages — earlier rounds of severe climate change.

But these new inventions required a great deal more interdependence and associations much larger than tribes — the bigger the better. We naturally did not take to the constraints such interdependence and scale required — hierarchy, conformity, obedience, settlement, dependence on fragile human systems, and suffering with plagues, famines and violence, all consequences of living in unnaturally large numbers in close quarters. Our culture, which as ‘software’ can evolve must faster than our cells’ and organs’ ‘hardware’, adapted quickly to the need to enforce compliance and uniformity. Language was its most powerful tool. As civilization ratcheted up to 100 million people, and then a billion, and now seven billion, the culture has needed to restrict personal ‘choices’ and freedoms more and more. It had to get inside our heads and control us, from birth, put us in thrall to civilization culture to keep us in line, keep fuelling the culture. And that’s where we are today — like lab rats starved of food, beginning to eat our own young.

The libertarian-anarchist streak in many of us is producing a now-futile yearning to be free from civilization’s control. But our civilization is collapsing, and as it does survival will depend on our ability to reconnect, to be present and at peace — to be nobody-but-ourselves, feral, social in a collaborative and diverse way, not in civilization culture’s coercive and homogeneous way.

I sense that this is what those who have moved past the Second Denial are now trying to do. We are trying to simultaneously unplug from civilization culture’s thrall (freeing ourselves from the egoic mind and pain-body) and reconnect to the larger ‘organ’/society of all-life-on-Earth, whose voice has been all but drowned out by civilization’s noise.

This does not mean moving to neo-survival mode, but rather moving away from civilization culture’s broken, desperate, coercive survival mode. Moving from a society whose worldview is one of scarcity, competition, obedience and sacrifice, to one whose worldview is one of abundance, cooperation, independence and generosity. Moving forward to a natural society. One that trusts the wisdom of each individual’s cells, organs, instincts, senses, emotions, intellect, biophilia, to know just what to do, and to act on that holistic wisdom. One that through its connection to all-life-on-Earth intuitively and collectively and wordlessly manages its numbers and behaviour (as most complex natural species do) to contribute to, not destroy, the complexity and diversity of life on our planet. In our cells, in our organs, in our DNA, this is who we are, and who we always have been, except for a few desperate millennia, when we forgot.

.     .     .     .     .

Postscript: When I wrote the earlier post arguing that we have no identity, that there is no inner person directing our behaviour, a couple of respondents asked me: What about music? If there is no ‘me’, who/what is it that responds so viscerally and rapturously to great music — even if that music has no words?

My tentative answer to this is that music cuts through the ‘gunk’ of our egoic mind and pain-body, kind of like how a dishwashing detergent cuts through grease. It doesn’t get rid of it, it just makes it seem to disappear for a while, gets it out of the way. Music goes right to our emotions, and I think it may short-circuit the vicious cycle that connects our egoic mind (those ghastly fictitious stories) and our pain-body (the negative emotions that these stories evoke). The direct connection temporarily cuts off the stories and stops the vicious cycle. The result can be an amazing feeling of relief, calmness, awareness. When my depression is at its worst, I know when I begin to respond to music that it’s lifting. This is when I cry, and it’s wonderful.

There are other ‘sensations’ that likewise seem to cut through and cut off the egoic-mind/pain-body connection. While I’m sure they are different for everyone, for me they are:

  • lights and/or sounds in the darkness — the moon, streetlights, rain, the night calls of birds and animals, fragrant breezes, storms etc.
  • falling in love
  • poetry — especially brief, powerful, lyrical turns of phrase that directly call up an emotion or paint a picture
  • playing with animals
  • being in hot water — hot tubs, baths, even showers, seem to liberate my mind from intellectual constraints and stimulate my imagination
  • sometimes, movement — being in a gently moving vehicle that I’m not driving

There is something about all these experiences that accentuates the sensual, relaxes and stimulates at the same time. The senses and instincts take over and then appeal directly to the emotions or the intellect. For a short while, I am ‘cured’ of the suffering and dysfunction in the upper left diagram, and able to function in the healthy way depicted in the upper right diagram; freed briefly from the suffocating ‘dis-ease’ of our culture.

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5 Responses to Who ‘We’ Are, Part Two: Ego: Our Debilitating Self-Deception

  1. terrapraeta says:

    Hi Dave,

    A couple thoughts…

    You describe each of us as having four facets: mind body, culture, sensual and emotional…. yet you only discuss the first two battling for control over our actions. How about the sensual and emotional? Where does that fit in do you think?

    As a partial answer to my own question… remember complexity theory. I would suggest that these aspects of “ourselves” represent a complex system… therefore “we” are an emergent phenomena. In keeping with that — be careful of “scientific” explanations of how we work. Science is reductionistic by definition and so by definition cannot begin to deal with any complex systems. But we can. Intuitively. Although it takes time to develop the skills to do so.

    Finally…. you do eventually mention it, but always remember that we are, biologically, social creatures. We will always have culture (unless we adapt/evolve away from that) and we will always be tool users (with the same note) and there are many other creatures in the animal kingdom that this can also be said of…. so inventing an arrow point wasn’t our downfall. Nor was culture. More likely it was the one thing that actually sets us apart from other life on this planet. Agriculture. Cities. Civilization….


  2. Dave Pollard says:

    I guess my ‘splanation was a bit fuzzy, Janene. It’s the intellectual and emotional that are damaged by our culture. Our senses and intuitions are unscathed, except we are taught not to trust them or pay attention to them.

    I recognize that any model — including a “scientific” one (science is, after all, the business of creating simplified models of reality that are interesting and sometimes useful) — is imperfect, even dangerous if over-relied upon. I’ve found Tolle’s model (as I’ve diagrammed/imagined it anyway) very useful in getting a sense of who I am and what motivates me. It just seems to represent reality very well, at least for me.

    When you perceive yourself as a complicity — as plural — and as constantly under siege by our well-intentioned civilization culture which is trying to survive by making us all alike and obedient, it brings a completely new and exhilarationg worldview to life. A warrior view. A critical thinking view. A living in your body view. Alone but not at all lonely.

    And yes we are social creatures, but we need not be passive about what we accept in our social relationships. Being a bit misanthropic, I’m well on the way to narrowing my social circles to those with whom I can have healthy relationships, and not accepting the mindless gunk that most people (and organizations, and media) try to lay on you. As for arrowheads, it was our invention of them that enabled the mass extinction of the large mammals at the dawn of civilization culture, and launched us inexorably into the sixth great extinction of life on Earth. Agriculture was just the greatest mistake in human history, not the first great one.

  3. terrapraeta says:


    I figured most of that was very familiar to you — I just sometimes get the feeling that occasionally get so wrapped up in your analyses that you forget.

    I do have to disagree with you on the arrowheads, tho. The only large mammal extinction that we were involved with was in the americas ca 10,000 BCE so I assume this is what you are referring to. However, it is not true that humans “caused” these extinctions. We were a contributing factor, the other being the climate change caused by the ending of the last Ice Age. These animals were, after all, adaptations TO the ice age climate so the warming trend certainly would have stressed their populations. However… it’s not so simple as blaming the arrowhead for our contribution to their demise. When humans moved into the Americas, we interacted with the ecology of this new land in the same way ANY alpha predator would. It is very clearly shown in ecology that alpha predators define their ecologies so introduction of a new species always has far reaching effects.

    Just for example… I recently read that global warming in the south polar region is allowing a species of king crab to migrate across the pole from the seas around Australia across to South America. The ecological devastation has been massive. New alpha predator. Happens every time. So would you “blame” the crab for having too well developed claws? Or for being “unfeeling” or overly voracious? No.

    I know we have had this disagreement before — or variations on it. So i won’t belabor the point — at least not any more than I already have ;-)


  4. Philip says:

    You thoughts have helped me better understand the oscillation I feel between my actions being productive and then inadequate. Grey in strawdogs gives much credance to taoism, which seems similar to what you get at in your description of Tolle’s present self. Sometimes it seems as if only words sepertate the difference between dissociation, non attachment, being in the present, minimising relationships and so on. These feelings can subtley shift from moment to moment as the ego tries to escape culture. In Grey’s critisim of uncivilisation he claims we need cool heads -to keep as much as we know in the moment. If the briefest defitition of civilsation is language there should be at least a thousand comments to this blog. Your postscipt makes a bit of a miss on gardening as a cut off from the mayhem. And in there perhapes is some hope, if we could think of ourselves as the weeds that could heal the earth.

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