As Richard Beck wrote in “Kenosis,”
I’m tired. Of myself.
Not sad. Not depressed. Not suicidal. Not dark.
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.
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.