The Ego/Self-System Part III: The Psychological System
I regard this element in the ego series as the core of the discussion. This part is where the ego is delineated and its dynamics are explored. Sources will be provided, but some of the material is original to the author. I was a practicing addiction counselor and hold the required academic qualifications, and, as such, feel my observations are of value and worthy of consideration. In addition, I may be in a rather unique position in that I have been a dedicated student of Krishnamurti for close to fifty years. However, let me make it absolutely clear that I am only offering food for thought and consideration concerning Krishnamurti’s teachings. Many quotes from him will be presented in this article but only to give the reader a chance to compare positions and decide for themselves whether this material is of relevance or is helpful in understanding those teachings. Krishnamurti did not speak about the details of the ego’s operations, but he did clearly and continuously identify it as the deep source of humanity’s inability to make peace with itself and to end its divisions and the history of violence issuing from those divisions. It is in this sense then that I hope to illuminate the workings of the self/ego system. It may help others to more clearly and quickly identify this psychological mechanism within themselves, such that the light needed for the journey into the pathless land shines a bit more brightly.
A Social Implant
The sense of self/ego begins at birth with the first caregiver’s interactions with the infant. The first reactions the infant has are simple emotional reactions. However, the elaboration of these reactions quickly begins. The first smile and an increasing emotional variety of reactions develop. This is because the parts of the brain responsible for emotional responses is much more developed at birth than cognitive functions are, which take about two decades to reach full capacity (Opper & Ginsburg, 1987). This means that our earliest representations of self, derived from interactions, are captured in emotional reactions that are not accessible to verbal interpretation. Later, as cognition develops, connections form between the neocortex (thinking) and the limbic (emotive) systems that can operate both ways simultaneously, making thought and feeling forever linked (Damasio, 2010). This places those early emotional representations deep within the subconscious. Keep in mind that material in the subconscious is not hibernating and inactive. It is very active and not constrained by conscious controls, and we all have it. It can only be concluded that much of who we think and feel we are resides and issues from the subconscious.
Consciousness is like a deep, wide, swift-flowing river. On the surface many things are happening and there are many reflections; but that is obviously not the whole river. The river is a total thing, it includes what is below as well as what is above. It is the same with consciousness; but very few of us know what is taking place below. Most of us are satisfied if we can live fairly well, with some security and a little happiness on the surface. As long as we have a little food and shelter, a little puja, little gods and little joys, our playing around on the surface is good enough for us. Because we are so easily satisfied, we never inquire into the depths; and perhaps the depths are stronger, more powerful, more urgent in their demands than what is happening on top. So there is a contradiction between what is transpiring on the surface, and what is going on below. Most of us are aware of this contradiction only when there is a crisis, because the surface mind has so completely adjusted itself to the environment.
The infant then is absorbing impressions of his or her surroundings and starts to form emotional concepts of those surroundings, both physical and social. Those impressions are also giving the infant and child material with which to build a sense of self upon (Damasio, 2010) (Winnicott, 1965). Describing emotions as concepts may seem peculiar, but is intentional and very important because the limbic system, like the cognitive system in the neocortex, is a system of perception, of identifying the elements of our world and initiating responses. Emotional concepts are retained as representations just as thoughts are, but instead of telling us what we think about the world, they tell us what it “feels” like. The limbic system is a learning system that has functioned well in vertebrate creatures for hundreds of millions of years before the gradual evolution of cognition. Also, since the limbic system sits just atop the brain stem, which operates basic bodily functions, the limbic system has great control over the body via glandular secretions. What feels good or bad, what feels friendly or hostile sends immediate messages to prepare the body for meeting challenges, threats or rewards.
Being an early system does not mean primitive. The human limbic system has evolved along with the emergence of cognitive functions to become a highly sensitive and subtle system capable of participating in the creation of our highest art and philosophical systems. Without it, nothing happens. It is the motivator (Narvaez & Schore, 2014). Remove the “e” in “emotion” and you get the word “motion.” In realizing that we have two distinct but connected perception systems, it is important to understand certain distinct differences between them. A good analogy is to see cognition as digital. Consider a green chair. Green, yes or no. Chair, yes or no, and so forth. Cognition has only one level of volume. The emotion system is analog. How much do you like or dislike the green chair? How much fear do you experience when in frightening situations? A little can be enjoyed: a roller coaster ride. A lot is called terror. Thus, the emotional voice can be very soft, barely audible, or so intense as to totally override cognition. This is by design, as emotional response can get us moving far more quickly than lumbering cognition. I think understanding this is important for understanding ego, because ego, as we have seen, is based on fear. And fear, even as a memory, is painful.
I want to find out whether fear can end – fear of death, fear of survival, fear of physical pain, fear of not being able to talk in public, fear of losing my wife, my children, job. It is part of my life, it is not a joke with me. It is something dreadfully serious because when there is fear there is darkness, an absolute sense of non-action, a kind of paralysis takes place. And if you like to live in a paralysis that is your affair, and play with words and try to be clever, that’s your affair, but if you are a very serious man the question of fear is tremendous; and seriously ask whether it is possible to end it at all. Therefore you investigate it, say, what is fear, how does it come? I see how it obviously comes in a very simple form – the past, through the present to the future. And that is the movement of thought…
Now I am suggesting that you look at this fact: that thought as movement in time may be the real cause of fear, all fears, not just one fear. Is that the truth?
The earliest impressions stay with us and they are concerned with security, such as proof in the form of parental love and the offering of constant attention and care. If not met, the infant does not thrive. His or her world is dominated by anxiety, a form of fear, and a developmental stage is missed, creating a lifelong psychological deficiency. But if thriving, the rocketing development of the brain continues and self-consciousness begins to quickly develop with a secure foundation. A feedback loop begins to form where the brain can reflect upon sensory input as well as the forming representations that begin to inhabit consciousness. This sets the stage for the formation of self/ego. You may remember from Part II of the series that consciousness requires a center, but with interactions, the developing human brain begins to add to the center. It adds attributes and descriptions, and the center is no longer just for mapping; it now forms a sense of self at the center.
We are trying to find out what this thing is which we call the self, the center of the “me”, from which all activity seems to spring; for if there is no transformation there, mere change on the periphery, on the outside, on the surface, has very little meaning. So, I want to find out what this center is, and whether it is possible to really break it up, transform it, tear it away. What is the self with most of us? It is a center of desire manifesting itself through various forms of continuity, is it not? It is the desire to have more, to perpetuate experience, to be enriched through acquisition, through memories, through sensations, through symbols, through names, through words. If you look very closely, there is no such thing as a permanent “me” except as memory, the memory of what I have been, of what I am and what I should be; it is the desire for more, the desire for greater knowledge, greater experience, the desire for a continued identity, identity with the body, with the house, with the land, with ideas, with persons. This process goes on, not only at the conscious level, but also in the deeper, unconscious layers of the mind, and so the self, the center of the “me” is sustained and nourished through time.
Everything that happens to us becomes material for a self-system. The child is fully capable of interpreting subtle social signals. Expressions, body language, what is said or not said and tones of voice all give the child clues about him or herself. And, being relatively helpless, the child, like the infant, continues to deeply need and crave security, except now with some self-awareness he or she can respond much more creatively to try to gain it. The child tries to please his or her social environment, and if that environment is loving and relatively consistent, the child finds satisfaction that also feeds back to tell the child that he or she is not only secure but also acceptable and loveable. The child soaks this in wholesale to become a part of a self. This develops a view of one’s self as adequate, as OK. (Winnicott, 1957). If that environment is not friendly or adequate, the child usually subconsciously blames him or herself and starts to form an image of him or herself as inadequate, unlovable, as defective. This may seem odd, but it is really not if you consider that the child does not have the cognitive development to evaluate the behavior of others and has little power over the social environment anyhow. The only element available for trying to please that environment is by taking on guilt and a sense of inadequacy in an attempt to find behavior more pleasing and successful in a dysfunctional environment. Continued failure to please can result in a collapse into a lifetime of depression or, when expressed outwardly, a personality based on anger and rebellion.
Our social environment also comes with rules and regulations, punishments and rewards. Each layer of social life that we encounter as we develop and expand into new surrounding social groups brings a set of necessary conforming behaviors. In fact, conformity to the rules and standards connotes membership and creates a system of rewards and punishments that offers opportunity for success and failure of the individual. This, in turn, creates hierarchy and judgments concerning success that in turn becomes material for self-judgment that adds new attributes to the center. It is this area of self-evaluation and judgment that creates the ego part of the self/ego system. Ego is really the way we evaluate and judge ourselves in relation to family, clan and group norms. Early in life, for the infant, this was an external system. But needs for gaining security internalizes it, making it part of the sense of self; the infant quickly learns the need to fit in. As we grow up it becomes a treadmill. As social interaction widens we find ourselves in competition with others in the group all jockeying for recognition and a better niche. (Horney, 1950). It feels so good to be valuable and superior and these features enhance not only group standing but, because of it, security; the valuable are more protected. Also, as the layers develop over time due to entrance into new societies, conflicts between different rules emerge that bring about internal conflicts in the psyche. Early indoctrination into a religion says you should not kill. Later membership in a military organization says you must kill. Early training says tell the truth and be honest. Later participation in other organizations may say set this aside, implying the end justifies the means.
"The present crisis is the result of wrong values – wrong values in man’s relationship to property, to people, and to ideas. The expansion and predominance of sensate values necessarily creates the poison of nationalism, economic frontiers, sovereign governments, and the patriotic spirit, all of which excludes man’s cooperation with man for the benefit of man, and corrupts his relationship with people, which is society. And if the individual’s relationship with others is wrong, the structure of society is bound to collapse. Similarly, in his relationship to ideas, man justifies an ideology – whether of the left or of the right, whether the means employed are right or wrong – in order to achieve an end. So, mutual distrust, lack of goodwill, the belief that a right end can be achieved by wrong means, the sacrificing of the present for a future ideal – all these are obvious causes of the present disaster. One cannot take time to go into all the details, but one can see at a glance how this chaos, this degradation, has come into being. Surely, it all arises from wrong values and from dependence on authority, on leaders, whether in daily life, in the small school, or the big university. Leaders and authority are deteriorating factors in any culture."
The Inculcation of Belief
So far, we have been in the province of traditional psychology, but we can use this platform to go further and examine how self/ego takes on dangerous superstitions and beliefs. Realize that prior to the infant’s birth the parents’ brains have reached full development and self-awareness. And, at some point, that self-awareness stumbled upon the precarious and unpredictable nature of existence as well as upon unavoidable mortality. They became aware of our fate. From the child’s need for a sense of perfect, ultimate security (which, for a child, is a necessary illusion capable of being created by loving families), the maturing adult realizes perfect security is impossible and great fear can rush in. What can one do? Thousands of years ago, humans invented superstitious ceremonies in an attempt to deceive themselves into thinking there was a way to control the uncontrollable. People found it could work; they found they could deceive themselves. They thought they could make the rains come and death was not really death. But there was a flaw, and it was doubt. Only unquestioned belief could hold the whole illusion together. So, the group had to maintain a constant and consistent flow of belief from one generation to another. The child must receive an inoculation of fear that will find relief by accepting belief. Once in lockstep, group members could experience the feeling of safety that the naive child had. God is the father, and we need to fear and obey him just like we did as a child. If you do not obey his rules, you are bad and need punishment; obey and his protection is yours (Hood, 2009).
Unfortunately, there were outsiders and nonbelievers. Nonbelievers, by definition, are therefore bad and their doubts about one’s beliefs could open the door of overwhelming fear. We have already covered that and how it has divided humanity, created hatred and animosity, and endless wars.
"Your belief in God, or your disbelief in God, to me are both the same, because they have no reality. If you were really aware of truth, as you are aware of that flower, if you were really conscious of that truth as you are conscious of fresh air and the lack of that fresh air, then your whole life, your whole conduct, your whole behaviour, your very affections, your very thoughts, would be different. Whether you call yourselves believers or disbelievers, by your conduct you are not showing it; so whether you believe in God or not is of very little importance. It is merely a superficial idea imposed by conditions and environment, through fear, through authority, through imitation.
Therefore, when you say, “Do you believe? Are you an atheist?” I cannot answer you categorically; because, to you, belief is much more important than reality. I say there is something immense, immeasurable, and unfathomable; there is some supreme intelligence, but you cannot describe it. How can you describe the taste of salt if you have never tasted it? And it is the people that have never tasted salt, that are never aware of this immensity in their lives, who begin to question whether I believe or whether I do not believe, because belief to them is much more important than that reality which they can discover if they live rightly, if they live truly; and as they do not want to live truly, they think belief in God is something essential to be truly human."
The Self/Ego Creates Our Psychology
If we distill what we have assembled so far, what we end up with forms the basis of personal and group psychology. A sense of self, complete with an ego system of evaluation according to group and cultural norms, gives rise to reactions about the self — a feedback system: performance in relation to the values of the social group, followed by evaluation, followed by judgment of the self. Since the group and the individual are inseparable, the judgments flow amongst the membership and the differences in performance place the individuals according to hierarchy. In short, the elements of self/ego determine how and what we feel about ourselves and that, directly or indirectly, generates much of our personal and daily psychological reactions. Emotional reactions to self are considered to be far more important than our thoughts about ourselves. We tend to feel we are our emotions and we have our thoughts. The real truth from neuroscience is that our emotions are representations, just like our thoughts and images (Ginot & Schore, 2015).
The who we are is neither. If one realized this, the defense of the self via the psychological defense mechanisms mentioned in Part I can be seen as ways of trying to thwart bad feeling about one’s self that are thrust upon us from our cultural setting. In that sense then, the defense mechanisms are defending and perpetuating our cultural norms with us as a representative. Psychological reactions stem from what we identify with and from a need to find some kind of success within the group. If one is high up, success is supported by one’s relative position in the group. However, if one is at the bottom, finding an outside group to look down on will do the job. This is a need for prejudicial feelings concerning outsiders. Unfortunately, the way social tiers are set up means only a few are at the top; they are in control and are careful to limit top tier membership even from others in the group. Most jockey below with their various versions of C, D and F performance and are doomed to feel somewhat, if not terribly, bad about themselves, especially in a secular age where the sense of universal and equal membership in religious belief has eroded. In medieval times, the peasant could be as devout a believer as the king and receive the same reward. Now, in a materialistic and secular age, inequality is dominant and ego must thwart primordial fear in a different manner. (Rank, 1941).
"The fact is the content of my consciousness is consciousness. Now how do I proceed from there? Please do listen. How do I proceed to unravel, take out piece by piece the various contents, examine it, throw out, keep, and who is the entity that is examining? The entity which is separate that is examining is part of my consciousness which is the result of the culture in which I have been brought up, saying you are different from what you see, you are a Brahmin, therefore you must approach life from a particular traditional idea. So, one fact: the content of consciousness is consciousness. Then the second fact: if there is an entity which examines each fragmentation of that content, then that examiner is part of the content. And that examiner has separated himself from the content for various psychological reasons of security, safety, protection and also it is part of the culture. So that is the second fact. So the third fact is: if I examine, I am playing a trick. I am deceiving myself. Do you see this?"
Ambition, Addiction, and Preoccupation in a Secular Age
The modern industrial, scientific and materialistic age, with its focus on the individual, presents new and unique problems for the self/ego system. On one hand, cognition thrives, but on the other, the awareness of deep fear associated with uncertainty and mortality cannot find an otherworldly solution. There are still religious believers, but they are increasingly surrounded by weak, semi-believers or outright nonbelievers, as well as a mixture of competing faiths. Belief systems thrive on monopoly but feel very threatened by competing views, as they arouse doubt. However, this age offers fear-obscuring opportunities unavailable and/or unaffordable in past times, except for the extremely wealthy. In the modern world, the hierarchy system goes into overdrive with many more opportunities for claiming status, acclaim, and recognition. Success or desired success breeds ambition, and ambition provides preoccupation, and preoccupation puts fears at arms length due to the excitement of pursuits. Preoccupation takes on many forms that get hard to separate from addiction. It is fear and pain that drive much addiction, and addiction takes on far more forms than are usually recognized (Rank, 1941).
The substances are well known and usually provide temporary direct pain relief. Bodily pain can lead people into addiction, but the classic use is for relief from psychological pain, and this type of pain is directly related to the ego. The individual’s self-representations and corresponding value/rule systems are perpetually in conflict in a way that the person is suspended in painful self-judgments and self-images. This type of self/ego configuration also brings about deep feelings of emptiness, and loneliness and a search for some form of love/companionship to fill the void. It is called codependency and the cure cannot be found outside of one’s self. The codependent person is looking to receive the love a child gets from parents, and that era is over. A question comes up, though, when it is asked why victims find it so hard to change if their personal reality is so painful? The answer is that surrendering one’s sense of reality and working to piece together a more comfortable one can be confusing and frightening, especially at the subconscious level. Imagine having no way to place yourself in relation to others, no way to understand what your social world is all about. After all, the infant works overtime to get this down, as it is so important. And, you may remember from Part I about congruence, that inner and outer worlds need to fit together and reinforce each other. Dismantling one’s sense of self also means dismantling one’s relationship about the outer world too. I think this also implies that any self/ego configuration, regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable, will resist being doubted or closely examined.
There are many other softer, but still addictive, preoccupations that are more activity oriented, but they still rely on the provocation of chemical changes in the brain to plug fear receptor locations in synapses. The provocation of adrenaline is often the chosen path. All sports, both by participation and viewing, work this way. And, by identification, the viewer can see themselves as vanquishing the enemy in victory. After all, part of self is anythingidentified with. Enemy vanquishing originates in the need to eliminate the doubter and/or appositional beliefs; vicarious nonlethal victories can also provide diversion from ego fear. Gambling, sex and the many forms of consumer activities provide diversion via excitement and can become as dangerous to one’s well being as substance addiction. Most of the non-substance activities and products are legal and considered essential for profitable capitalism. They are promoted, and children are inoculated via the media from the start just as they are in religious settings concerning the passing along of formal spiritual belief. Basically, I feel we have a society of addiction whose core beliefs support and promote the consumer society.
"One has a thousand and one habits, the way you brush your teeth, comb your hair, the way you read, the way you walk. One of the habits is wanting to become famous, wanting to become important. How is the mind to become aware of all these habits? Is it to become aware of one habit after another? Do you know how long that would take? I could spend the rest of my days watching each habit and yet not solve it. I’m going to learn about it, I’m going to find out, I’m not going to leave it. I am asking, is it possible for the mind to see the whole network of habits? How is it to do it?…
How do I watch one habit, which is twiddling my fingers, and see all the other habits? Is that possible with such a small affair? I know I do it because of tension. I can’t get on with my wife, and so I develop this peculiar habit, or I do it because I am nervous, shy, or this or that. But I want to learn about the whole network of habits. Am I to do it bit by bit, or is there a way of looking at this whole network instantly?"
Now, much that I have just criticized is, by itself, harmless or even necessary. Much in the modern world has improved life immeasurably. The problem comes when the need for diversion and preoccupation, derived from ego needs, becomes a predominant factor. And, as far as rules are concerned, I am not proposing that rules in society are all bad. Rules that organize the efficient functions of society provide us with greatly enhanced security and life quality, like the rules of the road. But when rules are extended into the realm of belief attempting to distort reality, the system becomes sinister. Rules that govern how we define and judge ourselves and others brings about problems both within, regarding our personal sense of value and self worth, and without, concerning our relationship with others. Needs for dominance, control and a sense of superiority are all derivatives of the self/ego system in its quest for a sense of righteousness and/or diversion (Pinker, 1997).
Conflicted Relationships within the Self/Ego System
As we have discovered, the self-system is an accumulation of impressions of the self that are layered over time from interactions with our social environment. It seems to have been motivated by not only a need to find security in the social organization sense but also to find a way to assuage the personal shock of discovering that there are many threats and dangers to life that culminate in our demise. Cultures and societies offer various remedies, ranging from ancient, religious beyond-life’s-realm solutions to here-and-now social diversions. But, to gain access to these solutions, one must adopt the accompanying standards, codes and rules. This sets in motion the interactive dynamics of the self-system in the form of constant observation and appraisal as to one’s performance and hierarchical situation. Life becomes a quest to advance both positions, and this requires conformity and struggle. But getting better is fraught with problems, since the self-system is filled with conflict and contradiction. The struggle is created by projecting who we think we are struggling with or who we think we should be. There are also possible struggles with potentials buried within our genetic being that are ignored in the act of conformity. Struggles can also occur when fundamental, genetically grounded sensibilities conflict with group values and standards (Milgram, 1974; Horney, 1950). The self, being an imaginary construct in a hopeless quest for perfect security, is also a very vulnerable system to doubts and criticism from both within and without. It is easily hurt and insulted, made jealous or envious. Taken together, this is a system capable of producing continuous, and possibly volatile, psychological reactions, especially sanctimonious emotional reactions that “feel” like who we are. Reactions like this are a huge ego boost and affirmation of superiority.
"I have an image about myself: I am a great man, or I am this or that. And that image has been created from childhood: you must be somebody – Julius Caesar if possible, or a great saint if possible, or the top executive, or one of those politicians. You must be somebody. And gradually one builds up an image about oneself – noble or ignoble, insufficient or sufficient, there is that image in most people. And when you say something harsh, being my wife, husband or friend or neighbour, I am hurt, which is, the image is hurt, which I have created about myself. That image is me. And when I say I am hurt, I am saying not only the image which I am, but also the maker of that image. So I am not different from the image which I have built about myself. And when there is hurt, it is the image that is hurt, with which I have identified myself as the me, so I say I am hurt.
And the whole society, the social structure, the moral, the religious structure is helping me to maintain that image. And as long as I have that image I am going to be hurt. Do what I will, try to suppress it, run away from it, analyse it, go to an analyst, and all the rest of it, it will always remain because I have this image about myself. Now the question is: is it possible to live without a single image? Ah, that is the real question."
The Self/Ego System in Relation to Time
Stripped of complexity, the self is composed of random, incomplete, fragmented and biased self views held together by emotional and cognitive memory bits. It is of the past resurfacing in consciousness to dominate and distort current perceptions. The ego, on the other hand, issues from the past as codes, standards and values associated with various group memberships that are projected into the future as behavioral goals. The system creates our sense of the past and the future, neither of which are real (see article). Likewise, and coming from the same source, chronic fear is retained in memory and projected into the future as what could or will happen to us. This, then, is the uniting element of chronic fear with the self/ego system and time. I think it is marvelously captured in the Buddha’s discovery of old age, disease and death that became his motivation for renouncing all the diversions and privileges of his noble position and begin a journey to seek an end to suffering. He experienced traditional paths, but only when realizing their inadequacy did he enter the pathless land to find his answer.
"You are nothing. You may have your name and title, your property and bank account, you may have power and be famous; but in spite of all these safeguards, you are as nothing. You may be totally unaware of this emptiness, this nothingness, or you may simply not want to be aware of it; but it is there, do what you will to avoid it. You may try to escape from it in devious ways, through personal or collective violence, through individual or collective worship, through knowledge or amusement; but whether you are asleep or awake, it is always there. You can come upon your relationship to this nothingness and its fear only by being choicelessly aware of the escapes. You are not related to it as a separate, individual entity; you are not the observer watching it; without you, the thinker, the observer, it is not. You and nothingness are one; you and nothingness are a joint phenomenon, not two separate processes. If you, the thinker, are afraid of it and approach it as something contrary and opposed to you, then any action you may take towards it must inevitably lead to illusion and so to further conflict and misery. When there is the discovery, the experiencing of that nothingness as you, then fear—which exists only when the thinker is separate from his thoughts and so tries to establish a relationship with them—completely drops away."
Article by Robert F. Steele, MA
Robert is a retired mental health counselor and lifetime student of Krishnamurti.
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