Life has an uncanny ability to undermine your sense of self-importance and competence. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to make sense of it. You’ll never fully know yourself and life will always surprise you. This is good, but we don’t always see it that way.
When you identify with your ego you live inside a mental construct. You have a set of ideas, or stories, that define who you think you are. But life is bigger than your ideas, so it tends to undermine what you believe. There’s a conflict between the way you want to see yourself (ego) and the way life actually works.
Hang On To Your Ego
The ego wants to keep things safe and secure by making them permanent, solid and real. Life is unpredictable and keeps changing. You do your best to keep the chaos under control, but you’re fighting a losing battle. You can’t stop people dying, getting ill, getting old or leaving. The things that really matter are the things you have the least control over.
This makes you feel powerless which can trigger anxieties from early childhood when you were dependant on your parents for survival. Feeling powerless can bring on a state of panic or rage; even more scary because it’s just another way to lose control. You feel threatened by these feelings because they undermine your sense of self and your feeling of being in the driving seat at the centre of your life. The more you try to defend yourself against all the things in life you don’t understand, the more separate you feel from others, even those closest to you. Your involvement in life retreats to the surface. You can’t risk feeling anything too deeply because you might lose control. So you end up feeling vaguely anxious, alienated and bored.
Outwardly, you may appear to be fine. You bury your panic and fear beneath a false smile and distract yourself with work, booze, TV, and pictures of cats on Facebook.
How long can you last before the façade starts to crumble?
We need a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives because it helps us to define ourselves. If you find yourself in a situation you can’t control or feel something you don’t understand, it undermines your ability to make sense of your life. When this happens, you’re forced to come to terms with life’s ultimate concerns:
These are all intimately connected and can’t be avoided, at least not forever. We try to ignore them, deny they concern us, and build impressive defences to hold them at bay. But everyone must face death eventually, and you go through it alone. You must choose your definition of meaning and you could be wrong. You alone are responsible for the choices you make. You make your choice, take the consequences, and then you die.
This crisis of meaning is often triggered by a major change or event in your life. It doesn’t even have to be a negative event, the birth of a child or marriage involve just as much upheaval.
Whatever happens, it makes you think about your life in ways you never have before. You start to ask questions to which you don’t know the answers.
Why am I doing this? Where is this heading? What’s going on? Who am I?
The usual superficial answers are no longer enough. Up until this moment you’ve accepted the way you are and the way life seems to be. You had no reason to question anything because it worked. Then the façade starts to crack. You can’t put your finger on what it is, there’s just this horrible dissatisfaction and restlessness. All the usual ways of making sense of your life are failing. You don’t believe in anything anymore. All possibilities are relative and as it all ends in death, what is the point? What difference does anything make in the long run?
Feelings of boredom, unease or emptiness can appear abruptly or come and go in waves. You might try to avoid dealing with the existential vacuum by throwing yourself even more compulsively into your day-to-day routine and distractions. You hang on to what you previously thought was true and try to reinforce your ego at all costs. You can’t afford to let go now, you’ve come so far. It would be madness to lose control now and throw it all away.
You may believe there’s something wrong with you for feeling like this. Everyone else seems to be okay, they don’t have any problems. But then again, on the surface, you don’t appear to have any problems either – not real ones. If you could just stop having these mad thoughts and asking stupid questions that have no answers, you’d be fine. Wouldn’t you?
What has gone wrong?
Remember the house building metaphor: it’s like the roof has been ripped off, shaking the house to its foundations. All the walls are moving, the stuff in the rooms is getting blown about, and the ceiling in the basement has finally given up and caved in.
You’re beginning to transcend the level of Ego. The mind is transcending itself and discovering that there are no concepts outside of itself so it doesn’t know what to think anymore.
It is possible to avoid this crisis until the moment of your physical death. Many, many people do this and spend their lives on the run from their own fear and doubt. It’s not a fun way to live and I don’t recommend it. If you want to find your way through this spiritual crisis, you’re going to have to pay attention to what’s going on inside of you. So sooner or later you’re going to come slap bang up against that pesky existential crisis again.
The only way through this is to surrender to the process already taking place and evolve to the next level. You’ve survived several stages of development already. You started in primal Unity, then differentiated into an Emotional self as you explored your body and the world. With the development of language came the Membership self, which blossomed finally into the Ego. You discovered that the creation of the ego brought about a split within yourself, and your unacceptable parts were denied consciousness and formed your Shadow.
Once you’ve reached this stage of development, the psyche naturally starts to move to the next level. The archetype representing the next level constellates in your being and you start to dis-identify from the ego. But the ego resists because it’s insecure and scared. It’s not going to allow itself to be transcended. Not without a fight.
Next time we’ll take a closer look at why the ego resists its own demise in: Army of Me
Read the whole series here: Evolution of Consciousness
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Image: Empty Bench