Free Your Pen · Writing

Free Your Pen: The Real Cause of All Your Problems

Continuing the extracts from Free Your Pen: Mind Training for Writers. Last time we looked at why mastering your mind is so important. In this post we’ll have a closer look at the real cause of the problem with another extract from chapter one:


Meet Your Mind

Although everybody writes for different reasons, the fears that can stop you writing all spring from the same source: ego.

First, some definitions. The words ego and self tend to be used interchangeably, but they actually refer to different ideas. In psychology the ego and the self are seen as having different functions within the psyche. The self is the first to develop and gives you the sense of being located in a body with sensations and feelings. The self is an embodied experience, rooted in the awareness of your physical being.

The ego develops later, starting around age seven, and is fully formed by the time you’re a young adult. The ego is a mental structure, created in relation to your physical sense of self. So the ego is what you think about your self.

It’s the ego that comes up with the stories you tell yourself about who you think you are, or think you should be. Ego statements always begin with “I am,” so are often called I-statements: I am a woman, I am a writer, I am your friend, I am happy, and so on.

A healthy ego is grounded through being connected to a strong sense of self. Who you think you are (ego) matches who you feel yourself to be (self) and others will perceive you this way too. This is the ideal. However, if you become too identified with your ego at the expense of your self, problems can arise.

Sometimes the ego denies too much of the reality of the body and its feelings and you lose touch with your deeper self. In extreme cases, this causes a condition called narcissism where there is a strong ego but a weak sense of self. Who you think you are doesn’t match how you really feel, so much so that you may avoid feeling anything too deeply at all.

But even a healthy ego isn’t perfect because as the ego is formed it creates a shadow. You can’t have an ego without a shadow; they arrive together, like conjoined twins. The ego polices the conscious mind and banishes anything that it decides is unacceptable into the subconscious. This can include positive traits and potentials, as well as the more obvious negative ones that give rise to phobias, compulsions, and obsessions.

As C.G. Jung describes it:

“The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly – for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.”

You push things you don’t like about yourself into the basement where they become part of the shadow. But these characteristics or qualities don’t disappear once they have been banished.

The psyche is a dynamic system in a state of constant change and the shadow will always compensate for imbalances in the conscious mind by trying to redress the balance. So if you go too far to one extreme, the shadow will try to bring the psyche back into balance by forcing you to face what you have denied. These shadow eruptions can either occur within your own mind and body in the form of physical illness or emotional and mental distress, or they will appear in the outside world in the form of projections.

Whatever happens, your ego finds this whole process to be incredibly challenging. It has already decided that these things are unacceptable, so when they start to resurface, the ego thinks it’s under attack and resists. It might even push back and fight to protect itself. This is because the ego doesn’t care about wholeness or balance, it wants to be safe and in control. But the psyche doesn’t care about safety or control; it seeks wholeness.

You experience this tug of war within your mind as doubts, fears, and emotional blockages. As long as you continue to resist the process of returning your psyche to balance and wholeness, you will encounter difficulties in your life. Your ego will continue to tell distorted stories about who you think you are, and it’s these stories that get in the way when you’re trying to write and express your true voice.

Perhaps the solution is to tell better stories. Maybe if you change the way you think about yourself, the doubt and fear will vanish. For example, replace the belief, “I have nothing interesting to say,” with, “I am fascinating and erudite!” And the problem will be solved.

Unfortunately, transforming your fears isn’t that easy. To change the way you think about yourself you need to confront the underlying cause, and this can be found in the nature of the ego itself.

Because the ego has no real substance – it’s just a thought, after all – it tries to make itself more solid by identifying with other things. The trouble is, everything the ego attaches itself to is prone to change. Thoughts and emotions come and go. The body ages, suffers illness and eventually dies. The roles you play in life change over time, the people you love can leave or die. Everything you rely on to make you feel safe will come to an end.

Where there is ego there is fear. To compensate for this insecurity you try to control things as much as you can, but this desire for security is doomed to fail. You cannot make permanent what is always changing.

Buddhism describes the root of all suffering as ego-grasping, a constant craving for security. The ego keeps a tight hold on itself and this has the effect of separating you from the flow of life. It’s a contraction against reality that feels like a kind of mental cramp, as if your mind is a closed fist – always tense, always turning away, always saying no.

When you believe you are separate from life, you feel scared of life, and a lot of your energy and thought will go into building defences against what you fear. This is what I call the Ego Fort, behind whose walls you tremble in fear. And it’s this fear that fuels the stories you tell yourself.

In light of all this, it’s no surprise that you occasionally find it hard to write.

Continued in the book…

Extracted from: Free Your Pen: Mind Training for Writers (59 Slogans to Cure Writer’s Block & Free Your Voice). Available now!

Amazon UK / Amazon US / Others

In the next post we’ll explore the solution to this problem and how to find the courage to write

Image: Shadow

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13 thoughts on “Free Your Pen: The Real Cause of All Your Problems

  1. And of course trying to reify a chaotic cascade of mental formations into neat categories of self, ego, shadow, etc is another attempt at ordering and controlling that which is beyond order and control. More ego.

    But as some wise glam popsters once said:

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ain’t it amazing. The variety of stuff us humans can think we are. Our minds, our bodies, our beliefs, our careers, our achievements, our genes, our neurotransmitters, our relationships, our hatreds, our bank balances …

        I just watched another of Charlie Brooker’s uncomfortable techno-dystopias. In this one everyone’s identity has been reduced to a social media rating of zero to five stars that’s modulated by ‘likes/dislikes’ of every online and real world interaction we have. Brooker’s got a genius for making you feel the walls closing in.

        I wonder how right David Foster Wallace was. Do we need to find something unambiguously not us to worship so as to avoid the idolatrous worship of ourselves? Some of us even worship ourselves as malevolent demons. Or do all of us from time to time? Is it possible to not worship?

        You wanna try a remote diagnosis over the internet? Just a hypothetical of course.

        Just say someone worshiped a Goddess who seemed to represent everything he was not, including Infinite Mystery. Let’s call Her Kali. On the one hand She is a kind of foreground to his background (or the other way around). So the Goddess implies the devotee and sort of visa versa (the corresponding mystery in the devotee might be finite) . On the other hand the devotee can only ‘perceive’ the Goddess by letting go of everything he imagines himself to be. To get himself out of the way. Is that person really worshiping something external, or just another thinly disguised version of himself? A Kali Darpana (Black Mirror).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s a rabbit hole of infinite proportions. Probably.

          A hall of black mirrors infinitely reflecting themselves back to each other…

          We’ve got no way of knowing what reality is or who we are, in the end. Even if you supposedly wake up, see into Buddha nature or whatever you want to call it, how would ‘you’ know for sure that you weren’t still deluded? An impossible mystery…


        2. We’ve got no way of knowing what reality is or who we are, in the end.

          In practical terms, who we are seems pretty arbitrary to me. It expands, contracts and morphs according to circumstance. For example, you tend to get a lot ‘smaller’ when threatened and powerless.

          In theoretical terms there seem to be only two consistent potential answers and I doubt there’s really a difference between them. Any aspect of ‘myself’ I care to interrogate is invariably a product of conditioned arising of factors that are themselves products of conditioned arising and so on, ad infinitum, until I’ve finally roped in the whole universe back to the Creation/Big Bang. So either I’m fully integrated with the whole or I was wrong at the start in assuming something was part of me. I’m everything or I’m nothing.

          Even if you believe in a divinely created soul it’s still conditioned and the same logic applies. If you believe in a non-created pre-existent soul you’re back to square one. Which aspect of me is my soul?

          As to what reality is, the rabbit hole seems part of the same warren.

          If we assume an objective reality, it’s eternally beyond our grasp because every tool we have for trying to perceive or deduce/induce it is invariably subjective. Personally I’ve never had an objective experience in my life. How about you? Even ‘scientific objectivity’ is a pragmatic fiction. We can try to account for subjectivity and eliminate it from a narrow, reductionist examination of a tiny part of the whole but there is always unaccountable observer biases and effects on measurement – hence compulsory declarations of interest in reputable journals. And when we go ultra-reductionist, down to the fundamental levels of matter itself, all hope of objectivity evaporates. Without the observer there is no waveform collapse and no discernible fixed reality at all.

          So if we grasp the nettle and admit that reality doesn’t exist except as a combination of, or relationship between, subject and object we end up circling back to the same conclusion we reached about ourselves. Either subject and object are aspects of the same thing or there is no subject/object at all. If reality really is the interstices between subject and object then subject and object are external to reality. They’re not real. (Could they be meta-real?)

          So if you look to yourself you ultimately find the universe. If you look to the universe you ultimately find yourself.

          I can see an alternative though. Free will.

          If we assume there’s really such a thing as individual free will then, by definition, it’s unconditioned. If it’s entirely determined by external factors it’s not free. So our expression of ‘ourselves’ is via freely made decisions. If such decisions are really without conditioned factors – at least in part – by making them we are bringing something into the universe that is without precedent. We’ve given rise to a singularity (if you’re secular) or participated in the act of Creation (if you’re not).

          If we further assume that our free decisions are made according to what we believe is right or wrong (which must therefore also be freely decided – leading to infinite regression) then what we are is our morality (or at least the bits of it that don’t come from indoctrination, etc). What’s more, it means that our impact on reality – with the consequences of our decisions propagating for the duration of the universe – is also a product of our morality. Our knowledge/beliefs about right and wrong. So The Fall and the ongoing act of Creation become the same thing (though Christians or Manichees might argue that the initial act of Creation was divine while subsequent contributions are diabolical outcomes of The Fall).

          But of course all of that is just logic/rationalism/rationalisation. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you can’t catch reality in that net. Though maybe you can tangle yourself in it.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I agree with everything you’ve said. I definitely haven’t had an objective experience and I don’t think they’re possible. Satori is described as Absolute Subjectivity and it all comes back to emptiness and the idea that no conditioned thing inherently exists. Since there isn’t anything that isn’t conditioned – nothing inherently exists – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all; it just means it’s dependent on everything else, as you said. You’re everything and nothing, neither and both.

          I don’t know about free will – it’s a puzzler. I can’t work it out. I suppose it’s empty too, just like everything else. So it appears that we have free will from a certain perspective, but we’re conditioned so our apparently free choices are conditioned too. The only way out of that pickle is to act from the place in you that isn’t conditioned – Buddha nature, but that’s not you in the personal sense, so can you even call it free will?

          Freedom isn’t really the freedom to be yourself (whatever that means) – it’s freedom from yourself. And that brings us back to the original question: who are you?

          It certainly is a tangled net – Indra’s Net, I suppose.


        4. The only way out of that pickle is to act from the place in you that isn’t conditioned – Buddha nature, but that’s not you in the personal sense, so can you even call it free will?

          Yeah, that’s pretty much my conclusion too. Individual free will probably only exists in the same way the notion of angelic free will is rationalised by some apologists. They can choose any action they like, but will only ever choose that which is perfectly in accordance with God’s will.

          But as causality is embedded in space-time, determinism is an attribute that may exist within the universe but is not something that can be applied to the universe as a whole. Nothing caused the Big Bang because it was the Big Bang that brought causality into existence. It also seems that nothing causes certain quantum events such as electron tunneling or the decay of individual atoms of a radioisotope (though David Bohm and his followers would beg to differ) and this has been used by several wishful thinkers to suggest that free will is a product of quantum events in the brain. To me this is woo that people project into the shadows of their own incomprehension (or cynically try to project into the ignorance of others). Even if brains have such a capacity (which I very much doubt) I can’t see how you’re supposed to get from indeterminate quantum phenomena to self-determined free will. Somehow the idea of ‘self’ as an electron changing orbits fails to satisfy me. Maybe the guy who wrote The Diceman would see it differently.

          OTOH, as the universe as a whole isn’t restricted by causality it seems to me that it could, in theory, be fully self-determined. Completely free. So to act from Buddha Nature is to act in harmony with the freedom expressed by the universe itself. Acting without intent is ‘freedom’ in the same sense that the angels are free to act in accordance with God’s will. But is it free will. To me ‘will’ is something you assert against something else and when you’re talking about the universe there is no something else.

          Excuse the long-winded restatement of your concise sentence. Metaphysics brings out the blowhard in me.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. It’s ok – ramble away! 🙂 It’s fun to tie your brain in knots and then try to untangle it again – maybe that’s why we’re all here. To talk bollocks and walk around in circles until we stumble into the truth (whatever that is).

          I thought The Dice Man was Zen for people who didn’t have the balls for the real thing…


        1. It’s all sanskrit to me

          Another lousy trans-linguistic pun I’m afraid.
          The Black Mirror is the name of Charlie Brooker’s TV series.

          I reckon I can count on my fingers the number of times TV fiction has had a powerful impact on me and I’d say Brooker’s The Black Mirror accounts for about half of them. If you’re into speculative fiction you shouldn’t miss it. At least I hope its fiction. The third episode in series 3, Shut up and Dance, could easily be happening somewhere right now.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Yes, Charlie Brooker is a genius. I saw the first two series of Black Mirror when they were on TV, but I haven’t seen series 3 yet. I’m waiting for the DVDs…


        3. The first episode of series 3 – the one in which all social interactions are rated like blogposts – is incisive and chilling but excruciating to watch and with a kinda flat ending. It’s a bit like series 1. He leads with one of his weaker stories but quickly finds form before trailing off a little at series end. To me the gems of series 3 are episodes 3 and 4. Episode 3, Shut up and Dance is completely realistic and so ugly it makes me want to cry. Episode 4, San Junipero is completely unrealistic and so beautiful it makes me want to cry.

          You’re in for a treat when the DVD is released. Now all I’ve got to look forward to is the release of series 4.

          Liked by 1 person


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