Ego Training

There’s this thing in embodied spiritual practice that the sufis call “ego training.” It has parallels in other traditions and there’s probably a term for it in each one. The Sufis see it as seven stages, but it doesn’t matter whether you see seven or three. Stages there are.

Here’s the essence:
It’s like our being is a three-legged stool. One leg is our spiritual realization, the breadth/depth of our direct awareness of how Reality works on all the planes. Another leg is how that realization is used to reshape our janky personality to align with the soul’s purpose in existence, and the third leg is how we express all that in our human life of vocation, relationship, and the ‘external” stuff.

The legs on the stool are ideally about the same length, so that it doesn’t wobble. The ego is not destroyed or even transcended. It’s trained the way one trains a horse or a dog, according to its potentials and according to its limitations. Then it becomes a vehicle in the world for your spiritual realization, instead of being a source of unnecessary pain to yourself and others.

A lot of us entered the spiritual path because we’re trying to get off the planet before we’re fully incarnate ON it. So we try to skip the ego training and many of us just end up limiting our realization because there isn’t the proper support from the other two legs, and we wobble.

Ego training is difficult. It’s slow. It’s painful. Nobody really wants to do it. It rubs our noses in the same contractions, limitations, incongruities and ignobilities that we’re trying to escape through practice.

But it’s also where the rubber meets the road, where we make our realization real. It’s the real test but it’s also the tempering of our steel.

And it’s the difficult stuff you are faced with in your life that is a precious — and no doubt cosmically-choreographed — opportunity to become more authentic and to go deeper.

Psychotherapy, especially body-centric approaches, and disciplines like Non-Violent Communication (or even Landmark Education, though I have a low opinion of it), are invaluable supports in ego training. If your therapist has some understanding of how the soul’s deep impulses surface in distorted form as neurosis, so much the better, but we can make those connections ourselves if we truly engage the Path in the way it asks of us.

A Men’s Movement

It’s a measure of men’s oppression that, 50 years on from the flower of the women’s movement, we still don’t have a proper men’s movement in this country.

And it’s an uphill battle, a much-harder one than women have, because privilege is both invisible-to and stoutly-defended-by the holders thereof.

It’s an uphill battle because women actually TALK to one another, and men have been deeply conditioned to be isolated lest they really feel the desolation of their position and remove their neckties, those symbols of bondage to the established order.

It’s an uphill battle because women already FEEL their disempowerment, but facing disempowerment is the last thing a conventionally-socialized male wants to do. He has neither tools nor support for it.

But it IS happening, in fits and starts, as the women’s movement itself matures. My generation is for the most part hopeless, but the emerging generation is doing it and doing it authentically. I am hopeful.

Motivational Programs

The big problem with Tony Robbins’ programs, the “Landmark Forum,” and most of the motivational programs out there is that they’re based in false (egoic) will.

You get the pep talk about “possibility” (often from a presenter with an exaggerated aura of self-confidence), some inspirational platitudes, and some exercises to expose your mind’s issues around self-worth, success, and the like. But there’s a LOT of reinforcement from the group — like, where everyone applauds and there’s this jacked-up enthusiasm in the room as the “induction” takes hold (and yes, having studied hypnotherapy, I will say that the Landmark Forum set-and-setting does fit the criteria for an hypnotic induction) — and all of it plays to your self-representation, i.e., your ego.

False will is unsustainable and ultimately exhausting. Based in what’s unreal in you, it has no actual substance, but is supported by things outside yourself, e.g., group membership (“follow ups”) that have no real intimacy or community. The contrived euphoria fades, and requires a transfusion.

What’s missing is a sincere and authentic inquiry into your unique purpose in human incarnation and how to align with it in 3-D (concrete reality) and 4-D (mind).

That is properly a task of the spiritual path. You can’t subscribe to someone else’s, and you can’t get it from psychics or spirit guides. It is a direct revelation of your own deep substance, and you only hear its voice in the interior silence of your ego’s cessation.
This is the only place from which an authentic vocation can be “sourced” and which truly supports your soul-unfoldment instead of what is “reasonable” or what others think.

What often happens, though, is that when the egoic pattern of false will collapses through its own inertia and unsustainability (sometimes surfacing as a crisis of some kind) a person goes back to the motivational program for a recharge instead of staying-with the ambiguity of not-knowing “what to do” and what to tell friends & partner. This is actually an investment in NOT growing, and one often won’t get the right support from a program or trainer that has not done that work themselves.

Toward a Mature Masculinity

The Proposition

Over recent months I’ve encountered some eloquent and inspiring writing on what a healthy, mature masculinity might look like.

https://stefsifandos.com/a-new-man-rising/

https://mankindproject.org/the-new-macho-one-vision-of-mature-masculinity/

https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/08/you-dont-need-a-man-you-need-a-goddamn-warrior/

http://time.com/5045028/raising-boys-faith-salie/

The Conundrum

But how do we actually embody and live these ideals?

How do we “dismantle the patriarchy” and its relentless fold/spindle/mutilate of the human spirit — and especially, our own spirit?

How do we men become more emotionally available to and nurturing allies of our partners, children, co-workers, friends and community?

How do we raise emotionally and spiritually healthy kids — without simultaneously crippling them for life in the world that they are likely to inherit?

How do we find it in ourselves to act with compassion and integrity in situations that temp us to act otherwise? What does that look like?

HOW do we step up to the plate of a Mature Masculinity that increasing numbers of our partners and friends are — rightly — demanding of us? Knowing what is not enough; simple behavior prescriptions clearly do not work well, if we take the history of conventional religion as an index.

Forget that… How do we men come to feel like men instead of little boys faking-it in men’s bodies? How do we find an authentic abiding inner peace and happiness instead of nearly killing ourselves for a few moments of stress-respite against an innerscape of desolate emptiness or suppressed rage?

It’s a daunting, and for many men, a crushing proposition. We measure ourselves against unattainable, conflicting, and paradoxical expectations of manhood; if our perceived failures to live up to our culture’s prescription for manliness aren’t painful enough, many of us are also feeling wounded and shamed by the male-bashing of some threads of feminism — accusations that there is something irreparably damaged and damaging (“testosterone poisoning”) in being male.

We may actually want to accommodate our partners’ requests, because we do see their pain (or simply fear being abandoned if we don’t make the effort).

Moreover, increasing numbers of us are experiencing a longing that can no longer be ignored for a deeper personal authenticity, irrespective of others’ expectations.

The whole enterprise is fraught.

Into the morass, I will offer some thoughts, and some things which have worked for me. (My apologies in advance for the heteronormative orientation here — I really have no experience or competence in other modes, but I’d love to hear feedback).

There are ways to address these challenges.

  • Psychotherapy

Can’t recommend this enough (in spite of caveat below). Everyone on a path of self-inquiry (and I’m assuming that’s you, because you read this far) should spend enough time with a therapist to develop a nuanced understanding of their own psychodynamics and how their historical wounds “run” them in the present, and the attitudes and life-strategies that defend those wounds. So-much-the-better if your therapist runs groups in which you can experiment with new behaviors. Even better if s/he employs a body-centric approach that gets you out of your head and its stories and into the wisdom-of-your-body and its inherent marriage with your intuition.

Some therapists are mostly about “adjustment” and not “wholeness.” Find one who sees life as an adventure of discovery, not a problem to be solved.

  • Men’s Groups

I abandoned men’s groups in the 90s because they mostly turned into belch-and-fart clubs. Past a superficial self-disclosure and occasional venting of sand-pounding rage, no one was willing to drill into the really tough armoring in which we were all trapped. But more recently, I believe as younger males are undertaking the work of becoming men, that’s changing and it’s possible to find groups of sincere men and skilled facilitators who hold “safe space” and are willing to be undefended and ask the right questions.

  • Spiritual Practice.

Complements the other ways — and offers things they can not.

Hence this article: I’m going to offer a view… I don’t think it will appeal to everyone. But it works, and it has a very long and honorable track record of freeing our human spirit from the shackles of culture and conditioning and of nurturing what’s most noble and magnificent about us.

I submit that “toxic masculinity” and its corollaries is fundamentally a spiritual problem, to be addressed through spiritual practice, and that there are aspects of toxic masculinity that can not be effectively addressed as primarily psychodynamic or a psychosocial problems.

So why do I think this?

A Bit of History

I grew up in a family of engineers, and the texture of my life was, by turns, social isolation and social humiliation. In a classic spiritual bait-and-switch, I followed a young lady to what was at the time termed an “encounter group,” and there found some tools and keys through which I began addressing my wounding and developing the emotional and relational intelligence that was missing in my upbringing.

By my late twenties, I’d been meditating and doing yoga postures for a handful of years as an adjunct to the focus on Gestalt Therapy and bodywork that had provided escape velocity from my neurotic misery and had become my “path.”

I had investigated a handful of yoga, Buddhist, and occult groups and found a home of sorts in “universal Sufism,” and had received an initiation and instruction in the basic practices. I was sitting in my meditation space one morning with my prayer beads in one hand and cup of Morning Thunder in the other, ticking-off the repetitions of a mantra given me by my sufi mentor…

The best way I can describe what happened is that I became the mantra — not the sounds, or some concept or image attached to it, but its essential abiding beingness, in a boundless realm wholly outside space and time.  “My consciousness” — my mind and my very identity — just stopped, and was completely absorbed into this timeless/spaceless abiding. My body was “there” but irrelevant; had it fallen-over dead in that moment, “I” would have continued to exist throughout all eternity as the infinite beingness to which the practice was a portal. My personal identity, my “stories” and history about it, and all my wounding and striving simply did not exist.

When my accustomed sense of “myself” — whatever that was — returned a few moments later, I retained the clear knowledge that our habitual reality of things, lives, and events is a concretization of, and is continually, profoundly acted-upon and created by a realm of energy, consciousness, and Being that is far more ontologically fundamental than our thoughts and emotions and even our molecules and atoms. (And, I might add, the temporary loss of “myself” into something that could not be “steered” or even understood was afterward as profoundly frightening as it was, in the moment inside of it, profoundly exalting.)

As I was to find out, this kind of experience is “what happens” when we really connect with a spiritual practice. Over the next few years I had more transits like this one, gradually “installing” a clear and navigable felt-sense of how the apparent structure of our individuated, time-and-space-limited being is continually in-formed and existentiated by the movement of That which is behind the “scrim” of visible, sense-and-mind/emotions-reality.

I also understood why the first experience had frightened me so: that it had revealed just how little actual “control” the ego possesses and, by extension, why an approach based only in psychodynamics or politics does not produce the kind of transformation we hope for.

So What?

“Sounds very abstract,” you might say. “I meditate and I don’t get any of that shit.” Stay with me…

What is that we are not just minds and static bodily structures, peaking in our twenties and fighting a losing battle against entropy until we finally receive the “cosmic eviction notice.” We are not our histories, our wounds, or the attitudes and politics that defend those wounds.

We and all of life are continually unfolded into life by the movements of a subtle geometry that is the matrix of all mind and concrete existence, and while this movement can’t be “understood,” we can live in fluid sync with it at a profoundly deep level of our being.

It means that, when we find the right entry-point, we CAN re-create and co-create ourselves in alignment with something fundamentally real, fundamentally whole, fundamentally powerful, and fundamentally joyous and loving that is the “ground” and fabric of our individual and collective existence, something that is not a construct, not an opinion or a premise. Once experienced, it cannot be taken from us by anything because it is the direct knowing of who we really are, of and by the deepest core of our existence, the deepest level of knowing, itself.

It means that when we get still enough and quiet enough inside, we can do something real and substantive in healing ourselves and becoming a healing presence for others. We can authentically live those ideals of a mature masculinity and mature humanity, in alignment with the deepest truth, integrity, and authenticity of ourselves and everyone. The right spiritual practice opens an aperture of awareness that heals the inner disconnects from our inherent joy and empathy — of which toxic masculinity is one expression.

Here’s the Thing

Each of our inner wounds is essentially a place where we are disconnected from the inherent wholeness that is the transparent movement of the inner Boundless into us, through us, and as us. Each of those places is also, potentially, a portal to re-awakening the felt-connection to that wholeness, which is also contiguous with the wholeness of everyone else and of “right action” in life.

Our lives almost completely revolve around those disconnects; we are continually looking outside ourselves — at our jobs, our bodies, our relationships, our belongings, our politics — to provide the sense of meaning, support, and wholeness that can only come from the inner connection/re-connection with our deep substance, and we are simultaneously fleeing from the pain of our disconnects and the havoc they create in life.

More to the point of this piece: If a man doesn’t find himself before he finds his goddess, he’s likely to wound or damage the women he tries to make into her.  All the most fucked-up AND all the most amazing things humans do emerge out of that inner relationship to our inherent wholeness or our disconnects from it.

The world’s wisdom-traditions and wisdom-teachers have known and articulated this for thousands of years, and developed methods and techniques that work to reconnect our felt-identity with our inherent wholeness.

Each breakthrough marks the death of a bit of our self-absorption and its corollary, the potential to violate our own and others’ integrity to get our “needs” met.

Each breakthrough logarithmically accumulates capacity to make the next, and because all consciousness and life-force are unitary, each individual breakthrough supports and is supported-by all humans who are seriously working on themselves.

At each inner re-connection, we experience greater felt-wholeness, inner peace, uncaused joy, deeper intimacy, greater power and integrity. We relax about getting our personal needs met from the outside, about being protected from the outside, and being seen in any particular way by others.  One lives in a felt-sense that the Universe is an essentially “friendly” place that is navigable and trustworthy. There is a living fabric of felt-connection with others and the “life field” that just precludes acting out-of-integrity.  This has a profound effect on our personality and ego-structure. These things are not “attained,” they are just what’s-there when our bullshit goes.

And our bullshit won’t go until there’s something better to replace it, because the things in life that are problems now were once the solutions to other problems.

What makes us unhappy is to want. Yet if we would learn to cut our wants to nothing, the smallest thing we’d get would be a true gift.
—don Juan

My interpretation is that we reduce our grasping for identity, fulfillment, and meaning in the external world — not that we dissociate from the basic longings that make us human.

The Caveat

Some psychotherapy does go deep enough for this to happen, but often does not. Psychological insight is not the same thing as spiritual awakening; a great deal depends on the awareness and spiritual capacity of the therapist, whether-or-not s/he conceives therapy as a “spiritual” search.

I will offer the following distinction: Psychotherapy is primarily for the repair of life situations; spiritual practice is for the repair of the fundamental split between our felt-identity and the boundless Being/Source by which we are both completely sustained and of which we are often unaware.

The method does not matter, as long as you are actually doing what you think you are doing. Every path and technique works for someone — and every path and technique, however-hallowed in tradition and performed with great dedication, does not work for someone.

Each of us needs to find the teacher and body of practice that’s in alignment with our unique being, which speaks to our soul — and then stick with it to get the breakthroughs. But do find the teacher; you can’t do this on your own, and the egoic obstinacy that keeps you from apprenticing yourself to a teacher is also going to block your inner guidance. If you have a teacher but aren’t getting these breakthroughs, it’s time to have a talk with your teacher about it.

The way is known, and while there are no perfect human beings, there are living and highly-developed men and women who can model for us and mentor us in how our inner vision of our own possibilities can be lived in a mature, joyous, and honorable human life. The way is known; become a Knower.

 

“Accept Everything”

“Accept everything” is another pop-spirituality trope. It has a grain of truth but it lacks discrimination/discernment and thus *wisdom*.

Discrimination/discernment is so important on the spiritual path that Vajrayana has a Bodhisattva/Deity who’s all about it: Manjushri. He’s the dude with the flaming sword who cuts through the crap and delusion.

Discrimination is not “judgment.” Discrimination is Absolute Knowledge of Divine Order. And if you don’t know what that is — you need a living teacher who can mentor you in refining & purifying your perception, because you just don’t have the capacity to do it on your own. If you think discrimination is judgment, you need to confront and name your shame & self-loathing first.

NOT everything that one encounters in 3-D/4-D supports human or planetary wholeness and evolution. Some things are just toxic, and there are are a LOT of distorted thoughtforms floating around the Collective and there are a lot of susceptible people on the planet to pick them up and boost their signal.

*Accept everything in your own interior process* — but use discrimination. There are things in you that properly do not belong to you and you need to identify and dump them, because they are running your life.

There ARE things in the external world that are just not acceptable, and engaging those things is where we both live our spirituality and expose the flaws in our own perception for our own further work.

Needing a Teacher

It’s a rather Western notion — stemming no doubt from our socially-conditioned and totally-unexamined hyper-individuation — that we can guide ourselves DIY on the spiritual path.

The reality is, that without a teacher, we will always approach the spiritual path through the same ego mechanisms that already imprison us — and dig ourselves in deeper.

Someone who would never dream of climbing untutored into a small aircraft and expect to survive their first flight will nevertheless pick a technique from a book and practice it.

So we need a living guide who has been the route ahead of us to provide direction that is not just the more-of-the-same, and to mentor us in the techniques & practices which, done *properly*, will catalyzed the necessary openings into new inner territory.

“We need our egos…”

There’s a trope current on the spiritual path: “We need our ego.”

This is a semi-factual statement… but very often it’s really a cover for the fact that someone’s practice is not actually freeing them from their movie of themselves.

You don’t actually need your ego. What you need is conscious, transparent access to The Boundless to let it act choicelessly through you. That’s what an authentic spiritual practice opens in us, it’s what the soul really longs for, and it’s the only thing that leads to a happiness that truly be­longs to you.

When the Teacher Falls

In recent months, we have seen two popular spiritual teachers fall from their respective pedestals. The mixture of public glee and dismay is both predictable and difficult. This must-needs-be very nuanced conversation, and it is rife with contradictions.

I have not met one of these teachers. I did meet the other, and found him to be full of humor and authentic Presence. I know none of their students. The students are, after all’s said-and-done, the “product,” if you will, of the teacher’s “art.” If even one of them has awakened, the teachers have done their jobs, regardless of their personal failings. If three have awakened, that teacher is a phenomenon.

AND, even if they’ve done their jobs, it does not excuse those failings one iota.

No teacher is perfect, and there are no perfect human beings, because our human incarnation is not meant to be perfect. If the teacher were perfect, s/he would not be living a human life, and so could not teach.

We are living-into a new model of both spirituality and spiritual teaching, one in which the janky and even the ignoble are embraced as portals to greater wholeness — and even to those precious and rare transits into the perfection of the Uncreated — instead of being judged into a compartment somewhere or left at the door with our shoes lest our humanity defile the sacred atmosphere of the temple. This is a model in which the teacher comes down off the mountain and makes no bones about his/her own challenges, and uses the context of the study circle to expose and work on his/her own ego instead of living an unchallenged but necessarily false image of being an embodiment of that perfection.

And we are living into a model of spirituality where we tell it like it is: The spiritual path hard, it’s frustrating, it’s more-than-a-bit dangerous, and there are no guarantees. It is uncompromising; the greater one’s realization, the more uncompromising it becomes. Punctilious attention to details are necessary at every stage of the journey — and the teacher is still on the journey regardless of his/her titles and attainments. Better that the teacher stay off the pedestal than damage people in falling off it.

The rarefied realms of the Formless are our real being, and they are the most intoxicating and seductive experience a human being can partake. The temptation to just park ourselves there can be overwhelming, because our limited human existence truly looks false and insubstantial from there. From the perspective of awakening, everyone’s ego looks like a bad comb-over… but that view is in fact just another limitation to be overcome on the path.

(Having said that, DO make sure you HAVE it before you think about renouncing it. The most-reliable way to get it is from someone who does have it, and that is one of the authentic and usually-necessary functions of the teacher. “Life as your teacher” can teach you about life, but not what is beyond life, and the Formless is wholly beyond life, being the source of life and all existence, and the direct experience of That uproots all the unnecessary questions of life.)

There is no excuse for a teacher’s misbehavior, but we can’t let our teachers’ humanity become an excuse for our own egos’ rejection of our need of teachers. And we do need them, and in fact they need us, as mirrors for their own process. We are all the growing-edge of the Universe. When I was initiated/consecrated/ordained as a sufi shaikh, my teacher said to me, “I wouldn’t be giving this if you didn’t have the necessary minimum capacity. You need certain things called-forth from you now, and this is the quickest way to do it. Nevertheless, it’s a title — only God can give you realization — and I’m giving it because you need it, not because you ‘deserve’ it; never forget that.”

I don’t know anything about these teachers personally. Perhaps they are just mediocre teachers having some magnetism and a way with words. Or maybe they truly have something and these clusterf*cks are what they need to truly get real, do their shadow work, and truly fulfill their potential. I do not know, and no one died and left me in charge. In the final analysis, our assessments and judgments are just our egos and the book of this is not yet closed.

Terrible Things

There are terrible things happening in the world. Don’t take them on. Observe & make choices.

Choose NOT to get egoically-engaged in these things.

That means don’t spike your anxiety or your rage if there is nothing immediate & direct that you can do about it. Doing so just engages your fight/flight “reptilian brain,” which is made for dealing with immediate, concrete threats, not things happening on TV.

When we do spike our anxiety or rage, we energize our bodies to meet the threat — but if the “threat” is on TV, there is no “resolution.” We can neither fight nor flee, so there is no nervous-system discharge and the stress on our bodymind just accumulates. AND, the media (and perhaps our social circle) keeps us activated.

When this happens, the story on TV gets enmeshed with our personal, stored “stories” and trauma and we can become increasingly entrapped in powerlessness.

The other thing is that the dross from this process goes into the “collective” mind-world and becomes a signal boost to everyone else’s distress & trauma — which then also amplifies our own, according to our susceptibility. Some of us have constellated a chunk of personal identity around “how terrible things are,” and it erodes our effectiveness as change agents and it makes us age prematurely.

Pop-spirituality “detachment” is really just numbing-out. Authentic detachment is not numbing or escaping, it’s entering a zone of clarity and inner silence — and feeling the right time and the right action, so that your action is precise and effective, and then you walk away from your action knowing that you have done what’s appropriate, needed, and your best-for-now.

The value of “detachment” is NOT so that you don’t feel. Feel it all, act decisively where possible, but don’t stew in it. The value of detachment is that you don’t add to the existing trauma/distress in yourself and the other sensitive people in your orbit — and your orbit is much larger than you may realize.