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Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Ego as One's Sense of Self

ego / n. (pl. -os) 1 Metaphysics a conscious thinking subject. 2 Psychology the part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality. 3 a sense of self-esteem.
 self / n., adj. & verb (pl. selves) 1 a person's or thing's own individuality or essence (showed his true self). 2 a person or thing as the object of introspection or reflexive action (the consciousness of self). 3 a one's own interests and pleasures (cares of nothing but self) b concentration on these (self is a bad guide to happiness). . . .

[Source: Concise Oxford English Dictionary.]
The Twelve Steps are a process designed to bring about "ego deflation at depth." It is critical, therefore, to understand from the start just what "ego" is. Popularly, "ego" is seen as "pride" or "a sense of self esteem," but in recovery and recovery literature "ego" is used (as above) to denote the individual as "a conscious thinking subject" and/or "that part of the mind that reacts to reality and has a sense of individuality." As such, the term "ego" is used interchangeably with the term "self" (including its derivatives, "yourself,"  "themselves," "ourselves," etc.) to denote a person's sense of "individuality."

"Ego" as a person's "sense of self-esteem," on the other hand, is not used in recovery literature. Rather,  "ego" as a sense of "pride" or "self esteem" is seen as one of the individual's defects of character and is discussed in depth as such in the Step Seven essay in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where it is examined as the first of "the Seven Deadly Sins" - pride, greed, anger, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth.

Unfortunately for the individual who is new in recovery, "ego" and "pride" are often confused and discussed as one and the same concept, while "ego" as a person's "conscious thinking subject" or his or her sense of "self" is overlooked. This, despite "selfishness" and "self-centeredness" (rather than "pride" or "self-esteem") being clearly identified as the primary problem of the alcoholic addict (Alcoholics Anonymous, page 62).

"The main problem of the alcoholic," we read at page 22 of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, "centers in his mind, rather than his body." Thereafter, we are shown that we need to establish (and resolutely improve) a conscious contact with "a Power greater than ourselves" - i.e., greater than our egos - that will relieve our alcoholic addiction and restore us to sanity. We are shown, therefore, that we need to tap into a deeper consciousness than that of our ordinary ego consciousness if we are to recover. Fortunately, that is precisely what the Twelve Steps are designed to achieve.

In describing the purpose of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the author (at page 45) writes:
"Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a Power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?"
"(T)hat's exactly what this book is about," we read. "It's main object is to enable you to find a Power that is greater than yourself which will solve your problem."

The 'how' of finding a Power greater than one's self or ego is straightforward: it is the surrender, self-survey and house-cleaning set out in the Twelve Steps. The 'where' of finding a Higher Power is similarly straightforward, although it may run counter to many of the beliefs we have been raised with. Rather than looking 'out there' or 'up there' for a God of our own understanding, we are directed to look 'within.' Thus, at page 55 of the 'Big Book,' we read:
"(D)eep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that Power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself."

"We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found." (Emphasis added.)
"With few exceptions," we read in the Spiritual Experience appendix to the 'Big Book', "our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it God-consciousness." (Emphasis added.)

God-consciousness, rather than self-consciousness (or ego-consciousness) is thus the solution to our dilemma. A "new state of consciousness and being" (as described at page 107 of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) as distinct from the "calamity, pomp and worship of other things" central to the ego, allows us to think, say and do what we were incapable of doing before. It relieves the irritability, restlessness and discontent that characterizes the ordinary, self-consciousness of the alcoholic addict when not drinking or using.

Through working the Twelve Steps, and by practicing meditation, prayer and contemplation, we are thus relieved of "the bondage of self" from which we sought escape with alcohol and/or drugs, and we emerge (however briefly and sporadically at first) into a new consciousness of being devoid of ego, seeking daily to improve our conscious contact with God.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ideas, Emotions and Egoic Attitudes

In the second chapter of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholic Anonymous we read that "the main problem of the alcoholic centers in the mind rather in his body." If it were not so, if the alcoholic addict only suffered from a physical craving for more alcohol once he or she begins to drink, not drinking would be the full solution to the addiction. But we know that he or she also, and more importantly, suffers from an obsession of the mind when not drinking. Thus, there is a need for a psychic solution that is more than mere abstinence. The Twelve Steps work because, if taken effectively, they provoke "an entire psychic change" that relieves the obsessive nature of the alcoholic mind.

In retelling Carl Jung's description of the "vital spiritual experiences" that were then known to periodically relieve alcoholism, the renowned psychologist reportedly observed: "Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."

The "ideas" and "emotions" Jung describes are the thoughts and feelings experienced in the alcoholic addict's state of acute self-consciousness, the thoughts and feelings he or she drinks to escape from. "Attitude," on the other hand, is his or her "usual or habitual mode (or way) of thinking." Alcoholic addiction is thus, primarily a problem of self-consciousness, i.e., the existential problem of the human ego.

From this perspective, "ideas" are the fundamental thought content of the ego, "emotions" are the physiological and emotional response to this content, and "attitude" is the habitual identification of the alcoholic addict with the incessant stream of self-conscious, egoic thinking - a "painful inner dialogue" that most individuals (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) take to be "who" they are.

Steps Four, Five, Eight, Nine and Ten are designed to identify what the recurrent thoughts and painful memories of the alcoholic addict are. The sentiments, fears and desires of the ego are identified, and the alcoholic addict soberly faces, perhaps for the first time, what the predominant themes that make up his or her internal life are. Restitution is made for harms caused to others so that the sting is taken out of those thoughts, and an ongoing moral inventory is undertaken to identify egoic thinking and actions.

Steps Three, Six, Seven and Eleven, in their turn, are designed to allow the alcoholic addict to experience those areas of the psyche that lie beneath, but which were formerly obscured by, his or her ordinary self-conscious, egoic thinking. They allow the spiritual dimension of the alcoholic addict's soul to express itself. These are the "new conceptions and motives" that begin to dominate the alcoholic addict in recovery. Suddenly a newly found state of higher consciousness and being - a state of consciousness and being that was lost as the alcoholic addict became almost wholly self-conscious - begins to emerge.

Awareness of the content, feel and incessant nature of the ego, together with an ever growing experience of higher consciousness, is thus the key to kindling a spiritual awakening which will relieve alcoholic thinking. "With few exceptions," we read in the Spiritual Experience appendix to the 'Big Book,' "our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves." More religious members call it "God-consciousness," a part of our Being wholly separate from the ego and which provides the comfort and ease we sought in alcohol and/or drugs.