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The Workings of a Conditioned Ego

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

…excerpt from AMAZING GRAYS - A Woman’s Guide to Making the Next 50 the BEST 50 *Regardless of your hair color!

Maggie Rose Crane 

The Workings of a Conditioned Ego

Unless you’re a mystic among us, you’re probably not always attuned to the moments of grace that arise in your everyday existence. Most of us can’t hear our whispers because of the ongoing static that runs between our ears-the endless chatter of our conditioning. While we’ve become familiar with our inner voices of discontent, let’s take a deeper look at how they cause us to miss out on an authentic life. Understanding this process may just be the awareness we need to create the fresh start we’ve all been yearning for-giving us the wisdom to live moment to moment.

When I look back, there are huge chunks of my life that I simply can’t recall. I’ve been given the glorious gift of life, and I don’t remember a lot of it! That’s sad. I can now see that I have spent much of my life in the trance-like, sleepwalking state that so many of us call “reality.”

American Zen teacher Cheri Huber writes, “Life is glorious. Almost no one experiences life. We experience conditioned mind and think that’s life.” The first time I read this, I was stunned. Then I felt a deep sadness as the truth of it sunk in. “Authentic life” lay hidden under a veil of false beliefs and assumptions created by our condi¬tioned ego and sold to us as a bill of goods called “reality.”

It seems many of us have fallen asleep to our true nature. You know what I’m talking about; you don’t realize you’ve been in a trance until you snap out of it. It’s like taking a walk and spending the majority of your time having a conversation in your head about something that happened in the past or has yet to happen in the future. Upon your return, you can’t tell anyone what you saw, where you walked or even what the weather was like! The voices in your head distracted you from the present with loud stories about what might go wrong, what you need to do to stay safe, how you need to behave to be loved and accepted, what someone else should have said or done, and so on. Sadly, this adds up to weeks, and months, and years of your life… gone, in a cloud of mental chatter. This is a mindless existence rather than a mindful life.

Moving into your second (third?) act, don’t you want to become aware of the players who’ve been running the show? Only by understanding that they are simply actors in your movie can you disengage from them and reclaim the authentic life that is your birthright.

This phenomenon-living through the mind, the conditioned ego-is addressed in almost every religion, spiritual tradition, and approach to psychology. They may use different words, but they all draw attention to the difference between the authentic self and the fabri¬cated ego self. (In this discussion, the word “ego” does not reflect the Freudian definition, but rather the person¬ality that develops from childhood conditioning.) What follows is a distillation of these various perspectives and a discussion about how we come to believe ourselves to be separate-from each other and from a Divine source. By understanding what has happened to our authentic self we can begin the process of recovering it. Once you have tasted it, it becomes hard to settle for anything less.

The Die Is Cast

Many teachings suggest that when we’re born, we don’t experience ourselves as separate from the Divine, from life, from all that is. If you doubt this, spend time observing a very young child. You’ll notice they live in the moment, experiencing everything as it happens. They are egoless. They have no agenda and love unconditionally. They cry when they’re in pain, sleep when they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry and smile when they’re happy. They fill their diapers with aromas that make others want to flee the premises, yet they experience no shame or embarrassment. They are curious about whatever is presented to them and go with the flow of life.

It’s no wonder that many adults are so drawn to young children; they remind us of our natural state of being, our innocence, our oneness with all that is, our authenticity. It isn’t until age three or four that our conditioning takes hold and slowly begins to mold us into fearful, anxious, and sometimes neurotic adults. That this happens I know; why it happens is for greater minds than mine.

So how do we go from authentic innocents to reactive, conditioned personalities? As we grow up and are socialized to “get along,” we learn to negotiate for the love and attention we need to survive. As children, we are dependent on adults for the basic necessities of life; we know, at some level, that without adults we would die. To mitigate this concern, we quickly learn about cause and effect, developing patterns of thought and ways of seeing and interpreting the world based on our experience. When I do this, I’m loved and seen as valuable. I can’t do that or they won’t want and/or love me. If I behave this way, I might be rejected. If I say that, they won’t love me.

Ultimately, as children, we struggle to be the right person in order to win our caregivers’ approval and earn the love and attention we need to survive. When a need goes unmet, we become resourceful and try to figure out who or how to be in order to survive. To keep all the rules straight and be sure we’re behaving like our caretakers want, the ego begins to form a personality of its own. Different aspects of that personality- sub-personalities -develop over time to meet our needs or deal with challenges as they arise. Have you ever heard someone claim that “a part of me wanted to do it, but another part was afraid”? These parts of us often battle for control.

If you listen carefully, most of us will find an internalized parent, commonly known as the “judge,” who punishes us when we do, say or think something “bad” by telling us we are unworthy, stupid, careless or whatever adjective best crumbles our spirit. There is usually some version of a child who feels lost or abandoned. There is often a victim who feels powerless, and other personalities that arise as needed to cope with the challenges of life. These different parts of our psyches develop beliefs about how the world works and what we have to do to survive in it.

The voices in your head talk over every waking moment of your life, telling you what to do, what not to do, how to behave, what you should have said or done, how you messed up, that you can’t do anything right, that there really is something wrong with you-and they’re all based on a child’s belief of what she needed to do to survive. (Yes, even the voice that just told you this isn’t true.) While it may seem otherwise, conditioning a child is not an intentionally cruel process, and in some ways it even seems necessary. After all, how else are we going to keep children from coloring on the walls or running into traffic?

Gradually we learn to behave in ways that will bring us love and spare us the pain of feeling separate and unworthy, even if it means being untrue to ourselves. The voices are so loud, so strong, that we learn to abandon our instincts and look to the world around us for what we should think, how we should behave, what we should expect. Eventually, we look to others for a sense of what is real and true, and we lose trust in ourselves. It’s no wonder we’re easy targets for the advertising industry! They exploit this basic aspect of the human condition to the advantage of their clients.

You Are Not Who You Think You Are

If power is intoxicating, the ego is often an obnoxious drunk.
The ego needs to be in control and thinks it knows what is best for you- and it can be very LOUD about getting its way. As this ego-based personality gets stronger, we begin to see ourselves as a separate identity. Eventually we forget we were ever not conditioned and come to think the egocentric conditioned self is who we are. We end up believing all our thoughts are true. After all, they’ve been there for as long as we can remember, right?

When we carry these unexamined patterns, fears and beliefs into our adult lives, and direct our energy and attention outward in an attempt to fit in, we lose touch with our internal compass. Our lives are gradually taken over by our conditioning and we lose the power to live our lives authentically… and don’t even know it.

It’s easy to get locked in to trying to be the right person who sees the world in the right way. We often defend our points of view by mocking, criticizing, poking fun at or shunning anyone who does not share or support them. We get locked in to the “us vs. them” mentality, the basis for so much suffering in this world.

As the years passed, I grew tired of this game. Through my awareness practice, I’ve become more secure in who I am, and I accept myself as a conditioned (yet perfectly imperfect) human being doing the best I can.

One day, while watching the Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time with my granddaughters, it hit me-the conditioned ego is a lot like the Wizard of Oz! They both maintain power by staying hidden, scaring me with a lot of noise and threats, and convincing me to jump through hoops. They declare their power to be absolute, but when I pull aside the curtain of illusion, I can see that the wizard (conditioned ego) is really just a confused, powerless voice-nothing more than I make it.

As the Wizard himself proclaims in the movie, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Good advice!

Your conditioned ego is not your friend! It has a chokehold on your authentic nature, and it will not let go until you expose it.

Here’s the good news: We don’t have to dig around in our past to understand where our conditioning came from. We don’t even have to fix ourselves-we aren’t broken! The first step to regaining our power is to pay attention to our inner voices, observe them and under¬stand that they do not reflect who we really are.

None of us really wants to live as the pawn of a conditioned ego on a power trip. What can we do? I found that when I asked simple questions, such as: Who is this? How do you know this is true? Who told you this? Who says so? I was able to disconnect from these negative inner messages and make room for a more centered, compassionate part of me to respond. While this may appear to be a simple solution, it is not an easy fix. Constant vigilance is required to strip the conditioned ego of its power to run (and ruin) your life. Then you can come from choice and respond rather than react to circumstances.

I have learned that the goal is not to get rid of the conditioned personality, but to quiet it down and make it transparent so you can see through it to your authentic nature.

Thankfully, we all have access to the truest part of ourselves, which remains intimately connected to our true nature. No matter what has happened to you, no matter what abuses might have been done unto you as a child, no matter how badly you think you behaved, that authentic core of your being is intact. It can never be destroyed. It can only be masked by ego.

Freedom and joy come from listening to these voices and not believing them.