Ego and Authority

We bid ourselves to temper our ego, by which we really mean two things: first, to eliminate self-harming actions and thoughts such as pride, covetousness, laziness; second, having eliminated or diminished self-harming, to cultivate a different self-perception based on humility and non-desiring.
But are all these actions and thoughts merely dependent on circumstances, such that pride or assertiveness can sometimes be virtues? Can humility be a bad thing? Here is where we mistake personality for ego. We cannot make progress until we have that minimum of ego we call personality. This is a life-long refinement, but at the same time clearly established in childhood. We cannot undo ego without having one, a mature one, in the first place. From personality we can proceed to work on ego, or begin to undo ego and thereby enhance the virtues (and reduce the vices) of our personality. Our conscious goal is to move our virtues into that non-social realm that psychoanalysis calls the superego.
The leader, administrator, and the social organizer cannot help but project personality on a group. But in this capacity is leadership also a projection of ego? What the person interested in wielding power also ends up doing is projecting not only vices but the superego, their own values and conscience. The values may be benign, but in this power capacity, these values may now be reduced to content for psychological manipulation. The use of power and authority becomes the vehicle for values and beliefs. This is why the abuse of sound principles by institutions and authorities or their representatives is more painful to us than the vices of any given individual whom we do not know.
The true solitary, having worked on the ego, will be able to detect the imposition of authority and the arbitrariness of power in others. Ultimately, this will be recognized in social relations and society itself. Rarely does anyone achieve a position of power without thereby exercising authority. Authority is contrivance. Authority exercised by another is authority removed from oneself.

Compassion

Can a solitary develop compassion, or what the Buddhists call “bodhichitta”? For it seems that the highest compassion requires intense socializing, being with others in a large and public way. But compassion is not just pity in the sense of sorrowful identification with another. Such an attitude is easily codified by society into a paternalism, a condecension, a pharisaic morality.

True compassion begins by extending consciousness, by extending it into that collective consciousness where identity with others is the very sharing of a consciousness that is “built-in” to all of us and is not just an “add-on” of charity or philanthropy. The cry of pain in another human being — it can be half way around the world — can evoke the depth of our compassion because it emerges from (is) our (collective) consciousness. This compassion requires no “social” dimension because it exists at a level of awareness that is universal.

Unamuno on consciousness

Consciousness is the realization of being, and may be identical with being. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno generously extends consciousness to animate and inanimate beings by positing the action of consciousness through the universe of all beings:

We attribute some sort of consciousness, more or less dim, to all living things, and even to the stones themselves, for they also live. And the evolution of organic beings is simply a struggle, a continual aspiration to be others without ceasing to be themselves, to break and yet to preserve their proper limits.

Ambitions and sorrows

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus quotes this Persian saying: “The bitterest sorrow that anyone can know is to aspire to do much and to achieve nothing.” Said differently, our knowledge and desire can embrace and extend to almost any length, but our will and the concrete circumstances (happenstances) of our lives can frustrate nearly any ambition.
Resolving this “bitterest sorrow” means looking at desire and will as the pivot of the two sides of this human equation. Let knowledge — as awareness, as sensitivity, as consciousness — extend as far as our talents persuade us. But let desire, will — projections of ego — shrink to nothing. No projects, no schemes, no insistence or demands on reality. This can be difficult when a moral imperative moves us to anger or frustration. For to be aware means not only to have knowledge but to shape our lives and hearts to what is true. This does not automatically translate into action, except the imperative to change ourselves. This is the only necessary action: changing ourselves. All else will follow, if circumstances (happenstance, “karma”) allow. Only thusly will our best wishes be fulfilled, modestly guided by what is larger than our own little thoughts and feelings. Only thusly can we balance our aspirations and our achievements.

Path-pursuing

Concepts of God and God’s functionality in the universe are as often derived from experience and feeling as any formal philosophizing or theologizing. Darwin, for example, was as much influenced in his agnosticism by the evangelists’ images of hellfire and the tragic death of his daughter as by anything to do with evolution and natural selection. Our reflections on nature can dwell on “tooth and claw” as much as on the butterfly and the sunset. Likewise our reflections on humanity may dwell as much on love and mutual aid as on the cruel destruction of innocent life. The theories spun by thinkers never resolve the dichotomies, nor does society ever seem to progress in addressing them. But the solitary can pursue the necessary path: slowing the cultural influences in one’s life, reducing the ego’s affinities for easy social solutions, and awaiting a pattern of silence from which will emerge at least a modest personal equanimity. This is a life-time’s work, to be sure, but it is the only work we need pursue.