A few weeks lacking of the longest night, the landscape is preparing us for the darkness. Beneath our inclination to slow down when the light is shortened, here in the Northern hemisphere, and our consequent lowered spirits, is the reminder that all things die and make space for something else. The several funerals at the end of this year were in harmony with the spirit of this season. I go willingly to remember these lives and mourn the losses, and to hear Pastor Janice speak words that acknowledge the uniqueness of the one remembered, and also to remind us of our hope in life and in death.
Recently she spoke about the increasing fragility we watch in others as they age, knowing that it will be our fate as well; and about the hope of the gospels that God’s love is with us even as we decline physically and mentally. We read from II Corinthians about the treasure, God’s saving love, enclosed in earthen vessels, and from Romans 8 about all the difficult things that cannot separate us from that love.
I wanted to go further in, to talk about how it is precisely those difficult things that complete the work begun in us, that reveal to us and to others that treasure of love within.
The encounter two years ago with my own limits of capacity and control, and the love of the Christ that met me at those limits showed me clearly by experience that the ego self, what we think of as the mind, that we set such store by and completely and erroneously identify with, is not the treasure Paul speaks of. That treasure is an entirely different Self, the Self that intersects the Divine, in whose image we were created.
I recently read three books, each witnessing in its own way to this mistaken identity and its alternative. Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True (note there is no ’only’ in that title) describes the basic nature of the ego, which is in service to natural selection, and its firm and controlling grip on our lives. He describes opportunities and practices we can build into our lives to regularly escape that iron grasp and live from the more generous and loving Self, the part of us that derives from the Whole and participates in the Divine.
In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan writes about the history and use of psychoactive drugs, their success in treating addictions and depression, as well as their value in ego transcendence. Then he records his own and others’ experiences with these substances that have the power, with a single encounter in most people, to become a means to experience the world beyond the ego prison: a world of belonging and meaning.
Braiding Sweetgrass, a gem of a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, describes a path of ego transcendence by means of our participation in the membership of this mysterious and gorgeous world. Kimmerer places humans within the family of creatures who mutually reveal the terrible beauty and grace which holds us. Gratitude, the doorway, is what holds this natural community together, and is our appropriate response and our debt.
Each of these writers testify to strategies at hand to free us from slavery to ego and return it to its appropriate role in service to the Self. The egoic illusion of separateness and autonomy is responsible for so many of the errors that lead to violence and suffering. We stumble blindly along, unaware of the reality in which we are embedded, mistaking our personal package of desire, fear and pride for our real Self. Psychoactive chemicals have been an effective way for many to begin the journey of ego transcendence but, as one of the uninitiated to this particular doorway of perception, I believe that there are other more life-embedded and equally useful openings. Love and suffering, the ordinary offerings of life, if attended to, can loosen the grip of ego. Great love and suffering can be powerfully transforming. The experience of daily saturation in the natural world to nudge the ego out of control can be an invaluable practice. And Death is a sure portal, and perhaps is the most useful one for most of us in its totality and unavoidability.
I experienced the afterglow of a great loosening of Ego for months after the disorientation and reorientation of anesthetic and surgery two years ago. Its fading is my sorrow now, though enough remains that I am confident that there is nothing to fear as my body and mind grow fragile. I know now that waiting is preparation, and that life offers many portals of transcendence.
Where our life meets our inevitable decline and loss, an overwhelming Love will also be present.