Although everything is in every instant changing, which means everything flawed can be perfected, that’s not what Mr. Ego sees. He’s afraid if he relaxes even for an instant, bad things will come to pass. He is a deluded Jeeves devoted to caring for a Bertie Wooster whose nature exists only in his imagination. That he exists only in mine does not make his activities less real.
Mr. Ego and I have been together so long and he is so very diligent; he usually has me believing I am what he imagines. On rare occasions I do wake up and tell him I’ll be OK, he can go on vacation, but he doesn’t because if he does, I will no longer have an identity. He thinks that would be very scary.
Psychotherapists say Mr. Ego manifests soon after we are born and develops well into adulthood. “Saying ‘NO’ is one of the earliest signs of individuation”, according to GoodTherapy. “It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different … individuation is … learning what we want to say NO or YES to [and] acting according to what we want and do not want. It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).”
Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there. He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME. He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish. Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.
In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind. Our imagined identity, “I am the kind of person who…”, says we are solid and we should make our situation more so, more dependable. We should instead rejoice that nothing is solid because that means everything really can become more perfect.
A way to dispel the illusion is to recast our identifier from noun to verb. That makes Martin Sidwell not an explorer destined always to be an explorer and implicitly never doing anything else, but an exploration taking place at this moment. Thinking of ourselves as verbs eliminates a big part of the harm we cause by believing we have an identity.
Believing we are part of a group is also a problem. If I think of myself as Buddhist it seems I am different from Christian but if I am practicing techniques that helped others grow more kind even to those who are abusive, I am practicing how to love and turn the other cheek. The program that helps me is different but the goal is the same as Jesus taught. I am not different from Christians, Muslims or others.
Keeping the goal clear is especially hard if our group’s identify is that of a people defined by its religion. A dear friend who recently gave up her long standing role as spiritual leader at her synagogue said: “What I realized is important is my values. People I’m close to have the same values. My rabbi’s are different and we’re not close. Trying to lead those with his values to a different way can never be helpful.” But being Jewish informs so much of what a Jewish person does, thinks and feels. Recognizing what my friend did must have been very, very hard and acting on the recognition must take so much discipline and courage.
The recognition my friend came to may be even tougher for Tibetans whose identity is so deeply associated with not only religion but also their homeland. Home is our idea of the ultimate refuge. As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”. My Tibetan friend who only ever wanted to be a nun was expelled from the nunnery by the Chinese government after the Beijing Olympics. A third of all Tibetan monks and nuns were forced out then after Western journalists reporting the Tibetan protests went home.
Jews whose ancestors were driven from their homeland milennia ago now have Israel. The homeland Tibetans always had began to be destroyed just as Israel was established. No wonder Tibetans yearn for that lost world even though there can be no such place of safety. It is so hard for any of us to recognize that and the idea of nation makes it so much harder.
China’s rulers always try to control the lands to their north and west because invaders from there have always swept in. The dynasty that ruled from 1644-1911 was established by invaders from Manchuria. As soon as the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949 they set out to control all China’s peripheral territories. Tibetans lost not just their independence as a nation but increasingly also their culture. The monasteries were destroyed, monks imprisoned, Chinese-language schools set up and masses of Han Chinese settlers imported. The Tibetans were to become Chinese to make China safe.
We think nations help us to be safe because nations have armed forces for defense. By identifying with a nation, however, we feel separate from people in other nations. We think they are different and we become afraid or jealous of our fantasy of what they are. Our struggle for independence in fact makes us fearful. The Chinese rulers’ treatment of Tibetans is motivated by fear, as is exiled Tibetans’ yearning for a Tibet they may never have known and that no longer exists.
There are two Tibetan words for independence. “Rang btsan” means not dependent on anything else and signifies the freedom we associate with independence. “Rang mtshan” means an independent self and signifies what we associate with being an individual. Both are pronounced rang tzen, are usually spelled rangzen in the West, and both suggest more than they mean. Nations are not truly independent and neither are people truly individual. Geography does not define a people nor is any man an island. Borders are just ideas that create suffering and limit our compassion.
Opening our hearts to feel the terrible suffering of Tibetans and others can lead us to feel compassion both for them and their abusers whose delusions lead them to their terrible actions. Then we can try to help both, for only in that way can suffering be ended. We really can do this if, as in this beautifully rendered Imagine There’s No Rangzen, we think independently.
So many ideas. We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable. We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not. But it can’t work. How could such a program succeed when nothing can be fixed, when everything is arising in every instant from an ever-changing assembly of causes?
One of the first great Tibetan teachers in the West said it this way: “The bad news is our airplane is crashing and we have no parachute. The good news is there is nowhere to land.” Mr. Ego got us into a vehicle he said would take us somewhere safe, if it didn’t crash. His fear of crashing distracted us.
That’s why it’s so hard to recognize that in fact we are crashing right now precisely because we imagine we have a fixed identity, we belong to a group whose rules are sacrosanct and we will be protected from those who are not like us by the nation where we live. We are creating our own fear.
We could instead accept the good news, train ourselves to dispel habitual reactions that grew from our misunderstanding, and grow more happy and, more importantly, more kind.