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What Power Does the Ego Have?

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Q: Does the ego have the power to create what it wants to be, have, and do? Does the ego have the power to block the natural flow of life through me? Or can the ego only create psychological suffering or happiness, but it doesn’t have the power to block the flow of life or to create what it wants?

A: The ego has a small degree of power to create what it wants and, at times, to block the flow of life temporarily. However, the ego does have a lot of power to cause us to suffer, although suffering itself is just an experience in thought—a mental state. There is no actual thing called suffering. It only exists as a mental experience. Mental suffering can trigger feelings and physical sensations, but the source of those feelings and sensations is thoughts.

For example, there is probably some furniture in the room where you are right now. You can think about the furniture, but the furniture is also a physical reality. Compare that to imagining a baby elephant in the room where you are right now. You can think about the baby elephant and imagine it in great detail, but the baby elephant is still not really there in the room with you. So suffering is all imagined, like the baby elephant. That is why the ego has so much power to cause us to suffer—because it doesn’t take much to imagine something. We only have to exercise our imagination to suffer; we don’t have to do anything else.

In the midst of this potential for suffering, there are also the events in your life and the actions you take. The ego has a small degree of power to affect these. And when it does, we often learn much more about how limited the viewpoint of the ego is. Oscar Wilde once wrote that there are two great tragedies in life: One is when we don’t get what we want, and the other is when we do. When the ego gets what it wants, we often discover the limitations, problems, and difficulties we hadn’t foreseen when we were lost in the perspective of our ego’s desire. The ego acts out of a very narrow range of impulses that are focused on its own needs and preferences. When these get satisfied, we discover the limitations of our understanding and foresight. A friend of mine always wanted a house in the country with a big yard. When she finally got one, she spent the entire summer mowing the lawn! Spending all her time riding a lawn mower wasn’t in her ego’s picture of the joy of having a place in the country, and it also wasn’t her deepest desire.

So the ego can create distractions and detours that interfere with the unfolding of our life’s purpose, but fortunately the underlying wisdom and discrimination of our Being is still also working. So we eventually feel a truer impulse and adjust course and end up back in the flow. Or our ego’s creations fall apart and then essence, or Being, picks up the pieces and puts us back on track. Our life is a dance between all these forces. Ego has some capacity to affect what happens, but that capacity is much less than the capacity of our Being to unfold life in truer directions.

Half of the Truth

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Q: I read where you say, “The good news is that even before you trust this deeper knowing, it has been working perfectly all along. The difference is that when you trust it, when you surrender to it, you don’t suffer anymore. When, instead, you pay attention to your ideas about how things should be or how you want things to happen, this innate wisdom still gets you where you need to be, but because you are so busy with your ideas about it, you suffer. The good news is that this innate wisdom is not something you add or something you do or something you need to master but who you are.” Does this mean that life is happening by itself through me as it desires, and I can do nothing to create the life I want or block life expressing through me?

A: The limitation of concepts and thoughts is that whenever we speak or write about something, we are only speaking part of the truth. I would even say that the best anyone has ever done is communicate half of the truth! This is true of everyone, even spiritual teachers. And so the quote you refer to offers some truth, but really only part of the truth. Perhaps the value of it is that it offers a part of the truth that is often overlooked or not even considered by most people.

The deepest truth is that there is an innate wisdom unfolding this life that always gets you where you need to go. It is also true that this innate wisdom moves through you as your desires and, even more importantly, as your deepest drives and motivations. It appears that the Mystery that is unfolding this life loves to play and create so much that it even gives you the power to choose and act as an apparent individual. So the ego, or false identity we form, makes choices and takes life and awareness in directions that sometimes cause problems. The ego wants to create what it wants regardless of what Being wants! There’s no mistake in all of this. The mystery loves the unpredictable ego that it has created! There is also a deeper movement in us of our essential selves that moves in harmony with the wisdom of Being and yet is still an apparent individual acting and choosing, only we are moving as essence and in alignment with Being’s wishes.

Sometimes we are moved by the ego’s desires and, at other times, we are moved by deeper drives coming from our essence. Paradoxically, we can even choose what is already happening. How we choose is not often completely one way or the other. There is quite a dance going on between the ego and essence, which allows Being to create unpredictability and surprise within itself. Maybe that’s the only way that something that is already infinite and eternal can create and play—by allowing something new and unpredictable to be created within itself.

Again, there is no final truth in anyone’s words. If you are enjoying creating and expressing through your desires, then go for it! You can also rest sometimes and explore what life is like when you surrender your doing or, even more simply, notice that life is unfolding beautifully even when you are just observing it. Surrender is not something we do really; it is more a result of the observation of the bigger truth that everything that happens is already a part of the intelligence of Being at work. This recognition naturally leads to a balancing of our tendency to overdo our doing, which is where our suffering lies.

The Gift of Free Will

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Q: Thoughts and feelings are given to us, but where they originated can't be known. If anything changes, it's because we are changed. We don't change ourselves or make choices or have free will. The only thing we do is observe. We're not capable of doing anything else.

A: I do think you are correct that we don’t "think" most of our thoughts as much as we receive them like a radio receives the signal from the station. But it is also possible that whatever sends the signal of our thoughts also gives us the experience of individuality and free will in the same way. It comes from the same source, but perhaps that source loves the mystery and surprise it gets when it gives a part of itself free will to act in unpredictable ways.

So while that apparent choice and free will are ultimately a gift from something more mysterious, it still could be our relative experience that we have the free will to act and choose. It definitely would make for a more interesting illusion!

There is a fairy tale or story at the end of my free ebook, Beyond No Self, that offers one explanation of how the mystery could give its creations apparent free will and choice by creating copies or clones of itself to live these apparent lives as individuals. You can read the story here (scroll to the bottom of the page where the story is in italics).