Friday, 25 September 2009

Escaping the tyranny of the ego

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
(Matthew 16:25)

The comments on my last post on 'Spiritual Journey – where to?', where I was concerned about how certain metaphors can inadvertently encourage individualism and/or egotism, at the expense of fellowship, sharing and humility, have prompted me to look further.

Bill Samuel talked of being part of a community, on a shared journey. This indeed can prevent the 'journey' metaphor being tainted by egoism, and it put me in mind of the Quaker discipline of Concern: We take our individual concern to the Meeting for discernment and clearness, and the Meeting takes the concern to itself. This has greater benefits than just taming the ego, for even if the work on the concern is carried out by the individual who originally brought it, which in my experience is usually the case, there is no 'burn out' under pressure to succeed, and no feeling of guilt in the face of failure, for the concern belongs to the Meeting, and the Meeting provides support and comfort - “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Bill talks about the central metaphor of 'in Christ'. Paul says “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). I was taught this and other similar bible verses, but I know now that this was not my experience. The Quaker discipline against notions - “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?” - has taught me that I mouthed the words whilst nursing my ego. And worse, I was plagued with doubt as I rehearsed the confession: would my sins consign me to hell? Was I really one of the Elect?

Christopher Parker rightly points to the fact that not everything called 'community' is 'for my sake'. Many communitarians see 'community' as a means of imposing social control. Many communities are exclusivist. Others turn their backs on the world. However, our Quaker discipline against creeds ensures that our Meetings are entirely inclusive – those who turn away from us exclude themselves, for whatever reasons. The Quaker business discipline ensures that everyone in the community participates fully, “lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20). Our discipline against hired ministers ensures that no one can usurp control – know matter how dutifully we follow a leader we are merely “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10). Jesus himself refused to lead his disciples - “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (John 15:15). A community 'for my sake' is founded on the absolute mutuality of loving friendship, which is only possible where there is total equality and freedom.

Is 'living adventurously' only for 'rugged individualists'? It is my experience, after the dull conformity of the church liturgy prescribed by the prayer book, that when you let go of the ego and become part of a community of true individuals, rather than just like-minded people, where there is no certainty of creed or worldly authority, then adventure beckons, new discoveries await, and we know life in all its abundance.


Peter Lawless said...

I am saying this without malice but I can't help feeling that your justification of parts of your arguments by reference to the bible is at odds with 'What sayest thou?'. If we are to know by experience surely parts of that experience have no corresponding biblical support?
Your Friend

Nadine Wills said...

This is an interesting post Gordon. It took me awhile to get my mind around truthfully because it comes from such a different place than I seem to in some ways. But then I realised it doesn't. I come to Quakers because I value the tolerance and emphasis on community and focus on generosity, action and others. My problem with many other communities that I have experienced is that it seemed to me (and this may have been my own projections of ego/lens colouring it at the time as well I should point out) that much of the giving and activity was focussed on a "look at me and how much I'm doing for you now it's your turn or else..." mentality. I myself have done exactly this many times and also expected to be paid back for "generosity". This ties into somehow with expectations I think. Wanting to only associate with "like-minded individuals" or wanting a journey (rather than an adventure) means you know what you are getting (a particular type of person, an ending to your travels). The truly radical thing about communities and adventure, is that sometimes what you must do to truly engage with it is seemingly crazy to the ego and patently _not_ in its best interests (of selfish and static self preservation) but certainly in the best interests of the larger collective or spiritual growth. Yet, it is only perhaps by making the "crazy" choices that one really contributes to community in a non-ego based and abundant way. A scary and radical choice indeed. Very similar ideas to what we were just discussing on the Buddhist retreat I was on where we discussed compassion and generosity. Interesting.


As an aside, I can't figure out how to "apply" to become a contributor. Who do I have to contact?

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Nadine,
I'm the administrator for this blog. If you send me your email address I will send you an invite to become a contributor:

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Gordon,
Thanks for this and previous post.

"our Quaker discipline against creeds ensures that our Meetings are entirely inclusive – those who turn away from us exclude themselves, for whatever reasons"

Hmmm, not sure it always looks like that from where I'm sitting, (or are all the Black, working-class, and non-English people sitting behind me?)

Peter Lawless said...

Craig I appreciate your concern about the lack of diversity apparent in Meeting but I feel given my own life and those of some lately departed Friends that there is a presence in Meeting of a large number of working class people who may have benefited from the education system and appeared to have moved out of their class but not lost their awareness of their origins though it is not writ large on them. I say appear to have moved out because I believe that their social origins may have had a significant effect upon their spiritual development and may be why they have ended up at Meeting if we regard it as a spiritual place of equality and related issues. Meeting is not necessarily the 'middle class at prayer', as is often said about the Anglican Church, though it may appear so without greater knowledge of people's origins.
As part of the 5 year review, I can't immediately spell Quin...whatever at this time of day, I actually suggested that any surplus be used to start Meetings in various parts of the city because issues relating to the timing and price of public transport in Sheffield on First day, as in other of the country may have a significant effect in preventing people from the groups you mention from attending no matter their interest.
Your Friend