Tag Archives: spiritual awareness

The ego: We need it, but not as much as we think

When I rediscovered my Goodreads pages the other day, I immediately added my favorite book from last year: The Master and His Emmissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). In the last twenty years, brain science has greatly increased our appreciation for how our most important organ functions. It has also “discovered” that science, itself, has perpetrated the wrong impression of which side of the brain is the master.

Jill Boite Taylor

The Eurocentric countries, like the U.S., have given their allegiance to the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere, and dismissed the right  — that’s a problem. This was illustrated colorfully in Jill Taylor’s book, also from 2009, called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Taylor is a Ted Talk expert on the human brain who woke up one morning having a stroke. By the end of the morning the left hemisphere of her brain was totally “offline,” as she puts it. She had no sense of personal identity; she couldn’t recognize her own mother, speak or understand speech, remember the most recent moment of her life, make and carry out a three-step plan, walk, or feed herself, among many other things we take for granted. We know that she eventually recovered those left-brain functions because she wrote the book.

That was fourteen years ago. Since then, the world has become more aware of the functions of the brain hemispheres. But such awareness seems to have made little difference in society or in most of my psychotherapy clients. Do you think it has? Many of us know the brain’s left hemisphere is more logical, rational, linear, and rule-oriented; it’s the problem-solver, enabling us to build buildings, fix the plumbing, pay the bills, stay on schedule, negotiate our social encounters, and speak and understand others’ speech. Many of us have become much more aware that right side of the brain is metaphorical, creative, intuitive, nonverbal, and emotional – which are all things that are unclear, hard to define and measure, and hard to see as important. According to McGilchrist, the left brain finds the right brain wanting because of its imprecision and immeasurability; it is too “spiritual.”

Dr. Taylor saw much of the world through the lens of the left brain before her stroke and was transformed when she lost the use of it. Her empathy was no longer boundaried and she experienced others’ emotions directly, unmediated by rational or “egomental” thought. She felt, wordlessly, whether the person with her liked her or didn’t, cared about her or didn’t, was angry or happy or sad, was at peace or in pain. She was, in effect, involuntarily connected without boundaries to all other people, and to the movements of the Earth. She felt “at one with the source and flow of the universe.”  What’s more, when in solitude she was at peace. Without the baggage of memory, ego, or worry about the future, she was free to experience the inherent wonder of the moment.

To deepen spiritual awareness

Everything Taylor experienced sounds like the fruit of the Spirit to me (see what Paul’s amounts to Paul’s takedown of left-brain domination here). Christians feel the movements of their spiritual awareness, mostly resident in their right brains, as ecstasy, as union with God and creation. We learn to contemplate so we can get to the place Taylor’s stroke caused her to access. Western culture has kept people so locked down, they gravitate towards drugs, my beloved Pentecostalism, political rallies and concerts to experience the basic sensibility pre-Enlightenment people took for granted. I have heard countless sermons about how terrible our “big egos” are and how we must crucify our fleshly self to gain heaven – and ecstasy, peace.

The left side of the brain is considered the seat of the ego, which uses left-brain functions to help us know ourselves and live in the material world. When David Benner describes the ego in Soulful Spirituality: Becomng Fully Alive and Deeply Human (2011), he essentially sees it as synonymous with the left brain.

The ego includes all those mental functions that allow us to perceive, organize, elaborate, differentiate, integrate, and transform experience. Ego is a fundamental psychic structure that secures our reality testing, good judgment, impulse control defensive functions, affective regulation, interpersonal relations, moral orientation, thought process, and much more.

We don’t want to get rid of the ego, all that preaching notwithstanding. We just don’t want it to run the whole show. It is the “emissary” to McGilchrist’s right-brain “master.”

The left brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves as someone. But given that great power, it can function as if it makes us someone. And so it might see itself as needing to save us. We need to be self-aware and self-confident but we dare not become self-sufficient or self-serving.

The right brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves in right relationship. It allows us to live on an appropriately large plain: in touch with heaven and earth, the depth of ourselves and eternity. When the right and left brain are in touch with heaven and earth, we are being saved when we are saving, being found when we are finding. As Jesus says: the one who asks receives, who seeks find, the one who knocks experiences an open door. I think our spiritual awareness transcends brain function but is firmly rooted in it. That is the main reason I want to keep understanding the integration of psychology and Christianity.

Quiet your ego

I keep talking about right and left brain and the domination of our egos. I obviously find it important to understand why we feel so locked into the fears that cause us to flee or freeze or fight, and why we are so committed to the defenses we throw up to protect our fragile egos. Why are truckers blockading Ottawa and using their children as shields? Why are we piling armaments and troops into Ukraine? Why do I continue to dwarf my loves as if I were still ten years old? Why do I keep fighting for my rights with my spouse as if it is life or death situation?

All these terrible things could have many causes, but one we rarely consider is the fact we think reality fits within the limits of the left brain. If we all had a stroke, life would look a lot different. Most of us would die from a stroke like Taylor’s, not make a Ted Talk out of it! So we are unlikely to experience that shortcut to wholeness. Instead, we will have to make our way through a lifetime of challenging choices to quiet our egos. When we first become aware we have been trapped in a locked, egocentric room, leaving it might feel like we are losing our minds.

Again, Benner says:

The pathway to the transformation of not only our egocentricity but our very self is the path of surrender. We must be willing to lay down that which we were previously willing to die to defend. But this surrender of egocentricity is not the same as the elimination of the ego.

We need our ego to be fully human and to become spiritually whole. But we all need to surrender egocentricity, which is not so easy in a society that presumes it.

One of the best results of this terrible pandemic we have endured is so many people deserting their left-brain-dominated pursuits: jobs just for money, obligations that thwart personal desires to appease “the man,” seeing oneself as trapped, letting a feeling of scarcity cause one to overprotect, using the world up rather than protecting it, and more. The long, existential crisis has caused necessary spiritual crises. Left-brained egocentricity has been shown up as inadequate for many people. What appeared to be saving our lives has, in many cases, been shown to be what is destroying it.

Right now, people are crying out against mask mandates so we can all get back to normal. The left brain wants equilibrium. It is the seat of justice. It tends to blame factors outside itself (since it is limited) — outside factors like its counterpart, the right brain, even! But enough of us are seeing, I hope, I hope, that how society is organized and how we have organized ourselves and our spirituality is the main cause of our distress.

Our all-out attempts to preserve our egocentricity is the problem. Be it an inflated ego or a broken one, whether the song is “Slay me, Lord” or “Build me up,” any sense that the ego must save us must be lost so we can find our full life. Like we keep repeating when share the memory of the Lord’s great grace: our lives emerge out of death. In order to live, I must lose what appears to be my life, lose the truncated view of my left brain and my allegiance to the society that traps me in it.

I spend a lot of therapy time massaging the hardened traumas that lock up our memories, reforming the hard words that have shamed us, unraveling the dark masses of unexplored pain that demand to be protected from further harm. Often, fragile egos become strong enough to surrender their dominance and a person experiences the wonder of feeling joy in the wide open spaces of their true, whole selves. I wish that freedom for all of us as we get back to a new normal.

Take the time: Grow in the good soil of God’s garden

“All liberating growth takes time.” That’s what Paul Tournier, the Swiss physician and counselor, taught us in one of his many great books, Creative Suffering (1981).

Most of my clients initially see this truth as bad news. One reason is they are paying for therapy, so  a long road to liberation could cost them a lot of money! But the main reason the long process is hard to endure is they can taste the first fruit of freedom and they want it all right now. They regret their time lost on immaturity. It feels like bad news to be reminded it takes time to heal; it takes time to learn and install new habits. I often describe the process of growing into our fullness as creating new “ruts” in the brain as we climb out of the old ones. Both adding the new and filling in the old takes time. This video explains the science of the process.

It is always the right time to grow

The fact that it takes time to experience liberation is actually good news, I think. Whenever I am growing, I am right on time! I may feel like I am late, but I am never too early! If we can let go of our linear, progress-dominated, capitalism-inspired sense of success, the time spent on liberation can come to feel like growth. It can feel free, like growing is our top priority, just like we see in plants as they move from seedling to plant, to flower, to fruit. They have nothing to do but grow.

The Apostle Paul reinforces how we have been restored to our natural growth process in Ephesians 4 when he describes how the gifts of the Holy Spirit we all contribute build up the body of Christ. The Spirit keeps moving in us

until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ…We must grow up in every way into him who is the head. (NRSV)

It feels good to be at home as the “plants” we are, growing in the soil of God’s love. That sense of innate capacity for becoming more is a taste of eternity. I’m fine if it takes as long as it takes.  Becoming whole can take as long as I live to complete – I have eternal life! It is not a defeat or an imposition to need maturity! It is a joy that comes with our birthright as the children of God to grow into fullness. Even if it is a struggle to change, growing is a good suffering.

Jesus, Gardener of the New Creation

Rut-making prayer

God calls us and coaxes us into our potential in many ways. I know of several men who recently had amazing dreams that convinced them they are loved and worthy. During the day they are prone to proving themselves and working extra hard to be successful and to be valued as a result, they hope. But during the silence of their sleep, their defenses weaken and God meets them. They are always trying to figure out how to get their dreamlife into their schedule!

God, the Healer, meets us in our spiritual awareness but also in the ordinary awareness that often dominates our consciousness and our schedule. That ordinary awareness forms ruts in our brain, the familiar pathways we began learning as infants. But we have a spiritual awareness that leads us in deeper ways that often feel miraculous.  As we intentionally become silent (or listen to our dreams) our receptivity opens us to face the unknown places we have yet to visit in Christ, both in God and in ourselves. It takes time! It is also daunting because it is sometimes frightening to leave our familiar neural pathways, to “unknow” our past and move into new territory in the Spirit, which feels like a place of “unknowing.”

I appreciate how Cynthia Bourgeault explores the process of maturing in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004) as she is quoting Thomas Keating’s book Intimacy with God (1996).

Beginning in infancy (or even before) each of us, in response to our perceived threats to our well-being, develops a false self: a set of protective behaviors driven at root by a sense of need and lack. The essence of the false self is driven, addictive energy, consisting of tremendous emotional investment in compensatory ”emotional programmes for happiness,” as Keating calls them…

It is the false self we bring to the spiritual journey, our “true self” lies buried beneath the accretions and defenses. In all of us there is a huge amount of healing that has to take place before our deep and authentic quest for union with God – which requires tremendous courage and inner presence to sustain – escapes the gravitational pull of our psychological woundedness and self-justification. This, in essence constitutes the spiritual journey.

All liberating growth takes time. Jesus has replanted us in the good soil of his “garden.” We don’t need to fret if we discover we are a seedling. We can enjoy the growing. We are planted in grace, after all. That is enough in itself.

I think the “garden” where our true self grows is accessed best through contemplative prayer. If you want to grow faster, spend more time in silence, listening and feeling your way into your rightful place as the beloved of God. Our false self may flourish in the family, job and religion. But that false self withers in prayer, since is it the nature of contemplative prayer to dissolve it.

I mentioned three books today, any one of them would help you mature. I hope we all grow deeper ruts in which our true selves can flow by cooperating with the Great Healer. Jesus will lead us through the pain of transformation and the joy of growing – no matter how long it takes. We have time.

Lent Did It’s Job: Three levels of awareness

risen sunIt has been a wonderful Lent.

At times, I felt a little guilty, because my self-imposed suffering was bearing delectable fruit: some of it tasted new and some of it tasted of well-loved flavors I had been missing. Meanwhile, some people were blowing off the discipline…for what? At times I felt like I was having a feast while strangely invisible to starving people.

I hope you find it acceptable for me to tell you a little about my Lent. One thing I experienced during the season is this reality: any number of my comrades feel that saying anything about ourselves is proud or self-referencing or coercive, so they never give a testimony of God’s work and , as a result, no one gets to know Jesus. Waking up to that shocked me and reformed me, so I am giving my testimony. Lent helped me realize how they had somewhat squeezed me into their tiny, dishonorable mold. They made me afraid.

I’ll be brief, though. I’ll organize my thoughts around the PM Plan, where it quotes Jesus calling us, in Mark 12, to “surrender to loving God with our entire beings.”  Jesus speaks of a whole being as four parts: heart, soul, mind and strength. A whole being can never actually be separated into parts, of course. But these are good categories to help us mentalize: think and feel about what we  think and feel — a basic Christian skill for which Lent was priceless.


We say in the PM Plan that the “heart” is: Our ordinary awareness, primarily. The center of our ego, our sense of being a person. Feelings, desires, passions, reflection, moral conviction.

During the Patrick Day Retreat I encouraged us to note our three levels of awareness: ordinary, spiritual and Holy Spirit. It helped me take note.

That retreat was symbolic of my reorientation. I’ve been discouraged, on and off, for a while. The congregation and the whole network have been missionally stalled, in some ways, and I am a missionary. Lent rekindled my fire, got me excited, helped me let go and change. Our focus on the Jesus Prayer spurred my contemplation, so I was hearing the inner voice. And, as you can probably tell, I felt convictions that I, and we, have an important outer voice.

We say that the “mind” is: Our ordinary awareness, primarily. Where we are conscious. Our understanding, ethical awareness, inclinations, attitudes.

During the Justice Conference I was stricken by what caring people can do. And I was also stricken by what Circle of Hope, as caring people, has done. We are the lost poster child church of the Justice Conference. I felt the same way when we were speaking to the Atlantic Conference of the BIC about our Compassion Teams. We demonstrate remarkable, authentic passion. I love who God has made us!

But sometimes I have felt concerned because it seems like our radicality, our incarnational mentality, and our covenant intensity, just wear people out. I get afraid that people might lazily let it all go. But when I saw “pop” church popping up in our region I got competitive for reality. What’s more, my trauma study helped me see that learned helplessness is a constant threat when people are oppressed; you might have heard about that in this blog post. The church is floundering and pandering; the world is demanding and deceiving. I feel called to be an antidote, if I can.

We say what Jesus means by “strength” is: Not only bodily strength, but primarily. Our ability, capacity, potency. The power we are given to exercise.

I feel better when my Lenten fast has the corollary benefit of reducing my weight and making me aware of my body. When I am feeding myself in a healthy way and requiring my body to match my morals, I feel better and act with more freedom, I am more open.

I forced a personal retreat into my busy schedule at one point during Lent just because it needed to be done. I damned the consequences. The fact that I did that made me stronger. And the consequences weren’t that big a deal anyway. I also regularly force spiritual direction into my schedule and it makes me a stronger counselor and director myself. My doctoral studies are also way too much to do, but have also proven to be too strengthening not to do.

We say that the “soul” is: Our spiritual awareness. Where we most deeply connect with God. The life in us that transcends time. The place of accountability. The seat of sorrow, joy, suffering.

This is where Lent was most valuable, as you might expect. I am desperate for hours in “Holy Spirit awareness.” And although my heart, mind and strength propel me there, it is in my soul that I am most allured. During Lent, I felt remarkably, consciously relieved of lazy habits of self-protection and self-soothing. I think a lot of that was due to my study in trauma and revisiting my psychological character style. For instance, at one of the Holy Week observances I described my childhood home as “unsafe” — an admission I don’t usually allow. My friend’s response was so kind that a flood of emotions surged up. I was getting healed some more. During the Way of the Cross walk and during the vigil I realized the erosive benefits of Lent. I might long for something to knock me “off my horse” all the time, but the regular disciplines of exercising my spiritual awareness form me as they save me. The fact that I went on the walk helped me become aware of Jesus and walk with Him.

As I decided what to put into this testimony it was such a joy to realize that there is so much more to tell! It was a rich season in a rich life. God was with me and I was with God. I was in a body that is a real church and God was with us. I had put my hand to the plow and the way forward was challenging, but exciting — and I did not want to look back or elsewhere. One the main convictions I received was that I needed to talk about all that. So I have begun. Thanks for walking with me.

I’m sure you have a lot to tell, yourself. Right now at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer we are having the first of our quarterly times to talk back, reveal ourselves, and tell each other what God has been doing from January through March. That is hardly the only place you could give witness to God’s work in your life through Jesus, but it is a good one.

Enhanced by Zemanta