We’re in the world as authors and authorities intent on taking our lives to the next level. We can experiment with possibilities that benefit our unique intellectual and moral commitments and our one-of-a-kind natures. But we’re also in the world in just the way that we are, up and running, defined, often on autopilot.
Many values or authorities affect how we manage our lives. Authority means here the right to control, command or determine. The authority I refer to here is the invisible self or ego-function. Though it’s not a thing, this human faculty perceives the world in terms of what is presented by its immediacy, by what it senses or intuits.
All of us are constitutionally equipped by nature, with some added tinkering by nurture, to have an irreducible experience of life. Built into our living system is a raw intelligence that helps us to negotiate our way in the world. And it just keeps going, no matter what. We know very well that this front line of stored offensive or defensive responses is just waiting for a stimulus. It can make us blush, or angry, or quiver or alert and on our toes.
To this visceral intelligence, history and language have added this construct, the invisible self. Though purely imaginary, we can’t help but think of this invisible self as a little person inside our brains. It’s a director or producer, if you will, calling the shots based on a vision of and standards for a rich and rewarding — and maybe award-winning — life. However, in fact, not only is there no invisible self in charge of things in there, there’s no there in there either. No central information processer in the brain exists.
Still, using this function you and I can model ourselves for the purpose of reflecting on ourselves and our world. We can imagine what it would be like to move to Miami or to run a marathon or to stand up to a bully. But this ability doesn’t automatically make us a perfect fit for the world we live in.
- First, at the same time that we are doing the sophisticated imagining, immediacy is having its way with us. All day long we are destabilized by its insistent programmed instincts. Out of “nowhere,” we can feel discontented, or anxious, or angry.
- Second, many of us think that our invisible selves are epic, that we know the whole truth. Certainly, we can put together an entertaining story about our lives. Yet, we may be stuck in the mindset “given” to us by the circumstances of our birth. As such, we may not have access to the bigger picture that would make us a better fit for the life we want to lead.
Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, this subjective experience tries, with its mental or outspoken language, to make rational and moral sense of the raw intelligence. It’s the first step to a new level of control, an embryonic but promising transcendent authority that may permit it to “get over” the visceral urgings in service of a larger purpose. Sometimes the invisible self or ego function is successful. But sometimes it has to give up, frustrated by its inability to summon the intelligence or the discipline to overcome its insistent feelings.
Unfortunately, because we typically don’t push on to a greater truth, this incomplete understanding is what shapes our mindsets. This means that without deliberate effort and the right governing philosophy, we don’t have access to a bigger picture, a bigger range of (mental) motion that would move us to the next level. And, not realizing that a larger range of sensibility and control is what’s missing from the freely chosen and well-lived life it wants, the ego function protects the mindset it has and unwittingly foregoes the larger truths by which it would benefit.
A mindset is difficult to change because it is physically embedded — not as a thing like the brain itself — but in circuitry or connections built of our nerve cells or neurons. Its imprint affects our attitudes, postures and the stories we tell about our lives. The physical fact of the mindset and the ego’s protection of it — as if it were a thing — come at significant cost to our desire to further individuate morally and thoughtfully as the unique, one-of-a-kind person that we are.
Yes, how life shows up to the ego function in its immediacy is a truth of sorts, but it is only the beginning truth. Without practiced access to higher levels of intelligence and transcendent authority, it resonates with a mindset too narrow to match the sensibilities needed to negotiate the larger realities of a complex world.
An allegiance to unexamined belief or a lesser truth can cost us by limiting our resources. And we stand to lose mental faculties that we don’t nourish or exercise enough. Mental dexterity is not best served by shopworn thinking — by going down that same neural pathway repeatedly. In fact, mental agility is served when we are introduced to and interact with new ideas and explanations that shake up our mindsets, so to speak.
Thus, it is important for each of us to use the ego function’s creative potential not to model an awesome story but to take possession of ourselves. Over and over again, we must get beyond the immediate fear, get beyond the immediate anxiety, get beyond the immediate feelings that are described as anger, embarrassment, heartbreak, loss or defeat. We benefit, and the world benefits, when we are able to feel, think, listen, speak and act in accordance with the larger truth of our transcendent aims.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.