FIVE HABITS TO STRENGTHEN THE EGO (Part 4)
from Sustaining the Gaze Towards Interdependence
Being a person comes with all kinds of complexities. For less suffering and more fulfillment, a basic guideline from somatic psychology is that thinking alone is not enough to create lasting change.
The reason more of us are not already more engaged with the following practices is the same reason we have not yet found our way to an interdependent world: growth requires changes in multiple systems at once—emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual and social. And, generally growth doesn’t happen on its own without our participation, and some new input.
For context, see Part 2 on how the ego is the sense of “I,” and why we want to strengthen the ego and not fight with or eliminate it, and the beginning of Part 3 which describes why lists that suggest what you can do to grow psychologically — including this one — are always incomplete.
1. Cultivate embodiment.
Embodiment is the experience of life through the senses. When we are embodied we can distinguish between direct, lived experience (life experienced through immediate sense perception) and the commentary in our head about that experience. Bill Bowen taught:
“When you talk with a person, you are speaking to that person’s body as well as to his or her mind. To touch the body is to also touch emotional and psychological experience. There may be dissociation or disconnection between body and mind, but in reality there is not a separation.”
Cultivating embodiment is correlated with developing the ego (Part 2). As a child grows, the ego progresses through increasingly complex stages of awareness. Our ego’s stage of development can be identified through our thoughts and the meaning we make of things. Every thought we have coincides with a particular physical organization in the body. As the ego (sense of “I”) updates the meanings it makes of things, the tension patterns of the body also change.
There are many theories and theorists for understanding stages of consciousness and ego development, and it is said that frequently a person reaches a certain stage of ego development and rather than continuing to evolve, can remain there for their entire life.
The developmental psychologist, Jane Loevinger, claimed that many people reach the sixth stage, which means that in her model of ego development, the eighth stage — the stage of realizing interdependence described here — is not often reached:
“At stage eight, the autonomous stage… these independent paths are no longer seen in opposition to depending on each other; rather relationships are appreciated as an interdependent system of mutual support.”
“Our bodies don’t lie. In fact, there is no “us” separate from our bodies… Liberation requires courage and hard work… Coming home to our bodies makes that wholeness more possible, and the rigorous and exhilarating discipline of deepening somatic awareness aids the journey… More deeply connected to our own aliveness, we connect more accountably to others.”
2. Deeper listening.
One way our sense of self grows is through the sublime experience of being fully understood. The fact that self development doesn’t happen otherwise is not weakness; rather, relationships are the way human development occurs. When your concerns are understood, something inside you relaxes. Until then, life is often centered around managing psychological tension and emotional distress.
A relational practice called Circling, also referred to as inter-subjective meditation, guides participants towards deeper listening and teaches essential distinctions for improving important dialogues.
Circling provides opportunities for people to practice being in relationship with their peers in ways that encourage ego development — one intention of Circling is to access the “true self,” (an ego that is evolving) rather than live only from the “false self,” (the masks we wear to hide our true self). This practice is one of the most direct and effective practices I have experienced in 19 years studying somatic psychotherapy.
In the RSA animate, The Power of Outrospection, Roman Krznaric offers a compelling means for evolving the self, by exploring two kinds of empathy, mirrored and cognitive. Mirrored empathy is feeling the emotions of the other. Cognitive empathy is “perspective-taking.”
Perspective-taking is part of the emphasis of Circling. With Circling, as with outrospection, we discover the experience of not just being in the other’s shoes, but in their nervous system. We imagine what is most important to the other as we see things through their eyes. Each time we do this, an inner feeling about being in relationship with the other changes fundamentally, in a way that we can feel simultaneously more ourselves and more connected.
Together, introspection and outrospection help to integrate self with world.
4. Play, in relationship.
Bill Bowen taught through his work with Psycho-Physical Therapy that each of our responses to life — from the spontaneous responses we make every day to the bigger decisions we make that effect our whole lives — occur along a continuum from limited (survival) to creative (thriving). Bowen taught that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, there is always an option for responding. The task is to identify our core beliefs about ourselves and about life that are limited/survival in nature, that keep us from accessing more creative options for experience.
Cultivating the ability to play accesses our imaginations, uncovers creative responses to life, and can even bring some joy into the more challenging aspects of existence. Here Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams access the well of creativity in The World is Open for Play:
“This idea that the world is open for play is an extremely rich one… humanity and our shared reality is made up of fluid elements of language, and social structures which are sometimes codified into rules and pressures and laws…”
It may seem that the creativity Winters and Williams are accessing is irrelevant to the hard situations of life that are not a joke. But actually they are modeling for us the practice of creativity — the creative use of our attention in finding new ways to respond to life is relevant to any situation. (Recall from the beginning of Part 3 that how this is done is entirely personal, and everyone needs guidance transforming limited beliefs into creative responses.)
5. Sustaining the Gaze.
Sustaining the gaze (as taught by Joanna Macy) is the capacity for facing the suffering of other beings, with empathy, for a period of time, without becoming engulfed in overwhelm. Perceiving wider spheres of the world as an extension of one’s self can be a sign of ego development, and is a natural outcome of the capacity to sustain the gaze. By wider spheres I mean everything from how you relate to the experience of your loved one sitting next to you, to people in other parts of the world who you will never meet.
Another sign of ego development is the readiness to participate in larger spheres of influence, even in small, incremental ways, bringing resources and consciousness to people, animals and the environment. This can be within one’s family or friend group, neighborhood, communities, country, or the world at large, and occurs without neglecting the vitality of one’s own well-being.
If you already know how to sustain your gaze with the suffering of the world, consider if you also know how to sustain your gaze with the intense experience of someone exhibiting hatred or suspicion towards others. It may seem counterintuitive, but when we are committed to supporting each other’s growth, we must meet each other where we are, which includes sustaining the gaze with the greed and deception, sexism, racism and xenophobia of others.
To the question of, which is increasing, hatred and fear of other people, or our collective awareness of complex human dynamics, Will Smith offered hope when he said, “Racism isn’t getting worse. It’s getting filmed.” Smith’s statement (and that of others, here for example) is testimony to the ways more people are increasingly paying more attention and taking greater action to make the darkness visible.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
About Marenka Cerny: www.somatic-psychotherapy.org
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These are just a few of the countless individuals and organizations guiding and inspiring humanity towards interdependence:
Andrew Harvey’s Networks of Grace
Bernie Sander’s Our Revolution
Bill Bowen’s Psycho-Physical Therapy
Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics
Craig Chalquist’s Deep Education
Deane Juhan’s Job’s Body
Jaque Fresco’s The Venus Project
Nora Bateson’s The Beyond Partnership
Peter Joseph’s The Zeitgeist Movement
Wendy Palmer’s Leadership Embodiment
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” — Arundhati Roy, War Talk