Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Ego a Matter of Anatomy?

~photo courtesy of Indiana University

Hi everyone! I'm sorry I've been so scarce in the blogosphere lately. In my absence, I've been blown away with the ideas and insights of Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor (thanks, Janey!!!) Both have written books and can be found in various interviews and videos on the web-- so, I've been spending hours soaking it all up.

As I discussed in my last post, Tolle defines the "ego" as the part of us that thinks with words, the voice in our head. He believes that this voice is not our true self. Rather, we are the presence that hears the voice. And, if we consciously turn off the ego's voice and simply be present and aware of our senses, we will find a simple, open state of peace and joy.

One problem that I have is that Tolle's descriptions can come off as having a spiritual, even religious, feeling. He describes this ego-less state as energy which connects us all. Is it a higher plane of existence? Is it a brush with the divine? No. He's not really saying that at all. But as a probable Idealist (one of Keirsey's temperament types), Tolle has some difficulty nailing down his words in black and white. In a more scientific straight-forwardness. That's where Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor has made a huge contribution.

Dr. Bolte-Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who had a stroke at age 37. And, she remained awake and conscious the entire time and was able to perceive the changes in her brain as they happened! How cool is that?! Her left-sided hemorrhage effectively shut down her entire left hemisphere (language, rational and linear thinking, math skills). So she was living with only the functions of her right brain (intuition, contextual understanding, perception of intonation, spatial skills). She describes the experience in her book My Stroke of Insight.

Check out this incredible video of a talk she gave several years ago:

What I find fascinating, is that when her left hemisphere stopped working, she experienced the awareness of being that Tolle describes. She says that she lost her ego. That her thinking was silenced because the section of the brain that processes language completely shut down.

~excerpt from Oprah's Soul Series radio show (archived at

So is the ego actually our left hemisphere? It appears so. Our ability to use language seems to be the key to what ego is.

We think in words because we evolved language. And certainly, shared language is a huge advantage for survival. But, this thinking mind is also a bit of a curse.

To think requires words, which are just man-made labels for ideas and concepts. As Tolle teaches, words are just guideposts that point us to the ideas, they are not truth. And this is the curse. Just think of all the thoughts that we have. Aren't we defining our experiences (or limiting them) with thought? And so often, thoughts tend to either amplify emotion or block emotion. This is why some people preach positive thinking as a way to feel happier. But thoughts are not emotions.

Emotion is a physical function. It happens deep in the brain in the amygdala. It is a specific physiologic response that protects us and enhances our survival by, for example, preparing us to fight or flee when fear is triggered, or by creating a desire to attach to a caregiver or loved one when feelings of safety (happiness, joy, etc.) are triggered. Pure emotion (the physiological response) is fleeting. The brain function only lasts from a few minutes to about 20 minutes maximum (for fear and anger). But, thanks to our thinking mind, we continue to experience what we believe is fear or anger for hours, days, even years! In actuality, we trick our brain into triggering the emotional response in the absence of a real life event. By having thoughts. By having an ego that tells us stories.

It's the price we pay for having language.

So, can we stop creating these thought-induced emotional experiences? Yes! As Dr. Bolte-Taylor knows, we can turn off our left-hemisphere. As Tolle teaches, we can silence the ego. And the result is peace, joy, an undefinable (because we can't apply words to it) sense of connection with life. It is pure living, without the curse of false, thought-induced negative emotions.

Dr. Bolte-Taylor calls it Nirvana.

I call it life. And, of course...

Life is Beautiful...


Charles Gramlich said...

Although it's interesting to be able to turn off the ego and experience the world in various states, it doesn't follow to me that this is somehow a "better" experience. I don't understand what is wrong with having the ego involved in experience. I rather enjoy it. Since all of us are so driven by language, one might even argue that turning off the ego/language portion is extremely abnormal.

Aine said...

Charles~ Excellent point! I agree. But now I sound like I'm contradicting my post, so let me clarify.

The ego, or thinking mind, is a fantastic tool. The evolution of the cerebral hemispheres (and language) are what make us human. So you are correct that turning off the ego could be considered abnormal-- if we turned it off completely and only lived with the more "primitive" brain functions. We absolutely require our thinking mind. And we can get great enjoyment from it. But we mustn't think that we are only our thoughts.

The message that Tolle and Bolte-Taylor are trying to spread is not to become egoless. It is to stop identifying exclusively with ego. That is to say, stop believing all the stories that you tell yourself about yourself (especially the negative ones!) Be aware that thoughts are not necessarily truth. (Somehow I sense that you are already doing this, that you don't identify solely with ego, Charles. In fact, creativity cannot occur simultaneously with ego. Creativity flows when we are not thinking in words. Ideas just "come" to us...)

And Tolle and Bolte-Taylor remind us to recognize the ego in others. It is the same idea as recognizing our common humanity, to be accepting of others, weaknesses and all. (But accepting doesn't mean condoning-- others must still pay the consequences of their weaknesses.) It just means we don't need to allow our ego to react to others (by thinking ourselves better than them, for example) in order to boost our own ego-created sense of self.

In other words, I am not all of my accomplishments. I am a human being who has done things. And, when I become aware of the presence beyond the thinking voice, I can sense that I am something more than what my thoughts can describe. I am life or energy or whatever word label you'd like. And so is everyone else.

So, when you recognize that you are not the sum of the stuff you've experienced in life, that you exist as a being even prior to doing any of that stuff, then you are freed of the limitations that those labels (of the stuff you've done) impose. And that feels great! There is no judgement of "better" than an experience framed in thought (or an ego experience), but if we aren't aware that we are something more than just what our ego tells us, then we will fall into the negative existence of always seeking something better, or something to make us feel better, and often hurt others in the process.

The ego serves us. We should not serve our ego.

Yikes-- does that clarify my thoughts on the matter??

laughingwolf said...

so ok... what about the folk who think in pictures/graphics?

JaneyV said...

It's such a massive and involved subject, this, and I think you've done a wonderful job of explaining it. I think that writer's in particular will have a huge problem with the notion of shutting off the side of the brain that language comes from. Our identity is somehow wrapped around the creation of stories - why would we want to quieten that?

What I have found since starting to get my head around all this stuff is that there is a massive difference between ego (the chatter - the voices in the head that narrate our lives) and the language of creativity. Creativity is a very right-brained activity. The sensing side of ourselves is far more open to inspiration and by stilling ego we allow our artistic side to shine. We then can use our language centre as the amazing tool it is rather than let it and all its constraints limit us.

We become enormous, as Dr Bolte-Taylor said. Our power and potential is a big as the universe.

I had such a big 'a-ha' moment when Dr Bolte-Taylor experienced the utter interconnectedness of all living things. We legislate rules, we live by codes of ethics, we tell ourselves 'this is wrong, this is right', we allow the constructs of the ego to define our morality and yet if we just truly understand that 'when I harm you I harm myself and all living things' it becomes so easy to understand.

Aine again I thank you for taking me on this journey with you. I'm loving the enlightenment!

Aniket Thakkar said...

Shutting my left brain is easy. A 'death by chocolate' or 'sinful pleasure' does exactly that. No vocabulary involved - just pure delight! :D

Okay, on a serious note that's a highly debatable theory whether silencing the ego would lead to a better state of being. I know you have explained your point that we need not silence it completely but control it more efficiently.

But seriously, if there's one organ worth any credit, its the brain. Both the left and right of them (heart always lands up in trouble - always!).
The fact that I question myself is what makes me strive to do better. There are many happy and content idiots around (remember SEX from So you think you can dance?). Now one may say, good for them... they are happy. But I would not want that happiness at the price of rationality.

I guess one should have experiences of both to judge for oneself. Going to office - shuts of my right brain. A couple of beers - shuts of the left one.

Hmm...I get your point, I kinda like the right one! :D :D

One always gets food for thought here. Many thanks!

Ed Meers said...

...I wonder if different languages create a different voice/nature of the ego? We say the same things but in very different ways in different tongues, influenced by many factors, primarily culture, education and class. The developmental mix coupled by cognitive limits truly make for an interesting cerebral recipe!


nice blog....i like it..

Wanda..... said...

I have Eckhart Tolle's book "A New Earth" and have seen Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor on TED...both have influenced my life...I relate to your previous posts...especially the finding of pure joy alone in the woods. I will be following!

SzélsőFa said...

I think this peacueful state can be reached without wanted or accidental loss of our physical body. In general, I quite dislike the idea of designating this-or-that elevated function (such as feeling sadness, feeling the urge to help, being able to talk...) to this-and-that particular tissue/molecule of the brain.

This post deals with quite a chuck of an idea and does it very intelligently. I liked it very much.

catvibe said...

ok, this may be TMI but one of the things I've always enjoyed about great sex is that thinking goes away completely. In those moments my mind is most free. How to carry that into the rest of life? Hmmmmm.... not so easy. But I do have moments of free mind from time to time. It also happens when I paint. I feel like I lose consciousness and just kind of fall into the doing without mind flow state, which I love so much. Since painting is a solo act, it's much easier to do without needing another to help. :-) Right brain activities such as art are wonderful because they do shut off the language portion of the brain. Time seems to zip by and all is quiet in the usual vortex of insane thoughts of my head.

I have a new spot in cyberspace. Can you update your link? And come visit!

Anonymous said...

Without a left brain we would be gullible to the imaginations of Hitler (the Perfect Aryan Race), Stalin (the Perfect Socialist Utopia), Mohammed (the Perfect Heaven for Virgin Copulation), of Libertarianism (the Perfect no one is wrong society). The left brain enables objectivity, based on knowledge and experiece, or else every moment will arise a new God of the Wind, Sun and Emperor, whatever force of authority you explain away to live the Sleep of Perfect Harmony.

Anonymous said...

Quote from picture of Jill Bolt holding up brain:
'I have no ego, this is not my brain, it has no value, the families that knew this brain have no value, it is only useful for the purpose, we are all part of the purpose, individuals have no voice, you must be mentally-ill for speaking out, you must be shamed before the people for having any belief in property, I have always resented the left brained, now I found peace, my left brain incredibly collapsed in on itself, who'd of thought, uptopia, you must know it too, i'll take this part out, life is beautiful...'.

skhajone said...

We are limited by what our brains think - as long as we will use it (which is inevitable) we will be limited. The bliss is in knowing this limitation and then trying to overcome it. This quest for bliss, happiness, to be better, to become spiritually higher are just games of brain. What brain prevents us from seeing is that we are not the brain - neither the body nor the heart - we are the soul. The day you understand this - all the concepts of ego - love - truth - real - imaginary - hurt - pain - sadness - language - will dissolve into a singularity. And this singularity is what is 'US'.

Ashley Ashbee said...

Very interesting read on the brain and ego.

I have neurological conditions called Dandy Walker Variant, a malformation of the cerebellum and hydrocephalus (excess water on the brain) for which I was shunted at ten days old. Sometimes I wonder if I would be the same emotionally if I hadn't been born with these. Of course my experiences shaped me, but what about the structure of my brain?

Have you ever read Vygotsky's "Thought and Knowledge"? I would love your thoughts on it, as I'm sure you would enjoy this book.

laughingwolf said...

merry christmas, aine :)

Vesper said...

Happy New Year, Aine!

I'll be back to read this with the attention it deserves.


laughingwolf said...

happy 2010 to you and yours, aine :)

Aniket Thakkar said...

Dearest Invisible Woman -

A very Happy New Year to you and yours.
Hope you had great holidays.

Since this is the only medium I know of to reach you, hope the wishes reach you. :)

catvibe said...

Aine, now that you are reading Tolle, you have disappeared! Just wanted to say hello and hugs. Hope you're well, and happy new year.