Ego, Inspiration, and Achievement*

Friday, February 15, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- It’s impossible to see the pyramids of Giza, the Colossus of Rhodes, or the Great Wall of China without thinking about the will it must have taken to build these wonders of human creation. They were built thousands of years ago when the technology for building at that scale didn’t exist.

Even something as “ordinary” as the Palace of Versailles, built in the 17thcentury by Louis XIV, is awe inspiring.

Or how about what it took for Michelangelo to paint the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel… or Mozart’s gargantuan struggle to compose his Requiem… or Thomas Wolfe’s painful work revising Look Homeward Angel

And that’s to say nothing of scientific or business or military accomplishments.

Most of what we think of when we talk about human “achievement” is the result of one part inspiration and nine parts long and sustained effort, often under difficult conditions, focused toward a specific objective.

In fact, this quality of sustained and focused activity towards “making” new and bigger and better things could be said to be distinctly human. Animals are capable of hard and sustained work to create food and shelter, but they do not create new things for the purpose of bigger and better.

Put conversely, if human beings were not capable of such focused effort, civilization would have enjoyed few (if any)  scientific, industrial, social, and even artistic innovations throughout history.

The impulse to fix, improve, enlarge, and beautify seems to be hardwired into our brains. There is no human society that hasn’t produced inventions and art.

But what is the thing that drives people to do these things?

From the wheel to the boat to the bow and arrow to the automobile and the cyclotron, Homo sapiens have come up with hundreds of thousands of innovations meant to enhance the quality of life. And when you read about or merely stop to consider the labor and stress involved in such achievements, it is impossible to imagine that they could have happened were it not for a concentrated and sustained egoistic impulse.

In other words, our achievements are, to a significant degree, achievements of the ego.

But they are not entirely ego driven.

It’s common knowledge that inspiration comes at random times – on a walk, taking a shower, looking at a sunset, etc. These are all times when the ego is in some state of relaxation, when the mind is focused on other things or not focused at all.

We’ve been saying that human experience is a fluctuation between contraction and relaxation. The contractions help us focus on specific tasks and allow us to sustain that focus even when we are tired. The relaxations are, in a sense, equal and opposite reactions. They allow us to loosen up and recharge after all that concentration. And they afford us the opportunity to experience the world more fundamentally. They allow our “unconscious” (i.e., less-conscious) minds to connect the dots and come up with ideas.

Disciplines like yoga and meditation help us relax our egos. They give us protocols for escaping from the concentrated thoughts and feelings that so often occupy and even dominate our consciousness. It is not surprising that there is so much evidence that such practices improve both mental and also physical health. But to suggest that the relaxed state of mind is the preferred state of mind would be wrong. It is healthy and it is useful, but so is concentration.

We should not hope to eliminate ego consciousness – i.e., to transcend out of self-consciousness entirely. It is a false and foolish goal. It violates the nature of our being. And it makes our experience of life, and what we do with our lives, less, not more.

A life that is too self-conscious is painful and destructive, but a life without self-consciousness is not worth living at all.

* In this series of essays, which hopes to become a book, I’m exploring an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time: that our knowledge of the universe and our experience of living can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation – of contraction and relaxation. And that such an understanding might be helpful in succeeding in life and accepting death.