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Finding Deep Trust: Meditation, Art, Therapy, and the Integrated Ego

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I've decided to share a story I've been living. The short version is that I've learned some really valuable things about oneness, ego, and personal growth. Meditation has been with me through the entire journey, so I think this is a good place to share it. The long version is:

The War of Self-Separation

Accepting yourself is hard. As humans, we're gifted/burdened with imagination — we can experience something that doesn't exist, including a self that we wish we could be. We can imagine that we're one thing while being another. We can lie awake at night wishing we'd said one thing when we really said another. We can even dream up scenarios much better than our own actual lives, wish to live in them, and even start believing them.

What this can lead to — what it led to for me — is that the "real self" and "ideal self" grow to hate each other. The real self feels brutally judged and rejected by the ideal self, and the ideal self feels disappointed and let down by the obvious flaws in the real self. They get locked into mutual attack and blame, until the reality of conflict is bigger than either of the individual perspectives. For me, the war between the selves becomes so heated that being inside my own head feels like constant conflict. It's like I am the war between my identities. Even with a practice of meditation, I've felt largely dissatisfied, confused, and in pain about living in general.

Art Therapy and the Evasive State of Oneness

This war is what drove me to start making art. It began as a chance to trick myself into not being in a state of constant tension: I'd get involved in the creative process and for minutes or hours, and I'd forget there was any such thing as a self, ideal or not. Forgetting the battle of opinions, I was entranced by the combination of sensory and imaginary stimulus, and they became one thing. Divine oneness would briefly overtake the inner drama and replace it with appreciation for all experience. Temporarily, I would transform from identifying with conflict/separation to identifying as peace, acceptance, and divinity. I was that beauty, that trust, that perfection. For a moment at a time.

Cue the ego's belief in separation: the experience of oneness would get attached to a performance, an object, or an emotion. For years, I was caught up in making that object into a possession, a little token that would prove my "real" self was really "ideal." As soon as that desire showed up — often in the middle of making some piece of art — the attachment and comparison game would cloud out the divine oneness I'd been feeling.

Immediately, the art AND the experience would break down. My inner state would revert to warfare, and the artwork I was producing would reflect that conflict, becoming discordant (but not in that sexy, low-fi, "okay with the feels and flaws" sort of way — more like a middle school band playing out of key). The whole artistic process that was meant to be my escape from ego became fuel for my ego. I eventually had enough, and decided to dissolve the whole goddamn thing completely.

Psychedelic Therapy and Egoless Infancy: the danger of getting what you ask for

My desperation to be egoless led me to a risky experiment: the Hero's Journey. I'd read and heard many accounts of people "waking up" to the reality of non-separateness by enduring ego death, with the help of high-dose psychedelics. Terence McKenna famously prescribed "5 dried grams in silent darkness." Scientific studies, shamanic cults, and burning man testimonials all agreed: mushrooms could cure the ego. After much deliberation, reflective inner work, and intention-setting, I selected Winter Solstice as the night of my dark passage of the soul. I held the intention of letting go of that which I didn't need, accepting whatever life wanted to show me, and moving forward into a new phase of the journey.

The journey lasted only about eight hours, but it felt like many lifetimes. That's not just an exaggerated way of saying it was hard — it actually seems to take an impossible, surreal, dimensionless amount of time. The neurophysiology of the psilocybin experience mimics (in part) the state of a newborn baby: you can experience a whirlwind of emotions that range from abject terror to sublime love, utter amusement to hellish disgust — and sometimes all of them at one instant that drags out for lifetimes. The journey you take may or may not show you a pattern or story you need to see, and it may or may not open your heart to divine oneness or slaughter your ego in a single thrust.

But my own journey did all that and more. For the next five days or so, I felt surreally detached and completely in touch at the same time. I wasn't just incrementally better at art, but three or four levels more attuned and intuitive — and with less attachment to outcomes or perceptions. I was indeed more trusting and accepting of everything, including my own failures. I was peeled open.

Where this became dangerous was in relationship with a person I was in a toxic relationship with, an ex-lover who was still a roommate. I wasn't aware there was so much real harm that could come to me that would compromise my health and the health of all my relationships, so I didn't see my need for solid boundaries until it was too late. I'm not trying to weave a victim story here; I was naive, and that was my fault. What I got as a result was also my own responsibility.

Long story short, while I was in this peeled-open, raw state, this person used my trust to get close to me, made promises to me, and then violated my body and my explicit sexual boundaries, and dropped all communication with me for several days. The memory of it did not age well; as I reflected on what happened, I became like a wounded child. Physiologically, I began to exhibit constant signs of anxiety, not believing that my surroundings were safe. So, I sought out reconciliation with this person, which required setting new boundaries, which they immediately violated again.

This led to an all-out verbal battle that broke all the remaining trust between us. This ex began to wage a gossip war against me, telling friends that I'd been the abusive one, and that I was not to be trusted. Soon, I saw a large and diverse array of friends gradually pull back from contact with me, until I had only two friends left who believed I was telling the truth.

Trauma, Therapy, and Ego Acceptance

This social upheaval led to symptoms similar to PTSD. I'd been somewhat a leader in my small town, hosting parties and musical gatherings for friends and strangers, but now I was a social wreck and a constant loner. I couldn't bear eye contact with most people, felt uncontrollable anxiety even on the meditation cushion, and steadily became more isolated and insecure. My heart hurt constantly. This pattern worsened for five months, until I was contemplating suicide. In the interest of my psychological health, I moved out of that town and back into my parents' house, and started seeing a regular therapist.

What I came to realize through therapy was that ego-dissolution wasn't what I needed — and it wasn't actually what happened, either. I'd never been rid of my ego. I'd throttled down the influence of ego temporarily, but that only left me vulnerable to emotional injury, which was felt by all parts of my psyche, including my then-distant ego. And, it turns out, that injury was reminiscent of wounds I'd felt since early childhood, including betrayal, alienation, and abandonment. Afterward, it was ego acted to shut down all possible connection, so that no more trauma could get in.

Trauma is natural and universal, as unfortunate as it is. Even being born is traumatic. We form an ego partly in response to these traumas, and it's built out of the coping mechanisms and beliefs that help us adapt and survive. We might beg to be rid of the ego and its spiritual shackles, but if we had to live even a week without its boundaries, we'd get fully re-traumatized, and the process would be excruciating.

I'm past the point of believing that I can ever be rid of my ego. I know there are a lot of great spiritual teachers who instruct people to avoid, dismantle, or destroy the ego, but I can attest to the danger of that misunderstanding. One can't live without an ego unless they spend their entire life on the cushion. The ego does act out, increase suffering, and generally make mistakes, but it also maintains boundaries, which offer protection to the rest of the psyche. The trouble with ego, then, is not that it exists at all, but that it's out of balance. Many of us are so infatuated with ego (and so traumatized inside it) that we think it's who we are; we don't realize that the ego is just an organ system that serves a function in a larger organism.

Returning to the practices of art, meditation, and therapy, I see that balancing the ego is not about escaping or destroying it, but including and transcending it. If I truly accept my ego, that diffuses the inner conflict enough to notice I'm more than just the ego. I see that I'm also the relationship between my ego and the traumatized inner child it's defending. I'm not the idealized self, but I'm the capacity to imagine the ideal, and that's a wonderful thing to be. I see that I'm also the consciousness that beholds all the pieces working at once. In fact, I'm far more than any words could explain. From that vantage point, I can befriend all my parts and allow them to be as they are. Acceptance begets harmony.

As much as I'd like it to happen overnight, I'll never be finished checking in with myself, noticing whether ego is taking over, and determining to wake up a little more in this moment. But, at least I'm finished with hating my ego, trying to prevail over it, and feeling like a constant failure for even having one.

Feel free to take it or leave it, whatever my story means to you. I hope you derive some benefit from it, and your own journey connects you more to oneness, self-acceptance, and inner peace.

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