by Jeff Martens
In 1958 the classic camp horror movie The Blob depicted a gelatinous morphing glob shape-shifting space jelly that grew at an alarming rate by absorbing everything in its path. Our ego is a “Phantom Self”. Like the Blob or a phantom limb it is illusory and functions asa container for our (much coveted) misery. When we perceive the world from a place of unconscious habit, this blob in us resembles the phantom-self right down to its imaginary roots. Like the Blob, the ego does not care what it assumes or absorbs… victory, defeat, terror, arrogance, poverty, illness, piety or sacrifice – it is all added to jiggling ponderous gargantuan self-concept that is forver teetering on the brink of self-collapse.
Our ego is a “Phantom Self”. Like a phantom limb it is illusory and functions asa container for our (much coveted) misery. The phantom-self is made of pain (or a root fear) masked over by anger, blame or doubt. The concept of “who” and “what” we are is highly dependent upon conscious or unconscious extensions of the self in any given moment. Extensions of self can include the presence of tools, weapons or implements, positive or negative emotional states, rubber arms, or our spiritual aspirations and assumptions to name just a few. In one study participants’ real arm was hidden and a rubber arm with a missing ring finger was put in its expected place. Almost all (93%) of the participants experienced a brushing sensation when the space of the missing rubber finger was brushed and half experienced the sensation that their missing ring finger had changed in size or shape. These examples along with the subconscious integration with countless other states and objects both real and imagined show how certain perceptual changes may be both a reflection and assimilation of who we feel ourselves to be.
Self- preservation behaviors are instinctual and necessary for survival. In survival situations we will seek-out and crave feelings of safety and familiarity. But when the parameters of self are false or imaginary we may experience a threat toward something that does not exist. When the unreal is threatened, what is it exactly that is at risk? What exactly is it that is imperiled when, at a foundational level, there is nothing there to be attacked? What is your ego protecting? And who do you think you are?
No Preservatives Required!
It seems understandable that the brain would continue to recognize something that has always been there as an ongoing part of the self, but could our minds also recognize things that are not “me” – or that were never real to begin with – as a current part of the self? Does our ego really swallow everything up like a radioactive blob from outer space?
V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist who helped people “cure” the pain in their phantom limbs by helping the brain to recognize what was true and real. In another surprising study about confusing the real with the imagined it was discovered that not only do people missing limbs experience the construct of a phantom limb, healthy people with all of their limbs intact may perceive the same phenomenon. In this study experiment participants sat with their right arm resting on top of a table but hidden from view by a screen divider. The subject’s left arm rested on the left side of the divider screen but beneath the table. Subjects were then oriented toward a space where their left hand might rest if it were on top of the table on the left side of the screen directly opposite but above the right arm still hidden from view below. Subjects then went through a brief conditioning procedure where both the right real and left non-existent hands were simultaneously stimulated with identical light strokes of a fine brush. At this point experiment participants felt brushing sensations on the space “occupied” by the false hand. It did not matter that subjects could see that there was in fact, no hand beneath the moving brush and that the brush above the false hand was in fact stroking empty air. Feeling trumps facts. In this situation it appears that any objective observation of the higher brain mind was being bypassed in the sensory input of a “felt” reality. Later MRI images of participant’s brains revealed that the perception of the false hand sensations was activating the same neurological centers that light up when their actual hand was being touched. The sensations in the false hand, for all intensive purposes, were being perceived as real even though the participants knew intellectually that they did not have an invisible hand.
Even more amazing then the acquisition of this imaginary third arm was the totality of its inclusion as a part of the self. Once this unconscious identification was intact, the brain recognized the expanded self as real. So real, in fact, that if the empty space that was occupied by the false hand was threatened with a knife, participants’ brains, sweat glands and hormone levels reacted with an acute physiological stress response signifying that an actual part of their body were being threatened! This unconscious reaction bypassed the existed irregardless of the rational mind’s recognition that no such hand existed. More than just thinking the third arm was a part of their bodies, subjects actually embodied this unreality as real in every cell of their body.
From earlier experiments studying phantom limb pain we know that once the phantom limb was recognized as unreal by the mind, the pain vanished. The results of these studies along with Ramachandran’s discovery seems to affirm what Patanjali and countless other spiritual teachings noted thousands of years ago: the ego or phantom self holds all of our pain. In order for pain to be experienced, pain needs a container! If we identify with the ego then we will take on the “life” and full perceptions of this pain reservoir. The ego is a false “I am” identity constructed from a “paralyzed” and often painful past that is identified with over and over again. When the stillness of self realization or the original “I-AM-ness” gets colored with the perception of threat in a dangerous world, the resulting asmita or ego tries to fight or run in order to preserve its own existence. The more we identify with this struggle the more we lose ourselves in the game without a reflection to set us free. After a while we may become paralyzed or stuck as our past painful identfications. Because we identify so closely with this past pain we are unable to separate it from who we are and its paralysis or inability to change becomes our own.
“I” of the Tiger
The Sanskrit term for the ego – asmita – literally means “I-Am-ness”. The word “ego” means “I” in Latin and Greek and it is from this reference point that most if not all of us come to live our lives. Yet have you ever stopped to think who you are referring to when you use the personal pronoun “I”?
Recent science and ancient spiritual truth teach that your perception of yourself determines the world you live in. Whether it is the perceiver or what is being perceived, perception is one key to a deeper self-awareness, the pointer toward a consciousness in you that is capable of reflecting itself. If perception is the key, then the realization of who it is that perceives is the open doorway. As Descartes stated, “I think, therefore I am.” Can this “I AM” Self-awareness make it possible to untangle ourselves from fear? This I AM-ness inside of us is already free.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM.” In Sanskrit, the reflective awareness of knowing this original self is Tat Tvam Asi – I am That. Or, as the Burning Bush replied to Moses, “I am that I am”. Far from being an affliction, this awareness of “I am” can lead to the knowing our true identity. If our foundational sense of self or “I AM-ness” is an unreal phantom though, all bets are off. And if the “I AM” in you is false, what kind of a world do you think this false “I” might perceive?
This essay is an excerpt from the upcoming book: Fear to Clear: The Science and Yoga of Personal Transformation by Jeff Martens