Monday, January 31, 2011

Leggo My Eg(g)o!

Whoever it was that penned that inane (but obviously catchy), 1970’s commercial for Kellogg’s waffles, I’d wager mindfulness practice might have been one of the more remote sources of inspiration for them. As the pedantic and whiny father makes his case, attempting to guilt his eight-year old (but unbending) son into surrendering his frozen bit of dimpled cardboard, how prophetic is the framing of the classic clash of ego’s (over Eggo’s, trivially enough in this case).

With my wife away for the weekend not so very long ago, the ‘window of opportunity’ opened on watching a movie or two that were let’s say not at the top of her viewing list. Harry Brown and Avatar found their way into the DVD player and with them the shared theme, among others, of the tension and its ‘resolution’ between the Us(es) and the Them(s). For Harry, the aging pensioner, living out his declining years on a housing estate in a rough section of London in the UK, the opposition comes clad as a group of older adolescents, largely treating the estate environs as their personal playground, content to bully and terrify residents who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The defining moment in this case is the assault and killing of Harry’s longtime friend bent on challenging the young toughs and refusing to live in fear of them. The event catalyzes Harry, long since content to have put aside a lethal skill set developed during his war years in favour of an attempt at a life of tolerant coexistence, when he too is confronted and threatened. His systematic, vigilante-style, ‘elimination’ of the gang’s members escalates with the predictable tragedies mounting on all sides.

Avatar too explores the consequences of (in this case, literally) alien agendas played out in an insular and self-serving fashion in the absence of understanding of ‘the other’s’ position – or even any interest in determining what that might be. As with Mr. Brown, it’s not hard to generate sympathy for the ‘victim’ – never a challenge distinguishing the white hats from the black – cheering each unlikely ‘victory’; but never quite losing sight of an ominous truth behind, that (much less trivially this time round) the issue is once again a clash of ego and all that that implies – with no clear good guys, only (temporary) winners and losers.

Mindfulness practice is sometimes described as developing a state of egoless awareness. Buddhist wisdom identifies two classic impediments (sometimes benignly referred to as ‘hindrances’) to this process: greed (attachment) and hatred (rejection or avoidance of relationship) – directly attaching both these barriers to relationship unity to the ego of the individual. Both are clearly played out in the two films above. For the ‘human colonizers’ in Avatar, the primary interest is in securing a supply of a valuable mineral – the impact on the indigenous population be damned. For Harry, it’s avenging his friend’s death and ‘sanitizing’ the estate of a hated blight.

Our inclination, when desirous of or challenged by a person, group, or situation, is to first wash it through the filter of the ego. Is this something that will enhance my state? Is this a threat to my security, prestige, position? Then, more often than not, have that circumstance become the focus of our action; almost invariably at the cost of relationship. The defense of the ego becomes the distancing act of separating me from the other. The I want what he/she has or I want to prevail and force my will on him/her become our prime directives. Most meditative traditions endorse a ‘letting go of’ as a substrate for a more peaceful and fulfilling life, less absorbed with acquisitive or adversarial goals. Nevertheless our culture seems bent on endorsing the opposite: ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ is replete with the cultural values of both acquiring and competing/dominating. Evidence of our increasingly litigious natures is seen everywhere, with the knee-jerk response being the evaluating of almost any situation first through its potential for a ‘successful suit’.

Laurence Freeman, a meditation teacher in the Christian tradition, examines this plight from the standpoint of our approaching relationship as an essential duality, more bent on maintaining our individuality, our uniqueness, our ‘difference from’ – than on fostering, in his words, a ‘oneness’ or unity in relationship. James Cameron’s cinematic conceit for this same concept is a literal joining with, an empathy for all organic entities. For those who haven’t seen the film, the ‘crippled’ human hero is made whole by taking on Pandoran form (the indigenous residents) – quite literally ‘walking a mile in his shoes’; with the extended metaphor of peaceful coexistence centering on one’s awareness of, respect for, and sensitivity to the needs and wishes of all beings from other humanoids to trees.

Mindfulness teaching then provides a vehicle for a much more positive spin on the ‘leggo my eggo’ jingle of some 40 years ago – far from it being a challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet, an ‘I want what you got’, they advocate a ‘letting go of my ego’. Just how practice suggests we do this is the subject of next week’s blog.

[For those sports fans amongst us, the answer does not involve tossing one’s waffles onto the ice at the Air Canada Centre in protest over the Maple Leaf’s abysmal season!)

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