Choice and the ego

As I again play with choices in my life, a Sufi book evokes a series of different thoughts…

“The ‘associator’ or polytheist (mushrik), however, suffers from an optical illusion whose source is his attribution of reality to his own individual self. As long as he has not escaped from the limitations of the ego he cannot help but act as if phenomena were independent realities, detached from God… Just as existence in and for the individual self necessitates that man be separated from God in this world, so also does it necessitate separation in the next world, and this in the view of Sufism is one of the profound implications of the concept of ‘hell’. As long as man remains attached to what is transitory – the ego and the world –  he is far from God…

If at death a man ‘goes to hell’ it is because of his own nature: he has created in himself an artificial equilibrium and set himself up as the standard of measurement, whereas ‘man is the measure of all things’ only if he sees in and through God, for there is no other absolute standard… If his being does not conform to the equilibrium of the universe, he is separated from his proper place in ‘God’s Order’, and the equilibrium of the universe appears to him as chaos… It is the individual self that separates man from god, and ultimately, ‘This carnal self (nafs) is hell’ (Mathnawi of Rumi, I, 1375); to put out the fires of hell a man must pass away from self.”

– William Chittick, The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – Macbeth

The first of these quotes presents the perspective of the spirit, and the second that of the ego. At several junctures in life, life itself asks us to make a choice. A choice is an inner act, and therefore, the ego is called into action. A choice inherently invites the ego to assert itself and project both its ambitions and its anxieties on the world.

But quite simply, we often just do not know what the outcome of our choices will be. Martha Crawford, a psychotherapist, writes an insightful post called The Wrong Road about decision making, where she compares St. Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus with Oedipus’s journey on the road to Thebes. The former turned out to be a blessing which transformed Paul’s entire life for the better. The latter turned out to be the traveller’s worst nightmare. When Paul was on the road to Damascus, he fell off his horse and had a vision of Christ, saying “Why do you persecute me?” The strength of this vision changed Paul’s life from that of a vile man who tortured people to that of an impassioned preacher and saint who changed many people’s lives. For Oedipus, the road to Thebes became the place where he fulfilled the prophecy that he was running away from. Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother, and when he realised what he had done, blinded himself out of guilt, and more.

paul 2

The Conversion of Saint Paul, by Caravaggio (1601)

Am I on the road to Damascus, or the road to Thebes? Most often, one just does not know. There are simple choices in life but there are bigger, more complex choices. And one does not know whether one will end up in Damascus or Thebes. The awareness of this uncertainty brings up angst, an anxiety that lies at the core of our personality, an awareness of our own finitude and death, something we spend our lives running away from. When we are grounded in this perspective, life indeed seems to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In this state of mind, say the existentialists, we still have to choose. One can never escape a choice. To not do anything is also a choice. And when one chooses out of uncertainty, it is an act of faith. It is an act in which you create who you are out of the fear of nothingness that exists inside you. In choosing option A over option B, you choose your values in life, you construct your self anew. It is a choice you make once but are required to re-commit yourself to all your life.

Martha Crawford also writes that even though one may not know what the right choice to make is, what matters more than making the right choice is how one engages with the consequences that that choice brings. If the choice leads to suffering, the suffering may be engaged with, understood, adopted. The meaning of it may be brought forth. What is really important, therefore, is not to have the supreme intelligence of one who always makes right choices, but to have the openness of one who is able to see that even difficult circumstances are worth living in. Every emotional experience has something to teach us. Even regret can have a deeper spiritual meaning. And every thwarted desire reminds us of the ultimate goal of all desire – the divine itself. Coming back to Rumi, it is to see that no phenomenon is an independent reality, and that it all comes from God.

In the language of Sufism, the choice of which road to travel is an invitation for the ego to assert itself. It is a temptation to forget that the ego is not the supreme reality. It is also a test to see how far one may let go of the temptations of the ego to assert itself, over-analyse everything and spend day and night worrying about the outcome, or one may let go of this for a spiritual presence that lies in us deeper than the ego.

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~ by tdcatss on January 9, 2014.

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