Although it is possible to say something like ‘the ego doesn’t really exist’ (which in one way is perfectly true) a better way of putting it is to say that the ego is a habit, just like smoking or fidgeting or biting your nails is a habit.
‘A habit’ means that it doesn’t have to be that way – it’s just that way because somehow we have first started seeing things that way, and then carried on seeing things that way, and now that we’re further down the line it doesn’t even dawn on us that there is another way of seeing them. Therefore, it isn’t really correct to say that the habit doesn’t exist – we would be better off to say that it doesn’t ‘have to’ exist. Once a habit has been well and truly established it is rather ridiculous to say that it doesn’t exist because if we do say such a thing it will prove us wrong by repeatedly battering us over the head. It controls us so we can’t deny that it’s there. We can however say that a habit has a strictly provisional sort of existence.
Once a habit is in place not only does it ‘exist’, it pushes everything else out of the picture. It is very forceful and very aggressive and it gets its own way whenever physically possible. And even when it doesn’t get its own way it still makes itself known because if things don’t work out in accordance with the habit then there’s hell to pay. So even if the means of carrying out or enacting the habit is not there, that doesn’t mean that the habit isn’t. It is very much there as the hapless carrier of the habit can testify to – it is like a horrendously spoilt child who is going to whine and scream and sulk and generally create havoc until circumstances change and they get what they have set their minds on.
It is extraordinarily hard to see beyond a habit. If I have a long-standing habit of alcohol use then – even though I might say that I want to give up the drink – deep down I will wonder what on earth I am going to do instead if I don’t drink. After all, drinking is all I know, drinking is ‘me,’ and if I can’t drink any more then this will leave a huge void to fill – a void that for the life of me I can’t see how to fill. I only know myself as a drinker.
The point is that we orientate our lives around our habits; they give us our structure – as well as a reason (however trivial) for doing what we do. If I have been drinking for years and years then everything I think about is from the viewpoint of drinking. Even when I think about not drinking I am thinking about it from the point of view of drinking. I perceive the world through the eyes of a drinker – drinking is at all times my ‘bottom-line agenda’ and so naturally it underlies everything I think about. When you take drinking away from me you knock the stool away from under me because the type of thinking I have developed no longer makes any sense, or has any use, and yet it is the only thing I know.
The same could be said to be true with anorexia, just to give another example of a particularly vicious habit. Anorexia is such an all-consuming type of thing that the most frightening thought of all is how I can ever face life without it. If I lost my anorexia, then I’d have no problem to be concerned with – I’d have to face the world head on, I’d have to get on with life. I’d have nothing left to preoccupy myself with. The alcoholism or the anorexia might be killing me but at least if I stick with them I don’t have to face the unknown. Better the devil you know, etc. But even saying this isn’t really getting to the heart of the matter.
When I have a well-developed habit, that habit is supplying me with something very important: it is supplying me – as we have said – with a ready-made structure. It is supplying me with a pattern (or protocol) for passing the time, a framework for thinking about things, and a motivational system, all in the same handy package. It is supplying me with a whole way of life. If I am a heroin addict then this habit defines the pattern of my days: when I get up in the morning I know that I have to obtain the money to score, and then when I get hold of the money I then have to find a contact from who I can obtain some of the stuff. When I achieve these two steps I can relax in the knowledge that I have done all that I need to do within the context of the ‘addiction game’. The heroin isn’t just about the drug, it’s about ‘the game’, and ‘the game’ – in all its false completeness – is an unacknowledged substitute for life, an over-simplified version of life. The game of addiction provides me with the tracks and all I have to do is keep running around on them, following the circuit around and around…
Whilst a habit supplies me with a ready-made structure, it takes something away from me at the same time. This is like all deals that look good on the surface – we obtain the benefit that we crave at a cost, a cost that we wouldn’t countenance if we actually paid attention to what we were doing. A habit supplies me with a structure, but it takes away my autonomy at the same time. If I had autonomy then I would have the ability to think for myself, and so I wouldn’t need to be handed a ready-made pattern of living. But when a person is provided with a pattern of living, a code or protocol, then this pattern very quickly takes hold, and robs them of any ability to think outside the box.
The nature of the deal is that I get a ready-made system of how to live, a simplified pattern which substitutes itself for real life, which isn’t a pattern and can’t be dealt with by using ‘pattern-type thinking’. Life is ultimately threatening when it comes to our ‘need’ to have some sort of a safe, socially-prescribed routine to hide behind because its demands cannot be satisfied by following a pattern. The challenge life makes on us is to think for ourselves, to live our lives in an original and creative way and it is the fear of not being able to meet this challenge that drives us into our games. You may ask me to do anything – to get up at five in the morning and jog for six miles with twenty kilos in a rucksack, or to perform all sorts of strange religious observances to somebody else’s peculiar idea of God – but please don’t ask me to think for myself!
When I live according to a habit what happens is that the key assumptions or rules of the habit become the bedrock of my existence. No matter how arbitrary they might be, they are for me an ‘absolute given’. I will swear by them. After all, the habit gives me my structure, my reason for doing things, and the existential security implicit in this comes solely as a result of me taking the demands of the habit as being absolute rather than provisional. If I knew that I didn’t have to do what the habit wants me to do or tells me to do then this would totally take away my sense of security!
If I allowed myself to question the rules then they would no longer be a source of authority for me, and so I wouldn’t be able to base my life on them. Once the habit is in place, however, it proves itself to be extraordinarily aggressive – it doesn’t give us any chance to question it! It bullies and terrorizes us too much, and before long we are so busy trying to fulfil its demands that we simply don’t have the time or energy to question anything.
This is very much like being in the army – after only a small length of time we loose the ability to question orders. The only way to get by is to learn to obey instinctively, obey without thinking, obey automatically. The same is true for patients in long-term residential care – before long institutionalization sets in so that anything outside ‘the system’ appears very frightening and intimidating. The real world appears very frightening and intimidating.
Our habits, along with our beliefs (which are ‘habits of thinking’) are the inner institutions which unfailingly rob us of our autonomy. The very thought of life outside the institution of our habits – as appallingly narrow, repetitive and utterly dismal as they are – terrifies us. The cause of such utter terror isn’t simply that we don’t know what to do to cope in the big wide world (the uncharted world that we have no handy formula for dealing with) – the cause of the terror is that we have no self other than the habit. The habit is the structure upon which I base my self; the habit provides me with the convenient framework within which I am to live my clock-work life…
The habit is me and I am the habit. If my way of thinking is based on my habitual way of existing in the world, then my idea of myself is also going to be based on this framework. Any sort of habit automatically creates a sort of ‘ghost-self’, which is to say, ‘the self who has the habit’. The habit creates the one-who-enacts-the-habit (or as we could also say, the game creates the game player).
When we say that having a ready-made pattern of doing things and thinking about things provides us with a sense of existential security, this is really the same thing therefore as saying that it provides us with the ontological security of the self or ego. This tends to sound pretty strange because we don’t generally connect the two things. All we are saying however it that if one lives in a regulated, mechanical and defined sort of way then the self which lives this life must also be regulated, mechanical and defined. An ordered and predictable pattern or modality of living creates an ordered and predictable ‘sense of self’.
But this is of course a circular argument – we could equally say that the ego – out of its fear-driven need to avoid uncertainty – loves to create an ordered and predictable system for itself to treat as ‘the world’. We need only to look around us to see that this is so. Rather than say that the self loves its habits, or that it is attached to its habits, or even that it is defined by its habits (all of which are true) we can turn everything around and say that the habits create the self. However odd it might sound, without the habits, there would be no self. We are after all – as we have said in the previous paragraph – using our habits to define ourselves. We create the habits and the habits create us; we create an orderly, predictable, regulated type of existence and that orderly, predictable, and regulated existence defines who we are…
Rather than saying that ‘the self creates the pattern’ or that ‘the pattern creates the self’ we might as well say that ‘the self is the habit’ (or ‘the habit is the self’). I don’t have to see myself as being ‘this particular, limited self’ and act accordingly – it doesn’t really have to be this way, that’s just a habit I’ve fallen into. It’s an aggressive, virulent habit that I can’t break free from. It’s not just that I can’t break free from it – I don’t even know that there is such a possibility. I don’t know that there is such a thing as ‘freedom from the self’. I couldn’t even begin to suspect it – all I know is that I have to try to keep on making things better for the self, keep on seeking advantage for the self, which is the Number One Rule of the game – the game that I am playing without knowing that I am playing it…
We could of course ask just who it is that falls into the habit of being ‘this particular limited self’. Who is it that is so hopelessly trapped in the self? Who is it that is so very trapped, so very stuck, that it doesn’t even know that there is such a possibility as ‘being free from the self’? This is a awkward question to answer because the self can’t conceive of any other way of being in the world other than being ‘this particular or specific self’ (i.e. being ‘this but not that’ or ‘me but not you’.) There is another possibility but it is one which just can’t understand with the thinking mind, which necessarily operates on the basis of ‘this but not that’ (i.e. boundaries / categories or ‘either/or logic’). The problem is that the logical mind can’t understand anything that is bigger than its own categories!
The other possibility is a great deal bigger than anything the thinking mind could ever even come close to understanding, and this is the possibility of no boundaries. Even to call this state of affairs a ‘possibility’ is missing the point however; it’s not some mere ‘possibility’ that we’re talking about here – what we’re talking here is the Unitary State of Consciousness, which is the same thing as Reality Itself…