Twelfth in a series.
It is insidious, really, how easy it is to become identified with a life circumstance like chronic pain. There is nothing shameful about it -- we all do it by finding our identity in such things as our work, family, wealth, intelligence, experiences -- and Tolle says that our egos bear the responsibility. The ego will grasp at anything to give it identity and meaning.
"Another aspect of the [suffering] that is an intrinsic part of the egoic mind is a deep-seated sense of lack or incompleteness, of not being whole. In some people, this is conscious, in others unconscious. If it is conscious, it manifests as the unsettling and constant feeling of not being worthy or good enough. If it is unconscious, it will only be felt indirectly as an intense craving, wanting and needing...people will often enter into a compulsive pursuit of ego-gratification and things to identify with in order to fill this hole they feel within." (page 45)
If we are in chronic pain, there's not a whole lot to grasp on to. In many cases, we have lost huge chunks of our lives: careers, relationships, income, and freedom of movement. But what Tolle tells us is that, as counter-intuitive as it seems, we are still compelled by our egos to clutch at something to identify with. For the insecure ego (and the ego is, by nature, insecure) being in pain is as good as anything else.
Here are some of the ways I catch my own ego grasping at the identity straw (I list these things because (1) it's good for my self-honesty to get them out there; (2) it strengthens my awareness, which helps to bring me into the Now; and (3) maybe you will recognize yourself and be relieved that you are not the only one):
1. Talking about my symptoms. It is amazing how often I repeat the litany of what is wrong: why pain, where pain, when pain, how much pain. Sometimes, I am sure, it makes sense -- for example, when my doctor asks me, or when another migraine-suffering soul wants to compare notes and connect. However, there are many other times when I begin reciting my woes with very little provocation. And sometimes, once I get started, it is really hard to stop.
2. Garnering sympathy. I never knew it until my husband pointed it out to me (bless his heart), but I have certain dramatic tendencies in the way I talk about and relate to the world around me. This served me well when I was on stage, back in another life, and still has its uses for story-telling and otherwise participating in a fun evening with friends. But it loses its allure when I indulge in drama as a way of getting sympathy. I am canny enough to be subtle about it, but it is still happening, and I do feel chagrin when I catch myself.
3. Fear. Tolle says that the insecurity of the ego has its greatest outcome in fear. "Because of its phantom nature, and despite elaborate defense mechanisms, the ego is very vulnerable and insecure, and it sees itself as constantly being under threat." (page 44) This means that because my ego grasps at the person-in-chronic-pain identity, it fears having the pain taken away. If my migraines are cured, my ego reasons, who am I? No one. I am dead. How unsettling is that? When it comes right down to it, there is a part of me that DOES NOT WANT TO GET WELL.
Phew. It feels good to get that out there.
But now my head is hurting from all this honesty. (See how I use my identity as person in pain to bring this post to a close?) In my next post, I'll write about becoming aware of the ego and its machinations.
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Carol D. Marsh
- With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90 days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.