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David Bohm on the Ego

I just came across this while going thought some old saved drafts, and I thought some people here might also find it interesting. I don’t remember where I got it, maybe from Changing Consciousness???

David Bohm: It is interesting to speculate on the probable origin of the ego process in the human race. There is evidence that modern man, with essentially his present brain capacity, came on the scene not more than 30,000 years ago. At this stage, the poor creature was ignorant. The animal is ignorant too, but it does not possess a cortex that can remind it of unpleasant dangers, real and imaginary, as well as death, while at other times creating wonderful illusions of satisfactions, apparently to be obtained by certain actions, and so on. So the animal can sit peacefully until there is actual danger, in which case it either runs or fights. But our poor primal “Homo-sapiens” must experience fear of the known and the unknown as well as desire for satisfaction of a kind that never would enter the animals brain. Being confused, he starts to invent imaginary “magical” means of dealing with dangers, and bringing him these satisfactions. At first, this is not so different from what a child does in his daydreams. But eventually, man’s imagination runs away with him. The magical forces that he has invented seem to escape him, and disclose themselves as even more dangerous than the unknown dangers that he first wanted to escape. So he must propitiate them. He confuses his mind even more, now being afraid even to look at what he has termed “taboo.” But he doesn’t see that it is all a game that he is playing with himself. How can he? After all, magical dangers are easily confused with real dangers that abound in his life, and there is no easy way at his disposal to study the problem properly.

Gradually man starts to accumulate tools, techniques, knowledge, language, weapons, etc. He develops agriculture, aggregates himself into stable communities, smelts metals, is able to guard against hunger by storing food, etc. This apparently happened in North Africa about 9000 years ago to 6000 years ago. V. Gordon Childe, in his It Happened In History, suggests that this was a great period of creative development in man.

Now up to this time, war had not developed, beyond occasional raids and quarrels. Slavery wasn’t worth it, as a man consumed almost as much as he could produce. But with growing wealth, plunder became inviting. Weapons made raids practicable and slavery was now technically feasible. At some time, there began to occur to some people the brilliant idea that they could live off others. Thus started the modern age of war, plunder, slavery, and exploitation of man by men. Childe gives evidence that for thousands of years following this change, creativity almost dried up, as man began to look up to the “hero,” the conqueror, the slave-holder, while technique and the arts were left to the despised slave. Even in Greek and Roman times, there was the same tendency, and only much later was there a change, allowing a self-respecting man seriously to interest himself in the arts and techniques. Childe suggests that except for slavery, man could have reached modern technical levels long before the time of the Greeks.

It seems to me that the development of plunder, slavery, and exploitation as man’s main mode of life determined the modern form of the ego process. Even when slavery was given up, exploitation remained the essential feature of man’s relation to man, which it still is today. Once this mode was started, man was doomed to ever increasing confusion, for he had to justify his mode of life to himself. This is in fact impossible, except by continual recourse to confusion. For how else can you justify the arbitrary authority of some people over others? You can pretend that God or nature ordered it, that the others are inferior, that we are superior, etc. But once you start on this line, you can never allow yourself to think straight again, for fear that the truth will come out. You must glorify the “hero” who murders and plunders, while on the other hand, you tell the child that he must be honest, treat people fairly, and so on. Just this one point is enough to destroy the minds of most children. How can you square up the emotion of love and truth with that of plundering your enemy, stealing his wealth, murdering helpless people, and enslaving others? No wonder even brilliant people like Aristotle regarded slaves as basically inferior. How else could they stand life in their society?

The basic character of the ego process is to continue in the midst of superficial change. At its core is the desire to be satisfied. Since man began to project his satisfaction into an imagined future, he also needed to feel secure. For he is always seeing causes, real or imagined, that threaten his projected satisfactions and promise projected pains and dangers instead. The fear reflex is thus set in motion. This confuses the mind, which looks urgently for solutions. Usually these solutions put man in an ultimately more dangerous position than he was to begin with. For what else can be expected of a confused mind? Then his fear reflexes are activated again with still greater intensity. In this way, society has been developing into a situation of ever mounting fear. The movement is zigzag, with alleviations and improvements from time to time. But on the whole, each move of man to increase his security has brought him finally to greater insecurity than ever, until today, the “security” of atomic weapons threatens man with annihilation.

I would say that man is suddenly entering a situation where the whole idea of this mode of life is evidently absurd. It always was absurd, but many men had the illusion that they could get satisfaction out of it. It usually took a man 30 or 40 or 50 years to find out that this is false, and that life is “vanity” after all. But today, even the young people feel it, perhaps even more keenly than the older ones. Mankind has been in a chronic state of crisis for 6000 years or more. Now the crisis is acute, general, and inescapable. The old illusions don’t seem to work very well any more, nor do the new illusions either. So mankind is presented with a unique opportunity to drop the ego process. This opportunity arises out of unique danger. He may annihilate himself or degenerate to the level of a confused beast if he does not drop the ego process in a reasonable period of time.


Very revealing, thank you, Howard!

Very revealing, thank you, Howard!

If we’re not victims of incarceration, slavery, or exploitation, we’re profiting from those who are. We justify this by rationalization that is self-bamboozling, or we’re honest enough to be shamelessly cruel and callous.

We’re not innocent, so we’re attracted to Krishnamurti who, as far as we can tell, was innocent. We want to be rid of our condition and be free of confusion, conflict, and confession. But we can’t shake our desire for satisfaction, relief, accomplishment, i.e., reward.

We’re driven by fear and greed to aspire to innocence, something of which we know nothing, can’t imagine, and yet are convinced we must become. We console ourselves with the company of fellow aspirants to compare notes with.

Hello Inquiry
I was and am drawn to Krishnamurti and David Bohm because they spoke about matters of our lives that otherwise go unmentioned, unaddressed.

**That certainly seems to be a common conditioned reaction. But there’s also the possibility of ‘seeing the danger’ of these habitual patterns of thought. A seeing of the necessity to not move away from observing the nature of this confusion.

Conditioned reaction is all we know. Perhaps if we were more interested in our reactions than we are in our intention to be free of them, we’d be free.

**Conditioned reaction may be the current state of “what we know.” But reacting from that knowledge is not the only option that’s available. To continually assert “how stuck we are” is one of the common ways the system of thought perpetuates the confusion. Here’s another option that can be ‘explored’:

Bohm: Well, I think we can first of all try to observe our own habits and programs, and suspend them sufficiently to get some insight; and secondly, in relationship, we can observe this happening. Also, I think, in dialogue it could perhaps begin to be revealed because different people can see different aspects of this whole thing. Now that would require however, as Peter was saying, that people really be friends with each other, so that they can take criticisms from each other – things that will appear to be criticisms. You see, the minute that somebody is pointing out that you are doing something wrong, or silly, or something, then there is a reaction, and you say no it’s not. You defend yourself. That is part of the concealment. It’s very hard to be able to take this. But in this dialogue, it must be possible for it to go both ways, you see? Now say, in the family, the parents will do this with their children, but the children are not allowed to do this with their parents. Usually they say that the children really do not understand enough. But that often conceals the fact that the parents don’t understand – don’t want themselves criticized or anything. So the question is whether we can establish a relationship truly between two friends, so that this dialogue is really possible? - Unfolding Meaning

Hello Howard. Thanks for posting that very interesting quote from David Bohm. I think the sentence above is very true and that is one reason I come here. The point about friendship and taking criticism also seems to make a lot of sense. We can see communication constantly breaking down here due to this.

So how do we go about dropping “the ego process”? By going over Krishnamurti’s teaching in the hope that clarity and understanding will come of it? The more closely I study K’s teaching, the less clear and more convoluted it seems. There comes a time when one is familiar enough with ones own ego to study it directly instead of studying the words of an expert. To drop the ego process, might one have to drop one’s dependency on someone else for guidance and help? After all, I am the ego, and if I can’t be mindful of my every conditioned response, no one can help me to do so.

Yes that seems to be the case.

**The ego, or what that word ‘points’ to, is all just thought-imagery. It’s the image of an observer, and a collection of judgmental thought images (beliefs). And this collection of ideas can’t “do” anything. It’s just conceptual imagery stored and projected by the brain.
Imagery can’t drop itself. The question, we’ve all heard, is “Who am I?” Am I a collection of images? The ‘I’ or ‘ego’ or ‘identity’ IS just a collection of images. But it’s not the body. The images may be occurring ‘in’ the body, but as the saying goes, the words/images aren’t the thing. And the insight into the limited nature of all of this thought imagery reveals this illusion to the brain. And every ‘idea’ of what one should or should do is a blockage to this possible insight. The first step for the conditioned mind is to see “I don’t know,” and stop continually moving back into knowledge.

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The first step for the conditioned mind…

If there is a “first step for the conditioned mind” it is questioning and examining its every reaction and conditioned response.

It is to see “I don’t know”

To see “I don’t know”?

If it is always true that I don’t know, I know nothing, including the ability to know that I don’t know. But if there are times when I do know, the truth is that I don’t always know, and I don’t always know when I know and when I don’t. Sometimes I know, most often I don’t.

Being mindful of my every conditioned response. I would say that this depends on one’s level of awareness and alertness from moment to moment. If awareness and alertness slip, I am not aware of my every conditioned response or any conditioned response for that matter. My experience is that levels of awareness and alertness vary. Physical activity, like yoga or hiking, can help energise the body and mind and may help one be more alert. Or not. Likewise, after listening to K speaking on video, I sometimes find myself a little sharper the next day, a little more alert. Of course, this might not be true for everybody. Also, having the kind of exchange we have here might actually be useful for some of us in that there might be something seen a little more clearly. Of course, this may not be true for everyone.

If your conditioning interests you, you want to see it in action…or I should say, reaction. You don’t want to squander the opportunity to see how your past is playing out in the present, so you’re always alert and attentive.

Is it really possible to always be attentive and alert? Don’t levels of awareness and alertness vary from moment to moment? Do we always listen with complete attention?

Not in the way I think about alertness. As long as the ‘machinery’ considers alertness and attention to have ‘value’ it will desire to have them. Then the thought arises “Oh my God do I have to do it all the time!” That’s the machinery of the self. I can’t grasp the approach of doing absolutely nothing, so… Yet over and over JK has referred to this effortless state. He even described the ‘energy’ of choiceless awareness as being different. The ‘doing’, wanting, seeking, hoping, avoiding, escaping, energy is the energy of the self and yet it somehow impedes the state of choiceless awareness? I don’t know…

Maybe having an ‘image’ of choiceless awareness, brings it into the realm of the self as another ‘value’ to be chased?

**Maybe, maybe not. But why not find out why we’re often not attentive? Why not know ourselves, and what makes humanity, us, continue to tolerate conflict, violence, and other disorders? Isn’t it inattention to disorder that allows it to continue?

I think this is really a fundamental question. Are we really not that interested?

**Yes, what’s obstructing being attentive, and how interested are we actually?
It seems that the interest in a radical transformation tends to diminish once a persons life becomes “more tolerable,” or “less reactive.” So the radical transformation never occurs. The prison gets decorated, but never demolished.