Ego reduction and growth of the spirit in addiction recovery
By Dr. Cardwell C. Nuckols & Jan Montgomery
When it comes to the big questions:
Who am I?
What is God? and
What is God’s plan for me?
…I know nothing. All I can offer is a “knowingness” that comes from meeting life’s challenges and walking through the “fires” to the other side. With that being said, take from this writing anything that works for you and leave the rest.
That which you truly are is already inside of you
After spending years studying Buddhism, Hinduism and finally returning to Christianity as a Contemplative Christian, it seems to me that all of these spiritual options (including Alcoholics Anonymous) are ego-reduction programs. By this I mean they reduce the conditioned self or ego allowing that which we truly are (Soul, Self, true self, Atman, Christ-consciousness, etc.) to shine through. The purpose of life being to come as close as possible to the realization of the divinity within us.
The true self or the divinity within cannot be acquired as many seem to think a trip to Tibet or India will make them more spiritual. It could be a terrific and inspirational trip. However, that which you truly are is already inside of you. You have it all as a gift from your Creator. The only difference between any of us is the level of realization of the divinity within. The more we shrink the ego via spiritual programs along with:
- Silence and solitude
- Prayer and
- Other spiritual techniques
…the more we realize the true-self within.
There is no real path to enlightenment
Also, there is no real path to enlightenment. In the New Testament Jesus left us a path called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). Alcoholic Anonymous gave us the 12 Step path. Hinduism offers a path of the mind called Advaita Vedanta. However, these paths only take one so far.
When the spiritual aspirant moves beyond the confines of the mind (ego) into the nonlinear or nondual realm, there is no path – only the relationship with the God of your understanding. Remember a path can only take you to a known place and where you are going has no roadmap. It has been referred to as a spiritual “wilderness.”
You are traveling beyond duality
Duality or a linear worldview is the predominate perspective of the material world we live in. It is based upon opposites. In other words, heat is the opposite of cold, dark is the opposite of light and bad is the opposite of good. This implies you are different from me and creates separation. Along with the fear of death, this separation is a major cause of anxiety.
As one moves beyond the confines of the ego, a nonlinear or nondualistic worldview prevails. Here there are no opposites as cold is the absence of heat and dark is the absence of light. There is no you or me as everything is One.
I call this One God. If everything is God and we all are One in God then there is no separation; no fault, no anger, and no blame. There is also no good or bad as everything is good (reference the creation story in Genesis where everything created was either good or very good).
“Good” and “Bad” are constructs of the ego
How do we really know if something is good or bad? Relatively, the ego makes this determination based upon self-interest. Absolutely, the true self understands everything is part of the flow of consciousness. The situations the ego finds as onerous often turn out to be just what we need to drive us out of the comfort of self-interest and create the opportunities for spiritual growth.
For example, many alcoholics and addicts will tell you they are grateful for their addiction as it served as a catalyst for spiritual growth and the attainment of a more grateful and serene demeanor. Without spiritual opportunities and spiritual growth, we remain trapped in a world of pain and pleasure created by our ego.
In the material world, pain and pleasure are joined at the hip. You cannot have one without the other. A good example is the person who buys a beautiful new car and parks it three parking lots away over three parking spaces dreading the first ding in the car’s body. The dings and wear and tear are inevitable turning our pride of possession of this car into a bummer.
The origins of the ego
The ego can be understood as a conditioned or false self. It is not who you are but what you have come to believe you are. A little baby still lives in a nonlinear relationship to the world. They may be considered an extension of mom or as the Ojibway tribe states, “Until the soft spots on a baby’s head hardens, they are directly connected to God.”
At approximately two year of age this starts to change. Long axonal fibers begin to connect the brain and the infant experiences a sense of separate self. Now it is mommy and me and a fall into the duality of our materialistic world. When this occurs there is always someone else to blame. The worldview of the ego is grandiosity where the good is internalized and the bad externalized. This is why narcissistic individuals repeat the same mistake over and over. Why change if it is not my fault.
The ego is conditioned by what is around us
Between the ages of two and ten years the ego is created. At this stage of development, the brain is a beautiful receiver but does not have the capacity to determine whether that which is being storing is a beneficial or faulty program. The ego is conditioned by primary care-givers, our culture, religion, and nationality.
For example, our care-givers tell us what to believe, how to act, who to like and dislike and help shape how we view the world. It is not only what these individuals do with and for us but also what they do not do. Not attending your first little league baseball game or your first school play is a value statement about our worth.
The ego and our worldview
During this age range of 2-10, our initial worldview is established. Your worldview is your philosophy shaped by all of the experiences that determine how you think, feel and behave. Based upon early-life experiences, we develop unconscious programs that we believe will make us happy and keep us in control of what is occurring around us. The important thing to remember is that these programs such as:
- power and control
- affection and self-esteem
- security and survival
..each of these drive an egoic worldview that is the source of our suffering and misery.
An individual worldview creates misery
It is the worldview of affection and self-esteem that catalyzed my early life and created so much misery. It was part of the epigenetics that allowed my high genetic risk for substance use disorder to manifest itself at an early age.
My father was a cardiologist, chief of staff of a hospital and was number one in his medical school class. He died when I was 18 years old. The day after, several of the men from my community came to our home and gave me his brass shingle – Cardwell C. Nuckols, Sr., MD. They told me, “When you get out of medical school we will build you an office and you can place this plaque next to the front entrance.”
Well, my father was a workaholic. I really did not know him. My mind created an image of perfection, placing him on a pedestal I could never reach. How do you live up to an image of perfection? The fear of not being good enough reinforced my self-critical perfectionism and since one cannot be perfect it just fortifies, “I’m not good enough.” It is easy to understand how this illusion created personal suffering and misery.
80-90% of our lives are spent trying to survive and control our world
These programs, scripts or schemas become unconscious and drive our lives. Psychologists have stated that 80-90 percent of our lives are driven by these old attempts to survive and control our world. If that much of our lives is conditioned by agendas established during childhood, then as adolescents and adults we have very little freedom.
We can free ourselves from the ego!
One of the major goals of spiritual effort is to impact us on an unconscious level to free ourselves from the programs of the conditioned ego. Think of it this way. If we use the same mind (ego) to solve or eradicate these old programs, it will not work. It is sort of like asking an alcoholic to come up with their own plan of recovery (only drink beer before 5 PM). We need something powerful enough to bypass the ego and heal us on an unconscious level. This is how healing works.
Healing is not a band aid but a spiritual intervention. A great example of this is the 6th and 7th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous. In Step Six all we can do is struggle to become entirely ready but other than that we can do nothing. Spiritual work is all about the struggle and has nothing to do with a destination. If it was about getting somewhere it would become an ego contest. In Step Seven we humbly ask our Higher Power to remove these defects of character. Your psychiatrist, counselor or sponsor cannot do this for you.
How the ego and unconscious programming works
I want to give you an example of how the ego and its unconscious programs work. This example is taken from my latest book Finding Freedom Through Illumination: Achieving Christ-consciousness:
“The ego is never wrong, and it is always somebody else’s fault. Imagine if you will, I meet a woman who I find very attractive so I ask her if she would like to go to dinner with me (just counting the number of “I’s” and “me’s” in this one sentence should alert you that an egotistical adventure is about to take place), and she accepts.
When we are seated at the restaurant, I proceed to tell her all about myself, displaying my intelligence, nice income, most recent acquisition of toys, etc. Then I tell her more about myself, including how well read I am and all the important people I claim close relationships with. After this, I tell her more about me because learning about her is not important. After the evening is over, I note to myself what a good time I had.
On the next day, I happen to see this woman and decide to ask her to a movie and late dinner, projecting all of this into a later evening romance (fancy word for “sexual intercourse”). She says to me, “I hope I do not even pass you on the street again.” She walks away very rapidly. If she had been very codependent, I would have had a good chance of making my plan work. Codependency is the opposite side of the mirror from narcissism. One needs to be admired while the other needs to admire. I walk away angry.
Who am I angry at? Remember, the ego always internalizes the good and externalizes the bad. How could she do such a thing to me? As I walk away I say to myself, “What a loser she is and at least I will not waste any more money on her.” My ego just loves anger, prejudice, and other negative emotions. They are like gasoline to the ego. I say, “She doesn’t know what she is missing” as my ego’s arrogance abounds.
Well, I go to see you as you are my latest therapist. I have had so many and none of you have made me any better. When I tell you about this rejection, you have the audacity to say to me, “What did you get out of this experience?” “What did I get from the experience of rejection? Can’t you see I am angry about being rejected,” is my emphatic retort.
“What was the secondary gain you derived from this experience?” you ask. Certainly there is such a gain and its name is resentment. When I have resentment, I can do whatever I want because it is not my fault. I can drink, drug, eat, gamble, act out sexually, and inappropriately spend on the credit card because you made me do it.
Here is another thing we can say about the ego. It is ridiculous! I am going to go out and do harm to myself and that will get even with you, darn it! Just think of how crazy this really is! The insanity is what we say to ourselves before we act. Where does this self-talk come from? From your conditioning as a child and the belief it is someone else’s job to make you happy.
Unfortunately, this is human nature, and we all have done something like this from time to time. It is unconscious and depends on someone or something to make us happy. Think of the times we have done something like this. What were the consequences? Now that we know how it works and it is in conscious awareness, you never have to do it again if you don’t want to.”
Freud stated that we don’t really need to regress to understand these programs. All you need to do is watch a person repeat the same thinking, feeling, and behavior that repeatedly causes suffering in their life. Fortunately, our worldview can change and that is what working a spiritual program and “having a spiritual awakening” is about.
Changing the unconscious motivators that drive ego
As we grow spiritually, more freedom is opened up as the old egoic programs, opinions and prejudices are removed as unconscious motivators of our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Spiritual study, prayer, silence and solitude, contemplation and meditation are the age old techniques that can help this process.
Remember, however, in the nonlinear realm there is no cause only effect. Spiritual growth happens when conditions are right. Not knowing God’s conditions, we can only work on our side of the equation. A moral mind, selfless service, and utilizing the above techniques can be very helpful. However, spiritual growth will happen in God’s own way and in His/Her own time.
- The conditioned self or ego develops during our early years.
- It creates programs that become unconscious motivators for our thinking, feeling and behavior.
- Psychology and pharmacology do a poor job of removing these unconscious programs.
- A spiritual solution is required to change our worldview thus changing the way we think, feel and behave. For example, character defects come from the grandiose world view of the ego. When the view changes to one of gratitude there is no need for anger, envy, jealousy, greed, etc.
- As we grow in spirit and our ego shrinks, we start to realize more and more the divinity within.
- As we discover that which we truly are, we become capable of seeing the love and beauty in others who often cannot see it within themselves.
- It is this spiritual perspective and the healing energy it brings to the world that allows us to be of selfless service to others.
Thank you for reading this blog entry. It is my hope you have found something here that might be of help to you along you journey. Thank you for all you do for others.
Dr. Cardwell C. Nuckols is described as “one of the most influential clinical and spiritual trainers in North America.” He has served the behavioral medicine field for almost 40 years and for the last 20 years is considered one of the leading experts in the world on addiction and recovery. His last two books-The Ego-Less SELF and Finding Freedom Through Illumination are published by HCI and describe the process of deflating the ego and the realization of the divinity within. Dr. Nuckols can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan Montgomery is a freelance writer and editor. She has an extensive background in marketing and sales. During her career Jan was one of the world’s leading buyers of precious stones (diamonds, emeralds, etc.) and pearls. She has traveled the world and brings a wealth of experience working with people to her work.