8 compelling reasons to turn down the ego and turn up the soul
Fall down seven times, get up eight. — proverb
Traditional story structure has what’s often called an “all is lost” moment when the character appears to lose everything and the goal seems forever out of reach.
It’s basically a symbolic death.
The character has to die to his old way of seeing things. His world view is shattered. He’s fallen and he can’t get up.
He must undergo a fundamental shift in perspective, a change in the paradigm through which he sees the world.
When this happens, it’s a symbolic rebirth.
He becomes the phoenix rising from the ashes, a new version of himself, equipped with the insight and wisdom he was lacking before.
The story gets going again, takes an unexpected twist (otherwise known as Plot Point 2) and barrels down the home stretch toward climax and resolution. The true sign of a character’s growth and maturation is his ability to self-sacrifice. Often he gives up the very thing he thought he wanted in order to get what he needs, which puts him in service to something or someone he loves.
Producer and story consultant Jen Grisanti refers to this as the character’s movement “from ego to spirit”.
“In the beginning, we often want to achieve a goal for ego-related reasons; the attainment signifies validation. After hitting a number of obstacles and escalating obstacles, we are often humbled. When we are humbled, we begin to awaken to how we are approaching the goal. When we move from ego to spirit, we learn that the achievement of the goal isn’t just about us: It can affect the greater good. When we do this, we evolve. Stories illustrate the journey of our evolution.”
We all have our ‘all is lost’ moments. Life kicks us in the ass and throws us under the bus. We despair. We can’t see our way forward.
We have a choice: we can remain stagnant like this, stuck in a kind of death-in-life, complaining to others and feeling sorry for ourselves, the taste of ashes thick in our mouth.
We can die to our old self, and see what rises up through the broken places of our ego.
Ego is also known as ‘the false self’. It is everything we think we should be – the image in our heads we are always measuring ourselves against, striving to fulfill, and attempting to present to others. It is the prize we need to win, the love object we need to possess, the status we need to achieve, so that we can feel better about ourselves: we get high off that sense of euphoria before it dissolves like sugar and the race begins all over again.
Soul (what Jen Grisanti refers to as ‘spirit’) is the truth of who we actually are – right here, right now – when we start looking underneath the surface of things, when we gain (are forced to gain) the ability to see things clearly, when we can recognize the moment we are in for the profound event that it is instead of trying — and trying – and trying — to hammer it into the shape that we want (otherwise known as, and say it with me boys and girls, the power of denial).
This is why your latest crisis can be, if you use it right, a blessing in disguise; it’s why gifts and woundedness so often go together (more about that in another post). As shitty as it feels – and man, does it suck to be choking on those ashes – it is also life’s way of forcing us to do what we won’t or can’t do on our own. It cracks apart the false self so we can remember who we really are. It gives us a chance to reclaim the secret parts of our soul. To step out of the various forms of delusion and into the country of the real.
Sound like fun? Not so much. But here are some reasons why that’s a good thing:
a) Ego has you living in the future, or mulling over things from the past. Soul puts you in the here-and-now. Ego often thinks your real life is elsewhere, in the space of time after you’ve lost ten pounds or made ten million dollars or published your novel or escaped your crappy hometown. Soul knows that your real life is now.
So you wake up. You start paying attention. You start getting a sense of what’s truly going on, which allows you to reset and gain insight and come up with a new – and more effective – direction.
b) When you start living in the now, you move from the abstract realm of your head into the reality of your body. Instead of thinking how you should be feeling, or how you assume you’re feeling, you pay attention to the information that your body is actually giving you. Your head tells you that you’re in a great relationship with a man you think you want to marry; your body tells you that something is off, something is wrong, you feel oppressed and deeply uncertain. Feelings are information. When we cut ourselves off from them, we sever ourselves from information that could save us a lot of suffering in the future, or that could steer us toward the very things (and people) we don’t even know that we want.
c) Ego has you trying to live up to the idealized image that you carry around in your head, cobbled together from parents or movies or peer groups that told you how you should be and what defines a successful person, a successful life.
Soul has you learning and being who you actually are – no judgment, no attempts to censor or amputate the parts that don’t fit The Image. Because you’re living in the here-and-now, you start to do things for no other reason than you want to do them. You accept and express your idiosyncrasies, your points of uniqueness. You no longer depend on the approval of others. You discover what your interests are – and pursue them.
d) It becomes a lot easier to say No to people. Part of knowing who you are is knowing who you aren’t; part of knowing what you want is knowing what you don’t want; part of recognizing what works for you is recognizing what no longer does, or never did.
You can say No because you know what to say Yes to, and because you understand that the deepest, most important Yes is the one that you say to yourself – not to others.
e) Because you’re doing what you truly enjoy for no other reason than your enjoyment of it, you become more absorbed in the process and less focused on the end result (the prize, the trophy, the final grade).
Which means your motivation shifts from extrinsic (money, applause, other external rewards) to intrinsic (the satisfaction of the thing itself).
As Daniel Pink stresses in his book DRIVE, people who are intrinsically motivated are more creative, take more chances, stay with the activity longer and explore it more deeply, and are ultimately more successful, than someone merely chasing the carrot at the end of the stick.
f) When you are doing something you are genuinely interested in, fueled by an intrinsic sense of motivation, you are on the road to Mastery. Robert Greene just came out with a great book about this, titled, elegantly enough, MASTERY. Cal Newport also lays out a key strategy to a remarkable life: mastering a skill, or a set of skills, which not only provide you with deep satisfaction but enable you to become so good they can’t ignore you.
g) When you are out in the world as your authentic self, you allow others to connect with the truth of who you are instead of the mask of who you think you should be. Something amazing happens when you get open to the world, and allow yourself to be vulnerable: you give others permission to do and be the same (and inspire them through your example). We all hunger for authenticity and connection, we seek out the people who are ‘real’ – and I’m not talking about the so-called ‘real’ of reality TV (which panders to this hunger without ever satisfying it).
When you know who you are, you also know where you want to go. When you know where you’re going, you can see who else is going in the same direction; you can recognize whom to take with you.
h) When you stop trying to shore up the False Self, and start living from your soul, you manage to shed the scarcity complex. Which means you step off the treadmill of the wanting and craving of stuff. You know you have enough. You know you are enough.
Here’s the thing: our lives are not just made up of one story, but many. We’re destined to have many ‘all is lost’ moments: when what worked for us in the past doesn’t work for us in the present, when what was once an honest expression of soul has distorted and calcified into another false self, when we have lost touch with the real and moved back into delusion, fantasy, projection, wishful thinking.
Just when we start to think we’re the shit, life kicks us back into the ashes.
Which means we have another chance to rise.