8 compelling reasons to turn down the ego and turn up the soul

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Fall down seven times, get up eight. — proverb

1

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.”

2

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.

Or:

We can die to our old self, and see what rises up through the broken places of our ego.

3

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.

Nov 22, 2012
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18 comments · Add Yours

Gorgeous post–thank you.

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I read this slowly twice, and I still feel like there is more to glean. Sch profound words about the essence of the soul.

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Dear Justine: I had a sense that I knew all of this when I first started reading, but then I continued reading. And then read a second time. There are layers of meaning here. You’ve also encapsulated 1/2 a bookshelf of my library (different books than these referenced), which means that I can give away those books now..! Happy Thanksgiving. You gave an important and meaningful gift (as usual) to your readers.

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Justine, when are you going to write a self-help/ inspiration book? I really think we’d all buy it and I’d love to have your well thought out words in a more permanent form.
I know you’re still writing fiction, but perhaps there’s room for something non-fiction too?
Just a thought – but I love your articles.
Thanks, Joanna

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Good stuff. Don’t agree with some of it.. but for the most part good stuff.

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Thank you! @Amara, that comment about encapsulating half your bookshelf made me chuckle. I suck up a *lot* of reading and posts like this I think are about sharing info, yes, but also about pulling concepts together in my own head, a way of processing & incorporating stuff that rings true to my own experience.

@Joanna — really flattered by that, thanks. I really do want to write nonfiction + experiment with self-publishing ebooks — you + your site a big inspiration + resource. It’s one of my goals for 2013 (a high priority goal). I feel like I’ve been doing so much exploring in the past few years, so much mental wandering around, and now certain ideas are coming together and I’m seeing, and sensing, the kind of career I want to create for myself in which my nonfiction and fiction kind of feed into each other, explore some of the same themes in different ways.

@David — thanks for your comment — + always feel free to tell me where + why you disagree, dialogue is fun…

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Profound, eloquent and in sync with where I’m at, and something I just posted in a newsletter and on Facebook. Provocative. Powerfully expressed. And yes, a brilliant synthesis. Born from your own current transition, yet artfully detached from that. You are an inspiration. Excited to hear about your fiction/non-fiction goals for 2013. I hear you on all that, too. Let me publicly post my gratitude for this post, and for your presence in my life — on the page and off. Here’s to phoenixes rising…

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As always, a lovely post, and one that feeds into the journey so many of us are making in the dark, wondering what in the world is happening. Something I’ve recently become aware of it the transitory period between “No” and “Yes.” It’s called Alone. There’s a time when the decision is made to leave behind what was and go for what you know is yours when it’s necessary to be OK being Alone. It might not last long, or it can last a very long time. It’s a frightening time and that point where too many of us can’t bear the abandonment of self and turn back before we step into our new skin. In the past, I’ve looked for the person who will act as my bridge. Greene’s book Mastery is putting me over the edge. When we started downsizing five years ago, I remember holding that book with it’s bold cover design and commanding word in my hands, and deciding it would be one of the few 7,000 books I’d keep. Since then I’ve dug through boxes over and over and over again, baffled at its lost because the design is so clean and bold, it should have been easy to find. I’ve never stopped looking for it online or recommending it to others. For five years. When it first appeared on a blog or a review, I thought it had finally be re-released, updated with social media, and I could stop bothering those poor boxes in the back of the closet. As much as I’d love to read it, my hands turn to ice as I hold the Kindle and just stare at the publication date. I do not hold truck with ookey-spookey things, but this book defeats me. Even now I can smell the pages as I fanned through it before packing it away. It’s uncomfortable.

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Hello Justine ,

Really liked point number 5 in your essay. So much of modern day corporate work is based on very short-term results – when working in a corporate environment, one is forced to submit results within a try fixed time-frame due to market forces. Even the school system – a lot of it is structured in such a way that kids have no time to dream and explore and are forced to conform to a certain “model”. Becoming more focused on the process instead of the end result is something that it seems most people struggle with. Perhaps the solution is create a company where individuals can choose to form small teams with friends they enjoy working with and to be given free reign to engineer whatever their heart’s desire. (startups within a larger umbrella – like Google – There is probably more space for Google-like companies) Art therapy and nature painting would help to relax the mind and keep everyone “in the zone”.

GengYang

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Dear Justine: The best, most authentic words are those that emerge from our own pain and experiences. Sometimes the processing of my own internal world was a fulltime job and the books in my library reflect that. Occasionally I wrote poetry to sum up pieces of it, and my journals are full. I’m happy about your 2013 plans, I hope that you’ll keep your readers in the loop on that progression. If you need a reviewer of your nonfiction, I’d be happy to provide feedback too.

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@Cyd Madsen Cyd, that is wild! A ghost book? There’s definitely some kind of short story there…

And I like your comments about Alone, when we have to let go of what we know and take the future on faith. I remember somebody once pointing out — and this has stayed with me ever since — how we always focus on what we’re losing, never on what we’re about to gain by creating that space for it. I try now to focus on that space (but it can be hard).

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Absolutely beautiful, Justine. I love the references too. So helpful. My badass self is finally stepping out. She was hidden for a long time. I realized how much I have changed (or maybe, how many times I have risen) based on a recent phone call with my mom. When she expressed some genuine concern for a blog post I had written about selling back the first Christmas gifts we gave each other and using the money to go away and make a memory, I told her I was no longer going to live my life in fear. I wish I had a recording of that conversation, so I could play it back and make sure I actually said it!

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Holy crap! That’s exactly what my wife and I did. We died to our old selves and what rose from the ashes has been extraordinary. We went from hating our lives to loving them. Now rather than having such a dramatic scene in our lives where we crash and burn, we can tweak things on a daily basis, continuing our growth and being mindful about our next move.

Also, this is some of the best writing I have seen online. Gritty yet polished all at once.

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Exceptional! As a novelist, and Taoist, it is spot on. Glad I found you here. Will share with my people.

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Just a quick word to say beautiful post Justine, and thanks for writing and sharing it, resonates on a lot of levels, really inspiratonal stuff.

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I came home yesterday from a fantastic ass-kicking of a yoga class. My face glowed, my thoughts where clear and uncluttered, I was focused and calm. I think my husband probably thought I had smoked a joint on the way home.

It wasn’t just because I had “worked out”. I was fully in the moment of now during my yoga class. My brain was only listening to the teacher, the sound of my breath and the signals coming from my muscles. I wasn’t worried about my deadlines, what I was going to do after class, or bills.

When we fully engage ourselves and be Present, so many things become clearer. Maybe not explicitly spelled out, but clearer none the less.

Yoga class, blogs, work. Its all connected.

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The subtitle to my blog is “When we are our authentic selves we give others the unspoken permission to be the same. In Truth, there is freedom.”

I’m also studying fiction right now and working on my novel. If I’m not mistaken, I see a very similar trajectory for my career and life. I have been through a number of crisis/climax moments in my life. One such moment led me to writing fiction and my blog. I do it because I love it. I do it for the process, not the reward.

Deepak Chopra said recently that the world is coming together and forming like-minded groups of similarly conscious human beings. I hear every word you have written on so many levels. Thank you for being authentic and putting yourself out there.

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