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Attachment and the ego

We start to acquire a sense of self, probably in the womb, as we learn to distinguish me from not me. `Me' is what I feel directly and what can hurt. It is what I can control with an act of will. `Not me' is everything else. This sense of self is a pragmatic invention of evolution called the ego. It is attached to many things. That is its nature. It needs to preserve its body and propagate the genes that created it. The story of the ego is inevitably a tragedy. It ends in death often preceded by disability, pain and suffering.

We have evolved other senses of self. We are part of families and wider communities and we identify with these. There are solid scientific explanation for these wider senses of self. There are formulas for maximizing the propagation of ones genes. These compute how much of our resources we should be willing to give up or risk for others. The formulas depend on how much doing so will contribute to the reproductive fitness of those we help. They also depend on the proportion of our genes that are likely to be shared by that person.

Buddhism sees detachment through enlightenment as the only escape from the suffering of life. Buddhism has a rich and specific tradition and enlightenment in the Buddhist sense can only be approached in that tradition. But one can, without following any specific tradition, move ones emotional center and focus away from the ego and toward the self. This is a natural process that comes with the maturity of accepting life as it is. The result is a detachment from ones individual existence and a wider sense of identity.

Identity with a family and community are powerful human instincts obvious to everyone. The wider identities we all share are not so connected to personal survival and short term reproductive success. They are more subtle. They have evolved with a focus on long term evolutionary success. This inevitably involves a wide diffusion of an individuals genes. They are harder to measure or test experimentally. Whatever one says about this is based on intuition and thus highly speculative. But it is a topic one cannot afford to avoid for this reason. For it is becoming increasingly central to the most fundamental questions of cultural development.

The problems of civilization today are far more a battle of values than a struggle for resources. Technology has transformed this equation as it has so many other things. Of course resources like oil still play a major role, but not the primary one. The major cultural struggles today are about values, religion and spirituality. They stem from our deeper instincts for identity and how those instincts form the attitudes and beliefs of individual and societies.


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