On Zen & The Ego

A Lotus Mandala

Being an “atheist”, can one also be spiritual? What does spiritual mean? Believing in Spirits? What is a spirit? A zest? A power force? An energy? Something undefinable that just is?

From my perspective there are two sides of us. There is the ego; the analytical voice inside your head, that is constantly chattering away, trying to make sense of “things”. But what is a “thing”? A thing is a concept, an idea, a construct of the ego. In reality, there are no single things, but one single thing; everything. A single thing which is everything and everyone. A single energy which flows and manifests itself in various guises, but which is essentially, all one and the same.

The ego, the thinking mind tries to grasp this as a concept, but the limitations of language, measuring, defining, make it impossible to grasp or to possess with/by thoughts alone. Like a scientist in a lab inspecting something through a microscope we only see a tiny detail at any one time, the thinking mind, the ego, works in a linear way, in a micro sense rather than a macro. To experience the macro level of all things, you must stop thinking, ignore the ego and see it for what it is, simply another manifestation of the single energy. You must see it as another sound just like the rustling of the leaves or the birds singing. The point is to experience the energy that not only surrounds you, but is you. You are a part of it all. What you see is what you are.

I am no Zen master. If I were I would not be using words in this fashion to try to define the undefinable. The whole point of Zen, is to show one the limitations of thinking, language, measuring, analysing. How can you describe the macro in micro terms? You’d be here forever. The many manifestations of this single energy force are infinite; this leads to this leads to this leads to this, and so on, forever. Our egos are all specialists specialising in a particular field, a particular micro at any one time. Everything is simply a part, a component, a happening, of the single expanding mandala or fractal, and as we know, a fractal is an infinite complexity.

There is only the now. The Now is infinity. Trying to capture that with the finite mind/ego is futile. The past is merely a memory, the future an expectation. There has only ever been “now”.

I’m not saying that there is no place for the ego. The ego after all is as much a part of all this as anything else. You can’t have the macro without the micro, just as you can’t have white without black or cold without hot, smooth without rough, something without nothing, they are all sides to the same coin. They cannot exist separately without one-another. You can’t have a front without a back. What I am saying is that there is a time for the ego and a time for the non-ego. Also, it is good to see the ego for what it is, once you realise that you are not only your ego, but everything else, when you truly see this it comes as a great relief.

Alan Watts is the person I have to thank for putting what I felt at my core, a fundamental truth into words and “thoughts”. He really did have a talent for defining the undefinable. To me he speaks/spoke an ultimate logic.

I’ll leave you with some words from my personal guru and favourite entertainer, Alan Watts.


  1. “We’re all one suchness!”

    I do like Alan Watts, though I wouldn’t describe myself as spiritual really – a moral atheist, a sceptic… I am more of a materialist than anything – but I like the way he describes the indescribable. “Isn’t it odd that anything exists!” I’ve often thought that 😉

    I agree there is an essential weakness with the way we separate, categorise and abstract from reality in order to understand it – the weakness of both science and maths, and the reason perhaps, why the rationals have not been able to answer any of the truly big questions… but I’m not sure Zen is for me. I see the interconnectedness but I also see division, not just in man, but in nature. I’m not sure there is a “that”, too much of “it” is pulling in different directions, fighting with itself, pulling apart and forming new things, a constant flux of creation and destruction. There is as much competition and violence in the universe as there is symbiosis and balance. Ha. Maybe I’m missing the point I don’t know :S

    The symbol of the fractal as a depiction of this concept troubles me too. It is a structure of infinite recursion but it is just a form, and one born of mathematics – a human system of dividing the whole into parts for analysis – number – surely the opposite of Zen in a way? I love fractals and recursion, but I’m wary of anything that begins to take on a symbolic resonance greater than the principles it was formed of. I looked at some other Mandalas though, there is no doubt they are powerful designs!

    Anyway, this is starting to sound negative and I didn’t mean it too! Properly interesting post dude, got me thinking about a lot of things in a deep way. I’m sure there is something in all of this, but I’m none the wiser as to what it is! nice one 🙂

    PS. Some of my dad’s writings on holism and pluralism might be interesting as there are some similarities in the way he criticises scientists in the way they split the continuous into parts and try to define the macro in terms of the micro… he calls this “levels”



  2. From Fractal Unreality

    “According to mathematics, the invariant set of a chaotic system is a Fractal”
    Tell me, where do you think you have been transported to, to get to this “crucial” principle?

    Are you deep with the Essence of Reality, or could you be in a fairly easily identified, but very different

    Could you perhaps have been transported in your thoughts to the very heart of the World of Pure Form alone – that abstracted World which I call Ideality? What do you think?

    Now, I must clarify! You might wonder why I emphasize the above, and why I designate a separate World of Pure Form, which I find necessary to also entitle as Ideality. It is because that World and its own contained “Science” – Mathematics, is NOT a true and complete reflection of the concrete World of Reality. It is purified, abstracted and idealised Form, that was mostly found hidden and somewhat “distorted” in Reality, but by an amazing series of complex processes including isolation, selection, extraction and finally
    abstraction manages to deliver pure universal Form, with its own properties and consequences.

    Just as Formal Logic processes Reality in order to deal with it, so does this above set of procedures handle aspects of Reality to produce Pure Form, which greatly assists in dealing with it. So, I am NOT condemning Mathematics. But
    it MUST be seen for what it is, and it is NOT Science, but only Form…

    Jim Schofield

  3. “I’m not sure there is a “that”, too much of “it” is pulling in different directions, fighting with itself, pulling apart and forming new things, a constant flux of creation and destruction. There is as much competition and violence in the universe as there is symbiosis and balance.”

    – Ha! 😀 With that statement you’ve just confirmed/summed-up Zen. Of course “you”, the “I” can’t be sure; that’s the limit of thinking about it/yourself. If “it” is fighting with itself surely what you are saying is that it is doing that to itself! It is in it’s nature to “fight” with itself – waves, on/off. You can’t have “on” without “off”. 🙂 There is no “outside” influence, or rather the “outside” is the other side of the “inside”, the trough to the peak of the wave. You can’t have an outside without an inside! Creation & destruction – yeah, a constant flux. The competition and violence is part of the balance; the yin & the yang constantly in flux. If it was sunny all the time, with no rain or grey, would you appreciate it? It can’t stay sunny for ever, just as it can’t stay rainy and grey forever.

    What is a separate “thing”? Can you define a thing without relating it to other things? Can a thing exist on its own without anything else?

  4. BTW, have you a link to Jim’s writing on the topic of fractals?

  5. Anyway, we are both missing the point if we are constantly talking/thinking about it instead of “being” it. We’ve got to do both; that’s the best way to “understand” it (you’ve got to not “understand” it too, simply be it; yourself). Listen to some music, or better yet make some music! 😉

  6. The bottom of the two links in the first comment is a link to Jim’s work on Fractals.

  7. The idea of the fractal, I feel, is a useful one in trying to illustrate in words and concepts they way I see the world:- everything is connected/interconnected, everything effects the other, depends on one another, each a part of the whole. Like evolution, or the forming of the cosmos; is that not similar in a way to the way a fractal repeats itself inexactly, evolving from a simple beginning into a more and more complex form?

  8. … the fractal is simple in way, like you say, purely mathematical. And the computer generated image of the Mandelbrot set is just data represented in a graphical form. But that is not that exactly I’m referring to, more the idea of it.

  9. … I’m also interested in the idea of “infinity”, in the way that it is a very difficult concept to grasp with the thinking mind. A lot of Zen proverbs are paradoxical problems with no answer, the idea being that one should stop trying to find an answer and let the thought go, quieting the mind. Like when you DJ you kind of enter a Zen state, you act without thinking it through, you are one with the decks and the music. Like, you don’t have to think of how to walk to walk, if you get me. But the more I try to but it into word the more I sound like a cosmic hippy or some shit, so I’ll shut up now!

  10. The Zen ideas about inter-connectivity and repeating recursive patterns certainly resonate with me too. The ever-changing universe where everything is in constant flux and a state of perpetual evolution and revolution… this is supported by much science too, particularly evolutionary biology and geological findings about the earth’s history etc.

    I think the main area I disagree with is that language and rational thought are somehow holding us back (maybe the ego?) that this must be swept aside and that more subconscious/intuitive/instinctive parts of the brain are in fact more advanced or give us greater insights than are possible with the thinking mind. Certainly intuition can do things that logic can’t, like walking, dj-ing etc. and can bring moments of inspiration almost like magic – but surely it is when those impulses are channeled through the conscious mind and subjected to rigorous objective reasoning that we gain true insights into our world?

    I’m not sure I want my mind quieting, it sounds too much like brainwashing to me!

    I don’t think it’s cosmic hippy shit though man, I do have a lot of respect for such philosophical positions, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them!

    I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of infinity too. My dissertation at uni was on recursive structures in art, so I’m with you on that one. I’m just suspicious when anything is given any sort of special reverence as I feel people “fall in love” with ideas and cease to try to apply any sort of objectivity, question fundamental assumptions, as they already “know” the answer. I suppose this is also why I am an atheist 😉

    • Yeah, I agree with you – the ego is as much a part of all this as anything else. There are buddhist monks who totally reject the ego, and there is a place for them just as there is a place for people who are totally ruled by their ego. I share Alan’s view on it – that one should have a balance, quieten the mind every now and again but not give-up the ego totally. Alan uses a great analogy: the meditative state is the green room (behind the scenes of the main stage) the ego world that we are all so engrossed in is the stage of the performance. Some times it’s time for the green room, sometimes the performance.

      I’m definitely against brushing the ego aside, in my article I said that the ego was just as much a part of this world as anything else, it’s just that I think balance is needed. We all (or at least a lot) seem to be totally ruled by the ego in this modern world. This goes for most religious people in the west too; their interpretation of spirituality is from the ego’s perspective a lot of the time. God the grand master, the father of all is a concept/product of the ego. It’s good to put the ego in it’s place every now and again, if you stop pandering to it like you would a child who realises crying will get them things, if you stop reacting to it, it will calm-down and subside for a bit. I’m not saying to be like that 24/7! We can’t be in the green room all the time – the show must go on!

      Also, Alan says that you can’t attain satori by thinking, but you can’t grasp it by not thinking. So what he is saying is that you need both.

      Alan calls his particular brand of philosophy (after studying Eastern philosophy in general, Japan, China, Thailand, India, etc. ) as Atheist Spirituality. In that particular phrase he sums it up: – a time for the ego and a time for the non-ego.

    • … Also, Alan incorporates understanding of modern science into his philosophy, so in no way is he rejecting the “thinking mind”! And he shares your view, that:- ” I’m just suspicious when anything is given any sort of special reverence as I feel people “fall in love” with ideas and cease to try to apply any sort of objectivity, question fundamental assumptions, as they already “know” the answer.”

      And I share that view too. But sometimes the ego can frustrate you, if you get what I mean; constantly searching for answers. There is a time for questions, and a time for answers, and I think we can attain neither without the ego nor without the non-ego. Like you say, the “subconscious” mind often supplies the flash of inspiration, the answer to the question supplied by the questioning ego.

    • Like, you get some westerners, who after a period of being totally absorbed & ruled by the ego, people who were wrapped-up in the world of business and commerce and status and the consumerist world, that they eventually break-down from this way of living. Then they travel to India and go totally the opposite way, and seek permanent nirvana. If they had balance to begin with they would not be seeking to balance it out in such an extreme way: All one way, the ego way, then all the other, the non-ego way of satori.

      • I think if you’re an artist or creative person you already have some degree of balance between the two… I suppose you could write a manufactured pop song or design a takeaway menu with the ego alone, but nothing any good!

  11. I suppose I’m more prickly than gooey, but I do love a good bit of goo now and again! It is the goo that binds us 😉

  12. Longer version of Matt and Trey’s Alan Watts animation

  13. Just stumbled upon this interesting video:

  14. This is a great short 3min vid of zen/buddhist quotes and pictures/cartoons:

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