Heath Robinson Machines:

Heath Robinson Machines:

un-inventing the ego contraption

While we up on Holy Island this month, the retreatants and I were discussing the ludicrous tangles our thinking minds get into.

When we first sit down on the cushion as practitioners, we are mostly dealing with the chattering of the thinking mind. Then, as we practice mindfulness and start to get a bit familiar with the jiggery-pokery of our thoughts, then we can notice how much of our thinking is ephemeral garbage apparently generated from a deep-seated but mysterious motor below our conscious mind. It fills up our days and nights with a seemingly-endless sprawl of chatter but after a while we might make our peace with it - bashful and a little tickled by the sheer volume of nonsense but also fundamentally OK, since we can see the process unfold.

Then there comes a point, when mindfulness is not enough. Seeing the mess of the mind is one thing but living with its consequences on our being is another. We start to see that all this thinking and planning and counter-planning is actually not as cute or harmless as we might think.

Being lost in thought is not morally neutral.

In fact much of our thinking is in the service of a very elaborate system of self-protection or self-aggrandisement that was set-up when we were little people, terrified that our care-givers would abandon us or that the outside world would overwhelm our tiny infant selves. Those machines of self that we call our ‘egos’ are complex, jerry-rigged mechanisms much like the famous Heath Robinson machines where a simple task is accomplished by a mind-bendingly complex contraption, mostly held together with knotted string and wooden cogs. Over the decades we have tinkered in the dark, adding bits here and changing cogs there. But the fundamental apparatus is still serving this fearful and now fearfully-armoured self.

This is the unconscious mechanism of the ‘ego’ that can so bedevil us. There is nothing intrinsically devilish about it. It was formed from good, protective intentions and patched and improved in the same way that one fixes as ship that is never in the dry dock. We build the hull as we sail it. But it is hopelessly mismatched to the experience of being afloat in an adult world.

Very often, the very thing that we have hauled around to protect us ends up jabbing, poking and torturing us and completely obscuring the world around us.

And no where is this more clear than when we roll our Heath-Robinson machine towards others in an attempt at intimacy or care. Being cared for by a mechanical juggernaut of limited efficacy and zero-subtlety can often be an experience of horror for those on the receiving end.

Within the battlements of our ego-contraption we might think we are caring - but the truth is, it’s a form of “colonial” caring where the Other is invaded and exploited to claw back good things to the imperial motherland. We have all been on the receiving end of “carers” who seem much more concerned with their own agendas than any sense of what we might want. More painful still, is to realise how often our own attempts to “love” or “care” fall into the same category of clumsy colonialism.

One of the most painful moments in the meditator’s career is what Pema Chödron calls the “Big Squeeze”. The moment when our self image crashes into the reality of our actions in the world. Where we are painfully pressed against the mirror and forced to see how grubby and self-seeking almost all our actions are. This is not a heavy “Aren’t I terrible!” judgement - but it is a vital moment if we are to turn around and enter the next stage of the path: compassion.

The Big Squeeze requires a clear-sighted inventory of our ego strategy. We don’t have to be ashamed or beat ourselves up. But we do have to be honest. It’s like a big dose of salts to see that our Heath Robinson machine is really all about:

  1. securing what we want (greed/attachment)
  2. pushing away and minimising what we don’t want (aversion/aggression)
  3. ignoring everything that doesn’t serve us (ignorance/dissociation)

Until we have really done the work and seen how these three agendas rule the roost, then any attempt at care is likely to be hijacked in their service. So in the words of Chögyam Trungpa the beginning of compassion is always non-aggression, and the involves being scrupulously honest in noting the subtle and not-so-subtle sallies of the Heath Robinson machine on the world.