Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.
When I chewed the carrot sixty times before swallowing it, I learned nothing about Cerberus or my relationship to him. The insights began after my teeth grinded and pulverized the food. As I divided my experience into its basic parts, a space opened up, which I fell into and landed in front of Cerberus at the gates of hell.
As I approached Cerberus, his bloodcurdling growls, terrifying serpent hisses, and blistering dragon fire didn’t stop me. He roared his terrible roar, gnashed his terrible teeth, rolled his terrible eyes, showed his terrible teeth, but I wouldn’t back down.
“Be still,” I shouted like Maurice Sendak’s Max, as I stared into the hound’s six yellow eyes without blinking once. Cerberus called me the most wild thing of all and made me king of all wild things. Or so I thought until the wild rumpus began. Cerberus pranced about with my ego. They were in perfect step and harmony. As I watched them romp and play, the fires of hell burned bright, casting one shadow against the wall as they danced. The two of them weren’t distinct. Cerberus and my ego were the same being. They continued to dance as I disappeared.
The details of my experiences and discovery follow but with a traveler’s advisory note. Proceed with caution. If you choose to chew on something more than my thoughts, and if you decide to get something from the fridge and chew on it sixty times before swallowing, write down descriptions of your experiences in the spaces next to my own notes. But traveler beware as you cross the River Styx and enter the place where the wild things live and die.
First, I chewed on a small chopped piece of a baby carrot sixty times.
Second, I wrote down several of the sensations experienced as I chewed the carrot (e.g., wet, squishy, sweet, etc.).
Third, I wrote down several of the emotions I felt as I chewed the carrot (e.g., frustrated, bored, anxious, etc.).
Fourth, I wrote down several of the thoughts and ideas that came to mind as I chewed the carrot (e.g., Mom used to make carrot juice; maybe I will make a carrot cake this evening; etc.).
Fifth, I described the intensity—the affects, the physical values—namely, my body’s assessment of the experience (e.g., too mushy, too boring, mildly pleasurable at times, too irksome, too sweet, etc.).
Sixth, my list wasn’t complete. I had divided my “carrot experience” into four discreet sets of “ingredients”: sensations, emotions, ideas, and affects. But these “ingredients” had to be combined to make my actual carrot experience. I had left out the combining factor.
A simple analogy makes the point. If I want to make a cake, I have to combine the ingredients, namely, I must mix together the eggs, milk, butter, flour, etc. This act of combining the ingredients is not another ingredient. It’s not something I store next to the flour on a shelf in the pantry. I do not add a “cup of stirring” and a cup of sugar to the batter. If I want a “cake experience,” the ingredients must be combined. To make the cake I must stir things around.
Similarly, if I wanted to have a carrot experience, its ingredients—the sensations, ideas, emotions, and affective states—had to be combined. This act of combining the ingredients, however, is not a sensation or a thought or an affect or an idea. It’s a movement, a mixing, a stirring.
I decided to call this mixing activity “the ego.” The ego, as I now used the term, does not refer to something. The word refers to the way things get stirred around and mushed together inside me.
This ego is not the “Freudian ego,” namely, the part of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that mediates between the id and the superego.
Let’s get technical for a brief moment.
In brain science terms, this process is explained as an activity of the limbic part of the brain, where emotions and sensate responses to the world of events first get linked together. According to neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Georg Northoff, this combining work first takes place in the periaqueductal gray (PAG) area of the brain (“The trans-species core SELF,” Consciousness and Cognition 18: 2009). They call this lower portion of our brain “a basic-emotion ‘epicenter’” because it relates to “higher midline cortical regions” as well as to “the lowest midbrain integrator for emotionality.” It’s where emotions and sensations first get combined and their intensity affectively measured.
At this foundational formation of human consciousness, the neural activity creates the “ineffable feeling of experiencing oneself as an active agent in the perceived events of the world,” as Panksepp puts it (Affective Neuroscience). He uses the acronym the “SELF – A Simple Ego-type Life Form”—to refer to this ineffable feeling. And he calls it the “primordial self-schema” or “self-representation,” namely, the primordial structure of agency found “deep within the brain.” This primal material is “a subcortical viscero-somatic homunculus,” a SELF, a soul.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio calls it a “proto-self,” namely, the place in the brain where consciousness begins. He affirms here Panksepp’s own work on the link between the body and the self “by means of an innate representation of the body in the brain stem” (The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness).
Damasio concludes that neither the mind nor the soul can be adequately discussed today without attending to a neurological analysis of the subcortical structures of consciousness. I agree.
I decided to call this mixing activity “the ego.” The ego, as I now used the term, refers to the way things get stirred around and mushed together inside me.
In sum, the content of this proto-self, this first formulation of the human soul creates the pervasive affective states that give our lives and thoughts definition and color. We hear and see this proto-self as the body’s native tongue. Writes Damasio: we are aware of this proto-self as “body postures, the shape and design of our movements, and even the tone of our voices and the prosody in our speech as we communicate thoughts that may have little to do with the background emotions.” Body language, in short, becomes ego-speak.
My carrot experience made these insights personal. I now thought about what happened when my mother left the room as I cried for food as an infant. My ego (in other words, my proto-self), in this scenario, was formed as the brain pattern for not crying when the lining of my stomach shrank to signal hunger in me and I cried to cue others of my need for food. My ego was the brain pattern formed to stop me from wailing to try to alert Mom that I needed food.
This learned behavior of not crying was the work of my ego. This ego is thus not an unconscious thing. It’s a neural, subconscious thing, namely, the first way my brain learned to map experiences. It combined emotions and sensations in a signature pattern and texture and created the character called “me.”
This “me,” this “Simple Ego Life Form,” this “proto-self”—this “ego”— became more complex as my life with Mom continued. Soon, I never smiled or made a sound when adults tried to get me to smile, giggle, or laugh. The dominant mood and emotional template of my ego, thanks to Mom, was glum, dour, gloomy and morose. In a word, depressed. This temperament was the signature mental framework, the mood, the “background feeling” (Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain) that carried me through the ebbs and flows of daily life with my mother. My ego now acted like the Grim Reaper, namely, the death blows separating my feelings from my mind and my body.
My ego, I concluded at this point in my carrot exercise, is the signature way in which my brain stirs up things, mushes them together to create the dominant texture, mood, and template of my character as I ate the carrot.
A New Yorker cartoon whimsically illustrates this point about my ego as mood maker.
The dominant emotional disposition of the dog’s ego is humility. The dominant emotional disposition of the cat’s ego is pride. Their egos made the difference in the way they experienced the same two ingredients: being given water and food.
My ego, I concluded, not only creates how I feel, but it also creates the meaning I ascribe to those feelings.
My ego’s mood, so it now seemed to me, is the master narrator of my personal experiences. It creates the stories I tell myself about how my life is going. And no matter what happened, no matter how successful I was in my career, it always spun out the same mood and storyline: dread.
The emotional framework of my ego, in sum, created the way I handled my ideas and my life. I had read The New Yorker cartoon years ago and had also written essays and books about the role of emotions in ego-formation. But the carrot exercise prompted me to do something neither the cartoon nor my scholarly work required of me. It made my mind race back and forth between my ideas and my memories, my thoughts and my feelings, my sensations and my emotions in order to sort through and make sense of a specific personal experience in my life. The carrot exercise from beginning to end was autobiographical. It became an unfolding memoir of my life.
Thus the result. The exercise forced me to discern the difference between how I thought and how I felt. It forced me to make distinctions between my emotions and my sensations. I had to “unmush” them.
For most of my life I could not tell the difference between my thoughts, emotions, and sensations for one basic reason. My ego refused to help me out. To stop the pain of being blindsided, ramrodded, and left as roadkill by my parents’ ongoing ways of ignoring, destroying, or ridiculing my feelings, my ego became the brute force inside me that ramrodded my feelings to hell. I swallowed forty sleeping pills in college because my feelings weren’t dead yet. I was not yet a purely thinking thing. I still felt things I didn’t want to feel, like sorrow, remorse, grief and sadness that I was not loved and adored by my parents in my terms instead of theirs. I was, in short, an unloved child. Cerberus, to reiterate, clawed the pills down my throat and then carted my injured, vulnerable feelings off to hell. He was my Grim Reaper, who showed up as my hound from hell.
My ego, I concluded, not only creates how I feel, but it also creates the meaning I ascribe to those feelings.
In truth, my ego turned me into someone just like Dad. There was no space in my life for anyone except me. Everyone who disagreed with me became someone not only challenging my thoughts, but also threatening my emotional integrity and the coherence of my sensate experiences as I navigated my way through life.
Each disagreement thus felt as if I were being attacked, and I fought back. I could not distinguish my thoughts from my feelings because the space between them was shut down. So no one could enter that deathtrap and live. My ego guarded that gateway to hell.
Seventh, entering the inbetween.
The work of Cerberus and my ego started to merge in my mind. My mind didn’t know what to do with a dawning insight about Cerberus, so it shut down the advance in my understanding. I stopped thinking and simply waited for an uninvited thought to show up.
The work of Cerberus and my ego started to merge in my mind.
The memory of an experience eventually came to mind. It was my Isaac Stern experience.
Several decades ago, I attended a concert by the master violinist Isaac Stern accompanied only by a pianist. I sat just a few rows back from the stage and eagerly awaited his entrance. When he entered, dressed in a formal black tuxedo with split tails, my immediate reaction disquieted me. This portly man looks like a penguin, I thought to myself. Try as I did, I could not exile this thought from my mind. But then he began to play and something totally unexpected happened. Isaac Stern disappeared. As he continued to play, his violin disappeared. And as the music continued, I disappeared.
I always used lyrical language to describe my experience. But now I wondered what part of me might actually have disappeared. Was it my ego? Did the music stir me up beyond the range and reach of my ego? If so, where was this range of experience inside me that exceeded my ego’s grasp? (I have yet to meet someone who has not had their own Isaac Stern experience.)
Was this range of experience also the place I entered when I heard Donnell Patterson sing and play accompanied by the St. Paul A.M.E. gospel jazz singers and band? Was this the place I fell into when I cleared my lungs and took in a life-giving breath of life after taking forty sleeping pills?
These questions came to mind as my mind raced back and forth between things, which is where my ego lives: between things. My ego links things together. It’s the linkage between things.
Did my ego work in this inbetween space like a piece worker? Using this analogy, the ego would be a production unit, an action performed for a fixed wage. The ego’s wage would be the price of my life. And my value never changed because I was damaged goods. My ego’s wages would have come directly from my sale down the River Styx, which is the waterway to hell.
My ego links things together. It’s the linkage between things.
I drew on these kinds of images and analogies to make sense of something real. I actually felt an enormous freedom and bliss during the Isaac Stern concert. So, too, when the music during the St. Paul A.M.E. church services rocked me. And also when I took in that first breath of new life after I almost died. Each time I felt stirred up by something greater than me and I felt awe.
In these special moments I was held, embraced, and loved. Where was this range of feeling within me. Was it in me? Or was I in it: the universe? A story about John Cage now came to mind.
The experimental musician and composer John Cage described his access point to the universe in the early 1950s. He entered a small, six-walled, echoless chamber constructed with special soundproofing materials to eliminate all external sound. He expected to experience absolute silence. Instead he heard two sounds: one was the high-pitched tinsel sound of his nervous system in operation; the other was a lower sound made as his blood courses through his veins. His mind was now forced to focus on his sensations and his emotions, namely, the things that occur between thoughts that inform them. (Cage, in effect, had created his own carrot experiment.)
Cage now heard the universe—not figuratively, but literally—strumming his nervous system and drumming the life pulse of his blood.
Cage felt the floor and his shoes and the skin on his feet as they met and altered the pattern of his nervous system. He saw light patterns sparkle the walls in the room, which altered his retinas and thus colored his nervous system. He felt the air in the room enter his lungs. The quality and temperature of the air affected his breathing and thus the flow of his blood.
His turn inward led him into a range both within and beyond his interior life. Here’s how he described his journey into this place where everything within him is combined with everything in the universe:
The turning is psychological and seems at first a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity…. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature, where gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained.
Cage cleared his mind by paying radical attention to what he heard: his nervous system and his blood coursing through his veins. And he paid attention to what he felt: everything at once, the world, the universe, the cosmos.
I had felt this way in my life. And each time, my mind was emptied of thought and my body was stirred up by the rhythms and movements of my whole life in the All of life. My ego operated in this inbetween space. It cordoned off feelings as it did its work. But my ego was a piece worker. My whole self was not its creation, but a creation of the universe.
I did not walk into an echoless room like John Cage. But my carrot exercise was akin to Cage’s echoless chamber exercise because it took me to the brink of the place where all creation begins. My ego stirs up part of me as its creation in this space. Creation stirs up all of me—my whole self—as part of infinite life, as a movement of the universe, as a symphonic orchestration of the All of life.
My ego operated in this inbetween space. It cordoned off feelings as it did its work. But my ego was a piece worker. My whole self was not its creation, but a creation of the universe.
I thought about my experiences of bliss in such movements and finally came up with a description of what I felt as a whole self: a true self.
My ego stirs up part of me and sets aside the rest of me, I whispered repeatedly to myself as a prayer, a mantra, a lamentation, an insight meditation on my life of lost feelings.
My ego stirs up part of me and sets aside the rest of me.
Cerberus appeared with my tears and then disappeared with my ego in hand. As I watched them leave, I knew that Cerberus was my ego. And I knew that my ego, when troubled, became the hound from hell.
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