There is a saying, quite common in the mysterious (and not so mysterious) Orient that one has to have been an egotist before one can become a just man.
An egotist is someone who knows how to get attention for their imaginary self (though he thinks it is real until he is a reformed egotist). I say imaginary because I have seen a man implode when his ‘self’ suddenly went up in smoke. His whole sense of identity was based on being the son of highly respectable and successful businessman. Then, aged 60, he discovered he was really the son of an alcoholic shop clerk, long since dead. It had been kept from him all this time. His sense of self was completely changed, moreover, he revealed to me the gift that this was: it showed him (when he had recovered) what an invention your ‘identity’ is. Because we build it so slowly we lose sight of this.
An egotist is someone who feeds a ‘self’ they have engineered and are proud of, a ‘self’ that works- in private and in public. When they are a little too attached to it, when they think it’s ‘really them’, when they lose their sense of humour, when that self doesn’t quite work we call them an egotist.
But if they can transcend attachment to that self, if they can set it aside and laugh at themselves when others make a joke (not their own mockery- egotists are cunning at contriving ‘jokes’ at their own expense that simply shore up their indulgent attachment to their self-image) if they can out-grow, get a tad weary with feeding that self- and all selves need feeding with attention, from us and from others. Then, the saying goes, that person can be truly just in their dealings with others. Why?
I think the solution lies in the deceptively simple explanation of attention needs. This was introduced properly to the West by Idries Shah, most notably in his groundbreaking work ‘Learning how to Learn’, but attention is referenced in all his books and in the highly recommended youtube version of his BBC documentary One pair of Eyes.
A person who is not an egotist, who hasn’t got a ‘self’ they are ‘rather proud of’ usually needs to be involved in some bigger project in order to be objective. If they are not being ‘used’ by some project they seek to stabilise themselves through getting attention- call it approval- from others. We all need it, it’s how we get feedback about what self will work and what won’t in the outside world. But we get addicted to the food of attention. We only need a little to keep a self nourished- if we have decided what kind of self we want. There are people who are self-invented and those who appear to be the result of accidental encounters. Self-invention is much more efficient, the whole structure is put in place at a stroke, and that structure is designed from the start to get enough attention to keep the thing running. Accidental selves are more like scavengers, relying on any scraps they can find. Remember attention is a feedback device that keeps us connected to the world in a social sense, it is related to bygone animal requirements of survival in a group. If you are getting attention it means you are part of the group and likely to survive. Deprived of attention and you have to make more effort- otherwise you could be cast out to be eaten by prowling lions. But just because it is a need rooted in animal behaviour (just as sex is) doesn’t make it any less powerful a force. In fact living alone on a deserted island where there is no obvious source of attention is easier than living in a city and not talking to anyone- why? Because when you live alone you give yourself attention in order to survive. But in the city you give your attention to others. It gets used up and there is none coming back so you feel bad, depressed, anomie thrives. Indeed the whole problem identified by Durkheim as anomie can be traced back to the imperfect attention giving and getting that occurs in modern industrialised cities –then and now- smaller families, badly organised friendship groups, working with strangers. The proliferation of gangs in inner cities is a childish solution to the attention problem. Indeed until the West better understands how to deal with the simple act of giving and getting attention social problems will proliferate- social problems largely unknown in much of Egypt and India for example- though of course they have other ones...
To return to the idea of the egotist- we will- but first let’s look some more at the idea of the self-constructed self versus the ‘accidental self’. Compare someone who names themselves with someone landed with a nickname they don’t like. A self-given name guarantees a nice dose of attention from yourself (and maybe others if it is an interesting name). It is more efficient also at delineating the self as something you can construct and use (hence secret naming rituals that identify a ‘real self’ – they are simply ways of getting to the position of ‘assured egotist’ faster, because this is simply a stage). An invented self is not burdened with inefficient attention getting strategies. Look at children- some will learn that doing well at school gets them attention- so they prosper. Others learn that doing badly gets them more attention, they discover that they can tolerate the negativity that comes with such behaviour and so they simply continue to indulge the bad aspects of themselves that generate such behaviour. They have little incentive to be active if being ‘lazy’ gets them lots of attention from furious parents.
An invented self is more efficient at getting the attention you need in order to do the things you REALLY need to do. It means when you meet someone you don’t have to use them immediately as a source of attention, putting on a ‘show’ for them. You can actually objectively size up what use you can be to them and what use they might be to you.
An egotist is someone sorted for attention- they know how to get it and they are getting enough, probably way more than enough- so much that they have become rather a glutton. Such a person can easily be controlled by various forms of clever flattery. But lets say they see the light and realise that things are great, they get enough attention to feel good about themselves and now they can look further with a clear and undistracted eye. Remember the person who has failed to satisfy their attention needs, or hasn’t learnt to abstain from getting attention in certain situations, is at the mercy of any situation they find themselves in. They must use it to get attention rather than see what is really available. One way to test this is to play the game of comparisons. If someone brings up a rival figure and talks highly of them- simply say nothing, neither praising nor diminishing their achievements. See how it feels. Can you detach from the idea of another ego doing ‘better’ than yours? (such comparison is a nonsense of course since both egos are simply constructs anyway- solid and useful though they may be). Lots of tales of two fools trying to outdo each other aim to show what happens when egos ‘compare’ against others.
Most attempts to improve the way one operates in this and other worlds are really about grasping some very simply principle – the idea of attachment and detachment for example. It make take years to actually realise what detaching from something means- only for you to realise it’s a really simple idea- mentally summed up by imagining that thing, person, idea as a photo on a sheet of paper, or an argument on a sheet of paper, a sheet of paper you calmly just set aside, on a pile of discards to your right. (Or any other simple visualisation of setting aside, non-emotionally setting aside- which is the key). Because we usually have emotion dirtying the water, emotion getting involved in what we detach from, we can lose sight of the simplicity of detaching from a thing. The way to drain the emotion out of it is to use your observing self “OK- feeling bad that no one is paying attention to me now…OK actually it’s bearable in fact…Nope feeling bad again…” Simply tracking emotions in an unemotional way aids detachment efficiency. And if you are getting emotional about emotions start parsing them for their good and bad aspects- when we switch from consumer head to observer/scientist head the emotion drains away.
Do we need to get attached to the idea of detaching first? Maybe. Then you detach from the idea of detachment- which sounds more complicated than it really is. It is just noticing where you are on the pendulum as you swing back and forth between attachment and detachment- neither being a static state.
The ego that knows how to fuel itself efficiently, without having to do things it doesn’t want to do to get attention (co-dependence is when your attention needs are only satisfied by someone who is destroying you) and KNOWS this is, is able to be just. What is being just? You already know, it is simply seeing clearly without feeding off what you are judging, and being honest when you don’t understand something, and being astute enough to find help that will solve this lack of understanding should you need it. But mainly it is not about information, it is about being clean and clear and when that occurs seeing clearly is our natural state.