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The Egoic Operating System

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Wisdom Jesus

The Egoic Operating System
Thursday, April 13, 2017

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Jesus as a wisdom teacher.

I would like to reflect on this idea of Jesus as a master of consciousness from a slightly different angle with the help of a contemporary computer metaphor: We come into existence with a certain operating system already installed. We can make the choice to upgrade.

Our pre-installed binary system runs on the power of “either/or.” I call it the “egoic operating system.” This dualistic “binary operator” is built right into the structure of the human brain.

The egoic operating system is a way of making sense of the world by dividing the field into subject and object, inside and outside. It perceives through differentiation. One of the most important tasks of early childhood is to learn how to run the operating system. By the time she was one and a half, my granddaughter could already sing along with the Sesame Street jingle, “One of these things is not like the other,” and pick out the cat from among three dogs.

When we become aware of our identity using this egoic operating system, we experience ourselves as persons with distinct qualities and attributes. When we introduce ourselves, we usually begin by listing these characteristics: “I am a Pisces, a six on the Enneagram, a person who loves the ocean, an Episcopalian, a priest.” We identify ourselves by what makes us unique and special. Of course, that same list also makes other people separate from me; they are outside, and I’m inside. I experience myself as a distinct and fixed point of identity that “has” particular qualities and life experiences, and these things make me who I am.

But this sense of identity is a mirage, an illusion. There is no such self. There is no small self, no egoic being, no thing that’s separated from everything else, that has insides and outsides, that has experiences. All these impressions are simply a function of an operating system that has to divide the world up into bits and pieces in order to perceive it. Like the great wisdom teachers of all spiritual traditions, Jesus calls us beyond the illusion: “Hey, you can upgrade your operating system, and life is going to look a whole lot different when you do it.”

The binary operating system does have some real importance; it’s not a mistake. It enables us to perform basic cognitive tasks. But most people get stuck in it and rely on the egoic operating system to create a sense of identity. We walk through our lives perceiving, reacting to, and attempting to negotiate the world “out there.” It’s like being lost in a mirage. A system based in duality can’t possibly perceive oneness; it can’t create anything beyond itself—only more duality and more trouble. So the drama of the “separate self” goes on and on.

But we do have the capacity, if we so choose, to shift to a whole different basis of perception. We come into this life with another untapped operating system, and we can learn to steer by it, understand through it, and ultimately discover our deepest sense of identity within it.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 33-35.

Image credit: The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail) by Caravaggio, 1599-1600. Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy.
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