Part 2: Your Ego is Not Your Amigo

“Learning is physical. Learning means the modification, growth, and pruning of our neurons and synapses. Through experience, we are cultivating our own neuronal networks.” Dr. James Zull

Pruning Pride

Unless something interior to the self changes, we continue to do what we have always done and label ourselves as such. This is built into our very physical nature. What most of us need is to have our ego severely pruned back and redirected toward our true inner nature by the reshaping in our neural connections. For me personally I was repeatedly ‘pruned’ through many of my adult trials and sufferings – I was learning to let go of control, to be less critical of self and other, to go to God in prayer more. In these prunings I thought I had learned what God wanted me to learn, but over a period of time aspects of my own ego just regrew the same shoot. My brain kept bringing me back to who I thought I was, one capable herself of living out love, joy, peace. Sure it seemed I was maturing, because each pruning was felt and appreciated, but the source to which I was attached had not really changed. My heart and inner self were still not attached to the Holy Spirit within; I was still wanting to be my own little tree.

While my ego is vastly smaller than it used to be, I can at times keep doing what I have always done. Aspects of my ego (perfectionism, pride, vanity) have been painfully pruned, and yet tiny shoots of them can still emerge and dampen my true nature. At times, in certain circumstances (usually emotional ones, ones in relational conflict, ones where the world tells me that I am not okay) I can revert back to old ways of thinking, feeling, and being. I can go back to thinking ‘but that’s not fair!’, ‘you can’t do that to me!’, ‘what is wrong with me?’ Our thoughts impact our feelings, our feelings impact how we express. When I am in the throes of a ‘but that’s not fair!’ cycle I am not expressing love, joy, or peace. Pride is the enemy of love, and pride makes us complain about what we do not have. When we are not loving and patient with self, other, world it is a feedback cue that our ego has gotten in the way. We are reverting to our old ways of thinking, feeling and being. When we find ourselves complaining, or ‘that’s not fairing,’ it’s a sure sign that ego has gotten in the way once again because this false self has been etched deeply into our neural connections. What we most often do, think, and feel becomes our norm and we say “well this is just who I am.” And so here we circle back to what a tree looks like (its roots, trunk, branches and a little or a lot of fruit) and how our brains work.

Roots in the Spirit

In our nervous system, from the nucleus of the neural cell body the dendrites reach out to receive information and from that same cell body the axon stretches out to its axon terminals and chemically speaks to the surrounding neurons. From the time we were wee ones in our mother’s womb to the present day our brains engage in ‘synaptic pruning’ – what we use gains more connections and what we do not use loses connections. How we engage with the world – physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, spiritually – shapes our brain, and very often away from the nature the Spirit has placed within us. It is not about trying harder or being better, being more right or less wrong. It is about unlearning what we thought was true, not using and thinking what we have so often used in the past. And I will gently suggest pride and ego are the shoots that to be pruned back over and over again so humility and the Fruits of the Spirit can grow in that place.

To work in tandem with our nervous system to promote new positive growth we have to both limit what it has always done and create a new ‘blank canvas’ so to speak. We can do this both physically and mentally, we can learn and practice new tools to create some neuronal change.

Physically: Whenever we are not actually asleep or talking or eating or drinking, our tongues are engaged in very fine movements that are essentially forming the words of our thoughts. It’s true! Most people don’t know this, but our tongue is engaged in ‘subvocal articulation’ forming the words of our inner thoughts.  The problem is, as we now know, our thoughts are oftentimes negative and self-defeating, prideful and vain. So, if you can prevent your tongue from making these very fine movements for moments throughout the day, it will help you start to tone down your overall cortical arousal. It is akin to shifting your car from drive to neutral.

Now, with your lips closed and your jaw slightly open, let your tongue float in the middle of your mouth. Don’t let it touch the top, bottom or sides of your mouth. Just float it there. Feels funny, right? It is normally never there. It’s always tensely pressed up or down or to the side. Now float your tongue again. Float your tongue for several moments, many times a day, every day from here on out!  Going to bed at night, float your tongue. Getting ready in the morning, driving to and fro, float your tongue. During a conflict, don’t bite your tongue, float it! Feeling frustrated? Float your tongue! While any other person is speaking, float your tongue! Write reminder notes to do it. Send text reminders to do it. Teach everyone you know to do it: float your tongue!

Mentally: Do you remember the typical pink school eraser? That little block of rubber you got on the first day of school? Well an image of that eraser will help with what we need to practice now. When you have thoughts that you know are negative and prideful that you want to change (‘old tapes playing in your head’), you can start the process of erasing them. When you keep having the same ego issue crop up time and again (that little shoot keeps regrowing!) it is time to erase the connections that hold that memory in place. When you know in your head but not yet in your heart, that is the time to use the pink eraser technique. These old thinking patterns need to be erased before you can replace them with more positive, open, and faith filled thoughts. Practice developing an awareness of negative thoughts (perhaps start with whenever you use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’) or times when your emotions seem to be mismatched with the situation (we may be overly emotional, say ‘flying off the handle with anger’ or perhaps coming across as aloof). Then, for a few minutes every day during your quiet prayer time, imagine with your mind’s eye that particular thought or specific emotional pattern being erased from your brain. The old craggly branches of connection being erased and then new fruitful branches being grown in. If you have a particularly active imagination imagine Jesus holding the eraser. Once you practice erasing the negative thought, you can start to develop a new thought or pattern of response: “I am okay and enough” “comparison is the thief of joy and my spirit is one of joy” “This is not about me!” “I can let this go!” “I am never truly alone!” – Just to give you a few to ponder.

Until I accepted that I do not understand the mystery of all of this, and that I am met where I am and not left where I was found, did things really begin to change deep in my heart and way of being. I kept doing the same thing over and over again thinking what I was doing was actually ‘good.’ But I began to understand that our God is Love and that He made me in that image, just as He made you in that image. This Loving God built me with a brain that can be rewritten, with a heart that can be restitched. My ego is not my amigo for it stands in the way of the love and light that already dwell within me, and that indwelling is there no matter the weather, no matter what I do or do not have, no matter my failures or successes, no matter my pain or hurt, no matter what another one does or does not do to me, nor how you do or do not judge me. Now I succeed and fail at this still…akin to the avocado rancher, sometimes having a dull and sometimes sharp pruning shear…and that is now absolutely, wonderfully okay. For He made me to bear His Fruit and so His Fruit I shall bear.

Copyright 2020 Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett is a native born Californian (Santa Barbara to be exact!) who made her way to Iowa after earning a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1996. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa, Heidi began teaching at Drake University in 2000. That was also the year, at age 30, she was baptized Catholic alongside her first newly born son. Heidi is married to Joe and they have two sons.