Leave the poor ego alone, but a great book

Book Review: A Little Book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh

Some of the statements Kavanagh makes in this book strike me as wise as wise can be. But mixed in with them are ones that I believe take us down the wrong path.

First, the wise part. It is a book of unknowing in that it celebrates the deep background of one’s existence that always eludes one’s intellectual grasp. It is not a matter of willfully remaining ignorant through laziness or a superstitious fear of finding out that reality doesn’t conform to one’s wishes. Instead, what Kavanagh recommends is an openness to being guided by what is not under one’s control. She writes about “seeming coincidences which are glimpses of an existing connection, hitherto unnoticed,” and states, “The more open we are, the more these seem to appear.” (p. 27) She illustrates this way of living with anecdotes from her own life and quotations from the writings of others, and shows how this openness to being guided by what is not under one’s control is the same thing as creativity, improvisation, waiting for clarity, and obedience to the will of God. She writes, “With the world inside us as our guide, we have moments of choice: to betray our true self or to say ‘yes’.” (p. 29)

The unwise part begins to creep in when she starts talking about the ego: “Obedience to that process means trust, is the very meaning of ‘faith’, the surrender of ambitions, plans, decisions made by the ego and the urge to control.” This kind of language is familiar to me from the writings of Alan Watts, Huston Smith, and others. My problem with it is that it assumes a clear distinction between a good self, “the true self,” and a bad self, “the ego”; and I think I am only one self, who is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and complex in many other ways as well. “Ego” just means “I” in Greek and Latin. I don’t think it is helpful to castigate a bad “I” who is the one who makes mistakes and does bad things, as if this weren’t the same “I” who sometimes understands and does good things. I would ask: Can’t we pay attention to synchronicity without necessarily surrendering our ambitions, plans, and decisions? Isn’t it better to enjoy an interplay between our plans and synchronicity? To recognize the importance of what we can control as well as the importance of what is beyond our control? I suspect that Kavanagh would answer, “Yes, yes, of course,” but what came across to me in reading the book was too much of a recommendation of an unhealthy self-abnegation. Near the beginning of the book she wrote, “. . . [T]he unforeseen may contain riches that go beyond what in our habitual ways of thinking and in our workaday lives we are capable of imagining.” But then a little later she wrote, “In our action in the world, if we act from that state of ego-free emptiness we will transform the manner of our working. If we work for others, we will know to expect nothing in return.” And I thought, “Well, which is it? Are we to find riches beyond our imagining, or nothing? If everybody followed the advice of her second statement, we should expect no one to enjoy the fruits of helping or of being helped by someone else. Consider those who wanted to be healed by Jesus. Were they wrong to want this? Were they ego-driven? Should they have wanted only that others should be healed? If you don’t love yourself, then loving your neighbor as yourself equals not loving your neighbor.

I think there are two types of mysticism. One is expressed in Hinduism and Buddhism, and in some forms of Christian and Islamic mysticism. It is the longing for one’s own annihilation in the belief that this is necessary in order to be one with God, or, in the case of Buddhism, to be in the bliss of nirvana. The other is the mysticism of Paul the Apostle, and perhaps of Jesus himself, in which one hopes that God will be all in all in a way that fulfills rather than wipes out individual selves, which each have life everlasting in God. The contrast of being ego-driven versus being ego-free goes with the first. The contrast between success in this life and this world versus the success of everlasting life goes with the second. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19) My advice to readers is to read A Little Book of Unknowing with this second contrast in mind in order to appreciate the wisdom and beauty of this book. Mentally substitute “this worldly” for “ego-driven” and the like, and “faith in life everlasting” for “being free of the ego” and the like.

But back to the wisdom of this book. There is so much to remind one of the deepest, most important truth, which is, in the words of Julian of Norwich, whom Kavanagh quotes, that “all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.” Despite my criticism of the “ego vs. non-ego” talk, reading this book made me feel more patient, more accepting, calmer and less anxious. Dip into it almost anywhere and you will find excellent advice about how to live in tune with the Spirit. “There is no planning; we are asked to arrive fresh at every moment and respond to whatever happens.” (p. 36) “Silence is a way towards God.” (p. 38) “It was only when I heard the definition of prayer as ‘attention’ that it began to have meaning for me.” (p. 40) “We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led.” (p. 50) I have stated my criticism. I also highly recommend this book.