– By Lizz Ultee
“Star struck”. A sly little phenomenon of ego interaction, it happens often enough to have a catchy (and vaguely astronomic) title. When we talk about feeling star-struck, though, we are rarely describing the wonder we feel in connecting with the night sky. More often, we are referring to our social senses being paralysed in the presence of a human “star”, someone whose capabilities we have decided far surpass our own. I joke with friends about a (non)encounter I once had with a personal hero in a quiet hallway, where said hero stood by herself at a table and I just smiled keenly at her before speeding away. Didn’t say anything to her? Not even “Thank you for your work”? Well, no—after all, what could I possibly add to her life?
It’s there we find the ego. Our “reasoning” mind, our seat of self-preservation, pre-empts interaction. Needing a predefined Thing to Add, some concrete contribution of which we feed confident and secure, sets a high bar for participation. The ego says “What could you possible have to add?” but what it means is “What if you waste her time and she gets frustrated? What if you reveal your capacities to be exactly as limited as you feared? What if she doesn’t even acknowledge you?”
Well, what if indeed? What if, instead, you have a great interaction that brightens your whole day? What if she says something that changes your perspective on work? What if you find out your grandparents were from the same town? What if he’s writing a book on exactly the topic you’ve been contemplating for the past six months? When we interact freely, our interconnectedness often becomes much more apparent. The universe recognises itself. We begin to feel the dissolution of the boundaries we have constructed between our “self” and the “other”.
Sometimes, interacting so freely requires a bit of a wrestling match with an ego function trying its hardest to protect us. In those situations, we can be thankful for such a robust ego function, always bringing us new challenges. Other times, however, the situation at hand brings out a sense of “non-self” by its sheer nature. In these situations, the role of the ego diminishes, and we might enjoy wonderfully free interaction without thinking twice. It might sound appealing to always strive for that effortless, free, “non-self” interaction, but in recent weeks I’ve found insight in both modes.
Last month, I attended the Paris climate negotiations (aka COP21) as an observer delegate, along with 10000 other observers, 10000 members of the press, and 20000 negotiators. An aspiring climate scientist among tens of thousands of climate experts, I had tens of thousands of opportunities to feel star struck. To feel inadequate, to shy away from interaction. My fellow attendees were exactly the kind of people who might, under other circumstances, stupefy me through sheer force of their reputations: Al Gore, James Hansen, and Yeb Saño, to name but a few. Strikingly, though, rather than feeling star struck¹, I found the experience exhilarating and empowering. It did not even occur to me to feel intimidated, despite having perhaps the shortest CV of any of the conference delegates. Ego did not arrive on the scene. Instead, I saw the incredible power of 40000 people coming together to address an issue of vital importance, and I felt myself connected to and uplifted by that power. In the face of the vitally important, I was returned to non-self. Little-i could function in concert with Universal-I.
Just one week after my return from Paris, I travelled to another gathering of tens of thousands of experts, this time a scientific conference. Immediately, feeling star struck was back on the table. Self-preservationist, ego-driven patterns reasserted themselves in me, and I could identify them in others. Rather than spending the week connecting intensely with others, I spent the week contemplating the lessons my ego function brought…and appreciating the definition it gave to my experience at COP21. Attending COP21 did not “cure” me of ego once and for all; rather, it showed me how to connect universally important issues to the Universal, how to pursue spiritual growth in an arena more closely associated with professional growth. In COP21, I found a gathering so broadly important that it rooted out my non-self rather than my self.
So, I ask you: What is so important that it gets you to non-self? Perhaps in connecting with a dear friend or partner, we find the truly essential nature of human interaction and spy the Universal. In caring for plants and animals, we might recognise parts of ourselves outside our species-delimited “selves”. When we help people to expand their consciousness, we may find non-self everywhere we look. The world has plenty for us to do. Experiencing non-self might give us a hint we’re on to something important—and when we’re confronted instead with ego, we can look deeply into the lessons it brings.
— “Star struck.” – By Lizz Ultee
¹(Except the one time that I participated in a mad dash to get into a briefing Al Gore gave to NGOs. That behaviour was arguably motivated by Al Gore’s star power alone.)