Working with Groups of ‘I’s
When we embark on the work of spiritual evolution, we often have an idea of what our greatest obstacles are. We may believe that we are too attached to material things or to other people, or that we have individual and awful weaknesses that will thwart us, or that the era of great teachers and teachings is past.
As we learn—quite slowly!—that effective efforts are largely internal and invisible, we begin to see that our only real obstacles are also internal. As Jesus said, “A man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Yet even these foes may not be what we think they are. We all have personal weaknesses, but we share a much larger difficulty in common with every human being that has ever lived. The Fourth Way calls it “imagination.”
Imagination as it is used in the work refers to the nearly ceaseless, automatic flow of thoughts through our minds. Because actual thinking is an intentional and disciplined activity, it’s more accurate to call them ‘I’s rather than thoughts—and in fact they often say “I”. “I am hungry.” “I don’t like that.” “I wish I could . . .” “If only I hadn’t . . .” In this newsletter we’ll examine a different way to observe and combat imagination: by observing it as groups of ‘I’s rather than as isolated thoughts.
Many of the ‘I’s that make up the flow of imagination are random responses to stimuli—the “white noise” of the mind. Often they are automatic responses to other ‘I’s. (Who is talking to whom?) But some ‘I’s carry more energy, and those ‘I’s seem to be connected to areas of deep attachment or ‘identification’. They command our attention. Sometimes they truly torment us. These ‘I’s can be more “organized” in the sense that they arrive in battalions and last longer.
When we begin to see ‘I’s in groups, we begin to see our favorite subjects and themes: children, job, money worries, health, relationships. Others may be connected to recurring negative emotions like self-justification, fear, or self-pity. Some groups replay difficult scenes from our past, or focus on injustices we have suffered or mistakes we have made. These ‘I’s are our inner siren song, and like Odysseus we need to tie ourselves to the mast to resist them.
Imagination acts like the serpent in the Bible, holding out that apple. It is fascinating to observe how certain tempting subjects appear as soon as we make an effort to be present. We can be using internal prayer, or striving to be present to a concert, an interaction with a friend, or the road in front of the windshield, and presto! A familiar group of ‘I’s shows up, commenting on the progress of the effort, offering profound and intelligent insights on the work, or swelling in a religious or aesthetic rapture. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
and walked on either side of him. But he paid no heed to them, for he did not wish to lose
what was better.” Evagrios the Solitary
After some observation we will have a “short list” of our most common categories of imagination. There really aren’t so many. This can be helpful! Rather than battling the ‘I’s one at a time, in our effort to pierce the present, we can just drop the whole group at once, as soon as we sense the “flavor” of that subject arriving in our inner world. This has the effect over time of undermining the strength of imagination. The veil becomes thinner, more permeable.
And dealing with the many ‘I’s as groups brings more order to our psychology. The number and apparent variety of ‘I’s can create the illusion that we have a rich inner life. When we verify how repetitive the ‘I’s are they become less interesting, and the experience of the present more desirable.
The many ‘I’s jostle to fill the vacuum created by the absence of the Self, which manifests silently in presence. Seeing our ‘I’s in groups helps to drive the wedge of awareness between imagination and the reality of that wordless Self. Suddenly we can stand apart and look at our own thoughts. They are not real. They are not who we are. Could anything be more radical than that?