Personal Growth - Let go the ego
by Roohi Saluja
Musing on a dark, sultry night, 29-year-old Eckhart Tolle kept repeating to himself, “I can’t live with myself any longer.” Suddenly, he realised what a peculiar thought it was: ‘‘I with myself? Am I one or two?’’
In a moment, he underwent a spiritual transformation. An entire vortex of energy pulled him within. He welcomed all that he felt, saw, and allowed himself to be completely immersed in the phantom-like void, the gush of energy still boiling deep under. The following day, the world was a new place for Tolle. Everything was fresh and joyous. He felt a deep connectivity with something incomprehensible and immeasurable. The shining sun, gurgling streams, scented gardens – all seemed to be an expression of him. They reached out to him in pure bliss, each aching to immerse in the other. All multiplicity ceased, a pure oneness reigned.
Eckhart Tolle is a New Age spiritual teacher and author of the bestseller, The Power of Now. The mystic revelation that he experienced is indeed a slice of the natural perfection, expansive openness, absolute spontaneity, and awakening, the latent nature of all human beings. We are born to love and to serve. Compassion, insight, wisdom, humour are all part of the radiant stillness that is at the very core of our existence.
But the reason we fail to experience this is because our awakened nature is obscured by an unconscious syndrome. This is the habitual current of thought loops that grinds us hour-by-hour, day-by-day, insisting on maintaining duality: awareness is ‘in here,’ space is ‘out there’; I and you; me and mine; subject and object… Like a thick mist, it clouds the radiance of the inner self. It feeds on attention, and seeks it by suffusing the mind with desires and attachments. The call of ‘I am Supreme’ blares in the background. This is the unknown presence of the ego.
The false centre
Osho in Beyond the Frontier of the Mind speaks of the ego as the false centre. When we are born into the world, our centre is the ‘other’. Our existence is simply defined by what the mother or the father thinks of us. If they smile and praise, we feel valuable. This awareness is a reflected awareness – first we become aware of you, thou, other, and then in an almost paradoxical shift, ‘thou’ identifies the ‘I’, and before we realise, a centre is born.
But this reflected centre is not our real being. The ego is a conditioned phenomenon, a byproduct of living with others. In other words, society creates the ego because unlike the self, the ego can be controlled, manipulated and manoeuvred from outside.
This ego may be troublesome; it may create many miseries, but nevertheless it is ‘mine’. It gives us a sense of false security that can lead to stagnation in our lives. Moving away from it, fear of social censure or even annihilation takes over. It is like fencing a stretch of land in the forest. Within the boundary, you feel secure. Beyond lurks the danger. And yet, it is beyond the fence, sauntering in the realms of the unknown, delving the labyrinths of the mysterious, that you encounter the real centre. This is the pure self or what Vedanta identifies as the atman, the Supreme-Infinite-Existence that shines forth from its own as I-ness.
So what is it that makes us hold on to this conditioned ego? Osho reasons that ego is a dead thing, but even with the dead there are conveniences. For one that is already dead never dies, and this fans the human desire for permanence. Moreover, there is no quest undertaken to achieve the ego. It is simply handed over to you by society – its whims and desires, hopes and expectations re-energise the ego.
And now the delusion widens. The Zen Buddhist philosopher, David Loy, explains that the ego is composed of “death terror”. That the only way it can affirm its aliveness is by denying its death. So, the fear of death terror is not something that the ego has, rather it is what the ego is. This fits well with the Buddhist claim that the ego is not an entity but a mental construction.
The ego, the seed of all our anxiety and suffering, in fact uncovers a fantastic comical paradox. For even while the battle is on between your ego and my ego, between me and mine, the warriors are not only invisible but non-existent! Every ego is insecure about itself because it knows that it’s a false thing. And it takes a lot of energy to maintain this leela, the separative consciousness that creates the delusion of security in what is not real. This energy, when freed from maintaining the personal illusions about the self and the world that we confront on a day-to-day basis, could instead serve as a powerhouse of creative work in service of the higher truth.
As we build fences around this false centre, we reinforce our disbelief in our innermost sanctuary, so pure, so fragile. This is the pure self, the real flower that is not ‘permanent’ like the ego, but is eternal. It refreshes itself through death. To us it appears that the flower has died, but instead it simply changes the worn-out physical sheath to remain ever fresh.
The true centre
But we fail to see this continuity, and rather bemoan like the Romanian dramatist, Eugene Ionesco: “Why was I born if it was not forever?” The answer is in the Buddhist philosophy of the anatman or the no-self doctrine, according to which we can never die because we were never born.
Zen master Dogen suggests, “We tend to differentiate between good and evil, success and failure, life and death, and so forth because we want to keep the one and reject the other. But we cannot have one without the other because affirming one half also maintains the other. Living a pure life thus requires a preoccupation with impurity, and our hope of success will be proportionate to our fear of failure. Our tragedy lies in the paradox that there is no life without death. Moreover, what we are more likely to overlook is that there is no death without life. So that our problem is then not death, but life-and-death.”
To be conscious of the self is to grasp oneself as being alive and responsive. Going below the waking condition of the personality, we touch the atman, pure self, whose true nature cannot be known. It can only be affirmed by the negative, ‘it is not this.’ The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad documents: “It is not the body; it is not an object of sense; it is not the pranas as you think of as moving in the physical body; it is not even the senses; not the mind, not the intellect. It is nothing that you can think of. It is something transcendent.”
Delving into the nature of the pure self, Janaka in the Ashtavakra Gita rejoices, “Shining is my essential nature, and I am nothing over and beyond that. When the world shines forth, it is simply me that is shining forth. How wonderful I am! Glory be to me, for whom there is no destruction, remaining even beyond the destruction of the world from Brahma down to the last clump of grass.”
Befriending the ego
Having realised that the ego is not the true centre, should we then debunk the ego?
The answer lies in this teaching story: There was once in a village a deadly cobra that would bite anyone who came near it. One day, when the cobra was about to attack a great sage, the latter neutralised it without touching it. The sage then asked the cobra to stop poisoning people as it was accumulating a lot of bad karma.
The cobra agreed, and even received initiation from the sage. After the sage left, the cobra repeatedly chanted the mantra, vowing never to attack anyone. Seeing it so submissive, the children of the village began pelting stones and sticks at it, but the cobra offered no resistance. It quietly suffered the pain, believing it was in total deference to its vow. When the sage returned, he found the snake half dead and writhing in pain in the middle of the road. The sage enquired why. Listening to the cobra, he admonished, “I told you not to harm anyone, but when people tried to harm you, couldn’t you have at least hissed and raised your hood, to scare them away?”
Like the hood of the cobra, the ego is our defence mechanism. It gives us a measure of discrimination, to protect us in danger and difficulty. Within the acute stillness of our being, the ego is the discriminating voice of intelligence, the spirit of enquiry that triggers the process of reaching the true centre.
We are not to will away our ego. Instead, as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (in the Bodhi, Issue VI) suggests, we need to allow the thoughts and emotions to manifest their own nature, for then there is no choice for them but to return to their original state. Sages often cite in this regard, the popular example of the muddy water. You keep stirring the water in order to clean it, but it can only get muddier. Allow the water to settle, and the sediments will sink to the bottom.
This is what we need to do with the ego. When we let our ego run wild, and allow it to manifest in egocentricity, it reaches a state of exhaustion. The ego then paradoxically begins to liberate itself, to transcend to a state of quietude and stillness that enables us to return to our true centre, our authentic presence. In this state of egolessness, we are able to tap into the wellsprings of creativity within, and also be at one with all Creation, drinking and regenerating ourselves from the common fount, in a state of unstinting love, wisdom and compassion!
But before the destination is reached, many thresholds need to be crossed, the ego-clinging ogres must be slain, and you need to recognise and control the devious game of the ego. For just when you feel you’ve dropped it, says Osho, you will attain a subtle ego that says, “I have become humble.” Beware, for that’s the ego in hiding.
The state of egolessness
‘Egolessness’ is not functioning without an ego. The purpose of enlightenment is not to eliminate the ego, but to transform it in the light of the authentic self. This involves a clear understanding that our true self, with all its limitations and timeless essence, is an indivisible dynamic whole. It is here that modesty, discernment and the highest spiritual awareness meet.
We are then speaking of two centres within us – the pure self, that is the witnessing consciousness, and the ego, the dynamic self-conscious centre of our personality. Many of us know these as the higher and the lower ego, universal and individual ego, or what Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi explains as the ishvara and the jiva respectively.
As you shift from the lower to the higher ego, you still belong to the same house, but the ownership changes. Zen master Aziz Kristof explains the transformation as occurring in the following manner: “All thoughts are only witnessed object-events on the periphery of the consciousness; they are guests coming and going, having nothing to do with the stillness of our being. And yet, the centre is not empty and uninvolved. Although the thoughts are witnessed, the critical intelligence of the ego reminds that while the thoughts are an indivisible part of me, it is indeed ‘me’ who is thinking them; the absolute and relative me submerge in Oneness.”
Ken Wilber in his book, One Taste, suggests, “Transcending the ego means plugging into something bigger. The small ego does not evaporate; it remains as the functional centre of activity. Transcending the ego means not to transcend but include the ego in a deeper and higher embrace, first in the soul or deeper psyche, then with the Witness, then with each stage crossed, enfolded, included in the radiance of One Taste. And then we inhabit the ego fully, live with it with verve, use it as a necessary vehicle through which higher truths are communicated. The spirit includes the body, emotions and mind; they do not erase them.”
The death of the ego is a myth. As it questions its origin, a shift takes place. Meanwhile, thoughts, actions, desires, emotions continue to race in the mind. The idea is not to fight against the mind as if it were an enemy, but to accommodate it with gentleness and wisdom, as though it were a child. Baba Hari Dass explains, “You become what you think. So don’t identify yourself with your mind, but your real self. Observe your thoughts, without doing what they tell you to do; just watch them without judgement and let them pass. Remember that they are not you, just your mind, while you really are the self, the essence.”
Tolle identifies this as the “mystical warrior stance: to remain firmly rooted in the ‘now’ and fight all distractions of the mind, out of our deep knowledge that nothing can make us blissful apart from our inner self. Our greatest mistake is that we think happiness is somewhere out there on the horizontal line, either in the past or in the future. But happiness is the whole vertical line of our existence. When we were sometimes happy in the past, it was because we were then living – be it just the blink of a moment – the vertical line of our existence. And so will happiness come in the future: when we start living on the vertical line again.” To abandon the call of the ego, “I am the doer, I am the enjoyer,” is to cultivate karmayoga, which is an extended version of seva or selfless service, in true detachment from the fruits of our labour. As we work with full concentration, exerting to the limits of our capacity for excellence, orienting all our actions to the service of God, undoing all desires, only one desire remains – the freedom to be desireless.
The real master
Karmayoga is the conditioning of the mind to serve and surrender in perfect silence. The more we are in love with God, the more we realise his greatness, and our insignificance. Nobility and humility is best tasted when we are at His feet. This is why Christ exalted the meek and humble.
Guru Nanak said, “I am a slave of the slaves. My actions are very, very low.”
Such is the humility of the saints – unconditional, doubtless and complete. We must live in God, move in God and exist inside God, for he alone knows our real identity and potential. And once we do this, we awaken to a new glory that time forgot to name.
When Jesus took the cross, he died to himself. He laid aside his personal desires, wants and needs, for the sake of the Father. He died not to the body, but to the pseudo self, the false centre of the ego.
The ego also dies each moment in the age-old guru-shishya tales. The guru often puts his disciples to testing trials, and it is those who surrender all logic, beseeching their guru in contemplative silence and supplication, that succeed in getting enlightened.
As the self recites, “Not my will, but thy will be done,” the ‘I’ dissolves into Oneness in a mystical union. ‘Me and mine’ sublimates to a point where the self is willing to let God live through it.
Ken Wilber puts it beautifully: “In the stillness of night, the Goddess whispers. In the brightness of the day, the God roars. Life pulses, mind imagines, emotions wave, thoughts wander. What are all these but the endless movements of One Taste, forever at play with its own gestures, whispering quietly to all who would listen: is this not you yourself? When the thunder roars, do you not hear your self? When the lightning cracks, do you not see your self? When clouds float quietly across the sky, is this not your very own limitless Being, waving back at you?”
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