In spirituality and mysticism we often encounter discussion about the ego, the psychological self, the “self” that we think we are. This is often referred to as a kind of illusion, something to rid ourselves of to see reality as it really is. It is called an obstruction, a veil, something which hides the Divine from us, which obscures our perception, and that it must be torn from top to bottom and done away. Sometimes mystics loudly denounce the ego, loathe the ego, punish the ego, calling for its death, its annihilation, its crucifixion, its extinguishment, extinction, falling away, passing away. This all sounds quite harsh to the “self” that we think we are, and so some spiritual teachers deny that we need to eradicate the ego, but rather transform it into something good. Which is it? Do we need to allow the ego to fall away, or transform it into a “healthy” ego? I’ll share some of my thoughts about that.
I think it is true that the sense of “self” that we think we are in our mind is the primary barrier to our perception of the Transcendent, of Reality as it really is, of the Divine. It is, by its very nature, established in the perception of itself as separate from all other things in the world. It is the subject, and all other things out there are objects. It has separated itself as a contained thing here, and everything else is out there. We think of ourselves as encapsulated by skin, that our identity runs to the edge of our body and no further.
And this idea of “self” does not come automatically at birth. It is something which develops in our minds over months and years in our childhood cognitive development as we learn to distinguish ourselves from our surroundings. The “self” actually comes into existence during our childhood as we learn and grow and interact with the world. At some point, likely sometime between 18-24 months, we come to recognize ourselves as a “self,” what is ironically called self-awareness. We can look in a mirror and say, “that’s me.” The ego has been born. And this ego will continue to add to its identity throughout our childhood and adolescence, as it develops likes and dislikes, obtains possessions, identifies itself with a culture and particular beliefs, etc.
As some spiritual teachers such as Richard Rohr say, this construction of a self is important in our life. We must construct this container which will carry us into life and support us as we navigate life. We must have a center from which to extend ourselves, a hub from which we can reach out. We cannot transcend the ego unless we have one to begin with. Coming to have a sense of bodily self, of identity, of belonging, of having skills and talents, of being a person, these are all vitally important to life. We cannot have a good life without them.
Problems arise when we become over-identified with this self, with this ego, and come to believe it is all that we are, and that our life’s goal is to aggrandize and protect it at all costs. Spirituality can actually promote these problems by comforting the ego, protecting it, and even exalting it to immortality. Unfortunately this falls into an error of perception. For the ego is only a small part of what we really are. It is not our deepest identity. We have stopped short of realizing our true nature which goes far beyond the ego.
When we were born, we did not yet have an ego, a knowledge of “self,” an established self identity or self-awareness. So what were we? We were a human, a life, an organism, an expression of Love, a creation of Nature, of the Universe. We were a localized consciousness, the miracle of consciousness having arisen within a natural human body. We were a beautiful, intricate, complex, ordered dance of energy and molecules. Having opened our eyes, we began to be aware of the nature around us. Nature began to become aware of Nature. We were not separate from it, but were One with it. But in the process of our cognitive development and establishment of an ego, we separate ourselves from our surroundings, and narrow down our sense of self to only the body/brain, to our particular individual life, to our possessions, to our thoughts, to our beliefs, to our tribes. We cut ourselves off from most of reality in the process, and our sense of self can become quite small, isolated, ashamed, weak, broken. We become fearful for our lives, for our livelihood, for our tribes.
When the mystics, prophets, sages talk about the negation of ego, the dying to self, annihilation of self, they are referring to this small, limited, finite, isolated, broken, ashamed, guilty sense of self that we think we are in our minds. This self which has continually narrowed itself and cut itself off from the rest of humanity, the rest of nature, the rest of life, the rest of the universe, is the self that must be transcended, that must be seen through, that must be realized, that must be known and pass away from consciousness so that it can be seen for what it really is in truth, in reality. When we come to know the ego for what it really is, then we can see what we really are, in truth, and, as in our infancy, it goes far beyond the small egoic self.
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What is the ego self? It is a construction in our mind, a story that we tell ourselves, a conglomeration of memories of experiences throughout the life of this particular body/brain. But this can fall away from consciousness. The construction can fall away, the story can stop, the memories of our past can temporarily cease to appear in consciousness. The thoughts that make up what we think of as our self can subside, and we can become intensely aware of the present moment, the present experience. This can happen through contemplative prayerful practices such as meditation, or many other activities which alter the activity of consciousness, and which focus it on the present, such as dancing, exercise, hypnosis, yoga, music, and singing. Activities that involve deep service to others can also take us out of ourselves, and focus it elsewhere. When the thoughts of our past, and our anxieties about the future, are not present in consciousness, and we are concentrated only on the present awareness of being and doing and living, then the sense of our “self” can fade away.
When the sense of “self” fades away, we can come to a radically different sense of love, union, belonging, nonduality, oneness with the rest of reality. Our sense of having borders at the edge of our skin can actually break down and we can feel a sense of unity with all the objects of perception. They are no longer separate objects, but as One with the subject that is consciousness. There is no separation between things anymore, at least not like there usually is. We may still see “things” but we see the reality of their depths, that they do not have a wholly independent reality, but are all made up of Reality, they are made up of Nature, they are made up of Consciousness. They are somehow not separate from us, but are expressions of our larger Self that encompasses all things in the universe. We see Reality as an infinitely interconnected Whole, expressing itself in an infinite diversity and multiplicity of ways. We see that this interconnected Whole is somehow the essence of Love. It is One, and all things in the universe belong to it, including Consciousness. It is the One being conscious of Itself.
We cannot maintain this state of awareness, usually, and our sense of “self” typically returns. “We” are reborn in consciousness. But we have seen reality outside of the ego, we have known reality beyond the “self,” and we have come to a realization that this “self” is a manifestation of the greater Self that is the universe itself, of Reality, of Nature, of the One, of Consciousness. We have seen that there is a deep Love that exists between all beings, an interconnected union between all things, a web of dependency that underlies all reality. We have perceived the Divine through the Divine’s own eyes, and known ourselves, outside of ego, to be identified with the One that is the Whole of Reality. The ego is known to be a dualistic manifestation of the One, of Reality, of the Universe. The body/brain of this particular being is a manifestation of the Divine, a Child of God, a Son of God a Daughter of God, an Atman in Brahman, the Nirmakaya within the Dharmakaya, the Buddha-nature of Reality being expressed in dualistic form. All beings are realized as such Manifestations of the Wholeness of the Cosmos, not separate from the Cosmos, but One with and in the Cosmos, in an eternal dance of energy and creation. We are eternally One with this Cosmos, with the Source of all things, with this Wholeness, and can never be separated from this Love, this Light, this Energy. We come to realize that our ego mind only obscures our vision of this greater Wholeness, it hides our awareness and continual knowledge of this Wholeness, it limits our perception to the localized reality of our body/brain, of subjects and objects, of separation and individualization. It veils our true deeper Nature.
As we experience such states of Oneness, of Unity, of Nonduality, of Pure Love, we come to identity ourselves more with That. We recognize that That is our true deeper Self, our true eternal Nature. Although this particular ego/body/brain passes away, we have experienced our Self beyond it, and know that this Self is our true deepest identity that persists beyond the death of the ego/body/brain. This Self, this One, this Brahman, this Dharmakaya, this Reality has eternal Life, and it is living even now in all the living beings of creation, in all living souls, in all creatures, in all human beings, in every conscious thing. And even seemingly unconscious non-living things are seen not as independent from us, but very much part of the Wholeness of Nature that makes Life possible, and which become realities within Consciousness.
An ego that becomes transparent to, or reflects as a mirror this greater Self is a “healthy” ego, in my view. It has not closed itself off to the Wholeness of reality, seeking only its own, but realizes that it and all other beings are part of a much greater system, an all-encompassing Reality, which is thoroughly interdependent. It surrenders its small self-interest for the good of the larger Whole, for the Love of all beings, for the Good of all of Life, and to Truth. We can’t usually stay in a state of perfect oneness or nondual consciousness throughout our daily lives, but the main goal of mindfulness is to remain in the present moment as much as possible. I think Jesus was teaching a form of mindfulness when he said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). If we (ego) worry too much about tomorrow, and remain ashamed about our past, we cannot live in the present. That doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future, and set goals, but it means that we live now, we work now, we pay close attention to what is happening now, because now is when we live. Now is when and where Life happens.
Often this shift in the ego mind doesn’t happen unless consciousness sees the ego pass away from consciousness. This is when self-realization happens. I think this is why many mystics talk about the death of the ego, or the annihilation of self, or of no-self. We seem to be able to recognize the ego for what it is only when it is transformed in consciousness, when it subsides or falls away from our awareness, and consciousness becomes detached from it. We are often so thoroughly identified with our egos that such a radical shift seems necessary in order to recognize the ego as an ego. We realize that we are not that ego, and that Consciousness and Self and Being extend far beyond the ego, and that we are actually a part of a much greater Whole, a universal Love.
It does no good for us to hate the ego, because this is the ego hating itself, which is just another subtle form of egotism, and can be detrimental to spiritual growth. The ego cannot sacrifice itself. If the ego seeks either to build up the ego, or tear it down, it is seeking its own self, and consciousness has not become aware of itself. Rather than extreme ascetic practices and mortifications, it seems to be a better approach to use contemplative practices, or other forms of compassionate acts that take us out of ourselves. If learned well, these may allow the ego to gradually fall away from consciousness. We let the ego go, we allow it to pass away. This is a form of surrender, of submission, of of the ego letting go of itself, of acceptance of reality as it is. While we may work towards this, in the end it is an act of Grace, outside of our egos, which causes the ego to give way. We (ego) don’t do it ourselves.
The ego mind seems like it will always know itself as a separate individual localized self, a body/brain. This has much practical utility in our lives. In my view, the ego can’t be transformed into the One, the Divine, or God, because that is already our underlying true nature. The ego can only become transparent to itself, porous to its self-serving tendencies, allowing the deeper truth about Reality and Nature and the Divine to flow through it. The ego can become a mirror of the Divine, not seeking its own, but the greater Good of the Whole. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “By myself [ego] I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear [in the present circumstances, not based on selfish judgments], and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself [ego] but him who sent me [the greater Love of Reality]” (John 5:30). And, “The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority [ego]. Rather, it is the Father [the greater Truth of Nature and the Cosmos], living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10). And, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God [Love others] will find out whether my teaching comes from God [the greater Holistic Truth of Life] or whether I speak on my own [ego]” (John 7:17). And in those darkest of nights, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me [my ego doesn’t like this suffering]; yet not my will [ego], but yours be done [I accept Reality as it is and may be]” (Luke 22:42). In that ultimate acceptance Jesus realized the Christ, redemption from the suffering separate ego, and Oneness in the God of Love.
Jesus realized that he was a Manifestation of a Whole, a Loving Truth, an Incarnation of God, but that didn’t mean aggrandizing his egoic self to some kind of worldly greatness, a conquering general, but rather in submitting his ego to the realities of suffering, of serving humanity and the sacredness of Life, of being a conduit of Love, pouring himself out in alleviating the suffering all around him where he felt the Spirit stir within him and inspire him to do so (Philippians 2:6-8). He transcended his ego, and in so doing he became a reflection of a higher Truth, a greater Reality, a deeper Love, one that recognizes the absolute Unity, At-one-ment, and interdependency in all of Life, in all beings, in all things. He saw his Self in the other, and worked to redeem all others from their personal suffering, teaching others to Love as he did. For all beings were truly One, in each other, in Christ, in God (John 17).
The other great sages, saints, mystics, and prophets seem to have recognized the same Ultimate Reality. Siddhartha Gautama did not find realization in being aggrandized on a price’s throne, or in the extreme self-mortification of the ascetics, but found a Middle Way, where he transcended “self” consciousness in his meditation under the bodhi tree. He suffered greatly along the way, encountered demons of his ego in Mara, but eventually realized the ground of being. The egoic “self” was extinguished, blown out, in that Nirvana that was realized, where consciousness came directly into the perception of the Buddha-nature of all existence, that which is fundamental to all being, which is the eternal nature of all reality. This was the cessation of personal suffering, where there was no more ego which suffers. It was liberation, it was bliss, it was a knowledge of the Truth. And he spent the rest of his life teaching others how they could also transcend this “self,” and find peace from suffering in the Truth of their deepest nature.
These spiritual figures, contemplatives, mystics, religious founders, were not speculating about supernatural realities that have no basis in nature or the reality of the universe, but rather were helping others come to a true knowledge of themselves, to a true awareness of what consciousness actually is, to a recognition of how things really are in actuality, reality as it is, and the deep unity of their being with that Reality. Of course, we are never separate from Reality, but are Reality, and we experience this in every moment of every day, but the ego deceives our perception. These sages were trying to help people see past the errors, delusions, constructions, illusions of their egoic mind, of their selfish consciousness, of their separate identity, and to be liberated or saved in a direct intuitive knowledge of the Truth of what they really are, and then to go forth into the world to live abundantly, to serve with Love, to help alleviate others’ suffering, to continue the act of Creation, to be in harmony with Nature and the Cosmos, not living in fear of death, but in the hope and Love of Life.
We are the Cosmos come alive, having become conscious and aware, the Cosmos knowing Itself from within Itself, and we are now in the process of realizing that Truth. The Divine is waking up to the reality of Itself.