Over the past several months I’ve explored the nature of the human ego as it relates to spirituality in many of the major religious and spiritual traditions, as well as in science. As I noted in a series of posts, it seems that a recurrent theme throughout many of them is the idea of sacrificing ego, overcoming ego, transcending ego, even experiencing a kind of “death” of the ego, so as to realize the true nature of the self, of reality, and of God. We might ask then, what good is the ego? Is it all bad? Do we want to destroy our ego? Is that true spirituality?
As I’ve written about before, the ego can be described as our “psychological self,” it is the person we think we are. The thought part of it is its salient feature. Our mind constructs a story about ourself and about the world over a lifetime of experiences. It builds up understanding, knowledge of things, thoughts about the self, thoughts about the world, thoughts about God. These are all thoughts. What is a thought? It is a conceptual model, the way our brain tries to make sense of the flow of information coming in through our senses. It is that rational logical part of our minds.
One of the constructions that our mind makes early in our childhood is the ideas surrounding our “self,” and in psychology this is called self-awareness. It is an ironic term, because this is also the term that is used in spirituality to refer to knowing your higher self, your spiritual self, your true self, your divine nature. But the self-awareness that is referred to in childhood development is the construction of the ego self, it is the development of who we think we are, what is sometimes called the false self, small self, “natural man,” or just ego in spirituality. We come to construct a basic sense of identity of our individual bodily self. We don’t even necessarily become aware of constructing this self, it just naturally happens. A sense of “me” emerges in the world.
This conceptual development of an individual separate self, I’ve suggested before, is what I think is symbolized in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology of the Fall. We Fall out of a sense of oneness, wholeness, non-duality with the world, with nature, with being, with our mothers, and come to identify ourselves with this particular individual body/mind. This is the beginning of the ego. From there, we continually add to this sense of ego in our minds, adding onto it all kinds of feelings and emotions and identity, such as shame (symbolized in the Eden story of recognizing nakedness), pride, guilt, success, relationship stories, knowledge of what our culture considers good and evil (symbolized in the Eden story of the Tree of Knowledge), what we like/dislike, what makes us happy or sad. We develop a sense for time, of past, present, and future, as our memory ability expands. We ruminate about the past, and develop anxiety about the future. We gain knowledge of all kinds of things in the world, through humanity’s storehouse of knowledge developed over history or how humanity has tried to make sense of life and the world.
Problems with the ego begin to emerge when it thinks that it is the center of the world, and that the goal of life is to protect and aggrandize the self at all costs. This can lead to selfishness, vanity, divisiveness, tribalism, dogmatic certainty about its knowledge, and further separation. The ego likes to continually divide, categorize, separate, build walls, classify, organize, and bring perfect order and stability to chaos. Through these activities the ego can begin to feel more and more detached from the rest of the world, from other people, from nature, from the dynamic, living, flowing, mystery of the universe. The ego can fall into a sense of not belonging, loss of love, of isolation, complete independence, and the feeling of being alone. We long for a sense of wholeness once more, of unity, of love, of feeling that we belong, of returning to the Presence of God.
Spirituality, psychotherapy, and other tools are ways to help us recognize the ego for what it is. They can help us to become fully aware of the ego as a construction that we’ve built up over our lives, that its thoughts are not the absolute truth, and that we are far more than our egos. When we become aware of the ego as an ego, we also become aware of our greater self, of our true nature. This can happen simultaneously, or it can happen sequentially. This greater nature extends deeply into the nature of the world itself. We come to realize that we are wholly connected to the world, to all other life, to the ecosystem, to nature, to the universe itself. We find we are a manifestation of the universe itself, like a wave manifests from the ocean, or like a Child of God. We are not only the manifestation, the wave, the Child, but also the ground from which it manifests. This is reconciliation, belonging, love, connection, wholeness.
We can see this pattern of going from oneness (or non-duality), to a multiplicity of dualities, polarities, complementarities, opposites, and then back to oneness again. It is a going out and coming back in. It is the Hero’s Journey as found in all the world’s mythology. It is the cycle of existence, one eternal round.
We can sometimes be very hard on the ego, because it seems to be the very thing that brings about our sense of separation from the whole, of brokenness, of disconnection from God. The ego can be described as the “veil,” that which shields us from knowing our oneness with the universe or God. As I’ve written about before, the mystics often talk about sacrificing the ego, letting it die, fall away, be crucified, annihilated, taken out of the way, revealing it for what it really is, subduing it, silencing it, realizing it is an illusion, no-self, transcending it. This can make it sound like our enemy is the ego, the adversary, “Satan,” Mara, and in a very real way it can be these things. We can become our own worst enemy, lost in the darkness of our delusions, errors, illusions, certainties, “knowledge,” self-aggrandizement, or self-hatred. But it is also something that may be necessary as a natural part of existence, and we can become too opposed to ego, and this is also unhealthy. What is it that is opposed to ego, except the ego itself? When the ego hates the ego, this is just another error of ego. This is one of the paradoxes of existence, and it can be one of the most difficult things to realize in our spiritual progression.
While the ego may be what separates us from God, it may also be what allows existence to be, what allows God to experience the world, through us, through this localized temporal ego-self, this body/mind. That which is wholly one and undifferentiated in itself does not experience anything other than oneness. It doesn’t experience light or darkness, health or sickness, joy or sadness, hot or cold. It is a compound in one not even knowing itself, because it is only itself, without any subject/object split. An eye cannot see itself, except in a mirror or photo which creates an image of itself so that it can see what it is. It separates itself so that it can know itself. The one becomes two, so that the two may know each other, and then realize they are one again. This is experience, this is the act of love, this is at-one-ment, this is life, this is opposition and duality so there is the possibility of reconciliation and unity.
In Mormonism there is a scripture, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Humanity (“Adam”) falls from the oneness of God, from being wholly one in God, into an ego, in order to experience life, to experience consciousness, to experience forms, objects, beauty, nature, the highs and lows, the sickness and the health, the good and the bad, love and pain, happiness and sadness, the full range of experience. This is Life. And through the course of life a human may come to know its origin and destiny, to become one again with the whole. In actuality, we have never really been separate from the whole, from nature, from reality, from truth, but we just thought we were. It is an illusion of consciousness, of perception, that development of the separate ego-self in our minds, that makes us feel separate from the universe, as if we are living in the universe but aren’t the universe itself doing what the universe does.
But in moments of transcendence and mystical experience, when our consciousness becomes fully aware of the ego and its thoughts, such as through meditation/contemplation, or in moments of profound beauty and love, when our consciousness is pulled out of the confines of ego so that it may see the ego as it really is, and we see the bigger picture of what we are, we can experience our deeper truer eternal nature as one with the universe, with the source of all being. We can know our wholeness, our at-one-ment with the all, our oneness with all things, all beings, all humans, all life, every creature, every rock, every flower. We can see our self extending through the totality of nature, of the Earth, of the Sun, of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. This is what spirituality calls the true Self, the Christ, the Buddha-nature, the Atman. What is being expressed by the universe in this particular manifestation of body/mind is realized as not being separate from the whole, but is an integral part of the whole, an emanation of the whole. It is what the Whole/Holy does to know itself. The One becomes the many so that the many may realize the One. That they might know thee, the only true God, and Christ, whom thou hast sent. I and my Father are One. We are Atman that is One and the same as Brahman. We are Buddha-nature, Nirmāṇakāya which is a manifestation of Dharmakāya, the basis of reality itself. We are the manifestation of God, wholly within God.
If there was no ego, there would be no opportunity for knowing, for existence, for experience, for Life. There would be no dualities of high/low, left/right, light/dark, day/night, hot/cold, health/sickness, joy/sadness, pleasure/pain, good/bad, right/wrong, love/hate, birth/death. As another Mormon scripture reads, “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). This idea is also found in the East, in the necessary opposites of yin/yang. Ultimately there is a unity to be found in opposites. The opposites reveal themselves as the manifestation of one thing along a single spectrum, two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other, or one existing because of the other. Existence is found in the separation, in the dualities, in the recognition of subject/object, in the experience of life. God becomes an image of God in humanity, in creation, in life, so as to be able to see God, so as to separate God from God, within God, so that God may have the chance, the opportunity, the experience to know God, to know itself!
When the ego becomes transparent, then consciousness is able to see through it to what is real underneath it, to the truth that sits behind it, that upholds it, that is the source of it, that is its true nature, its true being, its true Self. Then the ego may become a mirror, a reflection of that true reality, the reality that is God, the deeply interconnected nature of this universe, this wholeness, this love, this truth, knowing that all beings, all life, all creation is a manifestation of its Self, that underneath the seeming duality of the world there is a oneness, a non-duality, a wholeness, an implicate order out of which arises this explicate order that we normally perceive. We know our Self to be the much larger ground of being, essence of reality, pure consciousness, the emptiness out of which springs everything, the nothingness from which comes all things, the formless from which comes all forms, the ex nihilo from which comes all creation, the power from which all things come. We are One with That, whatever we choose to call It.
Our goal is to transform the ego into this transparent glass, this clear crystal, so that the true wholeness of nature may shine brightly through it. It is to transcend the small ego-self, and thereby transfigure it into the image of nature itself, truth itself, the true deeper unity of reality, the real True Self, the Atman, the image of God, the Son of God, the Christ, the Manifestation of God, the Buddha, a true expression of what is real, good, true, beautiful, love, sacred, divine, eternal.
If God had not fallen and become human, if the Logos had not taken on flesh, if God had not hidden from God, if God had not forgotten that it was God, if God had not formed that veil that is the human ego, then God could not have known that it was God, then existence would not be, then there would be no life and being. All these things happened so that there would be a happening, so that there would be something rather than nothing, so that creation could emerge and explore the infinite dimensions of being, the diversity of the possible, the multiplicity of the universe. And when the time is right, God will redeem God from merely knowing its humanity to knowing its divinity in each of us. God will realize it is God once more, God will come out of hiding, of being ashamed of itself, and will be naked once more to itself (the Hebrew word galah (גָּלָה), is both an “uncovering of nakedness” and also a “theophany of God”). God will remember who God is again, in ourselves! The veil of ego-self will be torn from top to bottom, and we will know our Self, that we are the Divinity that we have been searching for, that “the One you are looking for is the One who is looking” (St. Francis of Assisi), and that what we fundamentally are is embodied or is incarnated in the whole of all things manifest, infinitely interconnected or “sealed” with each other for eternity. We will know we are God, that the True Self is God, the Ground of Being is our Source and our foundation of existence, and that this is manifest in and through all beings, all humans, all of life and creation.
This is waking up, this is enlightenment. It is rebirth, awakening, resurrection, reincarnation. It is salvation, exaltation. It is theosis, divinization, deification. It is Nirvana. It is Moksha. It is liberation, freedom. It is the Beatific Vision. It is self-realization. It is the ultimate aha moment. It is knowing thyself. It is the Second Coming. It is all truths brought into One Great Whole. It is knowing Truth, Reality, the Absolute. It is the goal of human existence. It is Heaven on Earth. It is knowing you are One in God. It is being a god in God. It is the Revelation, the Parousia, the Presence. It is Pure Love.
But the only way of truly knowing it for one’s self is by experiencing it. No amount of words will do it justice, and might sound quite foolish. The ego itself will tend to not believe it, because it cannot fully conceptualize it. Our finite minds cannot ever grasp the Infinite. But when the ego becomes transparent, when it temporarily stands aside, then consciousness may see and know its true nature, and the ego can begin to mirror or reflect that true nature in our life.