The Problem of Ego
What exactly is the problem with ego? You might even say, ‘If I have an ego, so what?’
But the ego is not some minor, harmless aspect of our lives that can pretty much be ignored – not if you wish to progress on the spiritual path, that is. And it is more than just a show-off. It is way more all-pervading and subtle than that. Like icebergs showing just a small part of their whole on the surface of the water, the ego too is a secret operator. If your goal is spiritual transcendence or transformation then the ego is that part of the process that cannot be evaded or denied.
Functional vs Non-functional Ego
At the same time I’d like to make a distinction between functional ego and non-functional ego. The former is something we need to live as human beings. Without it we wouldn’t be able to do all the practical things we need to do – eat, wash, brush our teeth, go shopping, cook, change our clothes, read a book, cross a road, etc etc. And that is all fine. This ego does not have an agenda except to get the task at hand done. Rather, it is the unconscious, non-functional ego that adds a layer to to this and says ‘I want to look good crossing the road’ or ‘I deserve to eat only the best’ or ‘I want to wear designer clothes’ etc. Just to be clear – there is nothing wrong with this. This isn’t about right and wrong. This is about real and unreal.
The problem with talking about the real and unreal is that until you start to get a sense of your own sense of self and the ramifications of maintaining an image in this manner in your life, your identity (ego / personality / self-image) is seen as real and nothing but real. That’s the ego’s job – to make you invest your energy, thoughts and behaviour into maintaining an image of yourself. And as human beings we are continuously running a movie of ‘me’ in our heads over and over, refining the scenes, writing new ones with a view to getting a good round of applause by the external world which includes family, friends, colleagues, strangers, anyone outside of us. As long as we are busy with this sort of self-preoccupation, the ego is happy. It’s happy because it knows you’ll never wake up to its unreal nature. In this preoccupation we don’t even realize we have bypassed reality (by being engrossed in our heads and emotions).
Being True to Yourself
There is confusion because we believe we are the image we project to the world yet we also get a sense of something missing, something not quite right, some dissatisfaction. This is because we are not living authentic lives where we are true to ourselves. Ultimately underneath it all we have rage, but this is juxtaposed by a good dose of fear as well, so the end result is the hamster keeps on turning the wheel as doing anything different will mean facing this pain.
I read on someone’s blog recently, a quote of Oscar Wilde:
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
(I guess that must apply to me as I love to quote, as you can see! 🙂 )
Jiddu Krishnamurti said the same thing:
For centuries we have been spoon-fed by our teachers, by our authorities, by our books, our saints. We say, “Tell me all about it — what lies beyond the hills and the mountains and the earth?” and we are satisfied with their descriptions, which means that we live on words and our life is shallow and empty. We are second hand people. We have lived on what we have been told, either guided by our inclinations, our tendencies, or compelled to accept by circumstances and environment. We are the result of all kinds of influences and there is nothing new in us, nothing that we have discovered for ourselves; nothing original, pristine, clear. – Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom From The Known, 1969
Because we are embedded not in who we truly are but in an image of ourselves that we want the outside world to believe about us, in the end we very rarely relate to others as they really are but only in relation to the image we have about them and about ourselves. For example, when a person talks to us we are usually only half listening. The other half is listening to our own thoughts and assessments and working out a good response. All of this activity comes from what we think we should say. In this common situation the ego is always looking for how not to lose face, how not to be say the ‘wrong’ thing, how to basically look good. The ego wants to be perfect – yet it can never, ever achieve perfection! And we will keep on trying for this perfection (to be liked by everyone, to be respected, to have material success etc) – until we get weary. And weariness with the ego-game is a blessing because you have a chance to say in humility ‘I did it my way and my way produced suffering for me and others.’ It’s a blessing because the first true spiritual step starts with humility and a space of ‘I don’t know.’
Removing the Barriers
The Risk of Inner Experience
“Whenever there is a reaching down into innermost experience, into the nucleus of personality, most people are overcome by fear and many run away. . . The risk of inner experience, the adventure of the spirit, is in any case alien to most human beings. The possibility that such experience might have psychic reality is anathema to them.” –(1875 – 1961)
The risk of inner experience……this is what we need a little courage for, and you will find it becomes easier and more comfortable to have this inner perspective the more you practice. We traverse fear when we let go to the spiritual-opening process. Something triggers this shift, it can be gradual or sudden, but the inner opens up and fear gradually starts to subside. Death isn’t what fills you with fear, it’s life that is the challenge. With an expanding inner experience and awareness, sometimes emotional patterns come up for release (have courage here, stay with it, you got to feel it to heal it), and you keep going, and beyond that you start to glimpse the truth of who you are beyond the illusion of your self-image. Now, as you gain an understanding of what is truly real and what is not, your answers arise from within, your faith in this process grows and there is a sense of great relief to have finally seen the walls of the invisible prison of the ego. To finally wake up from the non-stop demands of the ego takes a load off the shoulders – being a ‘me’ is hard work.
Eckhart Tolle describes his waking up thus:
I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void. I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved.
There are many who are awakening on this planet of contradictions! But this “many” is still very much a minority. The mainstream is almost totally ego-based but not to worry, we have to accept that the real revolution can only occur one by one in any event. There is no ‘mainstream’ out there that can be changed. The external is affected by what occurs energetically, which arises from the inner. So it’s an inner revolution that we’re faced with. Sooner or later the denial of who we are always comes to an end (whenever that may be), one by one, and truth is revealed.
More about personal experiences of awakening….I so enjoy hearing these, and here is a video I’ve posted before, but what the heck, it’s unique 🙂
For myself it was eight years ago when ego dissolution occurred. One day, the person that had been living my life including all the definitions, roles, values and judgments that had been important to me were suddenly meaningless, and instead there was this nothingness, a space. This empty space gradually became synonomous with bliss, silence and God. There was a direct experience one night. My cynicism of the intangible, lack of faith and attachment to thinking lost their truth, value and fun. So things felt pretty different after that. But the roles are needed to function in daily life so the game gets played. It just takes a while for it all to become integrated. It is not always easy to describe with words the experience or what happened, so I’ll just leave it at that for now – also time to sign off now – till soon!
Do share your own thoughts or experiences below in comments.