Ego is not a dirty word
The beginning of all knowledge is the recognition of not knowing, and the end of all knowledge is not needing to know.
Men say they know many things;
But lo! They have taken wings, -
The arts and sciences
And a thousand appliances, -
The wind that blows
Is all that anybody knows.
Henry David Thoreau
Actually, for anyone who thinks he or she knows something, it’s a depressing experience to admit the reality that they don’t – even more so for the seeker of knowledge because they see they’ve been duped by their ego of pride, self-aggrandisement and individuality once again - the very concepts from which they are trying to escape. Something like sliding down a snake in a game of snakes and ladders, - back to square one!
However, the effacement of the ego being such a person’s heartfelt desire, the universe can hardly be blamed for giving it a swipe every now and then! And anyway, square one is the best place to be, - always. The hapless beginner has no doubts about being powerless, and is always prepared to admit that he or she knows nothing, - they are humble, but determined to try or simply surrender - a pretty nice kind of ego.
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki
So what exactly is meant by ‘ego’? It seems a bit unpopular to talk about it these days, but I’m going to anyway. It is known as the ‘I’, - the principle of identity that sustains the apparent individuation of pure consciousness. As such it is not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, - it just is. When it becomes ‘clothed’ however, (like Adam and Eve?) and identifies with its appearance as a spiritual, emotional, mental or physical being, it takes on the notion of good and bad in relation to how these identities are affected by their environment, and in its search to find strategies to deal with this, it begins to accumulate a vast array of data, - otherwise known as ‘knowledge’. Unfortunately, the moment we begin to rely on our ‘knowledge’ of something we are no longer able to see it just as it is.
It could be said that the assumption of ego represents the supreme sacrifice of freedom and unadulterated happiness, - and the acceptance of the experience of sorrow. It is the great sacrifice whereby the nameless takes a name, the needless needs, and the gameless plays a game.
The trouble is that all these entities, all these identities, know they are on borrowed time and have no purpose, - no primary directive other than to continue their existence and to survive at all costs. They simply seek to avoid anything they perceive to threaten their detriment, and pursue whatever they believe will be to their gain.
Thus it is that good and bad take on their meanings and all our efforts become a matter of getting one and avoiding the other. In doing this we walk a tightrope between maintaining faith in ourselves despite the scary odds, and faith in something greater that suggests that eventually good will prevail. How often do we congratulate ourselves when things go well, believing ourselves fully vindicated and deserving of all that’s good, and yet, when things go badly, sink into the morass of feeling victimised?
It may be that the greatest joy in life comes to those egos which do not fight to protect their apparent identities. They suffer not when these are attacked, nor do they allow them to be created in the image of another’s thoughts. There are those who sense there is nothing of any real substance that can be lost and that there is in fact nothing to lose. The external identities we adopt, we know, have a beginning and an end, both in the micro-world of thoughts and sensations from moment to moment, and also in the macro-world of matter and energy, life and death.
Fortunately, the world of cause and effect, action and reaction, is there to keep the receptive ego in check. It is the assistant of one who seeks to realize freedom by divesting their ego of its collection of face-saving and face-preserving techniques. Sooner or later we all come face to face with that which we do not want to face, - and therein lies the opportunity to accept defeat and enjoy the freedom of being truly faceless!
When your chest is free of your limiting ego,
Then you will see the ageless Beloved.
You can not see yourself without a mirror;
Look at the Beloved, He is the brightest mirror.
As a newborn baby, if not before, our senses emerge. We experience smell and touch, vision, taste and sound. We experience comfort, discomfort, and possibly fear, and so begins the construction of our identity. We also, however, hopefully experience a loving protection, belonging and trust in our parents that is seemingly total. We are borne in the arms of those who are fully dedicated to nurturing our existence and to fulfilling our needs. We have no guilt and no reason to consider any other state of being than the security of total dependence and letting go, - no questions asked or needing to be asked.
Such is the state of surrender. I invite you to experiment with imagining how that may be, by feeling it in relation to whatever image or concept of god you like. Humble as a baby, yet receiving all and surrounded by love - an ego naked as the day it was born.
As the Beatles sang in 'Across the Universe', which unfortunately for copyright reasons I am unable to reprint fully here:
".....Sounds of laughter, shades of life,
are ringing through my open ears,
inciting and inviting me.
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns,
it calls me on and on, across the universe.
Jai guru deva, OM!
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Jai guru deva
Jai guru deva"
Jai guru deva - all praise to my divine teacher, OM!
Just a little word here about that little word, Om. In the East it corresponds to the biblical “In the beginning was the word……” It also appears as a prefix in English from the Greek meaning “all”. It is regarded as the verbal representation of god or supreme consciousness, the sacred syllable that is god itself. The three phonemes A – U – M are said to represent the three primary aspects of existence, namely projection, endurance, and destruction. They also, when vocalised cover the whole spectrum of speech from the fully open mouth to fully closed.
You are every thing……….
There is something that only you and god know. You and you alone are, as you read this, the one and only expert ever to exist on what it is to be you. Only you know how it feels to be the person you and others label with your name. You are so totally special, - as you’ve always known.
Just as the dream-experiences of two people sleeping side by side are not the same, and one does not know what the other is dreaming about, one’s understanding and inner experience are personal and unique.
It seems a shame to see a world where one is able to believe that anyone can be more special than another, - a hierarchy of those who believe their needs to be greater than those of others. How strongly we glorify and pamper ourselves and clothe in material finery our physical appearance which, in reality, has no destiny but to be the food of bacteria and worms! The basic physical purpose of any form of life is but to reproduce and then provide through its demise, in whatever way, the nourishment of yet another form of life. Physically, nature is an eternal cycle of eat and be eaten, - the continuous transfer of matter and energy in a sum total that doesn’t change. In a purely physical sense, our bodies exist only to process food into a form digestible by plants, - mere factories designed for the production of excrement!
And yet we know we are special. How can this be so? It is because of that other element of our existence, consciousness, which manifests as energy and matter and permeates it through and through, and yet which is simultaneously the witness and location of it all.
Vibrating with the extreme torpidity of a rock to the speed of sub-atomic particles, and every degree before, between and beyond, consciousness views its infinite manifestation from every possible angle, of which each and every one is single and unique, - an infinite multiplicity of the oneness that it is.
And yet, this all too human urge to stand out from the crowd in terms of individual beauty, power, success, intellect, affluence and yes indeed, - spiritual attainment, - is surely the symptom and attempt of beings who have lost the true source of their own uniqueness, and are seeking to regain it, albeit in the form of such a fleeting identity.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players….
From Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’
And so indeed, we all play our parts, - the principle part no less, - the hero or heroine of our own unique movie. In this movie, however, our roles are never certain. Having no foreknowledge of the script, we may find that what we appeared to be or thought we were before is no longer what we are today. It can be that we are a king or queen today, and a beggar tomorrow. Praised or despised, such opposites happen just as easily, but a good actor plays whichever part with equal finesse. For him or her there is no shame but skill and glory to be found in any role. The conventional differences between rich and poor, fortune and misfortune, pleasure and pain, praise and blame or victory and defeat do not apply. Divested of their costume the actors remain who they always are, - and even get paid the same!
All beings follow their nature; even the wise man behaves in conformity with his nature. What can restraint do?
Your right is to work only, but never to the fruit thereof. Let not the fruit of action be your object, nor let your attachment be to inaction.
Attraction and repulsion are rooted in all sense-objects. Man should never come under their sway, because these are the two main stumbling blocks in his way.
One’s own duty, though devoid of merit, is preferable to the duty of another well performed. Even death in the performance of one’s own duty brings blessedness; another’s duty is fraught with fear.
For us, our suffering lies in identifying too much with the roles we play. We take on the joys and sorrows of identity, its gain and loss, with total conviction no less than in a dream.
If you can dream, and not make dreams your master,
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same…….
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much……
from ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling
In doing our best to face the dualities of life with equanimity and composure, perhaps we can begin to recognise nobility in every form of life, including our own.
Beggar or king, he excels who is without desire, and whose opinion of things is rid of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
The Ashtavakra Gita
But when the time comes that death finally claims our body, who will remember our suffering and fortitude, our determination and struggle, our joys and sorrows, victories and defeats? This story we have lived so intensely all our lives, and we, the one who it was all about, - this whole script will be torn up and thrown out with the rubbish, so to speak. Ok, so a few things may be remembered by some for various periods of time, but sooner or later, even the existence of planet Earth can hardly have much significance in the greater picture of the universe. Can we really say that our existence is of any more importance than that of an ant, digging away at some microscopic detail of an infinite universe, scurrying around, looking for bits of joy?
Is this all life’s about, - just travelling on the railroad from birth to death, at the beginning looking forward, at the end looking back? Can we not cut through to the centre of time?
Our existence is bonded to the ‘movement’ of time and no sooner do we say we are here, - no sooner do we say we are this or that, - than we no longer are, so where can we find a point of significance in this? There seems to be no such thing as a being; only a coming and going, and this we call the drama of life.
In the end, the mountains of imagination were nothing
but a house.
And this grand life of mine was nothing but an excuse.
You've been hearing my story so patiently for a lifetime
Now hear this: it was nothing but a fairy tale.
And everything is you
Who can separate the wind and its motion, existence and time? Can we really find a common definition that encompasses every single thing, - the conceiver and conceived? Can we cut through to the centre?
We have played a lot with the notion that neither our consciousness nor any object of our consciousness can pass the test of permanence, let alone time, and that the sense of identity rests on the insubstantial parade of elements that come and go. We reasoned our way to the point where the origin and basis of reality cannot be said to exist in any created individualised form, and so we came to the mystery of emptiness, the uncreated and the unconditioned.
We have also postulated that anything and everything can only appear to be real by virtue of that which has no appearance. Again we considered how the individualised consciousness perpetuates itself through action and reaction to its objects, and is in fact no more than a residue of habits, tendencies and impressions, thus binding us to the ups and downs of dualistic existence, - seeking yet never finding a place of peace, a centre of consciousness, or our real self.
We have been hoping and hopping, stone to stone, over the river from diversity to unity, and back, - yet also proposing they are one and the same. Now you see it, now you don’t. So here’s another perspective you can try, -
That which we seek we already are, and whatever we are conscious of is only our self or god.
Looking at it this way, we are consciousness surrounded by consciousness, god surrounded by god. Every thought, emotion and feeling is god, our happiness and sorrow is god, the physical and non-physical is god. Our friend and enemy is god, our frustration and annoyance, our food, our work and play. Waking, dreaming or sleeping, - our total being is god, our total self. We have already arrived because we never left, - we are in the miracle and we are the miracle, - now.
It is only distractions that make us feel separate and take us away. We think we have purpose and aim. We are addicted to a game. Our habits and strategies for dealing with life have created an underworld from which it seems impossible to escape. We think we have a race to win, a puzzle to solve, a competition to prove our worth. But do we?
Here it is that with sufficient concentration we can approach the totality of that which we profess to seek, and about which we proudly speak. Are we, am I, are you really prepared to face the reality we’re having such fun exploring? Are we ready to find the answer, face it and be it now? We say “wow!” to all the words of wisdom and get lost in worlds of admiration, tantalised with awe, - but despite the odds, we still seek security in what we know and in our knowing.
For here we teeter on the brink of an abyss,
and the closing of a door.
by any other name.
But it doesn’t have to be so scary! Both Swami Ramthirtha and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, and probably many others have pointed out that in fact we know very little about what goes on inside or outside our bodies. There is such a vast micro and macro universe which operates, as it were, automatically, and over which we have no direct control, and yet we identify so totally with the body, while regarding anything outside it as being completely separate. Why? We come into consciousness fully equipped with both the inner and outer universe. How strange that we only call half of it our self! Putting them both together and identifying with our total self leaves little for the mind to do – its only purpose, it seems, is to divide one into two. When the two become one, then where is the mind?
When we are able to accept the totality of all we are, - that we are all there is, and that ‘we’ no longer have a part to play……
When the stains from old habits are exhausted, the original light appears, blazing through your skull, not admitting any other matters. Vast and spacious, like sky and water merging during autumn, like snow and moon having the same colour, this field is without boundary, beyond direction, magnificently one entity without edge or seam.
12th-century Zen master, Hongzhi
There is no escaping now, and yet we skip so lightly from moment to moment, as if afraid to stop, - but that’s ok. That too is what we are.
The croaking of frogs, the song of birds, the grey concrete, knives and forks, a bottle of wine, are one with you. Every ripple, every wave on the ocean of consciousness you are. That which you think you need to know, you already are. Yet we have divided the whole of our material existence into a hierarchy of value. ‘This is me, that is something different, this is worth more than that’ - even, at a gross level, in monetary terms, - and everything has its place on our scale of good and bad.
Haven’t you noticed how the moment our consciousness perceives anything, it instantaneously passes the perception over to be classified as friend or foe by our emotional memory of past impressions? With every perception our feelings rise or fall, if only a little bit, making up the tune of good and bad, the highs and lows that play the strings of our heart all day and in our dreams.
Thoughts follow feelings and feelings follow thoughts. Our intellect stands at the threshold between thought and action, and, when sufficiently empowered, can analyse each feeling as it rises from the database of habit and conditioning in response to external or internal events. It can decide what action should be taken, - to let the feeling flow and flower into expression, to suppress or censor it, to edit or update it with more recent knowledge, – or simply to let it pass away unhindered whence it came..
It is this updating of our reactions that we see as personal growth, especially when it changes the heart. When the heart begins to let go of its fears, no longer springing to the defence of a wounded ego, nor rushing to gratify its yearning for aggrandisement; when it becomes free of craving and aversion, as the Buddha said, - when it is balanced, - enjoying whatever comes naturally, simply doing whatever life requires or presents to be done; when indeed we are free of any value judgement, bathed in compassion with all there is, remembering the pain of the past and thus unwilling to cause harm to any, - then what?
There is no difference between life and death, being or not being. Whatever is just is, and that’s just fine.
The art of wisdom
Unless, that is, we find ourselves believing again through habit that the drifting flotsam of identity is where to place our feet, and forget to walk unaided on the waters of pure consciousness.
Habit is our way of life and most of what we usually are. The nature of habit is to grow stronger with repetition, and the stronger it becomes, the harder it is to change. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that great effort is required to sail a boat against the waves and currents close to the shore, but later, in the open sea, a little touch on the tiller now and then is enough to stay on course.
If we try to notice the habits, especially the mental and emotional tendencies and reactions that lead us round in a circle helplessly covering the same old ground again and again, - if and when we become aware of them and tire of their effects, - we inevitably try to find a better way.
Such is the path to happiness on which we all journey. We aim for this and that, all in the name of happiness, and every time we achieve and enjoy what we want, we either begin again the process of longing and anticipation, or, understanding its limitation, seek to adjust or refine our aim. Today, perhaps, we identify happiness with owning a beautiful red sports car, tomorrow a cottage in the country, then peace and contentment or helping others – and at every stage, a new perspective leads us on.
Alternatively, not getting what we want, when inspiration dries up and we enclose ourselves in an ever-tightening circle of depression centred on a preoccupation, with our misery, the vital necessity then becomes how to vacate the centre of our thoughts. This may be the time to concentrate on making others happy, and in doing so release ourselves from a hell of self-obsession. Not, I may hasten to add, to the extent that we depend on the existence of others being less fortunate than ourselves to make us happy! Rather as a means of cultivating compassion or, as Sri Ramakrishna wondrously suggested, full of gratitude for this opportunity to serve god in all beings.
I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Spirit is the cure for the world, and the world is the cure for the spirit”. Indeed, as we row our boat out into the ocean on our voyage of discovery, in applying too much force we may be capsized by waves. Resting our oars, the waves roll under us. Sometimes, in swimming towards the shore against the undercurrent as a huge wave threatens to flatten us from behind, it is better to turn around and dive back into the turmoil and allow ourselves to be tumbled harmlessly on to the sand.
The path to happiness is itself the path to wisdom. It begins with seeking our basic needs, and from there to the acquisition of innumerable embellishments and even thence perhaps, to things and quantities superfluous but for their cost and worldly status. As weariness or wisdom dawns, we may turn to more aesthetic things, and strive to find peace within and contentment with things without, - and always we are trying to fill the bottomless pit of hunger for the satisfaction of our soul.
By changing and exploring different perspectives we continue our search, but now we have understood that it is not the world and the events of life that stand in our way, but our reaction to them. On this level we continue the process of refinement, sensitive to the needs of our heart and using reason and intellect to find our way. We can study books of wisdom; we can worship god or follow any path of our choosing. We can, if we like, try a different perspective every day. We may find that some work better or longer than others in different situations as the ever changing moods and feelings of our conditioning and environment rise to the surface and dominate our consciousness. Some may blossom slowly over time, unfurling their many petals one after another as we ponder their consequences.
Like waves, our ability to see and be affected by our thoughts and perceptions and the power of our imagination may wax and wane, but on we go, seeking the magic formula that will work in every situation and at every time to uncover the happiness we always are and the one surrender that will let us be.
All the arts of men are lost through lack of practice,
But this art of wisdom grows steadily once it rises.