Another Book of Nothing Chapters 25 - 29:
Ego is not a dirty word You are everything... ...and everything is you Value judgement The Art of wisdom
Ego is not a dirty word
The beginning of all knowledge is the recognition of not knowing, and the end of all knowledge is no longer needing anything 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, because there is nowhere to go, no far off destination or Shangri La. What is real can only be now, here and now - this - the undifferentiated state of whatever is. The mind of the hapless beginner is always open, has no doubts about being powerless, is under no illusions of knowing all, and is always prepared to admit that he or she knows nothing.
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 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 and physical being, it takes on the notion of good and bad in relation to how this identity and its survival is affected by the environment in which it finds itself, 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 simply just as it is.
It could be said that the assumption of ego represents the supreme sacrifice of absolute freedom and unadulterated happiness and the acceptance of the experience of suffering and 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 survive at all costs. They simply seek to avoid anything they perceive that threatens to cause 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 fully deserving of all that’s good, and yet in contrast, 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. Thus they are fleeting and should in fact be seen as utterly inconsequential.
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 realise 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, complete 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 complete dependence and letting go - no questions asked or needing to be asked.
Such is similar to 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. Quite simple, really.
And as the Beatles sang:
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!
Jai guru deva - all praise to the 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”, as in ‘omnipotent’ etc. It is regarded as the verbal representation of God or supreme consciousness, the sacred syllable that is God itself. It consists of three phonemes A – U – M which are said to represent the three primary aspects of existence, namely projection, endurance, and extinction, or creation, preservation and destruction. They also, when vocalised, cover the whole spectrum of speech from the fully open mouth to fully closed.
You are everything…
There is something that only you and God know, and that is that you and you alone, even as you read this, are 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 and unique - as indeed, somehow 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 it is actually possible, and more often than not expected, 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 and see themselves as more deserving. How wonderfully 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 the nourishment of yet another form of life. Physically, nature is an eternal cycle of eat and be eaten - a continuous transfer of matter and energy in a sum total that doesn’t change. Beyond reproduction, in a purely physical sense, our bodies exist only to process food into a form digestible by microbes and plants - mere factories designed for the production of excrement!
And yet we know we are special. How can this be? It is because of that other integral element of our existence, awareness-consciousness, which manifests as both energy and matter and permeates them through and through as if invisibly, and yet which simultaneously is the witness and location of it all.
Vibrating with the extreme torpidity of a rock to the speed of sub-atomic particles, and every possible degree before, between and beyond, consciousness views its infinite manifestation from every possible angle, of which each and every one is single and unique in 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 genuine 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…
Shakespeare, ‘As you like it’
And so indeed, we all play our parts - the principle part, no less – as 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 first appear 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 can alternate and happen just as easily, but a good actor plays whichever part they have with equal finesse. For him or her there is no shame but only 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 the same as they simply always are, unique in themselves, and yet we still seem to be forever seeking more and our desires are seldom fully satisfied.
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.
The Bhagavad Gita 2:47
All beings follow their nature;
even the wise man behaves in conformity with his nature.
What can restraint do?
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.
The Bhagavad-Gita 3:33,34,35
Better indeed it is for us to follow our own path rather than the agenda of another, but still for us, our suffering lies in identifying too much with the roles we play. We take on the joys and sorrows of identity, its every 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…
‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling
In doing our best to face the dualities of life with such equanimity and composure, perhaps we can begin to recognise nobility in every form of life, just as it is, 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 arrives to claim 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 central character - 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, intent on such a 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 whole 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 continuous 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 from time and space? Can we really find a common principle that encompasses every single thing, - the conceiver and conceived? Can we cut through to the centre?
We have played a lot with the fact that neither our physical existence as an individual nor any object of our consciousness can pass the test of permanence, nor indeed the sense of identity that 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 transitory and 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 specific appearance itself. Again we considered how the individualised consciousness or ego perpetuates itself through action and reaction to its objects, and is in fact no more than a residue of habits, tendencies and impressions that bind 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 we can try -That which we seek we already are, and our consciousness and whatever we are conscious of is only our True 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 are 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 really prepared to face the reality we’re having such fun exploring? Are we ready to lose this sense of being a separate and isolated individual, to find the answer, to face it and be it now? We say “Wow!” to all these 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 many others have pointed out that in fact we are actually conscious of a very limited spectrum of experience. We are conscious, for example, of so very little of the processes that go on within our own bodies, let alone those of the natural environment we inhabit and on which we depend. There is such a vast micro and macro universe which operates automatically and autonomously and over which we have no direct control, and yet we identify so totally with our minds and bodies while regarding anything outside them as being completely separate. Why? We come into consciousness fully equipped with both the inner and outer universe. How strange that we call only one half of it our self! However, putting everything together and identifying with our total self leaves little for the mind to do – its only purpose, it seems, being to divide one into two. When the two become one, then where is the mind?
When we are finally able to accept the totality of all we are - that we are all there is, and that the individual and separate part we have played all our lives is no longer of such crucial significance…
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 us. Every ripple, every wave on the ocean of consciousness we are. That which we think we need to know, we already are. Yet we have divided the whole of our material existence into a hierarchy of relative values. This is me, that is something different, this is worth more than that - even at a gross level where we mostly value things in monetary terms, and everything is given a place somewhere on our scale between good and bad.
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.
Indeed, it is our compulsion to think about everything that happens, to form opinions or to jump to conclusions about whether they are good or bad that takes the shine off this otherwise pristine creation, creating ever changing moods and preventing our acceptance and appreciation of things just as they are in each and every moment. For as Shakespeare said in ‘Hamlet’,
… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Thoughts follow feelings and feelings follow thoughts. Our intellect stands at the threshold between the two, and when sufficiently empowered, can analyse each feeling or thought as it rises from the database of memory, habit and conditioning in response to external or internal events. It can decide what action to take – whether to let the thought or feeling flow on and flower into expression, to suppress or censor it, or to edit and update it with more recent knowledge – or, simply 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, or as the Buddha said - when it is balanced, satisfied in enjoying whatever comes naturally and 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?
Then 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
That is unless, of course, 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, when setting out to sea, 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 our 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, leaving a mess of confusion that never gets fully resolved - if and when we become aware of this and tire of it - we all wish there was a better way.
Such is the path to attain 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 habitually begin all over again the process of longing and anticipation for more of the same or something different, or perhaps understanding its limitation, seek to adjust, refine or redefine our aim. Today, perhaps, we identify happiness with owning a beautiful red sports car to drive with our hair blowing in the wind, then tomorrow perhaps, a cottage in the country, then peace and contentment or helping others – and at every stage, a new perspective and idea of what would make us happy leads us on.
Alternatively, not getting what we want or getting what we don't want, when inspiration dries up and we enclose ourselves in an ever-tightening circle of depression centred on a preoccupation with our personal misery, the vital necessity then becomes how to vacate this central vortex of our thoughts. This may be the time to concentrate on making others happy, and in doing so release our own selves from a hell of self-obsession. Not, I may hasten to add, to the extent that we depend on the existence and suffering of others being less fortunate than ourselves in order to make us happy, but as a means of cultivating and practising compassion or, as Sri Ramakrishna wondrously suggested, full of gratitude for this opportunity to serve God in the form of all beings.
Nevertheless, as we row our boat out into the ocean on our voyage of spiritual discovery, seeking the source of eternal happiness, if we apply too much force and determination and do not get the rapid results we expected, we may grow tired of our efforts and be drenched or capsized by the oncoming waves of disappointment and frustration that accompany any thwarted desire. Resting our oars however, as the waves approach, they roll peacefully and gently under us. In the same way, when struggling towards the shore against a strong undertow, just as a huge wave of the world threatens to flatten us from behind, it may be better to turn around and dive back into the turbulence and allow ourselves to be tumbled harmlessly on to the sand.
Nothing can cure the soul but the senses,
just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.
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 - always trying to fill the bottomless pit of hunger for the satisfaction of our souls.
By changing and exploring different perspectives we continue our search, but now we might 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 meditate, 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 indeed 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.