Part II – Chapter 13
Dismissing the ego.
On a practical level, such insights mean that what we regard as our “personal identity” has to be by and by clarified. We gradually, especially with the help of meditation, realize the disproportionate attention our material and mental experiences receive, and the manipulations we subject them to.
Because of the multiplicity and intensity of our sensory and mental impressions, we all from our birth onwards confuse ourselves with the phenomena impinging upon us. Because they shout so loudly, dance about us so flashily, weigh upon us so heavily, we think our experiences of body and mind are all there is, and we identify with them. To complicate matters further, such self-identification is selective and often self-delusive.
It takes an effort to step back, and realize that body and mind phenomena are just fleeting appearances, and that our self is not the phenomena but the one experiencing them. Even though this self is non-phenomenal (call it a soul, or what you will), it must be put back in the equation. We may associate ourselves with our bodily and mental phenomena, but we must not identify with them. There is no denying our identity happens to currently be intimately tied up with a certain body, mind, social milieu, etc. – but this does not make these things one and the same with us.
Gradually, it becomes clear that our personal confusion with these relatively external factors of our existence is a cause of many of the difficulties in our relation to life. We become attached to our corporeality or psychology, or to vain issues of social position, and become ignorant as to who (and more deeply, Who) we really are.
To combat such harmful illusions, and see things as they really are, one has to “work on oneself”. One must try and diminish the influence of the ego.
Specifically, one has to overcome the tendencies of egotism and egoism. Egotism refers to the esthetic side of the ego, i.e. to our narcissistic concerns with appearance and position, our yearning for admiration and superiority and our fear of contempt and inferiority. Egoism refers to the ethical side of the ego, i.e. to our material and intellectual acquisitiveness and protectionism.
The issue is one of degree. A minimum of self-love and selfishness may be biologically necessary and normal, but an excess of those traits are certainly quite poisonous to one’s self and to others. Much daily suffering ensues from unchecked ego concerns. Egotism produces constant vexation and resentment, while egoism leads to all sorts of anxieties and sorrows.
On this point, all traditions agree: no great spiritual attainment is possible without conquest of egocentricity. Self-esteem and self-confidence are valuable traits, but one must replace conceit with modesty and arrogance with humility. Meditation can help us tremendously in this daunting task.
Of course, it is none other than the self (i.e. soul) who is egocentric! The ego is not some other entity in competition with the soul in a divided self, a “bad guy” to pour blame on. We have no one to blame for our psychological failings other than our soul, whose will is essentially free. The ego has no consciousness or will of its own: it has no selfhood.
The ego indeed seems to be a competing self, because – and only so long as and to the extent that – we (our self or soul) identify with it. It is like an inanimate mask, which is given an illusion of life when we confuse our real face with it. But we should not be deluded: it is we who are alive, not the mask.
Rather, the body and mind (i.e. the factors making up the ego) are mechanistic domains that strongly influence the soul in sometimes negative ways. They produce natural inclinations like hunger for food or the sex drive or yearning for social affiliation, which are sometimes contrary to the higher interests of the soul. For this reason, we commonly regard our spiritual life as a struggle against our ego inclinations.
Not all ego inclinations are natural. Many of the things we think we need are in fact quite easy to do without. As we commonly say: “It’s all in the mind”. In today’s world, we might often add: “It is just media hype” for ultimately commercial or political purposes. People make mountains out of molehills. For example, some think they cannot make it through the day without a smoke or a drink, when in fact it is not only easy to do without such drugs but one feels much better without them.
Often, natural inclinations are used as pretexts for unnatural inclinations. For example, if one distinguishes between natural sensations of hunger in the belly and the mental desire to titillate one’s taste buds, one can considerably reduce one’s intake of calories and avoid getting painfully fat. Similarly, the natural desire for sex for reproductive purposes and as an expression of love should not be confused with the physical lusts encouraged by the porno industry, which have devastating spiritual consequences.
Thus, the struggle against ego inclinations ought not be presented as a struggle against nature – it is rather mostly a fight against illusions of value, against foolishness. It is especially unnatural tendencies people adopt or are made to adopt that present a problem. It is this artificial aspect of ego that is most problematic. And the first victory in this battle is the realization: “this is not me or mine”.
Once one ceases to confuse oneself with the ego, once one ceases to regard its harmful inclinations as one’s own, it becomes much easier to neutralize it. There is hardly any need to “fight” negative influences – one can simply ignore them as disturbances powerless to affect one’s chosen course of action. The ego need not be suppressed – it is simply seen as irrelevant. It is defeated by the mere disclosure of its essential feebleness.
Meditation teaches this powerful attitude of equanimity. One sits (and eventually goes through life) watching disturbances come and go, unperturbed, free of all their push and pull. The soul remains detached, comfortable in its nobility, finding no value in impure forces and therefore thoroughly uninfluenced by them.
This should not, of course, be another “ego trip”. It is not a role one is to play, self-deceitfully feeding one’s vanity. On the contrary, one experiences such meditation as “self-effacement” or “self-abnegation”, as if one has become transparent to the disturbances, as if one is no longer there to be affected by them.
This is, more precisely put, ego-dismissal, since one has ceased to identify with the forces inherent in the ego. Such dismissal should not, of course, be confused with evasion. It is abandonment of the foolish psychological antics – but this implies being very watchful, so as to detect and observe them when they occur.
There is no need for difficult ascetic practices. One has to just become more aware and sincerely committed; then one can nimbly dodge or gently deflect negative tendencies that may appear. Being profoundly at peace, one is not impressed by them and has no personal interest in them.
Many people devote much time and effort to helping other people out materially or educationally. This is rightly considered as an efficient way to combat self-centeredness, although one should always remain alert to the opportunities for hidden egotism and egoism such pursuits offer.
Granting Monism as the true philosophy, it would seem logical to advocate ‘altruism’ as the ultimate ethical behavior. However, this moral standard is often misunderstood to mean looking out for the interests of others while ignoring one’s own interests. Such a position would be simplistic if not dishonest. If we are all one, the all-one includes and does not exclude oneself.
Thus, I would say that whilst altruistic behavior is highly commendable and admirable, working on oneself first and foremost would seem a very necessary adjunct and precondition. Conceivably, when one reaches full realization, one can pretty well forget oneself altogether and devote oneself entirely to others – but until then one must pay some attention to one’s legitimate needs, if only because one is best placed to do so.