Having realised that the ego is not the true centre, should we then debunk the ego?
The answer lies in this teaching story: There was once in a village a deadly cobra that would bite anyone who came near it. One day, when the cobra was about to attack a great sage, the latter neutralised it without touching it. The sage then asked the cobra to stop poisoning people as it was accumulating a lot of bad karma.
The cobra agreed, and even received initiation from the sage. After the sage left, the cobra repeatedly chanted the mantra, vowing never to attack anyone. Seeing it so submissive, the children of the village began pelting stones and sticks at it, but the cobra offered no resistance. It quietly suffered the pain, believing it was in total deference to its vow. When the sage returned, he found the snake half dead and writhing in pain in the middle of the road. The sage enquired why. Listening to the cobra, he admonished, “I told you not to harm anyone, but when people tried to harm you, couldn’t you have at least hissed and raised your hood, to scare them away?”
Like the hood of the cobra, the ego is our defence mechanism. It gives us a measure of discrimination, to protect us in danger and difficulty. Within the acute stillness of our being, the ego is the discriminating voice of intelligence, the spirit of enquiry that triggers the process of reaching the true centre.
We are not to will away our ego. Instead, as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (in the Bodhi, Issue VI) suggests, we need to allow the thoughts and emotions to manifest their own nature, for then there is no choice for them but to return to their original state. Sages often cite in this regard, the popular example of the muddy water. You keep stirring the water in order to clean it, but it can only get muddier. Allow the water to settle, and the sediments will sink to the bottom.
This is what we need to do with the ego. When we let our ego run wild, and allow it to manifest in egocentricity, it reaches a state of exhaustion. The ego then paradoxically begins to liberate itself, to transcend to a state of quietude and stillness that enables us to return to our true centre, our authentic presence. In this state of egolessness, we are able to tap into the wellsprings of creativity within, and also be at one with all Creation, drinking and regenerating ourselves from the common fount, in a state of unstinting love, wisdom and compassion!
But before the destination is reached, many thresholds need to be crossed, the ego-clinging ogres must be slain, and you need to recognise and control the devious game of the ego. For just when you feel you’ve dropped it, says Osho, you will attain a subtle ego that says, “I have become humble.” Beware, for that’s the ego in hiding.
The state of egolessness
‘Egolessness’ is not functioning without an ego. The purpose of enlightenment is not to eliminate the ego, but to transform it in the light of the authentic self. This involves a clear understanding that our true self, with all its limitations and timeless essence, is an indivisible dynamic whole. It is here that modesty, discernment and the highest spiritual awareness meet.
We are then speaking of two centres within us – the pure self, that is the witnessing consciousness, and the ego, the dynamic self-conscious centre of our personality. Many of us know these as the higher and the lower ego, universal and individual ego, or what Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi explains as the ishvara and the jiva respectively.
As you shift from the lower to the higher ego, you still belong to the same house, but the ownership changes. Zen master Aziz Kristof explains the transformation as occurring in the following manner: “All thoughts are only witnessed object-events on the periphery of the consciousness; they are guests coming and going, having nothing to do with the stillness of our being. And yet, the centre is not empty and uninvolved. Although the thoughts are witnessed, the critical intelligence of the ego reminds that while the thoughts are an indivisible part of me, it is indeed ‘me’ who is thinking them; the absolute and relative me submerge in Oneness.”
Ken Wilber in his book, One Taste, suggests, “Transcending the ego means plugging into something bigger. The small ego does not evaporate; it remains as the functional centre of activity. Transcending the ego means not to transcend but include the ego in a deeper and higher embrace, first in the soul or deeper psyche, then with the Witness, then with each stage crossed, enfolded, included in the radiance of One Taste. And then we inhabit the ego fully, live with it with verve, use it as a necessary vehicle through which higher truths are communicated. The spirit includes the body, emotions and mind; they do not erase them.”
The death of the ego is a myth. As it questions its origin, a shift takes place. Meanwhile, thoughts, actions, desires, emotions continue to race in the mind. The idea is not to fight against the mind as if it were an enemy, but to accommodate it with gentleness and wisdom, as though it were a child. Baba Hari Dass explains, “You become what you think. So don’t identify yourself with your mind, but your real self. Observe your thoughts, without doing what they tell you to do; just watch them without judgement and let them pass. Remember that they are not you, just your mind, while you really are the self, the essence.”
Tolle identifies this as the “mystical warrior stance: to remain firmly rooted in the ‘now’ and fight all distractions of the mind, out of our deep knowledge that nothing can make us blissful apart from our inner self. Our greatest mistake is that we think happiness is somewhere out there on the horizontal line, either in the past or in the future. But happiness is the whole vertical line of our existence. When we were sometimes happy in the past, it was because we were then living – be it just the blink of a moment – the vertical line of our existence. And so will happiness come in the future: when we start living on the vertical line again.” To abandon the call of the ego, “I am the doer, I am the enjoyer,” is to cultivate karmayoga, which is an extended version of seva or selfless service, in true detachment from the fruits of our labour.