It occurred to me on my commute to work this morning that the path to awakening is so counter-intuitive because of what we’ve been conditioned to do in the physical world.
After a somewhat stressful day in which I found myself struggling to protect my ego from criticism by someone else, I realized that the whole exercise was so unnecessary and unskillful. But we’re conditioned to do that in the physical world. We take action to protect our status and livelihood at work. When our dog breaks loose from his leash and tears down the street, giddy with freedom, we correct them to try to teach them not to do that. When our car acts up we take it to the service station for diagnosis and repair. When we get an abscessed tooth, we have the dentist fix it or remove the tooth.
But we cannot free ourselves from ego by struggling. The more we maneuver and work against the problems it creates, the more entangled we become. We suffer the plight of the insect in the spider’s web, twisting and struggling and getting ourselves more and more enmeshed in the trap.
Letting go of ego is the beginning of awakening. Siddhārtha Gautama became the Buddha, the Awakened One, after doing nothing for 49 days under a pipal tree; following the meditative path to its end.
Afterward, the Buddha taught that all conditioned things are impermanent, arising and passing away, subject to change, and that understanding the significance of this reality is wisdom. “Saṅkhāra” is often used in to describe the psychological conditioning (particularly the habit patterns of the unconscious mind) that gives an individual their unique character (ego) at any given time. It is those conditioned habits we can become aware of through the practice of mindfulness.
The last words of the Buddha, according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, were “Disciples, this I declare to you: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration – strive on untiringly for your liberation.” Based on his example, I believe that the “strive on untiringly” is purposefully letting go, as counter-intuitive as that may seem to our conditioned minds.