The basic assumption made by most teachings on the subject of self-realization is that ego is bad. Some teachers advise to ignore it, some want to dissolve it, some say to kill it like an evil creature, and some don’t bother to do anything about it, resting in their conviction that it is essentially unreal. Is there anything in the spiritual world that has been so much despised, hated, criticized, negated and insulted as our ego? And what is it actually? In Latin, the term ‘ego’ simply means ‘I’. It is in fact a term which was made popular by Sigmund Freud who, incidentally, did not give it a negative connotation. He referred to it as what it is – a sense of I.
It is so common to use words and not understand their meaning. One thinks that one knows what one is talking about, but upon examination the opposite turns out to be true. The ego has become the scapegoat of spirituality, the one who is blamed for all our troubles and suffering. Of course, if we did not exist at all, if we did not have a sense of existence or ability to refer back to ourselves, we would not have any troubles. But we must ask ourselves whether choosing to be ‘nothing’ is a solution to the human condition. Why not just kill oneself? Certainly, it would be easier than pursuing all these tiresome spiritual practices in order to eliminate one’s very sense of I.
Why not instead begin to question that basic assumption that ego is bad? What about opening up to the revolutionary idea that perhaps ego is actually good? This poses the problem that we are challenging the authority of so many teachers and teachings that have claimed otherwise. Who has the right to claim ego is good when, for instance, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj or Krishnamurti – in whose deep realization we generally trust – explicitly said that ego is either evil or non-existent?
If truth be told, the essential issue here is not whether ego is good or bad, but more that there is no one who has pointed with any clarity to what it actually is. If you don’t know what it is, it is truly pointless to debate whether it is positive or negative. The technology of the spiritual path has not evolved much for several thousand years, and most teachings just repeat the same things without questioning their fundamental assumptions.
The fact is that even if one has reached a profound self-realization, this does not imply that one has properly understood that realization or is able to see it in the higher context of human evolution. It is possible that one is enlightened and yet remains bound by deep conditionings related to a particular tradition. One’s soul is perhaps free, but one’s mind is not free. The evolution of intelligence is not always in accord with our evolution into various states of awakening. Many believe that by awakening one naturally reaches the correct understanding, but this is not true. While there cannot be true understanding without awakening, it is also true that one can reach a deep level of self-realization with virtually no understanding at all. Of course, enlightenment without understanding is incomplete; it is a realization of a lower degree.
There have been numerous spiritual thinkers who deeply analyzed the nature of the mind. For instance, in Buddhism they divided the mind into countless elements, in this way trying to decipher the illusory nature of our ego sense of self. The question one may ask is why those deep thinkers, who devoted their whole lives to meditative practices and contemplation, could not really grasp the nature of ego. Firstly, sometimes that which is the most simple is the most elusive and difficult to grasp. But the real source of their failure in understanding ego was their initial assumption that ego is bad or false. They already had their answer before beginning their enquiry; their enquiry was dishonest, for its purpose was merely to justify their initial assumption. This is the problem with many thinkers: their investigation cannot yield truth because their views are already set. They already have a preconceived notion of how things are supposed to be.
Another example that comes to mind is Krishnamurti who, due to his intellectual propensity, proposed a path to sudden awakening (a bit of a contradiction in terms) that was meant to result from total understanding and radical insight into the nature of mind. He was a very intelligent man and yet, again, from the very beginning, he was bound by the assumption that ego is bad. Naturally, all his conclusions were the inevitable outcome of that assumption. He missed the very thing that is at the root of any enquiry – that very sense of me, the infamous ego. He spoke about total attention as a means to cut through the mind. But whose total attention is it? He spoke about going beyond the observer, or made statements like ‘the observer is the observed’. But what is it supposed to mean? The observer is the observed? It is absurd. So many profound thinkers, people who inspired millions, did not seem to understand the fundamental nature of the human self with its inherent sense of me. If that very foundation is lacking, what can possibly be built on it?
Anyway, due to short nature of this article, we need to focus on the essentials. Before we go into depth about what ego really is, we need to emphasize a very simple thing: without ego, no one could exist. Isn’t that positive enough? We assume that we are speaking to those who wish to continue to exist. As to those who hate existing, we need to respect their choice. Since they cannot commit suicide due to the fear of reincarnation, let them believe that their sense of self is just a form of delusion, and by maintaining this belief, having some mental relief from being who they are. As we have mentioned before, human beings have mastered living in denial.
So, what is this sense of me? The sense of me is the basis of any consciousness. Any creature in existence is endowed with a sense of me, one which has evolved to various degrees. As to defining the ego we have two choices: either we equate it with the general sense of me – in which case even a bird would have an ego – or we call ego a more evolved sense of me that has the ability for self-reflection. This is what is commonly called the observer or thinker. The difference between the thinker and the observer is not their essence but their function. When me thinks, it becomes a thinker; when it observes, it becomes an observer; when it checks things, it becomes a checker. ‘The observer’ is a term we use to point to the me that is capable of self-reflection but remains totally identified with the mind.
How could something so fundamental to who we are be deemed false or non-existent? Is there no end to human hypocrisy and self-deception? Without having a sense of me, not only would we not exist in any way, we could not evolve spiritually or realize our true nature. The purpose of awakening is not to annihilate our human identity, or to dissolve our ego, but to integrate our human consciousness with our higher being, so that we can experience our me from the depth of our soul. Me is the window for the soul into creation, and the force driving her into the inner realm.
As such, it is not me which is the problem, but the level of its evolution and disconnection from the soul. The purpose of me is to evolve and at one point to begin surrendering into our higher nature. It has been created not only to assure our physical and psychological survival but, above all, to serve our soul and her actualization. Through awakening, not only do we move beyond our me, that very me realizes itself on a higher level as a form of light, becoming an indivisible part of our soul.
Additionally, there is no such thing as the mind without a thinker, without a sense of me. Each thought has a subject, which is me. When thinking is subconscious, me is subconscious; when thinking is conscious, me is conscious. The first level of conscious thinking is becoming the observer. The observer has the ability for self-reflection and can be conscious of the fact that it is thinking. At a higher level of evolution, the observer becomes conscious of itself in separation from thinking, meaning he does not need to think in order to know that he exists. That higher level of me beyond the observer is what we call ‘conscious me’. Conscious me is conscious of its existence not merely through self-reflection, but through a sense of pure subjectivity and a level of being (abiding in the now).
So that is the ladder of ego – subconscious me, the observer and conscious me – and it is the direction in which me evolves towards higher dimensions of itself and the soul. Arriving at the state of conscious me is as far as me can go in terms of evolving within its own dimension. As such, reaching the condition of conscious me is the highest goal of self-enquiry. That which is usually called awareness is nothing but conscious me in itself, that is, without content. It is a positive state but has serious limitations. It allows one to exist beyond the mind and to master the thinking processes, but one still remains locked in a particular reality that is disconnected from the light of the soul. Here, me is free from the mind but imprisoned in itself.
The further evolution of me requires the opening of the space that is beyond me. We call it, using the traditional term, I am. In this case, we will speak about the particular dimension of I am: the I am of consciousness. I am of consciousness is both the portion of universal I am that is transferred to us through the act of grace in order to allow the birth of our higher individuality, and a portal to universal consciousness through which we transcend the dimension of presence. When I am enters our existence, and we are able to meet it as our higher self (not just as a place of abidance), in this moment we experience our sense of self on two levels simultaneously – as me and as I am. When these two are not integrated and merged, one is split between them, moving back and forth between me and I am. This is a very common occurrence among those who experience some form of awakening.
For that split to be dissolved, me has to surrender to I am so that they can be unified. It is not enough for me to be aware of I am; it has to begin to consciously surrender to it. The one who begins this process of surrender is conscious me. Conscious me is energetically located in the front of the headspace whereas I am is realized in the depth of the headspace. Because of their different locations, it is difficult to unify them. Since conscious me cannot simply leave the front of the head, a deeper dimension of me is born in the process of its surrender – pure me. Pure me is that aspect of me that can fully merge with I am. It is the unity of pure me and I am that gives birth to our higher identity, the soul. Those who have awakened I am but not their pure me cannot realize their soul. Me is the very consciousness of the soul, while I am is the foundation of her impersonal light and a portal to the beyond.
It is time to bring a higher level of honesty and understanding into the consciousness of human spirituality. Repeating old clichés is not working anymore – a change is needed. For this, we need to start from the very beginning and revisit our fundamental assumptions. We must question and transform our relationship with who we truly are, including the very one who, no matter how much we despise it, will remain our lifetime companion – our ego. Ego needs to be embraced as the positive aspect of our identity without which we cannot actualize the very purpose of our creation. Ego does indeed need to become more conscious; it needs to be purified, healed and transformed through surrender into our soul. And yet, we should never forget that its essence is divine. Awakening a constructive, intelligent and affectionate perception of our ego is the first step on the path and the first real step into self-love. If this step is not taken, there are no other steps to take – the very foundation of that house of our self will crumble.
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