Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Some thoughts on ego and enlightenment

I’m not into the extreme ego-bashing that takes place in many spiritual circles. Making the ego into an enemy, a dragon to slay, something to destroy is frankly a little ignorant. Trying to fight and destroy the ego is just as ridiculous as trying to destroy your shadow, or your reflection in a mirror. It isn’t real - it’s just a trick of the light and try though you might, you will never succeed in destroying it, because it has no inherent existence of its own. As long as you’re alive in this world, you’re going to have an ego. If someone calls your name, you will answer to it. The ego is kind of necessary for functioning in our day to day lives. It has its purpose.

Where things go wrong is when we identify with our ego, with our reflection or shadow, and mistake it for being the entirety of who we are. This is what causes the problems, not really the ego itself, but our identification with it and with the layers of conditioning, beliefs and thoughts that glue it in place. In order to break free of this illusion, it’s not necessary or advisable to try to destroy the ego, it’s enough simply to dis-identify from it, to recognise that it is simply a mechanism or a software program through which we process reality. We are the operator of the software, the witness that peers through the mask. This realisation is the essence of spiritual awakening.

I’ve heard it said before that in order to transcend the ego, we must first have developed a reasonably strong, balanced ego. Weak egos are always seeking outside validation, forever manipulating circumstances and people in order to boost its fragile sense of self. The danger is, I suppose, that weak egos might use spirituality as a way of actually boosting their sense of identity. Well-developed egos may have less need for doing so, and thus might be a little more authentic in their desire for transcendence of ego. Even then, the ego has a powerful self-survival streak and is rarely truly willing to commit the suicide that authentic spiritual awakening asks of it.

Two types of Spirituality

Many forms of ‘spirituality’ and religion, and just about all of what is known as ‘personal development’ are actually ego-development, means of feeling better about ourselves and the world. This is good and may be an important part of our path toward eventual awakening, but to avoid self-delusion and future disillusionment it is necessary to distinguish between these forms of ‘feel-better spirituality’ and genuine spiritual awakening, which is actually a destructive process, in which we willingly step into the fire and are seared to the bone, allowing everything that is false to burn away.

Feel-better spirituality is about adding to yourself and coming up with more positive stories about yourself and life, whereas authentic spirituality is a almost like crucible in which everything is taken away from you, including all notions of who you think you are. This is not to pit one against the other, just to the highlight the difference.

Most people are simply not ready to enter the crucible. They will know when they are, because often it is a spontaneous happening, or perhaps life pushes them into it because otherwise the suffering is too much to bear. There comes a point when instead of simply making the dream better and more pleasant, we begin to see through the dream and once this happens, it’s impossible to relate to it in the same way ever again. Ego still exists, the dream continues to unfold, but it develops a certain transparency. We cease identifying with it.

The Spiritual Ego

An interesting phenomenon that I have witnessed in myself and others and which is sometimes a characteristic of the ‘spiritual path’ is the development of the SPIRITUAL EGO. The spiritual ego arises when we begin to think that ‘we are spiritual’ and that we have all this knowledge and wisdom which others don’t have and that we’re somehow closer to our ‘higher selves’ than ‘unspiritual’ people.

We may indeed be closer to the realisation of Self, but the spiritual ego can be a tricky trap to fall into, especially when we invest too much identity in it. In truth, the spiritual ego can be even more noxious and dangerous than the average ego, because it has a certain righteousness and it tends to be closed off to all other possibilities and viewpoints. Because the spiritual ego believes that it is in possession of the ultimate truth and is somehow closer to God, it is capable of committing all kinds of dubious behaviours, as is the case with suicide bombers for instance. An extreme example I know, but it’s still important to keep a check on the spiritual ego.

Who wants to be enlightened?

It’s ironic that many people strive to reach enlightenment and destroy their egos, little knowing that these desires are actually driven by their egos. Our true Self - our true nature as expansive consciousness - is in a non-manipulative relationship with everything. It doesn’t want experience to be a certain way, it is open and embracing of everything. I believe that it does however have an impulse to express itself through the world of form, and for this to happen a certain transparency is necessary, a lessening of the calcified hold of ego, or at least a seeing beyond its narrow and quite illusory confines. But the true Self doesn’t struggle or strive or attempt to manipulate reality. It’s a silent and vast ocean of stillness that ever lies at the core of our beings. We reach it by surrendering to it. The ego likes to get so far to it, but when it comes to the surrender part - forget it! Why surrender to the source when you can use it to manifest a new car or a bonus at work?

I believe that the impulse to spiritually awaken is genuine, a prompting from this deeper level of being, but the ego often hi-jacks the process. ‘Oh my, wouldn’t it be great to be enlightened!’ Only the ego wants to become enlightened - because our true nature, the awakeness that we are, is already awake. So beware the tendency of ego to hi-jack the process and make spirituality into the same old process of acquisition and accumulation that it takes with the material world.

Don’t make the ego into an enemy and don’t try to vanquish it. Just see through it and cease identifying with it. That’s all. As simple as that. No need for conflict or aggression, or creating false dualities within our consciousness. There is an apparent duality, but it’s simply a mirage. When this is realised, it may not disappear altogether, but we are no longer bound by it, granting importance to this seemingly independent aspect of self.

It becomes like a yo-yo match at times. The ego has tremendous persistence and it loves creeping back in - even the smallest of cracks will do. Just watch it with patience and amusement, as you would a small child playing. Don’t take it so seriously. But watch for any investment in concepts and ideas about ‘yourself’ and who you think you are, including this notion of being ‘a spiritual person’. There’s no such thing as a spiritual person. Spirituality is seeing beyond the person, beyond the ego. There is only spirituality expressing spirituality; awareness becoming aware of itself. Nothing personal about it at all.

Those are just some unassorted ramblings, I hope they made some kind of sense on some level.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

This Is It!

I wanted to share a slightly abridged extract from Adyashanti’s book ‘Emptiness Dancing’, for it is something that had a profound effect on me and afterward I will explain how.

“Everything is consciousness. Everything is God. Everything is One. Seeing that everything is One shoots a hole in trying to pin the pendulum swing of experience in any particular place. If it’s all One; it’s no more One when the pendulum is in the high state than when the pendulum is over in some other state.

Zen teachers don’t explain anything in an abstract way, which is both the beauty and the terror of it. My teacher’s way of explaining this would be to hold up his staff and say, “This is Buddha.” Then he would bang it on the ground and everyone would think, “Wow! That’s really wild Zen stuff. I wish I knew what he was talking about.” Then he would go -- bang, bang, bang, bang -- and he would say, “This is Zen. This is it!” And everyone would react, “Oh, wow!” People would wonder, “What? Where?” but nobody would say that. “It couldn’t be THAT because he’s just beating a stick on the ground.”

Since it’s not all One to the mind, the mind keeps looking for it, “Where is it? What state is it?” Because the me references everything to its own emotional state, that’s what it uses to decide what is true. It thinks that what is true is always a spiritually high emotional state, but this stick pounding is not a very spiritually high emotional state. Then, to make it worse, to make it more horrifying, he would say, “This is a concrete description of the truth. This is Buddha. This is not abstract.” Then we would really be defeated.

It’s a real blessing to have a teaching that insists upon being concrete, because he could just have said, as I sometimes do, “Everything is consciousness. It’s all One.” Then the mind thinks, “I got it. I’ll buy that. I know what that means.” But when a stick bangs on the ground and the teacher says, “That’s it!” you can’t wrap your mind around it. The banging of the stick is as much God as you’re ever going to get. Everything else after that is an abstraction, a movement away from the fact.

[...] There is no experience that is more the truth than any other experience, because in the centre of it all, there is no seeker. Right here, there is nothing. All is One.

You will discover there is no little “me” in the centre occupying the space. Without this me in the centre, there is nobody to judge whether a given experience is the right experience or whether it is spiritual. Do you get it? This is it! When my teacher banged his stick on the ground, he showed that everything was arising out of the centre where nothing is. All is an expression of that centre and is not separate from that centre. If you don’t see it HERE, you’re not going to see it anywhere. This is the Great Release -- the release from having to change anything to get to the Promised Land or to search for the enlightened experience. The enlightenment experience is that nothing needs to change. In fact, you can see from here that enlightenment itself is not an experience. And it’s not a spiritual high.”

I found, and continue to find, an extraordinary power in these words. They cut through one of the most pervasive and tragic lies which sits at the very heart of most forms of spirituality: that enlightenment is an end-state that we must strive toward, some experience or state of consciousness that we have to acquire, something that we can ‘add’ to ourselves. That is the mind’s concept of enlightenment and it is rooted in our culture’s prevailing mindset of subject and object, acquire and accumulate. This could not be further from the truth. As long as you seek enlightenment, you’ll never find it. Because you ARE it. Not in some distant time in a mind-projected future, but HERE...and NOW.

“This is it!”

I will never forget those words. Whenever I find myself buying into the delusion that I need anything to be any different to the way it it is, that I can’t be at peace with a certain situation, that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be happening, I remind myself that “This is it!”

Experiences come and go -- our emotional state rises and falls, for no experience can sustain itself indefinitely, or even necessarily for very long. And that’s OK. But the delusion is that when things aren’t going the way the mind thinks they ought to be, that when we aren’t feeling as good as we might like on an emotional or physical level, that this is somehow an experience that isn’t ‘right’ or isn’t ‘spiritual’ and that we cannot be at peace or happy until we’ve changed it.

We might intellectually understand that all things are One, and yet until we actually move into the full realisation of this, our minds and egos continue to cut reality into chunks and label them ‘good’ and ‘bad’. We’re happy when we experience the ‘good’ and unhappy when we experience the ‘bad’. But this isn’t wholeness; it’s divisiveness. With the mind we’re created both God and Satan, heaven and hell.

But when we truly realise that “This is it!” -- This! Here! NOW! -- the mind loses its power to dissect and divide. If it truly is all One, then it’s ALL One, not just the bits we deem desirable and pleasant. No experience can be MORE part of the Unity than any other. Sitting on the toilet is just as spiritual as sitting on a cushion chanting mantras. If it’s all One, then how can it ever not be One?

And similarly dawns the realisation that, if it’s all One, then at this very moment you are as ‘spiritual’ as you will ever be. You cannot be ‘more’ or ‘less’ ARE what are. You cannot add anything to yourself, for you ARE already everything! Of course, paradoxically, the mind may obscure this fact -- so maybe the spiritual journey, if it can be called that, is simply a means of removing the blinders and realising that you ALREADY ARE that which you seek. It’s not about adding anything to yourself in any way, it’s maybe more about subtracting whatever obscures your direct realisation that “This is it!” As Joseph Campbell once said; “Eternity is not the hereafter. This is it. If you don’t get it now, you won’t get it anywhere.”

I happened to be reading those profoundly insightful words by Adyashanti while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital dermatology clinic. I was going to get a strange lesion on my ribs checked out. Incredibly struck by the great ‘Aha!’ realisation sparked by the words, I went in and was told that it appeared to be a form of skin cancer. I just nodded, interested and almost bemused. I wasn’t bothered in the slightest. Why should I have been? “This is it!” This experience was no more or less Divine than any other.

Now, fortunately it was a relatively minor form of skin cancer, but I wasn’t really bothered in the slightest. It was interesting watching other people’s reactions: the ‘c-word’ has a profound affect on people. But I knew that everything would be taken care of, as it always is...or it wouldn’t be and I’d just have to accept it, and that was fine as well.

It’s the tendency of the mind to cut in and start freaking out about things, but I think my mind was stunned into submission by my astonishing realisation that “This is it!” Everything was taken care of. I admit that the most arduous part of the whole incident was the pain of the wound after the operation (it was an awkward place) and that kind of knocked my spirits for a while, but that soon passed as well. No part of the experience was any “less Divine” than any other experience I’ve ever had.

Now, I’m not saying that this realisation sticks with me 24/7. The mind has such tremendous gravity and before long it was up to its old tricks again, attempting to divide and conquer its perception of reality. But, even now, the moment I recall those three powerful words: “This is it!”, the mind usually recoils and crawls back under its rock, immediately letting go of whatever it’s been grasping onto. An immediate sensation of letting go happens. Tension dissolves and resistance diminishes. Life seems simpler and more peaceful again.

So that’s what I wanted to share. Remember the stick being banged upon the ground and the words “This is it!” (Hey, maybe I should get a t-shirt printed!) The experience that you’re having RIGHT NOW, whether the mind deems it good or bad, pleasing or displeasing, spiritual or unspiritual, is an experience of the Oneness...and is as much “God” as you will ever get, for there is ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ when it comes to One (it’s either ALL One, or none of it is).

That can be very sobering, especially when you’re not feeling so great physically or emotionally, but usually I find that whenever I make this recognition -- “This is it!” -- striving begins to diminish and the need to seek and acquire or make myself or my experience somehow ‘better’ or ‘more holy’ falls away. A great space opens up and in that space, all things are right. I see that everything is already perfect as it is, for it is all part of the Oneness and can never NOT be part of the Oneness, beyond our mental misperception that it isn’t.

And why would that be the case? Because, altogether now: “THIS IS IT!”