“Knowledge of man is the beginning of wholeness, but knowledge of God is perfect wholeness. Therefore, as it seems, it is the greatest of all disciplines to know oneself; for a man knows himself, he knows God.”Clement of Alexandria
Should you kill the ego? Destroy it? Annihilate it? The truth is, the ego is not the enemy, but can become an important ally in your journey of spiritual growth.
Having chosen death over exile, Socrates’ last words were: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I don’t fully agree. Socrates’ words are saturated with truth but they’re harsh. It may be presumptuous to alter the dying statement of one of the world’s greatest philosophers, but I will anyway. “The unexamined life is not lived fully.”
Mindfulness and meditation connect with the divine spark within, refining your spiritual sensitivity to rediscover the parts of yourself not limited to the material (body) or the intellectual (ego). Many of the world’s greatest philosophers have used self-enquiry to explore the truth of existence.
Spiritual work is a process of examination. All quests begin with a question. All questions are quests. The question is: who are you?
A self-image is the sum of smaller parts. Identities formed through the prism of the Disenchanted Worldview are in their nature identified with material form. Identity is what we do — our age, occupation, appearance, likes, dislikes, and how we do it — our personality, behaviour, thoughts, or emotions. Believing any of these “parts” to be the sum total of who we are is mistaken identity.
The Ego Is Not The Enemy
“The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.”Carl Jung
Self-enquiry through meditation and mindfulness starts to unravel the illusion of ego. Without examination the inherited DNA of thoughts, emotions and beliefs — about ourselves and our place in the world — are taken as gospel. This is not reality but an inner kingdom of deception.
The Matrix is the collection of concepts that forms a consensus reality within which our ego identity forms. However, the role of ego in spirituality and development is misunderstood. It is often seen as an enemy to be killed or annihilated, yet this approach causes an inner-conflict, as we reject a part of ourselves. Rejecting ego gives it an identity as something worth rejecting.
The underlying assumption when attempting to reject or kill or annihilate the ego is that it is tangible, alive, something we must go to battle over. The paradox is viewing the ego as the enemy boosts its identity even more.
Instead of the ego self-image becoming a limiting view of who we are, the ego is a versatile, valuable function of the intellect. It allows us to navigate the modern world. It provides continuity in ourselves and our lives. It is the discerning faculty and a powerful ally in the quest for growth. The late American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, sums it up by saying:
“The ego is there, as our servant. Our room is there. We can always go in and use it like an office when we need to be efficient. But the door can be left open so that we can always walk out.”
We don’t want to kill it or annihilate the ego; that would render us insane in the definition of not being able to function. The key is knowing how to harness the ego and use it as a function without believing it is who we are. If we see ego as our identity we become our thoughts and emotions, and our being is confined to the physical body and the material world.
Part of our evolution is to create a healthy ego identity; to know “I” am separate from “the world” on a material level. Once born and entering the world independent from the womb for the first time, we develop an ego to survive. This psychological grounding is needed before consciousness evolves and we let go of this protective layer.
The Value of Self-Enquiry
The ego is not the enemy, but it is deceptive, a trickster that adjusts and adapts. But those qualities are just the qualities of thoughts themselves. The ego, as a conscious element within the psyche, is used to explore true nature through self-enquiry. Rather than villain, the ego self-sacrifices parts of itself, to grow.
Self-enquiry is a life-long commitment to understanding the truth of who you are and letting go of what is false or illusionary. Meditation is a microcosm of this letting go process; we learn to observe, accept, and let go of phenomena. Eventually, this practice permeates the conceptual level of reality (labels and judgements) and self-image (ego).
Familiarising yourself with the impermanent, ever-changing nature of mind shows the illusion of reality we hold onto is far from fixed. And neither are we. As Buddhist philosophy explains — there is no fixed personality. This is one of the first steps in the path to freedom.
What happens when your self-image starts to loosen? You are not a fixed entity. You are ever-evolving and eternal. Limiting self-beliefs or stories of who you are begin to dissolve, and new imaginations and dreams of who and what you can become emerge, unhindered by distortions.
Mindfulness allows us to let go of the story of ourselves, to break the habit of who we have become, to see that the potential for personal evolution is limitless.
The Divine Play
“Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it.”Ram Dass
The transition from attachment to the material world into deeper, spiritual realities is painful. But the process is like pulling a plaster from sensitive skin; the pain is provoked by the process of removal. As we learn to rest in spirit, we become less attached we are to the material, sensory world.
In Hinduism, Lila refers to the “divine play.” All reality is the creative play of the sacred absolute — this collective, non-dual consciousness behind all of existence is called Brahman. The divine self, discoverable by self-enquiry, is Atman. Awakening is realising the Atman and Brahman are one and the same.
The facade covering our inherent divinity is what Hinduism refers to as the Avatar. This roughly translates to the “divine descent” from heavenly to earthly realms. Although the term usually refers to great spiritual teachers sent to share insights into our spiritual nature, each of us are divine sparks operating behind the facade of ego.
A spiritual awakening is the awareness of this divine spark. Spiritual practice is a commitment to building a relationship with this divine spark. Your spirit is waiting to be discovered. Genius sculpture Michelangelo said of his creative process:
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculpture to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Self-enquiry carves the marble and frees the angel inside. Once free, life flows from authentic foundations. Atman becomes our character. It’s the divine spark, the twinkle in the eye, the spring in the step. It provides meaning, purpose, and alignment with something bigger than ourselves. It is a life lived beyond the separation of ego.
Building Conviction In The Truth Of Who You Are
I love The Truman Show, the 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey. It’s a profound metaphor for the process of spiritual awakening and feeling the pain of letting go and the innate yearning to discover our authentic world. Like Truman’s realisation he’s living in a reality TV show, self-enquiry explores backstage of maya to see the lighting rigs and read the scripts that unconsciously fuel our behaviour.
When no longer acting under the influence of unconscious thoughts you’re able to simplify, excavate, drill down to the core of being, the core of what makes you feel most alive. In this space truth emerges, away from the influence of family and friends, your teachers, role models, TV or Hollywood or the radio pages of magazines. This truth is unique to you. This is your path. This is who you are.
Finding this truth isn’t easy. Building a life around it is harder. Truth doesn’t play by society’s rules because each of us is unique. Carving marble isn’t a quick fix. It requires the rejection of peer pressure. It requires resilience when faced with the expectations of others. It requires acting in alignment with our own truth, sometimes in defiance of those we love. It requires ceaseless examination and staying true to yourself no matter what.
Spiritual growth isn’t positive thinking or promises of a magic solution to everlasting happiness. Genuine healing and growth require an exploration of darkness, the “shadow work” to shed the layers of skin, to allow the light to shine through, to know the ego is not the enemy, but an aspect you must learn to get on your side.
So why do it? Because the reward of growth and freedom is beyond comparison. To find wholeness in a world of separation, to live in truth in a kingdom of deception, is the greatest gift you can give yourself, and the world.
This article is an adapted excerpt from my book, Mindsets for Mindfulness: Awakening from Crisis To Higher Consciousness.