by Peter Fenner
Most spiritual paths suggest that the ego is the source of our suffering and the enemy of true wisdom. The ego shows up as a constant and nagging obstacle to the development of a truly free and liberated way of being. Egoism and egolessness are typically contrasted in the following way:
In short, the ego is bad and egolessness is good. Consequently, spiritual paths are structured around the eradication of egoism and the cultivation of egolessness.
Spiritual systems advocate a wide range of methods for eradicating our fixation and preoccupa- tion with egocentric fantasies and desires. Some systems build on the assumption that our ego is real and can only be destroyed through denial and renunciation. Such systems teach us to fight our desires for comfort, power, sex and prestige by imposing constraints on how we think and behave. Other systems hold a more malleable view of the ego. According to these systems, the ego can be coerced and transformed. Our ego-centered ways can be redirected into more caring and creative forms of behavior through the infusion of higher-order values such as generosity and selfless love. Other systems hold that the ego is a complete illusion. They suggest that we have been capti- vated and bewitched by a belief that doesn’t correspond to anything real. Some schools of Bud- dhism, for example, explicitly teach that there is no self or ego. These traditions teach us how to wield the sword of wisdom that cuts through and uproots the ego by seeing that its cries for satisfac- tion and completeness are but the echoes of a empty ghost.
In contrast to these traditions, some “unorthodox” traditions such as Zen and Dzogchen have pointed out that all such methods and procedures are predicated on the belief that we have something to gain through our spiritual labor. They observe that continued application of any spiritual method or psychological technique presupposes that we are concerned about ourselves-i.e., self-centered. We simply need to listen to the official stories and anecdotal reports about how rewarding it is to live the spiritual life to discover this. From this perspective, the pursuit of an egoless state only serves to maintain and perpetuate the ego. By rejecting our ego we only give it more power, since we grant it the capacity to control and dominate us. Indeed, trying to alleviate our suffering is the worst thing we could possibly do, since this only feeds the ego’s need for comfort and security.
In general terms there are three ways of relating to the concept of egolessness.
Absolute egolessness—the shortgun approach
At one extreme, the spiritual endeavor is viewed as the total eradication of our ego. Under this interpretation egoism is viewed as the source of all suffering, while egolessness is the source of supreme and permanent happiness. Egolessness becomes the most desirable attainment possible, for it protects us from everything we wish to avoid and grants us unalloyed and permanent peace of mind.
We find this relationship to egolessness in spiritual movements that pride themselves on their discipline, purity and rigor. Within such traditions we relate to the ego as though it was a real enemy. Though it appears as our friend and savior, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing because it undermines the possibility of salvation with its need for short-term and limited forms of gratification. The only way to achieve liberation from suffering is to permanently eradicate all manifestations and traces of egoism.
With this attitude we are on a continual search and destroy mission as we attempt to flush out and uproot all thoughts, feelings and actions that are based on the need for self preservation and survival. Everything we do is viewed with suspicion because the ego is cunning, deceptive, and totally untrustworthy. We experience a profound sense of urgency and take on the obligation to practice incessantly. Our ideal is to practice twenty four hours a day because we know that every second we waste makes it more difficult to eradicate the ego. We can’t sleep comfortably at night, especially if we are tired, since this is giving into the ego’s need for comfort and sustenance. The literature we read and the teachers we listen to state the need for constant vigilance and awareness. The task of achieving liberation is extremely difficult, very few people have accom- plished it, so we must be absolutely unrelenting in our pursuit of an egoless state. In order to break free from the insidious and vice-like clutches of egoism we must resist every desire and forsake all need for comfort and security. We learn how to be ruthless and uncompromising in detecting and destroying every manifestation and trace of separation and uniqueness. Anything less than this is just a “mickey mouse” approach to spiritual practice. No matter how advanced we are, we can’t afford to relax or let down our guard since the slightest trace of egoism can fester and grow anew like a cancerous tumor, suffocating any freedom and peace we have cultivated. In fact, within this school of thinking there is no room for accomplishment, nor for assessing that we have made progress in subduing our ego, since any such thoughts are only created by the ego’s need for gratification ac- corded through success. Such thoughts are a smoke screen created by the ego to counteract the effects of our practice.
In this approach the ego has infiltrated our entire personality structure. There is nothing we can think, feel or experience that isn’t contaminated by our ego. For as long as “we” exist, we are operat- ing from an ego-base. Consequently, the only way to achieve egolessness is to eradicate all sense of personal identity. The task, ultimately, is to kill one’s self without suiciding-to die while living.
Annihilating the ego
Our capacity to detect and destroy our ego depends on our level of awareness. Mindfulness and awareness are the armor that protect us against the inevitable pain and suffering that self-interest produces. Any lapse in our awareness makes us more vulnerable to the subtle and devious ways in which the ego undermines our search for lasting happiness and peace. Meditation, therefore, can become the real battle ground, for it is here, when our awareness is focused and acute, that we can see the pervasive and subtle movements of the ego more clearly. It is also in meditation that we can attack the ego with full force. Armed with awareness we try to nail it down and destroy it with the vast armory of techniques that have been developed in the various spiritual traditions. Or perhaps we try to render the ego impotent in one foul swoop by clearly and dispassionately seeing through its need for pleasure and recognition. Ultimately, we hope to see right through its very need to exist. Hence, within many traditions, the seriousness of our search is mea- sured by the length of time we spend on the cushion or in retreat. If we aren’t meditating then we aren’t really applying ourselves. We are merely toying with the idea of egolessness rather than uprooting the ego at its very foundations.
Another forum for destroying our ego occurs in the student-teacher relationship. In the shotgun approach, the ego-ridden student exists in contrast to a totally selfless guru. The egoless guru height- ens and intensifies our own petty, egocentric lives. Some teachers openly declare that their only reason for existing is in order to tame their students’ egos. By merely being in the presence of the purity and sheer intensity of our guru’s egolessness, our ego is revealed in all its disguises as we try to win approval, be acknowledged or receive special treatment. Every attempt to form an ego-based alliance with our egoless teacher is instantaneously mirrored back through the guru’s fundamental disinterest or feigned annoyance with what we say and do.
In this approach to spiritual development, the guru is the sole arbiter of what is selfish and what is selfless. If our guru responds positively to us then our actions are selfless. If our guru challenges or ignores us, this is because our ego is involved. Gurus are ranked in terms of their capacity to decimate their students’ egos. Students talk proudly about the wrath of their teachers and how “dev- astating” their encounters have been.
The primary discipline is to stay as close to the guru as possible, for as long as possible. We covet the guru’s inner circle and follow our teachers across the globe. The success of our practice is measured by our capacity to stay within the white hot heat of the guru’s egoless energy as it inciner- ates our sense of separation and difference.
Unbridled Egoism and the Futility of Spiritual Practice
Up to this point we have been describing the shotgun approach in which we are our own worst enemy. Here we lie in wait for the ego and every time it raises its head we attack it-with more medi- tation, more purification, more ego-destroying encounters with a guru. When this extreme way of relating to our ego is pushed to the limit it transforms into the oppo- site extreme. At some point we clearly see how we are being driven by the promise of a state of bliss and freedom. While we may have been aware of this at an intellectual level, we now experience how the urgency of our need to escape our suffering has drowned out the fact that we relate to egolessness as a prized possession. While we have been fighting worldly desires for fame and fortune we have failed to come to terms with our addiction to the promise of liberation.
We now see how resisting any desire is simply fulfilling another desire, namely, the desire to protect ourselves from the pain and frustration of unfulfilled needs. In fact, every thought, feeling and physical movement is an expression of our need to maintain our integrity and perpetuate our existence-albeit in a blissful form. For a moment we might think that egolessness is still possible, if only we can keep out of the way of our ego. But the very action of trying to escape or avoid the influence of our ego only confirms and consolidates its existence.
At this point we can conclude that our ego is so pervasive that it encompasses everything we can possibly do. It has appropriated our entire existence. It is “omnipresent”. There is absolutely nothing “we” can do to transcend the influence of our ego because its tentacles distort and pervert everything we do. Every effort to destroy our ego only fortifies it. Spiritual practices are useless and bankrupt because they are based on the need for “personal” benefit and fulfillment. They invariably perpetuate our ego because they are based on our fear of suffering and hope for liberation.
In fact, spirituality is a lost cause since there is no such thing as an egoless state. Egolessness is a concept invented by the ego to make it feel good. We (i.e. the ego) like to feel good, so we culti- vate the belief that we can act selflessly. We comfort ourselves with the thoughts that we can sacri- fice our interests for the well being of others. Egolessness, then, is simply a shorthand description for the illusion that we can escape an overarching concern with ourselves.
This being the case then, we should simply forget about egolessness. We should banish forever the thought that we can act in a selfless manner. In fact, to pursue a selfless existence is to battle against our real nature which is to take care of our needs as best as possible. Desires are an essential part of being human so we should just get on with the job of fulfilling them. Our happiness and suffering have nothing at all to do with the presence or absence of an ego since it is impossible to BE, and to be free of an ego. The pragmatics of this approach dictate only that we act to fulfill our desires. To do otherwise is to distort our humanness in the name of a spiritual fantasy. If an experi- ence of fulfillment depends on wealth and recognition we should just go for these without a second thought or any trace of guilt.
This way at least we can free up energy to experience life directly and freshly without wasting our time in misguided spiritual activities. We can get on with the business of living without needing to analyze and dissect our own and others’ actions for their underlying motivation. If spirituality amounts to anything, it consists simply of being true to our feelings. This “new” insight into the futility of spiritual practice can cut two ways. If we interpret our well- intentioned pursuit of egolessness as nothing more than punching ourselves in the face, we end up bruised, resigned and even angry at the people who seem to have validated our battle. We feel short- changed and cheated by the systems that have only increased our desire and sense of incompleteness with their promises of liberation. Alternatively, if we break with the memories and heavy-handed energy of the shotgun approach we can enjoy a temporary experience of release and liberation.
A spiritually informed version
The indulgence of our ego can also be validated through a lop-sided reading of the non-dualistic spiritual traditions such as Zen, Taoism, Dzogchen, Tantra and Advaita. We give license to our free- wheeling approach by selectively drawing on the most radical elements of these traditions. We tune into spiritual masters who declare that: “There is nothing to get.” “This is it.” “There is no ego or egolessness.” We expand our libraries to include books which claim that spiritual practices only condition us, and that all spiritual effort is pointless.
However, no matter what spiritual pedigree we draw on to support our self-justifying beliefs, the bottom-line is that we continue to suffer like everyone else. When our desires are fulfilled we feel satisfied and complete. As new desires emerge, or as existing ones remain unfulfilled, we expe- rience pain, frustration, anger and incompletion. From a spiritual point of view there is nothing for us to do except enjoy or endure our pleasure and pain as we try to structure and control the external factors and internal processes that govern the fulfillment of our desires.
In fact, our new “authoritative” spiritual sources only prolong our dalliance with a hands-off and dismissive approach to spiritual discipline and practice. When the initial buoyancy that accom- panies the promise of a new perspective begins to flatten, we may attempt to regain our “privileged” position by passing magisterial pronouncements on those who still practice. We tend to focus exclu- sively on the co-dependent aspects of teacher-student relationships and comment on the na©£vety of disciples and followers. As the spiritual impotence of our new approach dawns on us, we can be- come cynical and smug about those who are still stuck in the belief that “there is something to get”. We start to make condescending observations about all teachers, systems and practices. As the uncertainty and insecurity about our own approach increases, this can even extend to making face- tious comments about the inevitable egoism of saints, spiritual leaders, voluntary aid workers, and philanthropists.
At some point, though, our cynicism becomes too obvious to ignore and we are forced to acknowledge the fact that unbridled egoism doesn’t produce the peace and contentment we seek. We see how the process of “fulfilling our desires” conditions our need for fulfillment and satisfaction. Once one need is fulfilled another follows quickly in its wake. We find ourselves caught in an alter- nating pattern of feeling “fulfilled” and feeling “needy”.
“Middle Class” EGOLESSNESS
In between the extremes of absolute egolessness and pervasive egoism lie a whole range of interpretations about what it means to cultivate an egoless existence. All these interpretations share the assumption that there is an egoistic dimension to our personality, but also that we can act in a genuinely selfless manner. The egoistic aspect is responsible for all of our suffering, while the egoless dimension is the source of all authentic satisfaction and fulfillment. The sentiment expressed is that we should be more selfless, less concerned and preoccupied about our own needs and desires. We should let life flow through us without appropriating or avoiding pleasurable and painful experi- ences. We should be in a way where we neither indulge in, nor reject who we are. Followers of this approach view it as the most evolved approach to egolessness because it doesn’t fall to the extremes we have been describing. Whilst we don’t claim to get it right all the time, we know that this is a superior perspective. People “mature” into this understanding in re- sponse to the continuing pain that the distorted approaches fail to alleviate. Here we balance the fact that we are individuals with the understanding that egoism and selfishness cause suffering for our- selves and others.
In contrast to the shotgun approach, “middle class” egolessness doesn’t require the wholesale destruction of our personality. There is no necessary conflict between living in the world and tran- scending all need for personal security. We can fulfill our own material needs and continue to inter- act creatively with others, without this being driven by fear or fantasy.
This being so, the spiritual endeavor takes on the flavor of discovering our own “personal” style of egolessness. Our spiritual life consists of constructing a satisfying story about our way of living life and being in the world. People often acquire a basic story line from one or other of the fashion- able spiritual traditions such as Taoism or Buddhism, and then customize this to fit their own particu- lar preferences and inclinations. In this way we create our “preferred”style of egolessness tailored to our own needs and projections. We can also adjust the story line and alter our preferred style as our needs and projections change with time. For some this is a tremendously attractive form of spiritual- ity because it gives very wide latitude for individual expression.
We produce self-satisfying stories about what it is like to live an egoless existence. We invent elegant and “spiritually correct” stories about how egolessness doesn’t mean the obliteration of our individual identities but rather signifies a state in which we are no longer attached to our personal and social identities. We project our models of egolessness onto spiritual teachers. However, here we retain our own autonomy to the extent that we can pass mature and sensible judgements on the contribution of different teachers and traditions, including our own.
A quiet self-righteousness
We grow into earnest and well-intentioned spiritual seekers who weave complex and meaning- ful stories about our own “process” and “development”. These stories serve two purposes. First, they allow us to assess that we have made some progress towards achieving egolessness. They provide a framework against which we can confirm that we are basically on the right track. They confirm that some of our actions are more egoless than others. In doing so, our model of egolessness “partially validates” our present identity. However, in only giving partial validity to our identity, our stories also provide the opportunity for further improvement and refinement of our experience of egolessness. Our story creates scope and reason for more meditation, more study, and more intimate encounters with our gurus.
This model of egolessness fuels a sense of on-going involvement and achievement. We keep ourselves active and busy reflecting on whether we are being driven by our ego or motivated by a more spacious and accommodating way of being. We search our souls in order to determine our real motivation for work, relationships, meditation, etc., etc. We check ourselves when our egos get the best of us, commend ourselves when we operate from a less grasping space, and then censure our- selves again when we notice that our commendation reveals our egos have “caught us out yet again.” In this approach we are “good citizens” because we make a genuine contribution to society and humanity. We aren’t “out there” trying to save the whole universe. We aren’t trying to draw attention to ourselves through major sacrificical or philanthrophic deeds. Rather we are “quiet contributors” who regularly, as a matter of course, extend ourselves to help those around us until this becomes just part of our natural way of being. We are tolerant and accommodating, but also firm and forthright when this is the “skillful” persona to present.
At its most leisurely extreme, this “mature” approach to egolessness takes on the characteristics of a recreational activity. As our suffering decreases and autonomy grows, we develop a more so- phisticated and cultured experience of egolessness. We become refined, well-educated seekers who have the time and independence to pick up or leave a psychological or spiritual practice as we wish. We give the impression that “making a retreat” or vacationing in Bahamas are equally enjoyable for us. We fraternize with our teachers, supporting them materially in return for their friendly attention and approval. We speak casually to others about conversations with our teachers as though they are close friends or confidants.
We know that our understanding of egolessness is fundamentally the right one. It isn’t contami- nated by crass feelings of self-righteousness and superiority. The tendencies and proclivities being described here simply don’t apply to us. We can see how other people might think like that, but we are “tuned into” such pitfalls and traps. Whatever might be described here, we are basically aware of it already.
Does the Ego exist?
Up to this point we have described various orientations and approaches to our relationship with our ego. However, the question still remains, is this whole exercise of either trying to enjoy or destroy our ego, a reality or an illusion? Are we dealing with something real when we are rejecting, or indulging, our ego? Or, are are we simply complicating our lives by thinking that we can function in a more, or less, egotistical way. Translating this to a more immediate level, we may ask ourselves: “Has this essay described genuine alternatives in terms of how we can experience ourselves, or is it just another facile expression of a perennial and pointless preoccupation with our identity, that ultimately takes us nowhere?”
Clearly there are two options. The ego either exists, or it doesn’t.
If the ego exists, then we are deluding ourselves and distorting reality if we think that it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, if we actually cultivate a belief that it doesn’t exist when it does, we place our- selves at great risk, given that the ego is said to be our worst enemy. It would be like harboring the enemy within our own ranks and not knowing about it. So if it exists, it exists and there is nothing more we need to do than clearly acknowledge and appreciate its existence.
On the other hand, if the ego doesn’t exist then there is no need to suppress it, destroy it, or in any way avoid it. It is counterproductive to give it even one more thought since this only fuels the fantasy that it could, or does exist. To worry about its influence and impact on our lives merely perpetuates the misbelief that it exists. It would be like announcing our wedding and inviting the guests on the basis of an encounter with a partner in last night’s dream. Any action to enhance or destroy the ego would merely perpetuate the fantasy that it exists. Like a dream we can just let it be there, knowing that it is has no reality and is incapable of producing real pleasure or pain. So, either way, whether the ego does or doesn’t exist, we don’t really need to complicate our lives by trying to ignore or enhance this thing called “an ego”. While the simplicity of this insight might be temporarily refreshing, it seems that our need to escape from, or maintain, our identity can quickly overpower a lighter and more accommodating relationship with ourselves.
Is the Ego an illusion?
Hence, at this point many seekers perpetuate their struggle by claiming that our problems stem, not from the fact that the ego is real, but from the fact that we think it is real. In other words, they believe that the ego is an illusion. It seems to exist, but in reality it doesn’t. In fact, this belief is consciously taught and cultivated in many spiritual traditions and treatises.
Unfortunately, whilst this move seems helpful, in fact it solves nothing. It is a tranquilizing belief in that it grants us some intellectual comfort to the problem we have been grappling with. Thus, of the many seekers who question the reality of the ego, only a few go on to question the truth of their belief that we “only think it is real.” In fact, the idea that the ego is an illusion merely “relo- cates” the same problem that we have just shied away from, since the question now is: does this “illusory ego” exist, or not? In other words, is the illusion which causes our problems, real or unreal? If it’s a “fact” that the ego doesn’t exist, even though we think it does, then we are deluding ourselves if we think that we don’t think it exists. We shouldn’t think the thought, or entertain the belief that the ego is unreal, because whilst it is unreal, in fact we think it is real. We should just continue to think that something that doesn’t exist, does exist. To do otherwise, is to deny the reality that “the ego is just an illusion.”
On the other hand, if we are mistaken in thinking that “the ego is just an illusion”, then we shouldn’t take this belief seriously. We shouldn’t worry ourselves with the fact that we are deluded in thinking that our ego is real, because this “fact” is in fact a falsehood. Our delusion is just an illu- sion.
At this point there are three obvious directions in which to move:
1.Perhaps we find the above way of looking at the problem way too intellectual, and hence irrelevant. We feel more at home if we have a “solid” problem that we can confront in a meaningful and palpable way. If so we might well be inclined to reactivate the belief that the ego exists and is the cause of all our suffering. This way we can get down to some practical work. We can get back to our practice, and perpetuate our existence through the methods described in the shotgun approach. Then at least we “know” what we are doing.
2.Alternatively, we might think that it is regressive and crude to revert to the belief that our ego does exist and hence must be destroyed at all costs. Obviously, what is needed is a more “subtle understanding” of the nature of our ego. Clearly, when we say “we only think the ego is real”, this doesn’t mean that we in fact believe that it is real. The reality is that we don’t really believe that we believe that the ego is an illusion. The belief that the ego is an illusion, is itself an illusion. Of course, if we are serious seekers, we then need to determine if the belief that “the belief that the ego is an illusion”, is an illusion or a reality. If, it is real, we shouldn’t deny this reality. If, it is unreal, we don’t need to worry about it, etc., etc., etc. If we have the leisure and training we can perpetuate this type of inquiry indefinitely. We can keep ourselves occupied and entertained for an eternity trying to find the ego that neither exists nor doesn’t exist.
3.Finally, we might figure that this whole exercise, especially the intellectual wankery that we have just read, about “not believing what we believe, etc…”, is just a joke. In fact, this essay is crazy and ridiculous!! We just want out. If this is what the spiritual path is about then they can have it. The most sensible thing to do is to forget all this stuff about egolessness, and just get back to enjoying ourselves, in whatever way we wish.
As you are no doubt aware, your resonance with any of these three responses says something about your attraction and aversion to the three ways of relating to the ego that we have been describ- ing. I’ll leave it to you to work out if you are predisposed to actively suppress your ego, indulge your immediate desires, or find the middle ground.