‘A Great Tree’ – J.M.W. Turner, 1796 – WikiArt
“Follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from ‘Ulysses’)
What better way is there to realise the illusory nature of something than to study its existence? So a study of the ego is really the most interesting and valuable thing to engage in. For two reasons. One, because you are attempting to describe, evaluate, and understand something that simply doesn’t exist in the form you had imagined. Therefore such a study will naturally push you to discover what lies in the place left vacant. Two, because the presence of the ego has been responsible for the near totality of man’s suffering and the mischief he has done in his desperate attempt to alleviate this suffering or cover it up. Only imagine the beneficial consequences when it is found illusory and therefore impotent.
But what truly is the ego? This word has been used in a variety of ways, and with various understanding. In psychology, it is understood to mean a sense of being a self, a ‘person’ that is real as such and is the foundation for a healthy personality, and its subsequent functioning. In the spiritual realm, and more specifically in non-duality circles, it is often named by the general term of ‘separate self’. The ego or the separate self is the ‘person’ or ‘entity’ that we feel is present inside ourself, and whose presence is not real, but only assumed. It is a belief that we have ceased to question. Simply a derivative, a bundle of thoughts, feelings, and memories that we have shaped into a form, and from which we derive the existence of a particular being, or person in command inside the skull.
If that is so, if the separate self that we imagine ourself to be is only a thought, an invention, then it has devastating implications. So what do we do? If we have our lives run by a false, distorted and illusory sense of self, then this is indeed, in a way, a tragedy. One for which could be applied this famous saying by Jesus: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Can’t we just look and verify for ourselves, once and for all, or again and again, the truth of it? There is this simple exercise — very simple indeed — which is to just look within for the presence of this self. Strangely enough it always takes a little courage or effort. Who wants to be unmasked, who wants to be shown wrong? There is a reluctance here. Though illusory, this self does not want to die in such a shameful and miserable way. It will fight back. But make the effort, just do it! Look! You will be surprised to discover that you do not see anybody there. Only the unfathomable void of your own being. It’s a very revealing and effective little practice.
It is interesting to note that the meaning of the word ‘ego’ in Latin is ‘I’. So the ego, in the accepted understanding of the word, refers to this separate I-person that sits inside the body-mind and feels separated from the world. But ‘I’ is also seen to be the true infinite self. If I say, ‘I am anxious’, the attribute ‘anxious’ is superimposed on the ‘I’. So the ‘I’ here is the quality of consciousness itself and not a bundle of thoughts and feelings. For thoughts can never be aware, feelings can never be aware. Any objective quality — like being anxious — appears in something wide, namely the true and only I-consciousness. If I say, ‘I am eternal’, there is no real superimposition. ‘Eternal’ is not an added quality, but is the non objective essence of consciousness itself. It is only a description and not a colouring. So the next time you will use ‘I’, choose well. See that you are not giving yourself to a thought or a feeling, but that you stand as the true and only aware self and not as a temporary appearance.
So why is it so complicated to get rid of the separate self, or more accurately to unmask its illusory nature? Because, although it can be seen through, and done with, in an instant, the belief has momentum, is tenacious, and tends to come back and reassess its position in every possible manner. So it has to be extricated again and again. One way to prevent the separate sense of self to creep in and reassess its position is to go and abide repeatedly in and as our true self within. By nature, the separate self is in fact only the pure self that is veiled by the presence of this thought-system. So by going straight to the truth of our naked being, we cancel any possible temptation for the illusory self to come back. We cut the grass under its foot. Then, as Rupert Spira says, “It simply dies of neglect.”
‘Lake Lucerne’ – J.M.W. Turner, 1802 – WikiArt
“It is selfish to do, think or feel anything
in the interests of the apparent ‘I’.”
~ Atmananda Krishna Menon
The true Self has a solid, unbreakable foundation. So its presence is self evident and cannot be harmed. The separate self, although non-existent as such, builds its illusory presence upon the true and unshakable presence of being. It is in truth superimposed on the true self which is the only being there truly is. So really the separate entity or person is like a thief that comes surreptitiously and takes advantage of this beautiful, established, and all knowing being, stealing its identity and making it his. Clever isn’t it? Then the damage is done. And who is going to unmask him now? The true self is by nature peaceful, happy, indifferent, and will not fight back. But the power and luminosity of its presence is in fact shining through, and is in truth, and at core, the very essence of the separate self’s being. The false self is only borrowing it, not really stealing it. So it is a useless and desperate act, and its existence is not viable in the long run. It will eventually have to bow and surrender its illusory existence to the only true living thing there is, pure consciousness.
But dislodging or unmasking the self can be similar to a precise and intricate act of surgery. For the ego tends to draw and aggregates objects around itself like feelings, thoughts, in order to aggrandise itself, make the interior of the house nicer, more convivial, through an illusory process of change. It is therefore never its fault. It believes that it is not wholly, and by nature, responsible. It believes that it can change, improve itself, alleviate its problems. No harm with its presence itself. And no chance in that way that it can ever be seen through as non existent. It is a cunning way to maintain itself in place, to not challenge itself, to save itself. But this is a tragic design, for by doing so, it is only reviving the flame of its own suffering, and postponing the coming of true peace and happiness.
The separate self, without its realising, has now created within its own system many false beliefs, many small stubborn monsters. For example, it thinks it doesn’t have happiness innately, and must therefore go after it in all sorts of objective situations or acquisitions. This is why it is said that the ego is responsible for man’s suffering. Because the nature of the true and only Self is itself happiness, and this beautiful reality is hidden by the presence of the illusory self. There is a remembrance though. Happiness is felt to be a necessary, desirable thing to have. So the ego feels that it must go in search for the lost happiness, without realising that it is itself responsible for this loss. So the search for happiness is what makes him miserable. This belief is a fall. A sin. Now he has to look for something that is already his in all eternity. He has veiled his own bliss, has pushed it into the dark. What was once given is now something he has to strive for. It now believes normal to work to acquire its inborn peace and happiness.
Another one of such monsters is that the separate self thinks it is fragile and unsecure and must therefore protect itself. Another is that it identifies itself with the body, and acquires thereby the certainty that it is aging and that it will eventually die with it. These beliefs are both the reason for the separate self to thrive, and the consequences of its existence. The belief ‘I am the body’ causes the creation of the sense of separation, and this certainty of my being separate feeds in turn the belief ‘I am the body’. The ego has also a tendency to like itself, to be proud of itself — or to loathe itself which turns to be the same thing — but this attitude is a reflection of the presence of the true being that it has veiled, and not its own. Another such tendency is that it feels lonely, enclosed in its own machinery, separated from the world. So another crucial desire of the ego is to feel that it can love and be loved.
“The ‘I-Principle’ is the only Experience that one can have.”
~ Atmananda Krishna Menon
So after the loss of happiness, he has now to realise his loss of love. For the belief in the existence of a separate self has another pernicious consequence. It divides experience into a knower located inside the body-mind and a known which is the objective world that stands at a distance from itself. So experience has been broken up. This precious thing that we name experience, and that is a whole, and seamless reality and presence, finds itself sliced into an infinite number of separate selves and things. That new invented reality makes the world into something to be frightened of. The experience of love, which is deep down the simple realisation of being one with everything, of undivided oneness, has become something that we have to strive or wait for. It is not anymore the innate quality of our own being, but an objective feeling that an isolated, separate, and unsecure self has to gain.
By its unfortunate action, which is the simple thought ‘I am separate’, the ego has seemingly divided oneness. Well, the good thing is that oneness can never be harmed. But in the meantime, the belief in separation draws upon itself a reality with unavoidable consequences. A new world has been created. Something invented that doesn’t correspond to the truth of being. Truth is still truth, hasn’t moved or changed in the least, but has been refracted through an illusory sense of separation brought by thought. Oneness has never been lost, but is for a time taken up by thought, and transformed into an apparent duality. By removing this made up sense of separation, duality dissolves back into the oneness that it has never ceased to be. By surrendering this one erroneous belief, the apparent division of reality is restored to its own untouched and untouchable seamless infinite one being.
So it is no accident that the ego’s other name is the ‘separate’ self. Separate from what? From its own one only being, which is itself the fabric and reality of the whole world. So the ego has separated itself from the is-ness of things and the am-ness of beings. It has isolated itself in the most crude and unfortunate manner. But be careful here, for a mild form of ego, or subjective standpoint, is necessary in order to allow us to experience, and act in, the world. But it need not feel separate from the world it experiences. And it need not feel it is something that has its own reality. It can act as a subject in experience, affiliated to the body, while at the same time retaining the experience of being the one true self in which all possible experience takes place, and as which every things and selves find their true essence or being.
Seeing or realising the illusory nature of the ego and the concomitant presence of its true and only body, namely pure consciousness itself, constitutes the only raison d’être of any genuine spiritual teaching. So the ego is not a small thing. It is small because it is non existent as such and has the consistency of a single, lonely thought. But it is large and all encompassing for it can reveal, under its cunning presence, the true and only self there is. So the solutions and pathways to realise the separate self’s illusory nature are therefore many. Yet they all point to one single truth and reality, which a surreptitious thief-thought has veiled through the affirmation of its own, claimed, illusory presence. And essentially, this realisation can be obtained by confounding, or defeating the ego’s bad and erroneous manners. But never forget that you don’t have to kill him. Only to make him realise his stubborn redundancy. Gently tell him: ‘It’s all right, you can let go. Leave your burden. You don’t need applauds. You never were a surreptitious thief.’
Text by Alain Joly
Paintings by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851)
Quotes by Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883-1959)
– ‘Being Aware of Being Aware’ – by Rupert Spira – (Sahaja Publications)
– Other ‘Essays’ from the blog…
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