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.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on ego and enlightenment”

  1. As long as ego has food, it will leap around and make demands. Like a shadow, it is indestuctible. If you want to lose your shadow, it is necessary to get out of your own way: Remove the distance between yourself and the light, and instead, be the light.

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