In 2006, comedian Robin Williams said this in an ABC News interview: “The thing that matters are others. Way beyond yourself. Self goes away. Ego, bye-bye.” In this ostensibly virtuous statement he briefly mentioned Buddhism and Christianity. Eight years later, his ego-effacing hypothesis reached its logical conclusion: he hanged himself.
For centuries religious figures, mystics, gurus and spiritual guides have proclaimed the ego or self the source of evil in the world. Pious men have said spiritual freedom requires us to control, subdue, conquer, ignore, master or dissolve the self. This claim is foolish if you take a moment to consider the possibility there can ever be a victor in a war against yourself.
Jesus warned a house divided against itself cannot stand. That hasn’t stopped so-called spiritual teachers from condemning the ego as a false self that must somehow be overcome. Some speak of a true self that is preferable to this false one. They implore us to reject our experience based selves and retreat into a pristine universal awareness in which no individuality exists.
Proponents of anti-ego theology are legion. Sadhguru, Rupert Spira, J. Krishnamurti, Deepak Chopra, and Ekhardt Tolle are just a handful whose otherwise uplifting messages contain the unholy seed of inner conflict.
Tolle went so far as to proclaim, “Awareness and ego cannot coexist .” Chopra proclaimed love and ego incompatible. “The reason that ego and love are not compatible comes down to this: you cannot take your ego into the unknown, where love wants to lead,” he stated. Krishnamuirti insisted where fear was, love was not. These statements are false. Awareness and love can contain and co-exist with anything.
Futility of Inner Conflict
When battling yourself, you might believe you are engaged in something valorous. You may even feel at times you are making progress toward the goal of enlightenment or peace. Sadly, this is illusory, a fact you will learn when you realize internal conflict cannot produce the desired results. No peace. Zero enlightenment. Spiritually you remain in the same place: empty, worn out and battle scarred. Silly to wage war in pursuit of peace.
Only understanding brings an end to the ignorance, chaos and confusion that breeds inner conflict. With this in mind, let’s look with fresh eyes at the current state of our ego or self in search of a deeper understanding.
What is ego? If you look at the activity of our minds, the reactions we have to internal and external stimuli, we find the perpetually busy, lonely self. You find it propping up prejudices based on beliefs it has gathered. These beliefs are the product of past experiences and social conditioning. We unquestionably accept them. They wield authority over us.
The ego speaks to us in words, ideas, images. It is what computers are modeled after: the gathering of memory or data. So when we are confronted with any reality we search our memory banks for a reaction. The ego is our internal Google, a search engine. Unlike a digital search engine, the unexamined self can be consumed by fear. “Better safe than sorry” could be the ego’s motto. In extreme cases, such as Robin Williams’, unexamined activity of the ego can submerge a person in severe depression and paranoia.
The Isolated Self and Depression
Existing solely within the framework of the self transforms our lives into a monotonous affair. We create a protective bubble around ourselves where life is reduced to the safe and predictable. We believe what we see, but we aren’t aware that what we are seeing is brought to us by what we believe.
For example, based on a negative experience, one can be convinced all men or all women are bent on taking from us. Lo and behold, we pick out people with those self-centered qualities and confirm our bias. The payoff in this activity is we feel like masters of the universe because we create our reality. With that power comes a sense of security – but at the expense of truly living.
Most of us seek refuge from the emptiness, monotony and ceaseless inner conflict by socializing, drinking, taking drugs, in religious or spiritual beliefs or other forms of addiction. Addiction is slavery. We accept a life sentence of solitary confinement so long as we have moments of release obtained through our overvalued means of escape.
It is not the self or ego that causes these conditions, but ignorance. Someone once said if you throw a rock at a dog, the dog will bite the rock. Efforts to control, dominate, eradicate, evade or ignore the self is biting rocks. Save your teeth for a savory meal. Grow your understanding of your inner world instead. It’s all there for you to observe if you want to and there’s no need for a guru’s instructions.
The Creative Mind
Does the self/ego serve any purpose other than to insulate us and wreak havoc on our lives? Yes. We all benefit from it as the self is the one aspect of ourselves that can step back from instinct and create things that never before existed. The airplane, the cure for disease, the device you’re using right now to read this. It is where imagination resides. It is where we go to dream, to plan ahead, to be thoughtful towards one another. Every technological advance and scientific pursuit relies on the knowledge gathered and contained in the self.
If the self is an intended part of Creation, to what end? To understand this, we have to look at another aspect of human beings: the instinctual/intuitive awareness we come into the world with, which precedes the lived experiences that create the ego.
Much has been made of this intuitive awareness. Some have turned it into a panacea, a mysterious otherness, the antithesis of the self, even God. For purposes of this investigation, let’s not entertain any hyperbole. Instead, let’s get in touch with it and learn about it.
First you may notice it doesn’t exist within the framework of reason logic, past experience or memory. Because of this it doesn’t communicate in words. Rather, it speaks to us in feelings, desires, emotions, impressions. It can be aware of aspects of reality our limited, thought based minds remain oblivious to. Intuition can gather information from body language, for example, and respond by producing a general impression or feeling. Awareness also exists in a state of connectedness to nature and others as it has no sense of separateness.
A New Paradigm
Is there a purpose to our entering this world with an innate awareness plus the capacity to gather experience and memories we later use to create? The answer is in the question. The self is the purpose. Your personhood is the product of interactions between awareness and Reality. Individuality is what makes relationships challenging and rewarding. If our uniqueness is the fruit of creation, all efforts to eradicate it are life-denying.
If forming individual sentient beings is the purpose of Creation, how do we best view the self? FIrst, we must reject beliefs based on repressing, destroying or ignoring our ego. That is not easy due to centuries of conditioning we’ve undergone and the number of eloquent, articulate gurus today who continue to proselytize anti-self thought systems.
Instead, consider the ego a developing entity, similar to a child. It is a self, albeit an incomplete one. It needs to be educated, evolve, be appreciated and celebrated for its uniqueness. As it grows, the self must integrate with the innate awareness we seem to have left to mediums, psychics and mystics. Allowing our primordial awareness and our individuality to combine, we become wholly human. Empathy replaces fear. Awareness and memory are the foundation of our relationships, not painful past experience and fear.
Harmony between awareness and the creative mind releases us from the protective barrier created by the fearful, memory based mind when it is left in isolation. The self gains access to the vast resources of intuition through unity with our primordial consciousness. At the same time, our awareness can be guided by the experienced, creative mind when called for.
After all, it could very well be The Creator set out to duplicate Itself by making creatures capable of loving awareness while engaged in the creative process. You see, despite what the so-called gurus claim, God cannot be primordial awareness alone. The Divine must have a creative dimension, which implies the presence of memory and the intelligence required to form ideas and create objects that do not yet exist.
As Jesus reminded his contemporaries, “Is it not written in your law. ‘I have said you are gods?’” In order to be gods, we must integrate our creative minds with our primordial awareness. For this to happen we must first become aware of these two inner dimensions and avoid getting bogged down in conflict between them. As we appreciate their place in our lives, a state of creative awareness can emerge that allows us to live more abundant lives.
Al Guart is a Pulitzer Prize nominated investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Post and Agence France Presse. He also produced in-depth television news segments for CBS News. He authored the groundbreaking book, Beyond the Sphere: Encounters with the Divine, which explores the powerful impact Divine Visitations have had on humanity.
I appreciate how you’ve simplified a complex psychological issue which addresses the seed of inner conflict. Your pithy prose and instructive approach accentuate why the unexamined activity of the ego can cause significant problems. I agree with your emphasis on the importance of integrating our creative mind with our primordial awareness, a “state of creative awareness that allows us to live more abundant lives.”