Monday, October 25, 2010

A Light Sense of Self

Is the ego our enemy, our friend, or just another tool in the box?

Even the most casual student of the world’s spiritual and philosophical traditions knows that self-centeredness is the blade that cuts us off from wisdom and well-being. We must relinquish selfishness the sages tell us. Egotism is the enemy. And yet a nagging cluster of questions remain: Is my innate desire to learn, grow and create egotistical? Is my sense of identity such a bad thing? Don’t I need personal ambition to get anything done?

These questions arise in any walk of life, but they seem particularly acute in the arts, especially the performing arts. If you’re going to get on stage and demand people’s time and money, you’ve got to believe that what you’re offering has value. You need a strong, clear sense of self. Nothing is more important on stage than confidence, which, by the way, is very different from arrogance.

What is the ego? It is that thing we refer to when we use words like I, me and mine. It is a concept of self, an identity that is separate from everything else. It is one of the truths about us. But there are other truths.

In the spiritual and philosophical wisdom traditions of the world a few recurring principles arise again and again. Aldous Huxley called these recurring principles “the perennial philosophy”. Foremost among these universal ideas is the concept of Oneness, the notion that behind the veil of differentiation there is an underlying unity. All separate things, then, are expressions of the One. Whether you personify and deify the One or think of it as an impersonal force is purely a matter of preference. Some call it God, others call it Dao or Brahman or Spirit or Source or Divine Mind. “The Truth is One,” says the Rig Veda, “the sages call it by many names.”

Why the One became the Many is the great mystery of existence. We don’t know why. But it did. As humans evolved, spiritual traditions emerged, girded by philosophy and clothed in mythology. Imbedded in these traditions are maps left for us by those who went before, maps that make clear that realizing our unity with Oneness is the highest form of wisdom; to rise up out of the consciousness of separateness characterized by agitation, fear, competition, scarcity and craving and into the consciousness of unity characterized by serenity, clarity, kindness, community, abundance, compassion and gratitude. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and countless other truth-traditions all lead by different paths to the same summit.

In this context then the ego is neither good nor bad – it is simply one aspect of a complex array of energies and faculties nested within the phenomenon of consciousness. The ego, that sense of separateness, is a necessary construct. The ego serves us well. It encourages us to invest considerable time and energy into the maintenance of our own lives, materially and spiritually. I enjoy being me. Initially, I may think that I’m doing all this for myself. But it’s equally true that as I get stronger, smarter, more creative and more skillful I’m equipping myself for greater acts of service. Maybe the ego with its love of achievement, accomplishment, competition and attention is all part of a larger plan. By cultivating our own excellence we are adding to the wealth of the world. As I expand my capacity for self-expression, I am simultaneously deepening my connection to the Source and becoming a widening channel for Source to express Itself through me. In this way the false dichotomy between my individuality and the One begins to dissolve.

All one hundred trillion cells in your body emerged from a single cell, the egg. After fertilization, it quickly divided into two, then four and so on. The rapidly multiplying and expanding cells began to specialize – some becoming bone, others becoming skin, still others becoming brain tissue with the capacity for self-awareness. Deepak Chopra asks an excellent question. Are the heart and the brain different? Yes. Are they separate? No. They are differentiated expressions of one, unified organism. Differentiation is not separation. In this same way then all of reality is One, despite appearances to the contrary.

The problem arises when we mistake the ego for our entire being. We may fault the ego somewhat for playing along with this self-serving delusion, but it is certainly not the ego’s fault. It’s just doing the job for which it was designed – leading the parade. But thinking that one lousy drum major makes a parade is a big mistake.

“Person” and “personality” come from “persona”, the Latin word for mask, specifically the masks actors wore on stage in Classical plays. Our personality is the mask we show to the world, behind which lurks all the immeasurable mystery of our little slice of the One consciousness. Our identity, the way we are known to the world, is a cluster of associations made up of a complex and interwoven tapestry of threads – race, age, ethnicity, profession, looks, skills, mannerisms, voice, preferences, opinions and so on. This cluster of elements we call a “person” is led by an ego, an organizing principle that ties together all of these otherwise disparate elements. In this sense then the ego is our friend. We would be hopelessly fragmented without it. Before we demonize the ego it is probably wise to remember that the ego is, after all, yet another manifestation of the One.

Still, the dangers of egoic attachment are very real. Mistaking the ego for the entire depth and breadth of our being is the source of all our suffering. Putting the ego in charge of our lives is like letting a flea rule the world. In the end, neither the flea nor the world prospers.

What if we re-conceptualized our ambition as emergence, our hunger for more as sacred expansion, our yearning to be heard and understood as holy communion? “You have the right to work,” Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward.” The Buddha also counsels non-attachment in the midst of deep engagement. And Confucius says, “The inferior person asks ‘what’s in it for me?’ The superior asks, ‘what is the right thing to do?’” The highest form of action is selfless action rooted in the ground of Being. When the ego recedes its as if the clouds fall away from the sun – the whole world is enlightened.

Cultivate your excellence. Revel in your expansion. Don’t hide your light for fear of appearing egotistical. What matters most are your intentions. Are you working for egoic glory born in the consciousness of fear, or are you working in the consciousness of service, joyfully allowing Transcendence to express itself in you, through you, as you? Make something happen. Be a channel of the creative manifestation of the sacred energy of the universe. Participate in the healing of the world. Co-create your own best life out of the raw materials within and without you. Do it with a bold sense of Oneness. Do it with a light sense of self.