“Life is a constant challenge for us only because we have to deal with our ego and its neuroses. It is our ego that is our biggest challenge. Not life. We can never loose sight of that truth. The ego is not our friend, it is not our protector. The ego’s thoughts are not in our best interest; they cause us suffering. I would not call it our enemy, because it is part of us, but it is clearly an antagonist, THE threat to our peace and happiness, our well-being.” If peace and happiness is what you seek, read on.
Before going further, I need to clarify the word “only” in the first sentence above. There is no question that the world in which we must function is a disturbing, hostile place much of the time. There is no shortage of evil and self-centeredness in the world. But even given all the acknowledged dysfunction of the world we live in, the reason why we experience mental suffering in our interactions with it is our ego. To the ego, the world is an opponent over which it wants control, it wants power, it wants … The ego does not accept that the world is the way it is because it just is. The ego is the antithesis of the teaching that we have everything we need inside ourselves to be at peace and happy. And so we suffer.
Once one accepts this truth, the biggest question we face is how do we change our relationship with our ego. There is no shortage of advice. From the mild, “let go of the ego,” to the sterner, “conquer the ego,” to the advice in an otherwise wonderful Sufi book to, “crush the ego,” the advice is to rid oneself of your ego or at least disassociate yourself from it.
The problem is that we cannot rid ourselves of our ego. Our learned experience is part of us, of who we are. And as the Buddha’s teaching makes clear, any attempt to fight something just gives it more power. So conquering or crushing the ego is not something that promises a good result.
In the teaching I received from Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monks in Michigan, and which I expanded upon and call “The Fourfold Path to Freedom” in my books, the idea instead is to surrender your ego to your true Buddha nature, or to turn your will and your life over to the care of your true Buddha nature. This is not ridding yourself of your ego, nor disassociating yourself from it, but it does drastically change your relationship with it. It is not calling the shots. It is not determining how you react to yourself and the world around you.
But what does this surrender or turning your life over actually entail? How is it accomplished? First it is helpful to identify the locus of your true Buddha nature. As I explained in my post, “The Heart/Mind Divide,” that locus is your heart. Throughout the ages, the heart has been identified as the emotive force in man. As the life force in man, the heart, which is unblemished and unadulterated, is the symbolic source of all goodness. The heart is your true self, not your ego-mind.
What we need to do is rewire ourselves so that we see things directly through our heart (our symbolic “third eye”), rather than through our brain/ego-mind. And so observe ourselves and the world around us from another plain, above it all. Part of it, and yet above it. To do that, we have several tools in our spiritual practice.
The first, which may sounds counter-intuitive, is to open your heart to embrace your ego. As explained in my post, “The Heart’s Embrace,” this does not mean catering to it, following it or anything like that. It just is an expression of compassion, which actually weakens the ego’s strength, as opposed to fighting it which strengthens it.
Once your have embraced your ego, you should renounce it. Again, this is not inconsistent action. This does not mean calling it bad names, seeing it as an enemy, or getting rid of it. It’s just our saying that we don’t need the judgment and emotions or our ego-mind to protect us. Quite the contrary, it causes us suffering and is a burden. Instead, it is our heart that is capable of protecting us and giving us good guidance, thank you. By renouncing your ego, you are no longer its slave.
This will allow you to rise above your ego, to be on a different plain. But be aware that the moment you come down from that plain, you will be under the control of your ego. So until residing in the spiritual plain becomes second nature, you must be disciplined in applying any of several methods to keep you on the spiritual plain for as much of the day as possible.
Again, the question is how. The reason why meditation is effective at setting your ego aside is that in meditation your mind is focused, whether it’s on your breath, a spot on the floor before you, chanting. Your mind cannot be two places at the same time, and so when it is focused in this manner, you are free of your ego mind.
What you must learn to do is apply this lesson throughout the day. Stop and focus your mind in one of these ways. But you can’t just go through the motions. You must really focus your mind, otherwise it won’t work. And when you do, you will be brought back to a spiritual plain.
If despite renouncing your ego, it still arises, then you need to be aware and when it does say to it compassionately but firmly that you will not engage it, you will not go where it leads. Instead, you will go deep inside yourself and seek guidance from your heart.
Remember that at all times, it is very important that you keep clearly before you what is it that you most value, what is most important to you. If it is your peace and happiness. your freedom from suffering, then there will be no faltering each time the question arises whether to follow the ego or follow your heart. Because you have acknowledged the truth that the ego is the source of all your suffering.