Life Without Ego
One of the primary goals that we all share on the spiritual path is that of liberating ourselves from the tyrannical demands of our own ego in order that we may live a new life in service to a higher ideal. Is this even possible for us? Of course it is. Is it easy to do? Definitely not. One of the reasons for this is that we have not understood correctly what the ego is and where it came from. In other words, in our society much about the ego has been and continues to be shrouded in ignorance and unconsciousness. This has enabled it to thrive inordinately in the human psyche, which has, in turn, led each of us to accept the belief that our ego is so inextricably interwoven in our mental sphere that it can never be completely eradicated. It can be subdued and cut back but not totally gotten rid of.
In place of knowing the truth about ego we have adopted a myriad of myths about it. These myths have become part of the substance of our cultural conditioning. And it was through this vehicle that we first came to believe in ego’s inviolability. But like most other aspects of our conditioning, the myths pertaining to ego have not only been deceptive; they have had an execrable affect upon us, impacting our spiritual progress and keeping us stuck. Especially troublesome has been the idea that ego can never be fully eradicated. For by believing that ego must be lived with on some level, we have effectually insured its survival.
So in order for us to reach our goal of living for a higher ideal we must first debunk some of the cultural myths about our ego and learn the truth. Let us begin then with the question: Why do we even have an ego, and where did it come from?
Most people living in our modern world have adopted the view that the ego is such an integral part of our mental makeup that we must have been born with it. What is surprising about this is that it is not scientific in the least. That is what makes it a myth. In other words, myths are beliefs that we cling to, often irrationally, refusing to relinquish them even when the scientific truth is made known to us. We also tend to hold to such views subconsciously. This locks them away in a vault inside of us and makes it almost impossible to reexamine or question them. What then is the scientific truth pertaining to ego’s origins? It is that though the human ego invariably becomes an integral part of our mental makeup as we grow and mature, it is not something we are born with.
The biological reality of our species is that we are each born with a mind that is pure and blank, until we ourselves or some other external elements begin to program and add content to it. But our cultural view of the mind is that it functions so prolifically and with such great complexity that it is difficult to conceive of it ever having been pure and blank. Thus we imagine that even at birth our mind was already operational with a wide variety of intricate functions and behaviors. Scientifically speaking, there is some validity to this view since the mind of an unborn fetus definitely has some developmental activity going on. But it is also a scientific fact that there must be a beginning to this development—that is, a point in time when the human mind truly is formless and void. In that pristine moment the human mind is like a blank white canvass. It has no thought, no emotion, and, of course, no ego. Furthermore, ego is rarely an aspect of prenatal development because it is too far up the scale of sophisticated mental functioning for an unborn fetus. Only after we are born does the mind display the capability of that kind of sophistication and complexity. Therefore we are not born with an ego. Rather it is something we build as we grow and develop post-birth. It is not a part of our original biological makeup. It is a learned behavior.
This is an important delineation because it debunks the myth that the ego is an aspect of our created mental makeup—a myth that has led to the assumption that it is something we need to accept as being a permanent fixture in our inner world. But if it is not a part of our created makeup and is rather something that we build through socialization, then if follows that it is also possible to eradicate it. If it is a learned behavior, it can also be unlearned.
But this is by no means an easy task. Why? Because like so many other aspects of our cultural conditioning, the building and fleshing out of our ego has been a largely unconscious undertaking. What role did conditioning play in this equation? It implanted deep within us the idea that the building of an ego is normal and acceptable behavior and that to be slack in this regard could result in an unfulfilled, failure-ridden life. In other words, we have been taught that we need a strong and flourishing ego in order to succeed in this world—that it is one of our greatest sources of motivation and strength.
This kind of indoctrination is virtually impossible to resist because it takes place during our most vulnerable stage of development as infants. And it is so drummed into us that we are powerless when it comes to letting it sink into our subconscious and take up residency therein. So before we even knew what we were doing we found ourselves constructing our ego and adding it to our ever-burgeoning mental complex. Little did we understand the all-consuming nature of this beast—that once our ego kicked into high gear it would literally steamroll all of our other created mental attributes and take over our psyche.
Once our ego has taken over and established itself in this way, our consciousness not only becomes dominated by it; it becomes enslaved to it. Our entire inner world comes under its control, and all our motives, choices, and behavior come to reflect its dominance. Our lives become an ego-propelled soap opera of survival and self-defense. And many actually go to war. They view all other egos as such a threat that they adopt the attitude that the best defense is an aggressive offense.
Those caught up in the world of ego are too busy fighting and propping themselves up to remember who they really are. But don’t let anyone tell you that having a healthy ego is a good thing. Don’t ever believe the lie that you need a strong ego in order to function in this dog-eat-dog world. The truth is that the people that are enslaved to their ego are suffering greatly. Their lives are completely devoid of joy and goodness. It is like living in an urban jungle and being unaware that just on the outskirts of town there are beautiful trees, lakes, and birds merrily chirping.
After we have been living a life of ego obsession, entering the spiritual path is tantamount to heading out to those cool serene outskirts. We begin ever so slowly to see that life need not be an endless combat or a success-at-all-cost game. Our values begin to shift, and our motives begin to transform. And the more conscious we become, the more we understand the harmful affect that cultural conditioning and believing in myths has had upon us. We see that not only is ego not our friend; it has been our worst enemy. It has robbed us of true life and made us think that the jungle is the only reality there is.
When ego’s true colors have been exposed to us, we are then faced with the dilemma of what to do with it. And this is where things can get a little muddled. It is not that we would not love to be free forever from the demands of our ego. The difficulty is that we do not truly believe this is possible. In other words, we want ego to go, but we believe that it must stay. And this belief sabotages our spiritual authority. Therefore the next best option is to try to diminish its influence as much as we can. Unfortunately, ego does not take this approach too seriously because it sees anything other than complete annihilation as fortuitous. To the ego any attempt to control or diminish it is the same as working with it. And if we are working with it, its survival is assured.
What we see then is that the subtle inference that ego cannot be gotten rid of entirely is an extremely harmful false teaching—one that undermines our progress and wreaks havoc in our spiritual communities. Ego is recognized as being undesirable in certain cases of demonstration, but our inability to root it out of our psyche entirely or annihilate it is a weakness that at some point brings our spiritual progress to a grinding halt.
Annihilation of any kind is a very difficult concept for people on the spiritual path to embrace. As civilized modern Westerners we view annihilation as a sort of barbaric act—one that we would never stoop to. But the hard truth is that there are instances on the spiritual path when it is called for. And dealing with our ego, once we have seen its true colors, is just such an instance. Thus we do ourselves a great disservice to disobey. For, to try to work with ego is not only a losing proposition, it can be ruinous for us. Ego is a poison, and in this case a small amount of poison kills just as effectively as a large amount. Therefore the correct spiritual teaching is not to just cut the ego back to a stump; it is to do what it takes to uproot the monster once and for all.
What do the great spiritual teachers have to say on this subject? Have there been those that have upheld this hard teaching about ego and refused to compromise it? The answer is: yes, plenty of them. But these have, for the most part, veiled their teaching, infusing it with symbolism and hidden meaning. The reason for this is that the status quo collective entity has always fiercely opposed this teaching. Why? Because if each of us did away with our ego, human society, as we know it, would collapse.
Jesus taught nothing less than total ego annihilation. But he did so in the context of hypothetical stories that he called parables. He did this so that his teaching might not be thought of as being too radical and might thereby escape the hateful intent of those who opposed it. In other words, before his antagonists could come against him they had to first figure out what he was trying to say. And this process of deduction diverted their attention just enough to assuage their hateful intent. In this way his teaching was preserved and passed on to future generations.
Jesus knew that egoic consciousness was the primary cause of human suffering—of disease, death, war, social injustice, etc. He looked upon the distressed multitudes that followed him from place to place with boundless compassion because he knew that they were not to blame for their condition. They had been taught since birth to build and live for their ego, just like you and I were. And it was this unconscious enslavement to ego that was the cause of their great suffering, just as it has been in our lives.
Jesus also knew that people were not born with an ego—that building an ego was a learned behavior and, as such, could be unlearned and the ego forever banished. He could not do this for us, but he could show us the way and teach us how. This he did largely by example. People could live lives free from the influence of ego, and his life was proof of this. He was a human being who had attained an utterly ego less consciousness. And that is what we mean when we say that we are aspiring to Christ consciousness.
Some would say that the teaching about ego annihilation is too extreme. Though they recognize it as a valid spiritual truth, they see the actual implementation of it as requiring a level of commitment that is beyond them. But all of our greatest spiritual teachers would disagree with this assessment. If the attaining of an ego less consciousness was possible for them, it is possible for all of us.
The state of egoic consciousness we have all been indoctrinated into through cultural conditioning is not only detrimental for us; it is deadly. It is the reason that we have become mortal creatures. That is why Jesus said that he came to bring eternal life. He knew that once we human beings were freed from the constraints of ego, we would no longer be subject to death. All we have to do is first, believe this is possible and second, raise our consciousness through spiritual practice to where ego no longer appears on the radarscope of our psyche.