When it comes to spiritual transformation, there are two main ways to consider the ego – which may also be called the “I”, self-consciousness, or our separate sense of self.
The first is the more conventional or traditional way: perceiving it as non-reality, as an illusion. This approach is succinctly expressed in the words of the Hindu religious leader and guru Mata Amritanandamayi when asked by interviewer Amy Edelstein “What is ego?”:
“You are actually asking, what is unreality? But how can unreality be described? What use is there in talking about something that isn’t real, that is nonexistent? And how can you speak about that which is real? … The mind is the ego. But the ego is a big lie – it is a liar. It is unreal.”
This approach actually suggests that the very existence of ego is an error or some sort of accident. The only way, then, is going back: returning to an original state, to a so-called zero point, before the error or accident came into being. From this perspective, the spiritual journey is all about correcting something that has gone completely wrong. Meditating aloud in 1980, mystic and thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti voiced this position clearly:
“The words in the Bible and other religious books of the East are that the beginning was chaos and out of that chaos came order. I think it is the other way. I may be wrong, but the beginning was order. I think we have lost that sense of total, complete, original, blessed order. We have lost it, and the darkness of chaos has been created by man. Even if there is God – I am using God in the ordinary sense of the word – and he created original chaos and out of that created order, the origin must have been order … The beginning must be order. And man called it chaos and out of that man brought about tremendous disorder. Now he seeks to go back to that origin, that order.”
(J. Krishnamurti: A Biography, 392–393).
Krishnamurti mentions here the opening words of Genesis 1, and we all know what happens two chapters later, in Genesis 3: the garden of Eden was, without a doubt, perfect order, but then the first man and woman created disorder: the unselfconscious, naked couple was tempted to try the fruit from the tree that stood in the middle of the garden, the tree of knowledge – a fruit so powerful that, as the serpent promised, could open their eyes and make them godlike by endowing them with a discriminating and evaluating mind. This was the birth of self-consciousness, ego, the separate sense of self. And the birth of ego is equated in this myth with the original sin and the reason for the “fall.”
Was this moment a mistake that now requires fixing? Should the first man and woman have avoided eating that apple? According to Amritanandamayi and Krishnamurti, and so many other spiritual teachers, something has definitely gone wrong. I believe, however, that this perception of ego as error or accident only reaffirms outdated modes of thinking which started with the religious idea of original sin and have made our lives here on earth, as human beings, quite miserable.
When we believe that the very separation from the Godhead – the very existence of duality – was a terrible deviation from the original, perfect order, we risk placing the entire human journey within a negative context. This kind of perception actually robs the human journey of its potential meaning, since it assumes that all we need to do is to … undo; repair the damage and return as quickly as possible to our lost Garden of Eden.
The way of expansion
The second way to consider the ego is, I feel, closer to reality. I define it as a tantric approach, though it has nothing in common with the traditional forms of tantra. It is essentially tantric in that it is all-embracing and all-validating. It finds a positive and useful spiritual significance in every component of our human experience.
This approach is not about dissolving an illusion but about broadening our present experience, which is good in essence. We aspire to expand our being and life rather than shrink or nullify our existence. We become just like the famous Russian doll called “Matryoshka,” which is a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another: we are meant to grow in complexity, to become increasingly inclusive, the more we move into the depths of spiritual enlightenment.
According to this approach, the fact that we possess self-consciousness is actually the essential foundation for our universal consciousness. Why? Because only by having self-consciousness can we become aware of our own existence and reflect on the nature of our mind and the nature of life in general.
This is exactly what “happened” to Adam and Eve: they had eaten the apple and gained the ability to look at themselves as if from the outside. This led them to the instant realization that they were naked. But this could also guide them one day toward the search for higher self-knowledge, the kind that leads to enlightenment.
We can roughly say that there are two stages of expansion. Prior to these stages, there is absolutely no self-consciousness; you are just alive and sentient but not aware of yourself. You lack the ability to separate your mind from your life. Then you eat the apple and experience your first major expansion. At this stage, although consciousness is aware of itself in an extremely narrow and limited way, it has achieved the invaluable ability to possess what we can call “double-awareness”: it is alive and sentient and it knows that it is alive and sentient. It mirrors its own existence to itself and it can contemplate it and ask questions about it.
Of course, self-consciousness does cause you at this early stage to form an “I”, a sense of separate self, but even this “I” consciousness is not an error or an unwelcome side-effect: we all need to be aware of our separate existence and to function through it in our interaction with the world around us.
But having gained self-consciousness, you can move to the higher, second stage: this very same self-consciousness can grow more and more refined thanks to your meditation until eventually, it becomes purely aware of its unobstructed nature – as “pure mind,” to borrow the Buddhist term. But this pure consciousness can only be revealed on the solid basis of the first stage of self-consciousness. This means that your ego is the necessary foundation of enlightenment.
So, think of it in this way: at first, there is a pre-stage in which you are just like Adam and Eve, utterly devoid of self-consciousness and free from even the subtlest form of separation. You are like nature. Then, you develop a mind that separates you from the universe and makes you excessively self-centered. But if you use this precious mind correctly, it finally becomes your source of unending liberation. The last stage and the pre-stage are confusingly similar because both share the perfect simplicity of being one. But we must not long to return to the pre-stage; we should aspire to go beyond and to broaden our being on the basis of what we already have.
It is said in Buddhism that if you don’t understand the teaching profoundly – for instance, if instead of understanding what it means to be space-like, you choose to constantly meditate on an image of total blackness because you think that non-conceptuality means to stop thinking completely and to kill the mind – then you will be reborn as an animal. Even if this is not true, you understand the principle: by striving to cancel your ability to think and just looking into space, you are basically withdrawing from your human capacities. So transcendence is not like regressing to an animal-like state or some kind of primordial raw cognition: the pure mind is a fully awake, lucid, and all-inclusive awareness; it is consciousness that has transcended the self.
The ego is your useful tool
But there is more. When we say that the pure mind is consciousness that has transcended the self, this makes it sound as if we are meant to leave behind the previous stage. In reality, we leave nothing behind, even when we make this tremendous shift to universal consciousness.
It is useful here to use Ken Wilber’s principle of “transcend and include.” The ego is not abandoned and cannot be abandoned. It merely becomes your tool rather than your master. It is now something that you have rather than something that you are. This means that if there has been some “accident” along the way or some illusion that has been formed, it is only this: our imagining that we are our ego. The ego has become a self-existent master, while it is really a wonderful tool for your expression and manifestation in the world of form.
In this respect, no teacher, no matter how great this teacher was or is, has never lost or killed the ego. Our failed attempt to imagine that the ego can be completely abandoned has caused many troubles in the spiritual world. We hope, for no good reason, that at the end of the road, we become a perfectly pure, untainted, disembodied spirit.
Of course, it is not completely wrong to think that we become a pure spirit, as long as we remember that this pure spirit also includes more basic layers such as a perfectly functional ego, the ability to think, and even the experience of duality. Accepting this reality may settle, once and for all, the rift between psychology and mysticism: nothing gets lost on the way; your more fundamental human elements only become integrated into your expanding being and finally fall into place.
After all, without the existence of duality, could you even attain the state of non-duality? Duality is the necessary middle. Adam and Eve could never become enlightened unless they were banished from the garden and experienced separation. Non-duality really means going beyond subject and object, but this can only take place if you are aware of both subject and object in the first place. And even when you are in a state of non-duality – which is the state beyond duality – you still enjoy it tremendously, just as I enjoy writing this article to a future reader who is different from me and, at the same time, is my very own self.