I think the ego always exists because of two things, because while definitions and ideas may refer to realities, they cannot fully describe them; yet it is too easy to mistake the ideas for reality.
Since my own being is real and interacts with this world, there are countless definitions that will refer to it. My name is one example. Yet my reality is undefinable. It can only be experienced in the moment of its existence; and since each moment is new, I am always a new creation.
These infinite instances of myself roughly correspond to particular ideas, resulting in statements like, “John is such-and-such”. I hear it said, and remember what I was called; or maybe I even call myself a name, for the sake of mentioning what is otherwise unmentionable. We do it all the time because language helps us to focus in the midst of a world of infinite variety. If we didn’t discriminate, it would be very hard to find direction in life.
Discrimination is thus very practical, meaning language itself is not the problem. The only problem – and strictly a matter of spiritual maturity – is the confusion of one for the other. What I think about myself, and who I am, must always be completely different subjects. It is OK to think things about myself, because sometimes it helps make me aware of things; but it is always a mistake to imagine I can know myself through ideas. This is where the ego lives – and thrives if I support the mistake.
To clarify these two – to recognize ideas as functional and reality as inexpressibly alive and always new – is quite a challenge. I am constantly making errors in this respect, and have to remind myself to “be nothing then, and walk upon the waves.” Communing directly with life is not difficult, but reaching it means letting go of ideas. Ideas help me reach a certain point, but I cannot dive from the shore to the ocean if I hold onto them:
The story is told of a mystic knower, who went on a journey with a learned grammarian as his companion. They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur. The knower straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood lost in his reasonings, which were as words that are written on water. The knower called out to him, “Why dost thou not follow?” The grammarian answered, “O Brother, I dare not advance. I must needs go back again.” Then the knower cried, “Forget what thou didst read in the books of Sibavayh and Qawlavayh, of Ibn-i-Hajib and Ibn-i-Malik, and cross the water.”
Paradoxically, nothing inflames the ego more than trying to be good. I say this because the ego is our definition of self, and is always separate from the reality of our self. Why would a person prefer a definition to reality? Because he doesn’t like the reality. So nothing drives a person into the arms of ego more, but attempting to escape reality by becoming something else.
This is why I like Krishnamurti’s philosophy so much, because he emphasizes this point over and over again. To escape the ego, we must love reality, whatever its present condition. By that love it can grow; but if person spends their time with definitions, no fundamental change in reality is possible.
The paradox is that we only strive to be good if we think we are not. And if we don’t like who we are, it is only natural to prefer fixing our attention on who we hope to become. Maybe we are petty, and we want to be magnanimous. It is painful to see ourselves as petty, since this is what we want to stop. So we dream about magnanimity, practice it, focus our attention upon it. Which is not itself a bad thing.
But we are impatient to become magnanimous, and cease our pettiness. If anyone praises us for a noble act, we think, “Have I made it yet? Am I no longer petty?” Our hope for this to be true is so strong, we begin to ignore all evidence in favor of the dream. We start to see ourselves as magnanimous, even before we are.
If another then comes and shows us how petty we are, it hurts badly. The ego cannot survive in the face of reality. This leads to a situation of avoiding reality, and trying ever more to live in the world of ideas, which are easily controlled. Casuistry, self- deception, willful ignorance: all are signs of trying to reject reality for the sake of an ideal.
This engenders the conflict we feel when we strive to improve. And it never lets up. We continue to see-saw between painful acceptance of reality and hopeful illusions. Our emotions plummet to the depths when we see how little we’ve advanced, and rise to the heights of fancy with every hint we’ve succeeded. It is truly turmoil! And it will ever end, because we can never be as perfect as we’d like.
But there is a way out: a way to approach life in terms of its reality, and to relegate definitions to the status of mere tools. In this path the ego is not lost – it cannot be lost, as long as ideas of self exist – but it is no longer regarded. It has no more power to command our emotions than another person’s ideas about a film can decide whether we like it or not. This path is the way of love.
To love our reality – meaning our pettiness and other bad attributes – is the only way to stop tearing apart the fabric of our being, by which the ego hopes to flee into the realm of ideals. I have to know my desires, and understand them, rather than fabricate a new set that bear no relation to my heart. Instead of wanting to want, I must acknowledge what I do want, and then honestly pose the question, “Do I really want that?” And if I really do, I have to pursue it. If I don’t pursue it, then who am I? “Say: What manner of man art thou, O vain and heedless one, who wouldst appear as other than thou art?”
The mystical component in all this is that love transforms things without wanting to. If one love another, so deeply that changing them is an abhorrent thought, that very love will change hearts. It happens mystically, without plan; whereas projects of self-perfection often to go nowhere despite the greatest of plans.
So I think that when I feel conflict within myself – and call it the “ego” – what is really happening is quite opposite: It is not my ego frustrating me, but my real self wanting its desires acknowledged. In fact, it is the ego picking the fight, out of its desire to be “other than thou art”. When we try to be good but feel an impulse to evil, this is not the ego; the ego is our “good” image of ourselves, blinding us from the evil of our nature. That blindness forces our awareness of self into unconsciousness, where it acts out in desperation, to make its desires known to consciousness. This creates the feeling of being beset by our own selves. But it is the ego creating this severe barrier between the two halves: the wish to see ourselves as purely good, when that is never who we truly are.
It is odd that the ego is what we think of as our best part. For the petty man, his ego is his idea of being magnanimous. Yet he remains petty, mostly because he no longer pays attention to it! How can we improve something we no longer pay attention to? Without loving the petty self, it can never flower under the rays of loving attention. It cannot become what it might be, since the ego suppresses all awareness of its reality. Like a pathetic seed stored in a cave, it will never grow into the rose of its potential, for the ego is too busy painting roses on the cave wall to allow it freedom to develop.
Love of reality is our only escape from the oppression of the unreal, the ego. When the petty man sees that God created pettiness as a thing to test his capacity for love – and that love is the water of life causing the humble seeds of the lower self to germinate – then the need for ego can slowly fade away. The petty man must be petty, in order ever to be anything else; but the magnanimous man who is not magnanimous: what type of new being can come from a one who had no being in the first place?