I’ve written much lately about how ego sacrifice and transcendence is a common theme throughout religious history, and how overcoming this sense of “self” may be what all the religions are generally referring to in their highest and most exalting revelations and transformations of liberation, salvation, exaltation, awakening, and becoming One/Nondual with God, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Universe/Nature. This is even now being recognized as an effective therapeutic and true discovery process by scientists of the brain and psychology. Our sense of “self” may be the very source and cause of all of humanity’s suffering, estrangement, separation, division, fear, violence, etc.
If this “self” is the source of our Fall, of our problems, of our separation from God, of our illusions of reality, of errors, sins, and delusions, then it can become very easy to begin to dislike this “self.” It can turn into forms of self-hatred.
Our desires to see the ego dissolve and to transcend “self” can turn us against ourselves in the form of self criticism, self judgement, self loathing, and depression. But this can be trap on the spiritual path. It is just another form of ego in disguise.
Often the ego seeks to please itself, to aggrandize itself, to build itself up, to seek its own at the expense of others, to fulfill its desires, wants, and needs, in spite of everyone else. It is egocentric, egotistical, selfish, greedy, taking more and more, adding to itself, building higher walls around itself, protecting itself. When we become aware of this, sometimes the very opposite course can happen, and we begin to tear ourselves down, belittle ourselves, despise ourselves, hurt ourselves, bemoan ourselves, and rip ourselves apart. But who/what is doing this? It is still the ego, this sense of “self” that is now seeking to destroy itself.
What we need to realize is that the ego can’t sacrifice itself, the ego can’t transcend itself. If the ego is still involved in these processes, then it will remain present and may fool us into thinking it is doing good by tearing itself down. But the ego hating itself gets us nowhere. This is related to the debate of grace versus works, whether we (ego) can work our way towards heaven, or if it is an unmerited gift from outside ourselves (beyond ego). It is somewhat of a paradox because while the ego can’t sacrifice or transcend itself, it can do (or even better undo) things which will help it subside and fall away.
This morning I read about the tragic suicide of Kate Spade, a renowned handbag designer, who seems to have been struggling with severe mental illness for years. In an interview with NPR last year she said she suffered from anxiety, was a “nervous person,” and “worried a lot.” She said, “always… the sky is falling.” Many people suffer from such debilitating self-doubt, rumination, and negative thoughts about their self and life. These are all facets of ego-self, of over-active self-consciousness, of our sense of “self” that has turned against itself, that cannot escape itself, that is continually ashamed of its past and worried about its future. It becomes trapped in itself. Spade’s older sister, Reta Saffo, in grieving the loss of her sister said, “Sometimes you simply cannot save people from themselves!” Our selves, our ego, can become our own worst enemy.
The spiritual path is not about seeking the end of our egos. Why? Because that is just more ego. It is the ego seeking its own demise, and this is not healthy to our progression or seeing reality clearly or truly, of awakening. All the self-doubt, self-sabotage, self-hatred must also come to an end, because these also belong to ego, and are thoughts of the ego.
It’s true that many spiritual paths involve forms of asceticism and austerity. This can include fasting, kneeling for prayers, intense service, abstinence of various kinds such as celibacy, avoiding pleasures, renunciation of material possessions, enduring harsh conditions, self-discipline, and can even go so far as body mortification, self-inflicting pain and voluntary suffering. These all have a goal of self-denial, of subduing ego so that the psychological ego eventually surrenders, gives up, and dissolves, and then one realizes what one’s true nature really is. All “commandments” or “vows” of any kind may have this intention. But I think they can also be abused forms of spirituality, where the ego can actually become more firmly embedded, thinking it is so very righteous (self-righteous), pure, and better than others. A certain amount of asceticism may be necessary to help our egos loosen their grip and fall away, but an overabundance of self-inflicted punishment may be counterproductive to our progression. There is enough suffering in life to not need to self-inflict more of it in most cases. The New Testament notes Jesus saying, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Extreme asceticism is not living life of abundance. But denying one’s self of some pleasures can help one to learn to enjoy and savor simpler experiences, even regular daily living, which can lead to greater overall happiness and satisfaction in life.
I see ego sacrifice and transcendence as much more of a letting go of self, of not seeking either the singular good or ill of one’s self, but a forgetting of one’s self (I recently read someone describe meditation as this kind of forgetting), and a turning outward towards others. Contemplative inner practices result in fuller outward selfless action as one begins to perceive reality beyond ego. In its highest realization it is a reaching out in love and service to others, in becoming a benefit to society, and contributing to its improvement and flourishing. It is the Bodhisattva vow of seeking the enlightenment of others before one’s self, or even one’s enlightenment through the enlightenment or liberation or freedom of others. It is helping others, lifting others, loving others, bringing life and joy to others. One empty’s one’s self (kenosis) in love towards others, regarding them as one’s own truest Self, until one actually perceives them as one’s Self, in complete unity and love.
Update: Jason Silva put these same ideas together beautifully in a video he published after I wrote this blog, so I thought I’d add it below.