Is it a sign of evolution that we have the time to contemplate our egos, or a sign of decadence? When my social-activist friend accuses me of the latter, I am quick to point out that in India, hardly the land of decadence, people have been contemplating their egos for thousands of years. He quickly retorts that it has not benefited them very much. I respond by pointing out that they have thoroughly developed (and given us) the gift of meditation, among other things. I consider meditation to be one of the most sophisticated technologies on the planet today. It is, in fact, a technology of the Self. Obviously, I believe that ego-contemplation is a sign of evolution. He then asks if my ego-contemplation isn’t merely ego-indulgence in disguise. Good question .
Is it nobler to transcend the ego or to indulge it? And how to tell the difference? We humans live in a dual world and, as such, we are prone to dichotomies. And almost more than we love dichotomies, we love to discard anything that gets in our way. So, the obvious answer for fast spiritual advancement is to transcend the ego because it clearly gets in the way of spirit.
The problem with ego-transcendence, though, is that it doesn’t work very well. In fact, everybody I know who has tried it has not succeeded. Some have enjoyed small, short-term successes. Others have mistaken ego-transcendence for ego-denial and then been forced back into indulgence at some point in an unconscious effort toward balance. Still others flip back and forth as a way of life. And those I know who attempt true ego-transcendence on an ongoing basis seem to succeed only when isolated, removed from the challenges of ordinary people and everyday life.
In fact, the striving for ego-transcendence has given birth to a new pathology called spiritual bypassing, a term recently coined by transpersonal psychologist John Wellwood. Spiritual bypassing happens when a person uses spirituality to mask or compensate for other inadequacies. This can take many insidious forms. For example, a person who spends all their time meditating, swimming with dolphins, or volunteering for the cause while they can’t pay their rent. Or a person who is so “spiritually sensitive” that s/he can’t be around anybody else because they have “bad energy.” Or the person who appears to have peacefully transcended their ego but is really just completely disconnected from their feelings and their body. In each of these instances, spirituality is used as a decoy to disguise a real problem.
I suspect that transcending the ego doesn’t work because it’s not supposed to. Maybe we are not meant to overcome the god/dess-given gift of ego. Instead, maybe we are meant to use it to the fullest. This does not have to mean ego-indulgence, rather, it can mean using ego in the service of Spirit. After all, Spirit needs a strong container in which to work. The ego is a viable container when it is developed and worked with so it can be as healthy, refined, and integrated as possible.
We can’t provide a strong container for Spirit by transcending the ego. Instead, we have to work with the ego in a conscious, purposeful and ongoing way. We must know the strengths and limitations of our own, unique ego so that we can develop the strengths and transform the limitations. We can study ourselves, study our minds, and study our lives. Meditation and contemplation are fantastic tools for this when used properly. The aim of meditation is not to disconnect, escape, or relax. The goal of meditation for these times is to research your self, to experiment and incorporate the results gleaned so that you may come to discover what you are and what you are not. When this endeavour is carried out in the service of Spirit, the ego can become soul-infused.
In the service of Spirit, we refine the ego. Once refined, the soul-infused ego then wants to and can serve humanity. These times we are living in are “soul-sized,” and call forth from each of us the best that we can be. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the world. Gone are the days of the guru sitting on the mountaintop. The gates to heaven are not fitted for just one person anymore. We must all go together this time. Spirit-in-action in the world. I look forward to the time when “Spiritual Retreat” is seen as an oxymoron.
Published in the Maui Vision Magazine, Sept., 2004