Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Ego

You know that inner monologue that always seems to be going inside the head? (Yeah, I've got it, too. We all do.) Have you ever been distracted by it?

You are sitting there talking with someone. They say something, and it triggers a whole whack of thoughts that run as a monologue through your mind and you suddenly realize that you've missed everything they've just said for the past few minutes. Kind of sucks, doesn't it?

We've all been there.

Eckhart Tolle, in one of his books, makes an interesting point. He says that if we are distracted by this inner monologue, then that means that it is not us. He refers to it as the ego that tries to affirm its existence, at all costs, and says that this ego is not our true self.

When I read this, it occurred to me that it was just like the "insistent ego" that Baha'u'llah talks about.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to quiet that voice? Have it speak just a bit softer? Have it use its "inside voice", so to speak?

I've noticed that ever since I started that meditation workshop, that voice has gotten quieter, and it just seems right to share some thoughts on this issue with you, dear Reader.

There are two questions that seem to be at the core of this issue. The first is what is the ego? The second is how do we keep the ego in check? We might as well look at one at a time.

What is the ego? As you know, I'm no expert on this subject. I am only going through the Writings, and looking at my own personal experience, to try and understand all this.

First, it seems that there are many different phrases that are used in the Writings to try and describe the same thing. Although the Master talks about a few different layers of self, I'm only going to concern myself with two: the lower and the higher self.

The lower self seems to be what is referred to as our physical self, the animal within us. It is that part of our nature that leads to the various lusts and evil thoughts. It is what is referred to in the Writings as the Satan of self, and what I think we commonly call "the ego".

The higher self seems to be more akin to our soul, and is sometimes called our spirit, or the "intelligent ego" (which makes the previous use of the term "ego" more confusing, but may be due to poor translation as it is from Promulgation of Universal Peace).

While there are many more aspects or layers involved in the reality of all this, these two seem to be pivotal to our discussion of the ego. The first is generally the bad part, while the latter is generally the good part. Shoghi Effendi describes the difference so well, as we would expect: "Self has really two meanings, or is used in two senses, in the Bahá'í writings; one is self, the identity of the individual created by God. This is the self mentioned in such passages as 'he hath known God who hath known himself etc.'. The other self is the ego, the dark, animalistic heritage each one of us has, the lower nature that can develop into a monster of selfishness, brutality, lust and so on. It is this self we must struggle against, or this side of our natures, in order to strengthen and free the spirit within us and help it to attain perfection."

In regards to our lower nature, the Master says here: "lower nature in man is symbolized as Satan -- the evil ego within us". Again, this seems to imply, to me, a distinction between the ego and our real self. This is further reinforced by many of the counsels of Shoghi Effendi. "Life", the Guardian says, "is a constant struggle, not only against forces around us, but above all against our own 'ego'."

Let us be certain that this is an on-going, an eternal struggle, for "The only people who are truly free of the 'dross of self'", says the Guardian, "are the Prophets, for to be free of one's ego is a hall-mark of perfection. We humans are never going to become perfect, for perfection belongs to a realm we are not destined to enter. However, we must constantly mount higher, seek to be more perfect."

What does all this have to do with that inner voice? That inner monologue?

Well, I'm not entirely sure, but it seems to me that this voice is usually the prompting of the ego. When we let that voice get out of control, it interferes with our ability to listen to the promptings of the spirit, as evidenced by the fact that when we quiet it, say during meditation, we are more receptive to hear that other voice that seems to really answer our questions. Also, if that inner monologue really gets out of control, it often leads to anxiety, or in some extreme cases insanity. I truly believe that this is one of the main reasons why we are encouraged to still that voice, why we often think of the purpose of meditation as being that inner stillness. Perhaps it is also why that stillness of being is considered a sign of enlightenment. Still waters, as they say, run deep.

Now there is that second question: How do we keep the ego in check? What tools do we have to help ourselves in this eternal struggle?

And does this mean that we need to completely turn this inner monologue off? I don't think so. Look at the example of the "intelligent ego" that the Master gives here: "When you wish to reflect upon or consider a matter, you consult something within you. You say, shall I do it, or shall I not do it? Is it better to make this journey or abandon it? Whom do you consult? Who is within you deciding this question? Surely there is a distinct power, an intelligent ego. Were it not distinct from your ego, you would not be consulting it."

I think we need to be aware of the difference between those two inner voices, the one that is the insistent self, and the one that is in response to our ardent prayers and meditation.

How can we tell the difference? I think the first step is to look at what the voice is saying. Is it in accord with the Writings? If the voice is saying, "Kill, kill, kill", then I think we can safely presume that it is not that higher voice. It does not lead to love, unity and all the good virtues that are conducive to the betterment of the world. When it gives us an unexpected answer to a difficult problem, one that appears to be out of left field, is still in accord with the teachings, and seems to have some sort of bearing on the issue, then perhaps it is good. We should consider it, and think of it as a response to our prayer.

There is a wonderful story from the Master in which He talks about those friends who asked His advice in various matters. "When the believers are insistent, Abdul Baha must give them answers, and it is their wish always that Abdul Baha grants them. He knows what their wish in reality is. They must make mistakes to learn, and to unfold the higher which is within themselves. The initial wish does not come from Abdul Baha. It comes from them. It is generally clothed with such words as these: 'We only wish to do that which Abdul Baha wishes us to do.' And they are sincere in this, for they do not know the subtlety of the ego of man. It is the Tempter (the subtle serpent of the mind), and the poor soul not entirely emancipated from its suggestions is deceived until entirely severed from all save God."

And Shoghi Effendi says that "the complete and entire elimination of the ego would imply perfection -- which man can never completely attain -- but the ego can and should be ever-increasingly subordinated to the enlightened soul of man. This is what spiritual progress implies."

It is not easy, for the ego is, as 'Abdu'l-Baha says, subtle.

Meditation, though, can be of great assistance in helping us in this struggle. When we find a method of meditation that works for us, one of the natural results is that this voice tends to become quieter. It also helps us realize when that voice is getting out of control, and it gives us a tool to quiet it. Whether that meditation is based on focusing on our senses and truly listening to all we can hear in an area, or done by chanting a mantra, or even by simply looking at a flame, we can use the one that works best for us to turn that volume down when needed. There are thousands of forms of meditation, and we need to explore them until we find one that works for us.

Now I'm not saying that this is the be all and end all of what the Writings say, for obviously it isn't, but this is a simple explanation that works for me, helps me understand what is happening in my own head and spirit, and allows me to grow as best I can.

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