This post was originally offered in June of 2008 as part of the book, Awake in This Life.
When the ego’s activity of identification begins to be exposed to a more expansive awareness within us, it begins to resist what it perceives as a loss of all it has worked so hard to achieve over the years. The more we pay attention to exactly what is going on, the more we begin to see that our identity, or personality, is simply a mask that we have learned to maintain in order to participate safely in the world. The word persona, in fact, is Greek for mask. Once we begin to gain some sense of how exactly we wear this persona, we begin to see that nearly all of our life we have been covering up and protecting ourselves against psychological threats by enhancing our mask’s appearance and fitting it over us ever more securely. But as the altitude of our spiritual climb increases, we will find that we can more carefully study ego’s actions and reactions. Once this shift in perspective occurs and the fire of our Awareness begins to increase in its intensity, the ego starts to sweat; not just because things get hot, but because the mask that it has been working on for so long starts to melt.
As this happens, the ego becomes more and more ingenious in its efforts to maintain the structural integrity of its mask. The ego will work to maintain the fit, position, and durability of its mask by identifying with anything that it sees as a useful tool. Perhaps it might be an idea, a group of like-minded people, or an object or belief structure it can imbue with meaning. Any thing might work to stave off what the ego sees as threatening to its sense of control. Whatever its choice, it will initiate a process of identification so it can metaphorically keep its mask in place, but as soon as its object of identification has outlived its usefulness, the ego will drop it and then identify with something else.
This process of “grab, use, and drop” is simply egoic exploitation. Since there is an unlimited amount of stuff with which one can identify and the mask always needs upgrading, the ego can always maintain some sense of job security. Consider anything in your life that you may feel strongly about: a political party or movement, a style of clothing, a type of stroller for your baby, a religion, a soccer team, or a social or family role that you might play. Each of these examples is a potential tool of identification that the ego can use to fortify its mask. The more fortification, the more the ego feels secure in its sense that it can keep the Infinite on the outside from busting in, and the Infinite on the inside from busting out. But as tastes, styles, and roles shift, the ego must adapt by finding yet more things with which to identify in order to keep its boundary sound.
This doesn’t mean that our spiritual journey will leave us without a personality or sense of self. Our climb simply helps us understand how truly unimportant our wearing of any mask is. But the ego needs to guard against this realization if it wants to survive. In fact, one of the most important parts of the ego’s job description is that it must act as a sentry or guard over the domain of the very boundaries that cause suffering. What would be left for ego if the only thing that really exists is an utter and total lack of boundary? A lack of separation? An absence of “in here” versus “out there”? The ego’s fundamental work, its raison d’etre, is to establish and then keep fortifying all boundaries and guard against all threats to itself. As long as this contracted self, this ego, can categorize, criticize, and conquer, it remains in charge of our experience. And its mask remains firmly in place, blocking all threats through identification.
A common method of maintaining the mask shows up whenever the ego starts pulling our attention into the past or it pushes our attention into the future. This anchored position in time is what keeps us out of the present and in turn keeps us from opening to what is timeless and real in each of us. Uncovering what is timeless and real is helped along when we simply rest fully in the present without attaching to anything. Here is where the Infinite meets itself by breaking through whatever boundaries the ego has established. Yet the ego will never give up trying to sabotage this process by rooting itself safely in time. How often, for instance, do we have any mental experience that is not oriented toward something that has already happened? How often, for that matter, do we have any mental experience that is not oriented toward something that hasn’t happened yet? In fact, the only activity the ego can engage in, other than to past and future, is an act of judgment. Explore this for yourself at any point by carefully noticing your thoughts. Any thought you might be able to recognize has its roots in one of three areas: past, future, or some type of evaluation. The only place where the past, the future, and judgments are totally irrelevant is in the space between our memories, plans, and judgments—a place we know as the present moment, or what we might also call “the Now”. The spaciousness of the Now is exactly the point where ego’s services relating to time and judgment aren’t needed.
I see this process in action quite frequently. So often well-meaning people who proclaim their deepest longing to awaken, suddenly decide to change course the minute their egos recognize what’s going on. Often, at the beginning of someone’s practice, things are quite pleasurable. There may be a few rough meditations to start off, but soon things begin to settle down and then, often suddenly, along comes the bliss. Deep quietude begins to envelop their practice and they feel as if they’ve been invited to a party that they never felt worthy of attending. Enlightenment, it seems, is at hand, since stillness is now informing large percentages of their day. The only time they have problems with maintaining their seemingly infinite calm is in the presence of their mothers-in-law, or with their teenagers who have started dating someone with multiple piercings, or with their spouses who, after all these years, still can’t get anywhere on time. In all other situations, however, peace reigns supreme.
But as these diligent souls continue to practice being still, certain things shift. Conflict with those closest to them may begin to settle down, but something even more difficult then shows up and this radically disturbs their practice. There is a profound realization that in order to go further up the Path, they must do more than just accept the distractions of others. They see that now they must start accepting themselves. Their egos, which were initially fully behind this process, now begin to revolt. These initially enthusiastic egos see that meditation practice is not just about feeling good; rather, it is about facing all aspects of life and staring, with full attention, into the mirror that reflects the mask that veils the Big Self. Over time, staring into this divine mirror renders our mask obsolete and exposes the raw truth of who we are; yet, the more we do this, the more the ego is relieved of its power. The ego sees this job loss as nothing short of its own death, and it will fight with everything it has in order to prevent the unsurpassed, penetrating, and perfect Enlightenment that it used to seek.
Another way that the ego can prevent Enlightenment is to hide behind various roles that it can play. Let’s say, for example, that in life we are a parent, or a son, a lover, wife, teacher, or even a victim. Whatever the role might be, the ego can use it in order to filter any experience through its attachment to that role that it has built over time. In other words, the ego uses the layering, so to speak, of whatever role serves it best to further fortify its mask. This added structure prevents the Infinity we truly are from recognizing itself through any experience of the present moment. This is all precisely because the ego is still clinging to its own constructs and resists the Now.
Some years back I was in a relationship with a woman who considered herself to be spiritual. I thought this was fitting since I was coming to the same recognition in myself. Our seeking together made us, in my mind, somewhat of a “spiritual team,” and being on a team could only speed up the process of finding the spiritual peace that we were seeking. Or so I thought.
It took some time before I sensed that something was wrong with our efforts. Both of us seemed to be reaching for the same goal, but our personalities were comfortable with different forms of spiritual identification. I liked the simplicity of Zen and wrapped myself in its practices, while she liked the magical nature of certain New Age practices and dove in to a community that didn’t square with the way I felt my climb could best progress.
“Why can’t you allow yourself to join in expressing Gaia’s rhythm, seeking the wisdom she gives us through all parts of her earth body?” she once asked.
“Why can’t you just sit still, be quiet, and stop looking for anything other than just this moment?” I replied.
My response didn’t go over well. To her credit, she was doing the right thing for herself by sticking to what was comfortable for her, and looking back on it, I was doing the same. Getting out of this particular relationship was difficult since I liked the idea of connecting to someone with whom I could share a team identity, but ultimately our split offered a critical lesson. Our separation, and its grief, showed me that being “spiritual,” looking for answers offered by either Gaia’s wisdom or Zen’s simplicity, is nothing other than a role to which our egos can cling—and a subtle one at that. My identity as a Zen student was an attachment. So, too, was her identity as a student of Gaia’s rhythm. Despite our best intentions to find Enlightenment the “correct way,” we each explored the Path through eyes clouded by our attachments.
Each of our egos interpreted its spiritual practice from a limited perspective that was colored, enhanced, and then brought into focus by the roles our egos most liked. Whenever this happens, egos weave material with which they can then cloak themselves as they manage our walk along any spiritual path. In essence, the ego can protect itself from the Infinite offering of the present moment as long as it has convinced us that we are seekers. As seekers, we see Enlightenment as always being outside of our experience, which is exactly why we are seeking it. Since we are attached to the role of seeker, we consistently end up looking for an Enlightened revelation in exactly the wrong place: outside of ourselves, outside this very moment, and outside each of the experiences that are always arising.
This point is very important: as long as Enlightenment, or spiritual Awakening, is seen as outside of us, we will be forever blind to its grace. The cruel trick for those of us climbing the Mountain is that as long as we seek, the ego is in charge, and we are thus totally oblivious to the Divine Estate beyond the habitual limits of time, judgment, and identification. The longer we seek, the tighter and more ossified the ego’s grip can get. With this hardening of the ego’s grasp, we merely become more and more blind to what’s real and true.
This blindness allows the desperate and skillful ego to assume the role of perpetual interpreter of all things, acting as if it knows what is true and what is false. Our ego thinks that it understands Enlightenment and the teachings that point toward it as well as those that point away from it. These enlightened egos can be seductive, since they often offer what the unsuspecting might consider to be wise interpretations of what the Buddha, Christ, the Mother, and countless other sages have said about the Path to Awakening. They even try to wear the sage’s robes metaphorically since they identify so strongly with their teaching.
But even while the ego’s interpretations may at times be inspiring and compelling, the conscious Awareness beyond all egoic attachment can’t inform these interpretations with any authenticity because the ego is still doing its best to keep the Infinite out of its way. This is why, in spiritual work, we should bring a healthy sense of skepticism along with us. Even at their best, teachers with egos who think they are Awake offer only limited perspectives that are bound by the mind. But this type of guide cannot offer the conscious brilliance that informs teaching from the Absolute. This isn’t only a problem for teachers, though. Watch for this even in your own experience as you climb, since many egos on the Path will eventually try to wear the Buddha’s robe, working to become self-anointed agents of a falsely enlightened understanding.
Examples of this form of abuse can be seen in every tradition. Those who have been at the spiritual game the longest might be very knowledgeable of sacred texts. They may have mastered certain states of consciousness. But these successes often work to add strength to the egoic masks that need to be dropped in order for an authentic Awakening to flourish. The closer any of us comes to Awakening into the Big Self, regardless of time spent on the Path, the more the ego will get in the way of Enlightenment’s fruition. As long as there are any threats to the ego’s own survival, it has job security. And as long as it can keep its job by staying in the driver’s seat of anyone’s experience, it lives. Ironically, it stays in the driver’s seat by making sure that it can constantly tend to all of the dangers on the road, both behind and in front of us.