Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ego - a dirty spiritual word?

A few weeks ago I met a man, Mike, who was very involved in meditation and yoga. When I tried asking Mike any questions about himself, or his plans, he seemed to block all my questions by answering in a kind of mantra...'We're just floating through the universe...I'm living in universal love; the rest is ego...It's all illusion...' Making a lunch-date with Mike was really difficult, because he almost refused to say what he might do ten minutes into the future because he was, 'completely in the present moment.'

When he found out I wasn't well, Mike's response was to suggest it might be past-life issues causing my illness, and that I also had to think less. I felt criticized, misunderstood, and frustrated.

Later, I sat down and really allowed myself to feel how judged and impotent I felt in the face of Mike's unsolicited opinions about my illness. After sitting with these feelings for a while I had a moment of intuitive realisation. I had a strong feeling that, in his head, Mike was constantly telling himself how he should be - 'don't think...be equanimous...it's all an illusion...' - and that these inward judgements, of course, led him to be outwardly judgemental as well. I felt  that what Mike was really trying to do was avoid ordinary life; trying to 'jump over' it in order to get to some vague spritual ideal. 

At the same moment, I realised how I was doing the same thing myself.  I constantly boss myself around in my mind with a barrage of thoughts along the lines of - 'you have to be more peaceful...you have to relax...you have to meditate more to get well...' It became obvious that my judgement works like a barrier that separates me from what is actually going on in the present moment. Of course, like Mike, this inward judgement also leads to me judging my friends and family a lot.

I felt an incredible sense of connection with Mike, and for the pain our minds can cause us when we try to control ourselves so much with our thoughts. I could really sense this 'inner dictator' that so many of us have. It was the first time that I've been able to go beyond the terrible frustration I feel when people make judgements about me and my illness, and felt some small sense of compassion for the ways in which we try to constantly control ourselves in order to avoid the difficult, messy, and constantly changing 'here and now.'

The interesting thing was that it was really just by sitting down and feeling my feelings that I came to this understanding. It wasn't through thinking, or intellectualising, or 'shoulding' myself into feeling compassion.

Yesterday I read a section from Jack Kornfield's excellent book 'A Path With Heart,' that helped me further understand the interaction I had with Mike. I can really relate to the part about trying to make a "spiritual bypass"...

He writes,

"Misconceptions about selflessness and emptiness abound, and such confusions undermine genuine spiritual development. Some people believe that they can come to selflessness by struggling to get rid of their ego-centered self...We have described how some students use emptiness as an excuse for a withdrawal from life, saying it is all illusion, trying to make a "spiritual bypass" around life's problems. But each of these diseases of emptiness misses the true meaning of emptiness and its liberating freedom. To try to get rid of the self, to purify, root out, or transcend all desire, anger, and centeredness, to vanquish a self that is "bad," is an old religious idea..." (p. 203)

 I also found a really interesting Vancouver Sun article titled 'Meditation can often mask a downside' that explores the idea that common misunderstandings or misinterpretations of ideas such as 'killing the ego' can lead to people using meditation to deny, rather than connect with, their darker emotions. Part of the article reads,

"Ken Wilber, another sophisticated spiritual thinker who is working to integrate psychology, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and philosophy, also warns against North Americans treating meditation as a be-all and end-all. ... when Eastern meditation teachers tell people to "kill their egos," it runs the danger the students might "dis-identify" with their more unpleasant personality traits.

Meditation for many "becomes a process of transcend and deny ... rather than transcend and include," Wilber writes in his book, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.

The Eastern teaching that people should have "no ego," an idea espoused by Vancouver-based spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and many others, encourages meditators to try to be "empty," to have no viewpoint, says Wilber. The trouble is many meditators believe that means having no viewpoints at all, even on important issues. As Wilber says, many meditators don't believe in anything."

So...here's to having viewpoints, believing in things, seeing our minds with compassion, and perhaps even signing a peace-treaty with our egos!

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