In Buddhism there is a lot of talk of the “ego” and “self” and the so called goal of “egolessness” or “selflessness”. It could easily be concluded that what we need to do is “destroy” or eliminate the ego and, although this might well be the end result of “enlightenment”, it is not necessarily the approach needed while we strive for “liberation” and achieving “Buddhahood”.
For example we need our ego / “self” to feel the “disgust” of cyclical existence and thus to “renounce” suffering. Equally our “self” has an important role to play in appreciating our incredibly precious human life, of “leisure and opportunity”, and that we have no time to lose, here and now, to progress along the spiritual path. The “self” takes refuge (in the 3 jewels if you area Buddhist) and strives to apply the 6 perfections (the perfections of giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom) and perform the 10 virtuous actions and avoid the 10 non virtuous ones.
But the problem is that we take our ego too seriously! We identify with it too strongly and we believe all that it says we “are”!
The ego arises instinctively, from fear and isolation, as the mind starts to intellectualise all that is happening around us, as we move from being an infant and into childhood. Then, over time, it is strengthened by our society, education and experiences (via the 5 senses), which are based almost exclusively around “duality” ie that we are “individual” and “separate” from others and all things. Through this process, and that of “labeling” all aspects of our being, we create exactly what our ego wants – certainty of “existence” and certainty of “status”. The ego will take these labels (I am English, I am tall, I am a builder, I am clever, I am shy etc.) and will continually seek to reaffirm them so that they become truly ingrained and our existence and status, of “who we are”, confirmed.
But this is in fact only half of the truth. It is the so called “conventional truth” but fails to allow for the other “reality”, the one that sees that all phenomena are “impermanent”, and that nothing exists intrinsically when you analyse it, and look for it. It also fails to take into account that if we delve into the subatomic level of our existence we find that the “boundaries” between “us”, and all other beings or “things”, disappear and that, at the level of energy and consciousness, we are “one with all that is”. We are somehow bound together by a “cosmic consciousness”, or what in Buddhism we would call the dharmakaya, the “truth body” or “reality body”, the source of absolute wisdom.
Even though we might only be able to understand this intellectually and, indeed the reality of dharmakaya is beyond the intellect or even imagination, we need to open ourselves up to this alternative reality and, in so doing, put our “ego” / “self” in it’s wider context. A context which sees the “self”, for what it is, not an absolute reality but a simple construct of the mind that naturally arises, as part of our instinct to survive, but is ignorant of the ultimate truth.
This confines us, imprisons us, in cyclical existence, and the inherent suffering that forms part of it. If we are to release these shackles, we need to start to “re-define” the ego rather than destroy it. We need to see it for what it is, only partially real / true, and thus grow skeptical about what it tells us “we are”.
Since the ego constantly seeks to reinforce its existence through the “labeling” of who “we are”, a starting point is to actually use the mind’s habit /propensity to label to “re-label” the “self / ego” in a way that it is much closer to the ultimate truth. We need to find alternatives to the conventional labels, that restrict us, and find new ones that open us up to our reality of “Buddha potentiality”; the “seed of Buddha” that lies within us; or what, in the King of Prayers of Samantabhadra, is called the “latent goodness” that resides in all beings. Enlightenment is not something we seek outside of us, it lies within, all be it buried under the constructs of the ego and all the mental and emotional delusions from beginningless times. Just as the Buddha(s) is/are all knowing, all loving, all compassionate, so are we, in our essence. If we can see and accept this alternative, and holistic vision, of our reality we can start to re-label the self. Rather than simple saying we are this and that, we could say “I am infinite love and compassion”; “I am infinite gratitude”; “I am infinite patience”; “I am the embodiment of generosity” (and all the other perfections) etc. This then needs to be reinforced through our “deeds” – offering love and compassion; and being grateful, patient and generous. We need to live out these qualities.
With time our “self” would adapt to this new reality and “become” all these qualities! Our restricted, and often negative and limiting, belief systems and view of life, so engrained in the current “self”, would melt away and we would start to embrace the reality that, deep down, we have all the qualities of the Buddha and it this that we need to identify with!
We can also meditate on the reality that our senses only give us a partial view of our “reality” and that, as one drills down to the cellular and then to the atomic and sub atomic levels, another reality unfolds where duality falls away and interconnectedness manifests. Again this is a “reality”, one where energy and consciousness are operating, a world beyond the senses where “we”, the “self”, become a part of the “all”, like a drop of rain that falls into the ocean. Everything that made up the drop of rain still exits but it now embraces its full potential of also “being” the ocean. That is our reality – the “self”, when unbounded, is all that is, the creator of the universe, or as is said in Buddhism, the “ultimate guru”.
If we can see this reality, through contemplation, meditation and practice, and can re-label as described, our mind will start to break down the negative constructs, to which it is so accustomed, and instead open up to its full potential. This won’t happen over night, as the ego needs time to adapt, but as any creature of habit, the more you reeducate it, reminding it of this wider reality, through contemplation, meditation and practice, the quicker the shackles will be broken!