Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Perspectives > Chapter 8: The Ego
Everything we do or say, feel or think is related back to the ego. We live tethered to its post and move in a circle. The spiritual quest is really an attempt to break out of this circle. From another point of view it is a long process of uncovering what is deeply hidden by our ego, with its desires, emotions, passions, reasonings, and activities. Taking still another point of view, it is a process of dissociating ourselves from them. But it is unlikely that the ego could be induced to end its own rule willingly. Its deceptive ways and tricky habits may lead an aspirant into believing that he is reaching a high stage when he is merely travelling in a circle. The way to break out of this circle is either to seek out the ego's source or, where that is too difficult, to become closely associated and completely obedient to a true Master. The ego, being finite, cannot produce an infinite result by its own efforts. It spins out its thoughts and sends out its desires day after day. They may be likened to cobwebs which are renewed or increased and which never disappear for long from the darkened corners of a room, however often they may be brushed away. So long as the spider is allowed to live there, so long will they reappear again. Tracking down the ego to its lair is just like hunting out the spider and removing it altogether from the room. There is no more effective or faster way to attain the goal than to ferret out its very source, offer the ego to that Source, and finally by the path of affirmations and recollections unite oneself with it.
The practice of the impersonal point of view under the guidance of mentalism leads in time to the discovery that the ego is an image formed in the mind, mind-made, an image with which we have got inextricably intertwined. But this practice begins to untie us and set us free.
All your thinking about the ego is necessarily incomplete, for it does not include the ego-thought itself. Try to do so, and it slips from your hold. Only something that transcends the ego can grasp it.
If the ego is to perpetuate itself it must enter into all the mind's activities, not merely in the baser ones. This is exactly what does happen. The spiritual aspirations, the moral ideals, and even the mystical experiences are themselves inverted projections of the ego. Through them the "I" is able to expand itself into an "I" greater, grander, happier, and stronger than before. If they are not its own creations, providing shelter or disguise for it, then they are soon infiltrated and betrayed, undermined or permeated, until they feed and nourish the very self they were supposed to lead away from.
The highest goal of the quest is not illumination gained by destruction of the ego but rather by perfection of the ego. It is the function of egoism which is to be destroyed, not that which functions. The ego's rulership is to go, not the ego itself.
If he is willing to look for them, he will find the hidden workings of the ego in the most unsuspected corners, even in the very midst of his loftiest spiritual aspirations. The ego is unwilling to die and will even welcome this large attrition of its scope if that is its only way of escape from death. Since it is necessarily the active agent in these attempts at self-betterment, it will be in the best position to take care that they shall end as a seeming victory over itself but not an actual one. The latter can be achieved only by directly confronting it and, under Grace's inspiration, directly slaying it; this is quite different from confronting and slaying any of its widely varied expressions in weaknesses and faults. They are not at all the same. They are the branches but the ego is the root. Therefore when the aspirant gets tired of this never-ending Long Path battle with his lower nature, which can be conquered in one expression only to appear in a new one, gets weary of the self-deceptions in the much pleasanter imagined accomplishments of the Short Path, he will be ready to try the last and only resource. Here at long last he gets at the ego itself by completely surrendering it, instead of preoccupying himself with its numerous disguises--which may be ugly, as envy, or attractive, as virtue.
Nothing that his own will can do brings about this displacement of the ego. The divine will must do it for him.
Your handicap is the strong ego, the "I" which stands in the path and must be surrendered by emotional sacrifice in the blood of the heart. But once out of the way, you will feel a tremendous relief and gain peace.
What or who is seeking enlightenment? It cannot be the higher Self, for that is itself of the nature of Light. There then only remains the ego! This ego, the object of so many denunciations and denigrations, is the being that, transformed, will win truth and find Reality even though it must surrender itself utterly in the end as the price to be paid.
Egoism, the limiting of consciousness to individual life as separate from the one infinite life, is the last barrier to the attainment of unity with the infinite life.
As the snake is never killed by its own poison, the Overself has never been deceived by this image-making power of its own ego, although the ego itself almost continually is.
The ego's self-flattery keeps out most suggestions that its motives may be tainted, its service not so disinterested as it seems, and its humility a pretentious cloak for secret vanity.
The obstacles which prevent the spread of philosophy amongst the masses are not only the lack of culture, the lack of leisure, and the lack of interest. The most powerful of all is one which affects all social classes alike--it is the ego itself. The stubborn way in which they cherish it, the passionate strength with which they cling to it, and the tremendous belief which they give to it combine to build a fortress-wall against philosophy's serene statements of what is. People demand instead what they desire. Hence it is easier to tell them, and easier for them to receive, that God's will decides everything and that the patient submission to this will is always the best course, than to tell them that their blind attachment to the ego creates so large a part of their sufferings and that if they will not approach life impersonally there is no other course than to bear painful results of a wrong attitude. This is the way of religion. Philosophy, however, insists on telling the full truth to its students even if its detached, still voice chills their egos to the bone. Acceptance of the philosophic standpoint involves a surrender of the selfish one. This is an adjustment that only the morally heroic can make. We need not therefore expect any rush on people's part to become philosophers.
Although the ego claims to be engaged in a war against itself, we may be certain that it has no intention of allowing a real victory to be achieved but only a pseudo-victory. The simple conscious mind is no match for such cunning. This is one reason why out of so many spiritual seekers, so few really attain union with the Overself, why self-deceived masters soon get a following whereas the true ones are left in peace, untroubled by such eagerness.
Until he learns that his enemy is the ego itself, with all the mental and emotional attitudes that go with it, his efforts to liberate himself spiritually merely travel in a circle.
When the ego is brought to its knees in the dust, humiliated in its own eyes, however esteemed or feared, envied or respected in other men's eyes, the way is opened for Grace's influx. Be assured that this complete humbling of the inner man will happen again and again until he is purified of all pride.
In all human activity the ego plays its role, and so long as this activity continues the ego continues. There is much confusion and much misunderstanding about this point. We are told to kill out the ego; we are also told that the ego does not exist. The fact is it must exist if activity exists. What then is to be done by the spiritual aspirant? He can bring and eventually must bring the ego into subjection to the higher Power. It is still there, but it is put in its proper place. Now why are we told to kill out the ego if it is not possible? The answer is that it is possible, but only in what is the deepest point of meditation, called nirvikalpa in Sanskrit, where all thoughts are blotted out, all sense reports cease to exist, and a kind of trancelike condition comes into being. In this condition, the ego is unable to exist; it becomes inoperative, but it is certainly not killed or it would not return again after the condition ends as it must end. It does not really help to assert that the ego does not exist or if it does exist that it must be killed. The fact is it must be taken into account by everybody who seeks the higher life; whatever theories he entertains about the ego, it is there, must be reckoned with, must be confronted. Some of the confusion is due to the fact that the ego is a changing thing; it changes with time and experience, whereas the Infinite Being, the Ultimate, is changeless. In that sense reality cannot be ascribed to the ego, but only in that ultimate sense. We however are living down here, in time and in space, and to ignore that fact is to cultivate intellectual deaf and dumbness.
The illusion of the ego stands behind all other illusions. If it is removed, they too will be removed.
The Sufis talk of an experience which they call annihilation (fana in Persian), meaning annihilation of the personal self. There is no doubt that in the Sufi mystic experience this is what is felt to happen, but if this really happened utterly and completely, would not the characteristics of the person disappear? We find that this disappearance does not in fact take place; the characteristics continue. What then has really happened, for it must have been a tremendous happening to have been likened to annihilation or death? The secret is that what took place was a change in the attitude towards the personal self. The personal self remained, but the attitude towards it was changed. The tyranny of the ego vanished, which is not the same thing as saying that the ego itself has vanished.
The ego is not really killed--how without body and intellect, emotion and will, could anyone act in this world?--but the centre of being is moved out of it to the Overself.
Remove the concept of the ego from a man and you remove the solid ground from beneath his feet. A yawning abyss seems to open up under him. It gives the greatest fright of his life, accompanied by feelings of utter isolation and dreadful insecurity. He will then clamour urgently for the return of his beloved ego and return to safety once more--unless his determination to attain truth is so strong and so exigent that he can endure the ordeal, survive the test, and hold on until the Overself's light irradiates the abyss.
The ego not only obligingly provides him with a spiritual path to keep him busy for several years and thus keeps him from tracking it down to its lair; it even provides him with a spiritual illumination to authenticate that path. Need it be said that this counterfeit illumination is another form of the ego's own aggrandizement?
I am dubious whether anyone can be perfectly sincere if his actions do not come from this deeper source. He may believe that he is, and others may believe the same of him, but since his actions must come from his ego, which is itself spawned by deception and maintained by illusion, how can they achieve a standard which depends on complete truth and utter reality?
The ego is arrogant, haughty, conceited, and self-deceived.
That crafty old fox, the ego, is quite capable of engaging in spiritual practices of every kind and of showing spiritual aspirations of every degree of warmth.
If the ego can trick him into deviating from the central issue of its own destruction to some less important side issue, it will certainly do so. Its success in this effort is much more common than its failure. Few escape being tricked. The ego uses the subtlest ways to insert itself into the thinking and life of an aspirant. It cheats, tricks, exalts, and abases him by turns, if he lets it. Anatole France wrote that it is in the ability to deceive oneself that the greatest talent is shown. It is a constant habit and an instinctive reaction to defend his ego against the testimony of its own activity's unfortunate results. He will need to guard against this again and again, for its own powers are pathetically inadequate, its own foresight conspicuously absent.
It is both true and untrue that we cannot take up the ego with us into the life of mystical illumination. The ego is after all only a reflection, extremely limited and often distorted, of the Higher Self . . . but still it is a reflection. If we could bring it into correct alignment with, and submission to, the Higher Self, it would then be no hindrance to the illumined life. The ego cannot, indeed, be destroyed so long as we need its services while in the flesh; but it can be subjugated and turned into a servant instead of permitting it to remain a master. When this is understood, the philosophical ideal of a fully developed, mastered, and richly rounded ego acting as a channel for the inspiration and guidance of the Higher Self will be better appreciated. A poverty-stricken ego will naturally form a more limited channel for the expression of the Higher Self than would a more evolved one. The real enemy to be overcome is not the entity ego, but the function of egoism.
The ego lies to itself, lies to the man who identifies himself with it, and lies to other men.
The ego constantly invents ways and means to defeat the quest's objective. And it does this more indefatigably and more cunningly than ever when it pretends to co-operate with the quest and share its experiences.
Most aspirants will submit themselves to all sorts of disciplines for the body, the passions, and the mind but they will not submit to the one discipline that really matters. They cling to their precious ego like barnacles to a ship and will let everything else go except that.
He will advance most on the Quest who tries most to separate himself from his ego. It will be a long, slow struggle and a hard one, for the false belief that the ego is his true self grips him with hypnotic intensity. All the strength of all his being must be brought to this struggle to remove error and to establish truth, for it is an error not merely of the intellect alone but also of the emotions and of the will.
The Overself-consciousness is reflected into the ego, which then imagines that it has its own original, and not derived awareness.
We draw the very capacity to live from the Overself, the very power to think from the same source. But we confine both the capacity and the power to a small, fragmentary, and mostly physical sphere. Within this confinement the ego sits enthroned, served by our senses and pandered by our thoughts.
If we analyse the ego, we find it to be a collection of past memories retained from experience and future hopes or fears which anticipate experience. If we try to seize it, to separate it out by itself, we do not find it to exist in the present moment, only in what has gone and what is to come. In fact, it never really exists in the NOW but only seems to. This means that it is a phantom without substance, a false idea.
The ego self is the creature born out of man's own doing and thinking, slowly changing and growing. The Overself is the image of God, perfect, finished, and changeless. What he has to do, if he is to fulfil himself, is to let the one shine through the other.
If we have written of the ego as if it were a separate and special entity, a fixed thing, a reality in its own right, this is only because of the inescapable necessities of logical human thinking and the inexorable limitations of traditional human language. For in FACT the "I" cannot be separated from its thoughts since it is composed of them, and them alone. The ego is, in short, only an idea, or a trick that the thought process plays on itself.
The persona, the mask which he presents to the world, is only one part of his ego. The conscious nature, composed of thoughts and feelings, is the second part. The hidden store of tendencies, impulses, memories, and ideas--formerly expressed and then reburied, or brought over from earlier lives, and all latent--is the third part.
It is as hard for the ego to judge itself fairly, to look at its actions with a correct perspective as for a man to lift himself by his own braces. It simply cannot do it; its capacity to find excuses for itself is unlimited--even the excuse of righteousness, even the excuse of the quest of truth. All that the aspirant can hope to do is to thin down the volume of the ego's operations and to weaken the strength of the ego itself; but to get rid of the ego entirely is something beyond his own capacity. Consequently, an outside power must be called in. There is only one such power available to him, although it may manifest itself in two different ways, and that is the power of Grace. Those ways are: either direct help by his own higher Self or personal help from a higher man, that is, an illumined teacher. He may call for the first at any time, but he may not rightly call for the second before he has done enough work on himself and made enough advance to justify it.
If we could pin down this sense of "I"-ness which is behind all we think, say, and do, and if we could part it from the thoughts, feelings, and physical body by doing so, we would find it to be rooted in and linked with the higher Power behind the whole world.
One day he will feel utterly tired of the ego, will see how cunningly and insidiously it has penetrated all his activities, how even in supposedly spiritual or altruistic activities he was merely working for the ego. In this disgust with his earthly self, he will pray for liberation from it. He will see how it tricked him in the past, how all his years have been monopolized by its desires, how he sustained, fed, and cherished it even when he thought he was spiritualizing himself or serving others. Then he will pray fervently to be freed from it, he will seek eagerly to dis-identify himself and yearn ardently to be swallowed up in the nothingness of God.
We all think, experience, feel, and identify with the "I." But who really knows what it is? To do this we need to look inside the mind, not at what it contains, as psychologists do, but at what it is in itself. If we persevere, we may find the "I" behind the "I."
This is effected by voluntarily and deliberately regarding his person as the earth which is occupied with these space-time movements and the hidden observer as the sun which remains stationary all the while. This is the higher individuality which he shall always preserve whereas he will preserve the personality only intermittently. Thus the "I" is not excluded in the end but reinterpreted in a manner which completely transforms it. When a man has advanced to this Witness's standpoint, he understands the difference between the descriptive phrase, "I am the great Caesar" and the terse statement "I am."
It would be wrong to believe that there are two separate minds, two independent consciousnesses within us--one the lower ego-mind, and the other, the higher Overself-mind--with one, itself unwatched, watching the other. There is but one independent illuminating mind and everything else is only a limited and reflected image within it. The ego is a thought-series dependent on it.
Only the deepest kind of reflection, or the most exciting kind of mystical experience, or the compelling force of a prophet's revelation can bring a man to the great discovery that his personal ego is not the true centre of his being.
The true self of man is hidden in a central core of stillness, a central vacuum of silence. This core, this vacuum occupies only a pinpoint in dimension. All around it there is ring of thoughts and desires constituting the imagined self, the ego. This ring is constantly fermenting with fresh thoughts, constantly changing with fresh desires, and alternately bubbling with joy or heaving with grief. Whereas the centre is forever at rest, the ring around it is never at rest; whereas the centre bestows peace, the ring destroys it.
Every discussion which is made from an egoistic standpoint is corrupted from the start and cannot yield an absolutely sure conclusion. The ego puts its own interest first and twists every argument, word, even fact to suit that interest.
If his egoism is too strong, the highest part of the Overself's light will be quite unable to get through into his consciousness, no matter how fervent his aspiration for it may be.
An ego we have, we are; its existence is inescapable if the cosmic thought is to be activated and the human evolution in it is to develop. Why has it become, then, a source of evil, friction, suffering, and horror? The energy and instinct, the intelligence and desire which are contained in each individualized fragment of consciousness, each compounded "I," are not originally evil in themselves; but when the clinging to them becomes extreme, selfishness becomes strong. There is a failure in equilibrium and the gentler virtues are squeezed out, the understanding that others have rights, the feeling of goodwill and sympathy, accommodation for the common welfare--all depart. The natural and right attention to one's needs becomes enlarged to the point of tyranny. The ego then exists only to serve itself at all costs, aggressive to, and exploitive of, all others. It must be repeated: an ego there must be if there is to be a World-Idea. But it has to be put, and kept, in its place (which is not a hardened selfishness). It must adjust to two things: to the common welfare and to the source of its own being. Conscience tells him of the first duty, whether heeded or not; Intuition tells him of the second one, whether ignored or not. For, overlooked or misconstrued, the relation between evil and man must not hide the fact that the energies and intelligence used for evil derive in the beginning from the divine in man. They are Godgiven but turned to the service of ungodliness. This is the tragedy, that the powers, talents, and consciousness of man are spent so often in hatred and war when they could work harmoniously for the World-Idea, that his own disharmony brings his own suffering and involves others. But each wave of development must take its course, and each ego must submit in the end. He who hardens himself within gross selfishness and rejects his gentler spiritual side becomes his own Satan, tempting himself. Through ambition or greed, through dislike or hate which is instilled in others, he must fall in the end, by the Karma he makes, into destruction by his own negative side.
When he begins to see that passion is something which arises within him and with which he involuntarily associates his whole selfhood, he begins to see that the metaphysical study of "I" and the mystical discipline of thought can help greatly to free him from it.
His first mental act is to think himself into being. He is the maker of his own "I." This does not mean that the ego is his own personal invention alone. The whole world-process brings everything about, including the ego and the ego's own self-making.
When his own ego becomes intolerable to him with increasing frequency, he may take this as a good sign that he is moving forward on this road.
The ego turns ceaselessly around itself.
What a ridiculous psychological spectacle it is to see the ego preening itself at its spirituality!
The ego is hard at work all the time--either blatantly and obviously or secretly and insidiously.
The desire to continue life in the ego contains all possible desires. This explains why the hardest of all renunciations for which a man can be asked is that of his ego. He is willing even to suffer mortifications of the flesh or humiliations of his pride rather than that last and worst crucifixion.
Even irreproachable conduct and impeccable manners belong to the ego and not to the enlightenment.
He believes he is surrendering to his higher self when all the time he is only surrendering to his own ego.
The ego will creep even into his spiritual work or aspiration, so that he will take from the teaching only what suits his own personal ends and ignore the rest, or only what suits his own personal comfort and be averse to the rest.
Everyone is crucified by his own ego.
The ego does not rule men through their animalistic and materialistic desires only. It takes charge, and actively manages, their spiritual aspirations also!
He must learn to face the startling fact that the human ego carries itself even into his loftiest aspirations for the Divine. Even there, in that rarefied atmosphere, it is seeking for itself, for what it wants, and always for its own preservation. This is merely to enlarge the area of the ego's operations and not, to use Aurobindo's word, to divinize it.
It would be an error to believe that it is the Overself which reincarnates. It does not. But its offspring--the ego--does.
The ego is defiant, cunning, and resistant to the end.
The ego worships no other God than itself.
The ego is by nature a deceiver and in its operations a liar. For if it revealed things as they really are, or told what is profoundly true, it would have to expose its own self as the arch-trickster pretending to be the man himself and proffering the illusion of happiness.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.