The Role of Ego

In most spiritual traditions, the role of the ego-personality in the process of reaching Enlightenment is, to a great extent underestimated and misunderstood. Unless we see clearly that the ego in itself is something absolutely positive and, as such, the only tool for arriving at higher levels of awareness, we have no way to understand the process of awakening.

Many seekers are confused and not able to comprehend the apparent paradox of transcending the ego without actually annihilating it. In Buddhist psychology, there is a concept that ego is not real, for it is only a play of so called five skandhas. This concept is missing the elemental understanding that our body-mind operates as an alive and coherent organism of intelligence in a purposeful and meaningful way. The ego cannot be found anywhere as such, for the one looking for it - is the ego. It is too close to be found, but certainly it is always there.

It is difficult to define what the ego is, for it is not anything substantial. We would define ego as a self-conscious function of individualized consciousness capable of relating to its surroundings and itself in a centralized and intelligent manner. The ego is not an entity, but rather a unified field of identity - it is not fixated on a point, but operates within a spatial consciousness. It has many layers and many aspects.

In Buddhist tradition there's a concept of "no-mind," and so we tend to think that our being is simply divided into the mind and the no-mind. This is far too simplistic. Even when we go beyond the gross level of thinking, the mind is still functioning and the ability for self-relating is retained. This thing called ego is constantly accompanying the process of meditation and, allows us to create clarity and understanding. The art of resting within the stillness of our being, and the self-conscious movement of our intelligence are not separated from one another. Without the gentle checking of our state during meditation and cultivation in general, we would be unable to make any progress in the practice. This is the function of the ego.

Now, before going deeper into the issue of how the ego and enlightened state relate to one another, we need to understand what Enlightenment is. True Enlightenment has nothing to do with any modification or transformation of the ego-personality in terms of eliminating desires, negative emotions or developing positive qualities. Neither does it
involve seeing into the "non-existence" or "emptiness" of the ego. Any "seeing" or conceptual understanding is confined only to the relative functions of our intelligence. The state of Enlightenment is truly a new dimension of being, beyond the realm of personality.

Most traditions refer to Enlightenment as an awakening and permanent abiding in the state of "thoughtless awareness," also called "Rigpa," "witnessing consciousness" or "presence." Complete Enlightenment however goes deeper into the nature of reality. Even the state of Presence, which represents consciousness in its purest form, belongs to the realm of experience, that is, to the realm of time. The final Enlightenment takes us to the place of Pure Rest in the non-abiding ground of all existence, which is beyond awareness and its modifications. This is what the Unborn is.

The ego-personality not only participates and promotes the shift of our being into the deeper dimensions of reality, from the state of Presence to resting in the Absolute, but it also allows us to comprehend our post-Enlightenment situation. Enlightenment is not the end of our growth. The understanding of the Enlightened state and its relation to the ego as well as to the manifested reality is constantly evolving. The ego and Enlightened state co-exist in a very interesting way - they relate to each other.

In the case of the non-awakened person, there is total identification with the functioning of the mind. One is living in a semi-conscious, dreamlike state. This is called the darkness of ignorance. After awakening, the thought process is no longer in the centre of our being; one abides in the unconditioned stillness of the original state. But we should not forgot that at the same time, the self-conscious intelligence can and does relate back to that stillness. For example, how the ego relates to the Essence results in various stages of absorption. Even after realization, the ego and our Essence are in a very rich and dynamic relationship - they are simultaneously present.

Those masters who claim that they have no ego, prove to have a certain psychological ignorance; or there're using the term in an improper way. They are most likely victims of certain idealistic, linear and simplistic spiritual logic. The transcendental logic embracing the apparent paradox (the co-existence of the ego and the egoless state), goes beyond this simple logic in the apperception of the truth which is not conceptual but alive.

The goal and purpose of Enlightenment is not to eliminate the ego, but to enlighten it. How could we possibly enlighten it if we deny its very existence? To enlighten the ego is to create within the personal intelligence a clear understanding that our personality, with all its limitations, and our timeless essence, is an indivisible, dynamic whole. It is here that the humility, intelligence and the highest spiritual realization meet. Ego, the operative centre of our personality, even after melting with the Source, must face this never-ending challenge of fulfilling the dynamic balance between its participation in the manifested reality and of resting in the Absolute. The absolute dimension and human perspective are truly one. But although they are one, they give birth to one another in the continuous process of arriving at wholeness.