Never Underestimate the Ego

From the Ultimate perspective, the Truth which Enlightenment reveals is not something particularly subtle, obscure, or difficult to apprehend. On the contrary, it is the most intimate and obvious thing in the world. It is simply the Truth of our own Identity. In reality, we are that Infinite and Limitless Consciousness (known in various traditions as "God," "Brahman," "Buddha-Mind," "Tao") which is the Transcendent Ground and True Nature of all things. All we have to do to become Enlightened, then, is to Realize who we TRULY ARE--right now, right here, in this very moment!

But if Enlightenment is really that simple, we might well ask: Why, as a matter of historical fact, have so few seekers ever managed to attain it?

The reason so few seekers have attained Enlightenment lies not in the Truth of Enlightenment per se. Rather, it comes from a failure to clearly identify and completely destroy the main obstacle that obstructs its Realization. This is the delusion that we are not that Infinite and Limitless Consciousness but, instead, some limited and finite entity, ego or self. Even though this `ego' or `self' has no real existence, as long as so much as a trace of this delusion remains, the Truth of Enlightenment cannot be Realized.

In the East, this situation has been compared to someone who sees a piece of coiled rope and mistakes it for a snake. Even though the apparent `snake' is an illusion, as long as that is what the person is perceiving, he or she cannot apprehend the rope. Only when the appearance of the snake has completely vanished can the reality of the rope be seen.

The same applies to the spiritual seeker, only in this case the delusion of being an egoic self is far more complex and, therefore, difficult to dispel. This is because the ego possesses a kind of will of its own which seems opposed to what the seeker wills. To use a modern analogy, it is as if the seeker were playing a computer game against an alien from outer space. Even though the `alien' is an imaginary creation of the human mind, it nevertheless has been programmed to employ various tactics and strategies designed to thwart its human opponents. Similarly, even though the ego is an imaginary creation of our own minds, it also comes programmed with an array of tactics and strategies which it uses to prevent us from Realizing our True Identity.

As long as we remain deluded, then, the ego appears to be very real and constitutes a very formidable foe. This is why so many mystics have characterized the spiritual path as a kind of warfare in which the seeker must strive to subdue and ultimately slay his or her own ego. Rumi, for example, defined the true jihad (holy war) as "the killing of the ego and the abandonment of personal wishes."1 Catherine of Siena insisted: "No matter what your state in life it is essential to kill this selfish-love."2 Likewise, the Buddha declared: "One may conquer a million men in a single battle; however, the greatest and best warrior conquers himself."3 And here is how the great Hindu saint, Lalleshwari, described her own internal struggles on the path: "With great effort I rooted out the enemies--lust, anger, and ego."4

For the spiritual seeker then, the old adage, "You are your own worst enemy," is quite true. Moreover, this is an enemy that is both incredibly tenacious and extremely cunning.

There will be many times during the course of our journey when we think we have finally vanquished the ego, only to find that it pops up again in a new guise. For this reason, our number one rule must be: Never underestimate the ego!

On the other hand, we should not underestimate the powers inherent in our True Nature, either. As Consciousness Itself, we already have within us qualities which, if we can but awaken and develop them, will prove more than a match for the ego's machinations. So what are some of the main strategies the ego uses to impede us, and what are the qualities we need to overcome them?

In the early stages of the path, the ego's most common strategy is outright resistance. Whenever we try to conduct a focused inquiry, for example, the ego will produce a host of idle musings and obsessive fantasies. When we try to train our minds in meditation to be stable and calm, the ego will respond with feelings of restlessness and boredom. When we try to check our selfish behavior by keeping moral precepts, the ego will conveniently forget to apply them to concrete situations in our everyday lives. And if we want to foster devotion by praying to some manifestation of the Divine, the ego will greet our attempts with skepticism and scorn. In such cases, we may actually hear the voice of the ego saying things like: "This meditation is a waste of time. You'd be better off doing something constructive!" or, "This prayer business is ridiculous. Only suckers and simpletons believe in a God!" Obviously, if we succumb to such thoughts, our journey is short-circuited even before it really begins. So what can we do to overcome resistance?

One way to deal with resistance is to ignore the ego and simply try to muscle our way forward. However, this method often yields little more than discouragement and fatigue. A more skillful approach is to arouse our own natural curiosity and apply this quality to our practices. Curiosity is actually an expression of Consciousness's innate Wisdom, which is forever prompting us to discover the truth for ourselves. So if we can arouse our natural curiosity, about meditation for instance, then when the ego objects that it is a waste of time, we can admit it may be right. Nevertheless, our curiosity will motivate us to continue practicing so that we can find out from our own experience what benefits it may hold.

Moreover, because curiosity makes us genuinely interested in and attentive to our practices, they will bear fruit much more quickly than if we had persevered merely out of a sense of duty. Soon we will start to get flashes of real insight, attain states of calmness and tranquility, and receive intimations of a bliss we never imagined possible. Once we start having these kinds of experiences, the ego's resistance will be neutralized, because through them we will come to know, firsthand, the value of our spiritual path and be eager to pursue it further.

Of course, this does not mean the war as a whole has been won! On the contrary, as soon as the ego sees that continued resistance is useless, it switches gears and tries something else. The strategy it usually adopts at this juncture is to try to negotiate a compromise with the seeker. We might hear the ego say something like: "I see you're actually beginning to enjoy these practices and find them worthwhile. Very well, but you must recognize that I have needs, too. So, here's what I propose. We'll set aside some nights for your reading, meditation and prayer, but you must allow me to have my fun as well. So, on other nights we'll go out partying, or to a movie, or just kick back and watch TV. As for moral precepts, I'll acknowledge they have their place. But we must also be realistic. After all, we still have to get by on this earthly plane, and if this means bending the rules now and then to protect our interests, then so be it. So, the deal is this: I'll stop interfering with your spiritual life, but when it comes to minding the store of this world, you leave that to me."

Now, at this stage of the path, most seekers are not yet spiritually strong enough to decline such an offer, and so they are forced to accept it--at least temporarily. This in itself is not a problem, and there's no reason to feel guilt about it. The real danger lies in allowing this sort of compromise to solidify into a permanent state of affairs. If this happens, our spiritual progress will, at best, be slowed to a crawl, in which case we will probably not be able to attain Enlightenment until the time of our death. At worst, our practices may degenerate into a series of empty rites and meaningless rituals, or be abandoned altogether. Then, even the opportunity which death presents will be lost.5

What we must do to insure this doesn't happen is to begin cultivating another quality inherent in our True Nature, and that is mindfulness. Mindfulness is an expression of what we might call Consciousness's innate Wakefulness or Clarity. Actually, this Clarity is always present, but under delusion it becomes veiled by the intensity of the ego's dramas. By cultivating mindfulness, however, we can start to make space in our lives for this innate Clarity to shine through.

Cultivating mindfulness begins within the context of our formal practices--especially meditation. But we must also learn to cultivate mindfulness in our everyday lives. If we can maintain mindfulness in our everyday lives, then even when the ego is busily pursuing its self-centered desires, we have an opportunity to gain insights. We do this by appointing a portion of our minds to stand back as a witness who carefully observes what the actual results are when the ego has its way.

If we are vigilant in practicing this kind of mindfulness, we will soon see for ourselves that, even though the ego sometimes gets what it wants, the pleasures it derives from these things are always fleeting. And even though the ego sometimes manages to avoid the things it fears, in the end, it cannot avoid what it fears most--suffering and death. So the ego is playing a losing game, and if we continue to identify ourselves with it, in the end we, too, will lose.

The more we realize how futile the ego's activities truly are, the less it is able to seduce us with its desires or terrify us with its fears. As a result, the spiritual balance of power starts to shift in our favor. Although desires and fears continue to arise, we can now view them with a certain amount of detachment, and, thus, no longer feel as compelled to act on them as we once did. This, in turn, brings even more spaciousness into our lives and a new sense of freedom.

When we cease to be dominated by the ego's needs, our self concerns naturally begin to fall away, and we can afford to feel more loving and compassionate toward others. Eventually we can afford to feel compassion even for the ego itself because we come to recognize that it, too, is a suffering being! We see that all its obstinacy and resistance has been motivated not by any evil intent but by its own past sufferings and its horror of future annihilation. Consequently, instead of treating the ego as the "enemy," we learn to embrace it with an open heart, just as a loving mother would a wounded child.

For most seekers this represents a momentous step, and it may well seem that the end of our journey is at last in sight. But just because we have learned to love the ego, this does not mean that the ego reciprocates and is now ready to give up the ghost. On the contrary, it is precisely at this point that the ego is likely to try out one of the most deceptive, and therefore dangerous, ploys. This is to offer to join the seeker as a full partner in the spiritual quest!

Initially, accepting such a novel proposal may strike us as an ideal way to resolve the internal combat that has consumed so much of our energy. What's more, with the ego on board as an actual ally, it seems there is virtually nothing our combined efforts cannot accomplish! The truth, however, is that if we agree to this pact, we will have accepted a Trojan horse into the innermost citadel of our spiritual life.

At first, the pace of our spiritual progress may, indeed, seem to accelerate in remarkable ways. Since we are no longer wasting time in worldly pursuits, all our energy can now be funneled directly into our practices. As a result, we find we can reach deep meditative states with relative ease. When practicing inquiry, a host of new insights is likely to come cascading through our minds. We may also become exceedingly scrupulous about keeping moral precepts and, during periods of devotion, we may well attain yet-undreamed-of heights of bliss.

The problem here is not that our path has suddenly started to produce such an abundance of fruits. The problem is that the ego now begins to claim these fruits for itself. "Look at what a great meditator I have turned into," we will hear it say. "See how profound my understanding has become!" "Look how free I am of attachments." "No one knows the subtleties of bliss I have experienced!" Moreover, relatively speaking, all this is quite true! We have become better meditators, gained genuine insights, acquired some real measure of freedom, become veritable connoisseurs of bliss--which is precisely what makes the trap we have fallen into so difficult to detect.

In reality, the ego has relinquished its position of dominance in our worldly affairs only so that it can usurp control over our spiritual life. And the more the ego succeeds in doing this, the more we fall prey to the most powerful of its spells, spiritual pride.

Because of spiritual pride we grow self-satisfied and complacent about our own progress while looking down on those who have not attained what we have. Although worldly praise and blame may no longer affect us, if anyone questions our spiritual accomplishments, our pride in them causes us to take great offense. And, worst of all, because we have become so enthralled with the subtleties of our practices, we become more interested in refining and perfecting these than in actually reaching the goal of Enlightenment.

To extricate ourselves from this thicket of pride, we must awaken, or rather reawaken, a third quality of our True Nature--spiritual yearning. Spiritual yearning is based on an intuition of the Eternal Love and Indestructible Happiness inherent in Consciousness Itself. Deep in our hearts we know that this Love and this Happiness exist. Whether we have been aware of it or not, this is what we have been searching for all our lives.

The trouble is, up until now we have been willing to settle for lesser delights. As worldly seekers, we were fixated on the transitory pleasures of worldly life. Then, as spiritual seekers, we became enchanted by the greater but equally ephemeral consolations that spiritual life brings. If, however, we now allow our deepest yearning for the Ultimate to burn freely in our souls, then we will see that everything we have experienced so far is nothing compared to that shoreless OCEAN of LOVE and HAPPINESS which is our true birthright and to which our hearts most truly incline.

But the question still remains, how to attain it? Apparently, all our struggles on the path have been for naught. Just when we thought we had conquered the ego once and for all, we discover that it has outfoxed us. Although this realization shatters our pride, it also leaves us feeling more helpless than ever. Having exhausted every ounce of our energy, there seems nothing left to do but concede defeat and abandon the struggle. And so that's just what we begin to do.

For many seekers, this can be a devastating experience--a kind of "spiritual death," as many mystics have described it. But then, even as we die, we may notice something quite surprising happens. The more we cease to struggle, the more it seems does the ego! It's as though we have been wrestling with our own shadow all along --which, indeed, we have--so that now that we are dying, our shadow is dying with us. And if we can surrender to this process unconditionally, when our sense of being a separate self vanishes completely, lo and behold, we find that our ego vanishes as well!

With the disappearance of self and ego, the way is finally cleared for the Supreme Realization that, from the very beginning, neither has ever truly existed. All that ever was, is, and will be is Consciousness Itself. This is who you REALLY ARE! And to know this is ENLIGHTENMENT!

Looking back, however, we may still ask a final question: If there never was an ego or a seeker, what was the purpose of all this spiritual combat?

From the Ultimate point of view, of course, it was quite unnecessary. And yet, from a relative point of view, the whole purpose of the path has been to get the seeker to surrender seeking. For it is the very activity of seeking that creates the illusion of a 'seeker.' And, while all forms of seeking for some thing can be surrendered in favor of seeking Enlightenment, the one thing the seeker can never voluntarily surrender is seeking itself, because trying to do so places the seeker in the paradoxical position of seeking to surrender seeking. So the final act of surrender must, in a sense, be forced. And this is what the spiritual path is designed to bring about--a situation in which the seeker is left with no choice but to surrender.

Seen from this perspective then, all the struggles required of the seeker by the spiritual path are not only necessary to its ultimate success--they are themselves actual manifestations of the Infinite Wisdom, Clarity, and Compassion of our own True Nature as Consciousness Itself, which is even now calling us to Awaken!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1999. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1983) p. 154.

2. Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980) p. 111.

3. The Dhammapada: The Path of Truth, trans. The Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, revs. Rose Kramer (Novato, Calif.: Lotsawa, 1988) p. 30.

4. Lalleshwari: Spiritual Poems by a Great Siddha Yogini, rendered by Swami Muktananda (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1981) p. 72.

5. For a detailed exposition of why death constitutes a golden opportunity for Enlightenment, see Joel's booklet, Through Death's Gate: A Guide to Selfless Dying (Eugene, OR: Center for Sacred Sciences, 1995).