So, why are so many religious people discontent with life, often dysfunctional, and disconnected from Source itself? Why are people asleep to the presence of God in them, in others, and in this world? Or, to borrow the simple, but searching question of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose writings influenced the French Revolution, “Why is everyone so unhappy?”
The simple answer to any of these questions is in a three-letter word: EGO.
Ego is the culprit in all human unhappiness. It is that part of the human self that went south with Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. The human condition—that is, the ego—is the one thing that everyone shares in common. What many people do not seem to know, however, is that the discontent they feel and the dysfunctional way they treat themselves, others, and this planet are caused by ego. Furthermore, it is the ego that interferes with what would otherwise be a natural intimacy with God.
What is the Ego, Anyway?
Ego is your make-believe self—your “social self,” as Martha Beck calls it. It is the cover you wear that you often confuse for your real self. Your real self is the inner person behind your social mask. This is a simple and understandable truth. Yet, it took me half a lifetime to figure it out. The following phrase made popular by an educational psychologist may help:
“I see you seeing me; I see the me I think you see.”
The “me” you think others see…well…that’s your social mask, the mental image of yourself, the self you portray to the world. Much like someone might carry in a wallet, this is the snapshot of yourself you carry around in your head.
This snapshot of you, this ego, attaches itself to many things. One is your physical body, which partly explains the preoccupation with the body and the anxiety virtually everyone feels about how they look. But, the physical “you,” just like the social “you” is really not who you are either. You are not your body. You are infinitely more than this. You are the person behind both your face and your form or your mask and your material frame. Of all the things that I’ve learned through life, this may rank as one of the most important. It will be so for you, too.
Your ego can also be an idea you fashion in your mind about yourself—a function or role you perform. It is the fictitious mind-made, “little me,” as Eckhart Tolle has caricatured it. Ego is any identity you pick up that gives some definition as to who you are or, more accurately, who you think you are. But, there is no role that is you, any more than the character an actor assumes on a stage is the actor him-or herself. It is a role, a function, but that’s all it is.
So, ego is your face, form, and function—but, the real you is none of these. You are not the social face you wear, the form or body in which you temporarily live, or the function or role you perform in the world. These are all part of the ego-self.
Ego: Your Illusory Self
Ego is illusory in nature, shaped by your upbringing, decisions, and Karmic experiences. Karma is a Sanskrit word that, in Eastern traditions, refers to the Law of Cause and Effect. In the Christian tradition, it’s known as the Law of Sowing and Reaping or Planting and Harvesting.
In the Western world, this spiritual law gets expressed in a variety of idiomatic ways. Sometimes, for example, you will hear people say, “You reap what you sow!” or, “What goes around comes around!” This is another way of describing Karma.
It is Karma, says Lama Surya Das, that “reveals all things as interdependent; every action has a reaction, and nothing exists in absolute isolation.” In reference to the ego, therefore, your Karmic experiences have given shape to your self-image. That is to say, all of your life experiences have contributed in scripting the narrative of your life, your life story. But, it is important to remember, just as the ego is not you, the story the ego tells about you is not you either. Both may reveal you, but they are not you.
When you look at yourself in a mirror, for instance, the image you see is not you. It is a mirror image of you. And, even then, you’re looking only at your physical form, the body. It would be a mistake to confuse the form starring back at you as the real you. Yet, this is the most fundamental error everyone makes. We think we are the image we see. But, the “you” you see is not the “you,” you are. At best, it is what Albert Einstein called “an optical illusion of consciousness.”
The real “you” is much deeper and far more significant than your body or any name, role, function, or story you tell about yourself. The deeper “you” comes from God. The scriptures of the Old and New Testament know this sacred self as the “soul,” or “spirit.” It is called in the Book of Genesis, the breath of life or God’s own essence within you.
“God formed Man out of dirt from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. The Man came alive—a living soul.”
This breath of God, which was behind and beyond Adam’s name, form, roles or functions, is the real Adam. And, of course, it is the same Divine breath, or life essence, that is the soul within you and me. This is who you really are. As the Christian philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
From the moment of your birth, you are a magnificent, living soul—a distinct creation of God. At the time of your birth, you have no ego, although you are born with the capacity to develop one. Normally, ego begins to take shape at about age two, which is why this period in a child’s development is often known as the “Terrible Two’s.” As the ego develops, this self—or, “little me,” starts seeing its-self as separate from that which surrounds it. As it does, every parent learns the ego can be a little monster as it claims its own sovereignty.
Until ego develops, however, a newborn embodies God most fully, which is why, when you look into the eyes of an infant, you have this feeling you may be observing the Sacred Presence itself. That’s because, you are. This state of oneness with God is the natural state of every child. Protestants call this state one of “innocence.” It is in fact just that period of life prior to the emergence of the self, the ego.
The ego is also that which steals away this state of innocence. Ego has one aim—to Edge God Out. When God is edged out, so are joy and perfection, innocence and selflessness, and unity and oneness with God. What’s left is an increasingly dysfunctional, disconnected, and problematic ego-self—a self that feels disconnected from that Source out of which it emerged.
In my new book, to be released in 2010, “The Enoch Factor: Sacred Art of Knowing God,” I provide the way out of the bondage to ego. When you experience this liberation, you are free indeed.