Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of September 14, 2020

Ego? What Ego?

(The Ladder of Will: 6)

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It was 1991, in the middle of a 9-day meditation retreat. His mind had become profoundly quiet. His perceptions vivid and smooth. A moment came when he noticed his breathing, noticed it operating on its own, without any impulse from him. Just breathing. No surprise there. But then, in that inward space, he noticed there was no him; he did not exist. There was breathing. There were perceptions. There was consciousness. But there was no him, no self, no breather, no perceiver, no one who was conscious. This was crystal clear. His self did not exist. He had not lost it or destroyed it. He had simply, directly, irrevocably, and without fanfare seen that his self did not exist and never did. This was not even surprising. It was suddenly obvious.

He had been well aware of the Buddha's teaching of no self and had been both curious and fearful. If he lost his self, who would he be? What would he be? What would his life be about, be centered around, if not himself? Ever since the second fana he had understood that he was not his thoughts or emotions or his body. He had though, without noticing it, continued to believe in the self that his thoughts called I and that others called by his name. He had continued to believe in himself, in his own apparently self-evident existence, his own independent separateness, his own central importance, at least to himself.

And now all that had vanished in a flash, though the consequences took time to sink in. His decades of posturing and defensiveness had been about nothing. His long and carefully curated self-image was a sham, inside and out. This was a quiet yet far-reaching revolution in his inner life.

In Western spirituality this self is known as ego. What Buddhists call the realization of no self and Sufis call the third fana, can be seen as piercing the illusion of ego. The second fana frees us from being our thoughts and the third fana frees us from being the thinker.

What is our ego and how can something as convincing as our own existence be an illusion? Our ego is a useful and elaborate structure, built and refined over decades to be the core around which we organize and live our life. But like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, there is much less there than the edifice surrounding it implies. In the case of the ego, there is nothing there. The edifice around that empty core includes our name, the pronouns I, me, and mine, and all the attitudes that point toward an assumed something in our center. But the name, pronouns, and attitudes are all there is to it. Convincing though they are, especially when taken all together, what they point to, nevertheless, is nothing. If you look for your self, you will not find it.

Even after we have seen through the illusion of ego and it is effectively moribund, its old and well-established patterns of thought and emotion persist. All that conditioning refers to I, to me. At this stage, though, we know that what they refer to is an empty shell. They have lost their power. We no longer believe their claims. We know that this supposed self of ours does not exist. Those conditioned thoughts, emotions, and attitudes do not come from anything real. The body is real. The thoughts and emotions are real in themselves. Yet they have led us to assume there is a driver directing it all. Now we see it has all been driving itself. Our ego has been revealed to be merely an illusion, an illusion built by our thoughts, emotions, assumptions, and attitudes.

And then it hits us: what a relief! No ego to defend and posture about. No ego to groom and present. No ego to soothe and support. No endlessly grasping, self-centered ego to try to satisfy. Those burdens are lifted. Peace abides in their place. A great gift!

Before, he had imagined that without his self, without his ego, there would be a gap at the center of his life. He imagined that he would be rudderless, directionless. In the event, the gap was there, sure enough. But rather than the negative consequences he had imagined, it instead let reality through.

That reality is I. There is a fundamental difference between ego and I. Ego comes from our conditioning and revolves around our self, which we now know does not exist. I comes from will and has an inherent connection with the higher, sacred will, even though that connection may not yet be evident. It has been the function of ego to capture and pervert our will into serving our illusory self. Breaking the chains that bind our will to our ego propels us along the path of purification.

The effects of ego do not disappear with its unmasking. Its self-centered pattern of thoughts, emotions, and attitudes continue by momentum. These appear within our personality, which, since the second fana, we no longer identify with. So when ego-style thoughts and the rest of the self-centeredness manifest within us, we are not fooled into believing that they speak for me, the me that has ceased to exist. They do not and we know it and see it. Our center is empty.

The third fana, the reveal of the emptiness of our ego, is a major step into freedom and reality. All of our prior inner work leads to this point, preparing us to see it clearly, absorb the truth, and step into the new life this makes possible. Nevertheless, we still have much more work to do and our purification is not yet complete.

For this week, please take another look at your own ego.


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