Transcending Ego: An Attainable Goal

Q: Traditionally, enlightenment has often been described as “ego-death.” Is it possible to attain a state where the ego actually dies?

A: Well, I’ve met one or two people in my life in whom it appeared that the ego had literally died. But in those rare cases, I don’t think it was a result of the individuals’ own choices or efforts—it was more like spontaneous combustion, an act of grace. So I do believe that the death of the ego is possible, but I don’t think it is an attainable goal.

If something like that is going to occur, it’s beyond our control, and it’s extremely unlikely for most of us. I don’t personally think it’s possible for anybody, through the power of their will alone, to eradicate the ego completely. But the point is, it doesn’t really matter.

If you are willing to face and take responsibility for your ego’s self-centered motives, conditioned responses, and often irrational impulses to such a degree that you are able to choose not to act on them, they might as well not exist.

If you don’t act on them, the world is never going to know about them. There won’t be any karmic consequences. And that is a reasonable, realizable, attainable goal. So I am convinced that in this way, it is possible to transcend ego to a profound degree simply through the power of one’s own awakened intention to do so.

In the way that I teach, I try to get people first and foremost to recognize that they actually have an ego and begin to understand how it functions, and secondly to become deadly serious about transcending it in a way that is significant. However, getting a highly developed, postmodern, narcissistic individual to take seriously for more than a brief moment the possibility of actually transcending their own ego is a difficult task. The very notion is just not part of our culture.

But if it’s not going to happen as an act of grace, the individual has to want to achieve that more than anything else. Indeed, to take that kind of responsibility for oneself and one’s own enlightenment is the ultimate challenge for any human being, and for most of us it’s just too demanding.

We have been immersed in conditioned reactions and responses and ways of thinking for a lifetime, and there is a very powerful momentum within all of us that doesn’t stop or die simply because we decide one day that that would be a good idea.

But if we want to evolve beyond ego, if we care deeply enough about the impact of our actions on others and the world around us, we can always choose, right now, not to act on any of it. At times it will be extremely difficult, emotionally and psychologically, but it is possible.

And as far as I understand it, that’s the high road. That’s the real spiritual practice: the inspired choice to cease to act out of ego, over and over again, at all times, in all places, under all circumstances.

In my understanding, that would be as significant as the death of the ego, if not more so. That would give birth to a noble human being who has inherent self-respect, dignity, and self-confidence simply because he or she is being true to a higher intention in the face of the temptation to do otherwise.

By Andrew Cohen


When you get over yourself and you see beyond your own ego, you discover that who you are is not separate from the very impulse that is driving the creative process, and you begin to understand that as that impulse, you are definitely here for a reason!

When you know who you are and you know why you’re here and you embrace those two answers wholeheartedly, unconditionally, and unselfconsciously, then you’re a liberated person, you’re an enlightened person—and you’re also an evolutionary.

To me, an enlightened evolutionary is someone who has found the answers to those questions, who knows who they are and why they are here and is beginning to engage in a committed way with other people who have also made that similar discovery, so that together they can begin to create a future that’s going to point out the way for many, many others.

Left Brain, Right Brain and the Ego

Today I listened to the interviews Oprah did with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist (brain specialist) who suffered a massive stroke in her left hemisphere in her late 30s, consequently experiencing a life-changing reconnection to a world we often leave behind once we pass toddlerhood and acquire language.  Dr. Bolte Taylor lost the function of her left brain, thereby losing her language and, by extension, her identity.  Relying on her right brain, she had to construct a new identity for herself. It took her almost ten years to regain full function of her left brain, but she has learned to balance the functions of the two hemispheres in order to create a new life for herself that is less judgmental and linear, and more creative and socially connected.

These kinds of stories are fascinating to me, and I wonder if there are insights I can use in dealing with my most challenging problems.  For example, I know that eating raw foods would change my life for the better- I’ve experienced it before. So why do I keep returning to my old eating habits and endangering my health?  Eckhart Tolle’s writings and interviews are enlightening, as are my Buddhist readings, in that they talk about the Ego and its need to maintain an identity -and dominance -in our life.  Apparently it’s my ego that identifies with food and which so fiercely demands that I go back to those damned chicken wings over and over again. Its my ego that overwhelms me with thoughts of anxiety and food-related remedies, and which keeps me from being mindfully present.  Tolle came to his awareness of the ego and the need to “live in the now” through a personal crisis which allowed him to see two selves, one of which is obsessed with problems and which constantly “chatters,” and another which observes and experiences without judgment.

Bolte Taylor, due to her stroke, came to the same awareness, but because she is a brain specialist she was able to understand the experience physiologically as well as spiritually.  Bolte Taylor explains that the left hemisphere is the most highly developed part of our brain in our society, which values logical, linear, sequential thinking and other left-brain tasks.  Its other abilities include the manipulation of numbers, the interpretation and performing of languages, the creation of boundaries and the understanding of the body’s position in space. It also includes an understanding of concepts such as familial relationships and the meaning of “yes” and “no.” Mental phenomena such as pride, embarrassment and judgment are other left-brained tasks, as is conceptualizing the past and future- and connecting those to our present. Bolte Taylor says that our ability to use language and to conceive of a past and a future all help us to form an identity; a series of stories about our past and our future plans. Our left brain therefore helps us to negotiate the external world and to create within that world.

The right brain has different tasks. It perceives through the senses, thinks visually. It can assess moods and the emotional content of language based on what we’ve been socialized to learn about speech-related behaviors such as vocal intonations.  It sees the big picture or the “context” in which events occur.  It acts as the witness or observer of events, and experiences emotions such as peace and gratitude. Because the right brain does not rely on language, it doesn’t develop complex memories as the left brain does; it lives in the “now” without critical judgment. It allows the feeling of connectedness or “one-ness” with other entities in our universe.   The right brain allows us to connect to the world.

Bolte Taylor says it’s easy for any of us to get in touch with our right brains and to learn to quiet the analytical, judgmental and critical left-brain chatter that keeps us away from the present.  I wonder, though…  If it were that simple for us to stop the domination of our left brains, why don’t we all “just do it”?  Why do we need life-altering experiences that give us glimpses of right-brain living before we have that “a-ha” moment? Why do so many people find themselves reading book after book, or going on retreats (or into therapy!) without figuring out how to have those experiences?  Maybe it is possible for each of us to learn to achieve a “cerebral balance” that will allow us to reach our full potential as joyful human beings, but I think it is unfair of those who have achieved it to claim that it is easy.

Bolte Taylor says that our society rewards left-brain thinking and trains us out of appreciating our right brain’s functions.  When I read that, I thought about how I have worked so hard in my life to focus on left-brain skills even though I’m naturally more right-brained.  From childhood I have been artistic, imaginative, visual and intuitive.  Even my facility with languages, while supposedly a left-brained task, seems to stem more from my passion to be connected to people across cultures than anything else. Lord knows I am not a logical person.  I’ve always struggle with numbers, sequential thinking, map-reading and other left-brain tasks. Maybe this mismatch is the reason I suffer from anxiety and turn so often to food for comfort.  Ha!  I wish the answer were that easy to come by.  But I do wonder if a better understanding of how I use my left and right brains would help me to gain control of my eating. At the very least I could use the concept as a metaphorical tool of some sort.

On the other hand, is that just me doing what I’m trained to do- analyze? Parse? Explain?  Might that be what’s gotten me in trouble in the first place?

Posted by Allison


A Moral Obligation to Transform

by Craig Hamilton

We might call it the malady of contemporary spirituality. As a speaker, writer and spiritual mentor, I hear it all the time. The refrain usually goes something like this: “I’ve been on the spiritual path for years. I’ve meditated, gone to therapy, and attended dozens (if not hundreds) of workshops, seminars, satsangs, and retreats.

I’ve had a lot of peak experiences. But, I’m still not fundamentally different from when I started. I’m still plagued by many of the same recurring negative patterns. I’m still not sure what I’m doing here. I’m still not deeply happy. I’m still not free.”

Why is it that so few of us get the results our spiritual practices are designed to deliver? How is it that after decades of earnest spiritual seeking, most of us ultimately settle for an attainment far less profound or dramatic than the one we were aiming for when we started on the path?

Is it, as some ancient eastern traditions tell us, that enlightenment is such a lofty goal that we should not expect to experience any radical transformation in one lifetime, but should instead see our current incarnation as but one of millions of baby steps toward that supreme attainment?

Or is it, as many contemporary teachers are fond of saying, that the attempt to change ourselves in any way is in fact misguided, that we should simply “accept what is,” “call off the search,” and realize that ordinary life, in all of its neurotic frailty, is enough?

With all due respect to those of differing opinion, I would like to propose another possibility.

I would like to suggest that the supreme and lofty goal of profound, life transforming spiritual liberation is not only possible in this lifetime, but is in fact well within reach of anyone of reasonably sound mind and stable character. And that the reason it is not happening for the vast majority of those who are seeking it is that, for most of us, our context is just too small.

To paraphrase spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, imagine for a moment that the fate of the entire human race rested on your shoulders alone. That humanity’s evolution out of brute self-interest depended entirely on your willingness to transform your consciousness, to rise above your smallness, purify yourself of negative conditioning, and become an exemplar of humanity’s highest potential for the world. Imagine, in other words, that for you, waking up from ignorance and self-centeredness became a moral issue.

Would you approach your path any differently? Would the energy you brought to your spiritual practice intensify? Would the quality of awareness and care with which you approached your interactions with others become more profound? Would you find yourself reaching with muscles you didn’t even know you had to be awake to the true context of your life? If you knew it all rested on you, would you have any choice but to change?

The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi once said that the spiritual aspirant must want liberation like a drowning man wants air. But the painful truth is that even when we recognize that we are drowning spiritually, most of us don’t care enough to struggle to keep our head above water.

The challenges of the spiritual path are so immense that most of us will choose to continue suffering in our smallness over feeling the pain of allowing that smallness to die forever. But how many of us would do the same if we realized that it wasn’t only our own suffering we were perpetuating, but the suffering of the entire human race?

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “That’s a nice thought experiment. Sure, it makes me realize I could be more earnest on my path, but what does it really have to do with me? I’m no megalomaniac. I know that my transformation alone isn’t enough to liberate the human race.”

And it is here that I would ask you to reconsider.

Modern science has in recent decades been verifying what the ancient traditions intuited long ago: that, in both tangible and mysterious ways, we are all interconnected, and any one of us can have a profound effect on the whole. And, if you accept the perennial mystical teaching that, at the level of consciousness, we are not only interconnected, but are actually one Self seeing through many eyes, then it should be clear that, like it or not, in the way we conduct our inner and outer lives, each of us is in fact always having an effect on the whole.

Add to that the reality that we are evolving beings living in an evolving universe, that we are all part of a grand, cosmic evolutionary process, and the question of our obligation to the whole starts to cut close to the bone.

To reframe my earlier question: What would you do if you realized that the entire human endeavor, the evolution of consciousness itself, depended on your willingness to evolve your own consciousness? How would it affect the choices you make every day if you knew that those choices were, in a very real sense, either contributing to the evolution of the whole or holding it back?

At this time when it seems that our very future depends on our willingness to evolve as a species, would you have any choice but to act in alignment with the greatest evolutionary good?

The point I’m trying to make is that when we take a closer look at what spiritual transformation is actually for, it quickly becomes clear that the path of transformation is not primarily about freeing ourselves from suffering and securing our own happiness. Sure, that’s a nice by-product. But, as long as that’s all we’re seeking, we probably won’t get very far.

Where the spiritual path really begins to get interesting is when we recognize that transforming ourselves in the deepest possible way is in fact an evolutionary imperative with profound consequences far beyond ourselves. When we begin to embrace the fact that our lives really are not our own to do with as we please, that in everything we do, we are in fact accountable to the Whole, something truly miraculous begins to happen.

Faced with the palpable responsibility to transform for a greater good, we find that we suddenly have access to a seemingly infinite source of energy, intention, passion and courage to confront whatever challenges present themselves on our path. What’s more, all of the personal issues and problems, all of the fears and doubts and resistances that once seemed so insurmountable begin to seem a lot less significant. Why? Because our attention is now captivated by something much bigger than ourselves.

Ignited by a noble calling to participate in the grand adventure of conscious evolution, we find we no longer have time to worry about ourselves. And in this freedom from self-concern, before long we discover that the deep inner peace and joy we were seeking all along has become the very ground we are walking on.

True Jihad

by Elizabeth Debold

Upon returning from the Battle of Badr, our prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,  “We have returned from the lesser jihad [holy war] to the greater  jihad.  They asked, “O Prophet of God, which is the greater jihad?” He replied, “The struggle against the nafs [ego].” —Hadith

When the first of the two World Trade towers crumpled and fell in on itself like a hollow toy, I watched, as millions did, in disbelief and horror as jihad exploded on American soil. Jihad, the holy war, born with Islam when the Roman Empire became “holy” by adopting Christianity, took a burning leap into the 21st Century, leaving behind ancient images of swords clashing in the desert for television coverage of jets igniting modern monoliths. Struggling to recognize the reality of what it was I was seeing, I asked what so many of us were asking—how could human beings do such a thing?—and met in myself the stark recognition that I actually knew how it could happen. No, I don’t have a secret life as an arsonist or a history of violent crime. You see, “jihad” doesn’t just refer to Islamic fundamentalists’ war upon the infidels. The truer, greater meaning of jihad refers to the battle for the utter liberation of the spirit from the tyrannical nafs—the unconscious motivation in the human psyche that insists on separation and division. The nafs—or ego—is the ultimate terrorist, changing disguises with shape-shifting ease, scurrying within the labyrinth of the mind, setting off explosions of fear and rage, never quite visible until war has been declared and a warrant for its capture, dead or alive, has been issued.

Sound improbable? Believe me, I had no idea that such an entity existed within the human psyche—let alone my very own psyche. Even though I nodded at the appropriate moments whenever my teacher or anyone else spoke about the ego’s evil ways, frankly, I didn’t really take seriously the fact that I had an ego. Such is human pride: no matter that Muhammad and every major religious tradition, or and even my own teacher, warned of the ego’s wiles and the necessity to wield a sword, I knew better. From Lord Krishna commanding Arjuna in battle in the Bhagavad-Gita to the fierce Zen masters of Japan and China, from Zoroaster’s inner struggle between good and evil to Christianity’s version of the same, from St. Theresa of Avila to Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, the metaphorical battlefield is rife with the images, injunctions, and inspirations of a rich legacy of spiritual warriors who have left their mythic mark on the pages of our religious history. Each of these teachings and legends makes it perfectly clear that the spiritual life is a fight to the death, a war between good and evil, a true and bloody battle that takes place in the soul of the aspirant. I dismissed these stories as archaic, merely metaphoric, speaking in a language appropriate to medieval times, perhaps, but hardly relevant to our psychologically savvy world. Or my own situation.

But why would every major religious tradition describe the spiritual quest in such violent and stark terms? In my postmodern arrogance, I assumed that the great traditions lacked the sophistication of our modern psychological understanding. But, increasingly, I am coming to understand that it is our contemporary view that lacks depth because, so often, it blunts the sharpness of distinctions that give dignity to the human struggle. Andrew Delbanco writes in The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil that eliminating the devil, or evil, from language, philosophy, and metaphor means simultaneously the loss of God and goodness: “If evil . . . escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.” The concept and experience of “evil” as a moral judgment has been replaced by an endless list of pathologies that rationalize destructive behavior as the result of victimization, not choice. “What does it mean to say that the inventor of the concentration camps, or of the Gulag, was subject to a ‘disorder’?” asks Delbanco, “Why can we no longer call them evil?” The point that the religious traditions make—and illustrate through the wild images of Tibetan demons, Satanic spirits, and the personification of the Seven Deadly Sins—is that there is something fundamental within each of us that must be named, faced, and conquered in order to free the human spirit. The sins of our forefathers weren’t simply an inventory of human darkness; they pointed to what needed to be transcended, moved beyond, in order to realize the glory of God ringing through the beauty and goodness of creation.

Living in a contemporary spiritual culture where “compassion” often is an excuse to avoid realness and intimacy and where hurting someone’s feelings is a greater sin than lying through your teeth, it is no small wonder that there is so little talk of the true jihad and the grit necessary to engage in spiritual battle for the liberation of the human soul. Such polite lying between us so often masks how much we lie to ourselves. Somehow, in our collective loss of faith in traditional authority and our desire to cast a wider net of inclusion in society, the sharp contrast between good and evil has been lost, as truth has increasingly become a relative matter. Not wanting to offend those whose cultural contexts differ from our own, we have avoided taking up the challenge to go deeper into the human experience and grapple with the true universals of what it means to be human. The reality of the human condition has not changed even as we have blurred to gray, the black-and-white distinctions that traditionally sharpened the perception and experience of life.

No tradition seems to make clearer distinctions than Islamic mysticism regarding the inner foe that holds the spirit captive. In WIE Issue 17, “What Is Ego?” Sheikh Ragip Frager told us that traditional Sufi wisdom explains the agenda of the ego, or nafs, as two-fold: “One [aspect] is self-survival. The ego is scared of change, scared to death of deep mystical experience and transformation, because, from its point of view, that kind of change is death. . . . It is the part of all of us that wants to stay the same, a kind of inertial component in all of us that says, ‘Don’t change.’ Another aspect is that the ego is often talked about by the Sufis as connected to Satan, to the devil. . . . And no one likes to talk about this. It’s not real popular. . . . It also seems like it’s not inaccurate to occasionally refer to the nafs almost as though it is motivated, like a person.” Because the nafs is a fundamental motivation—the motivation to be separate, to hold out from the wholeness and perfection of Life.

The always devious nafs only reveals itself under conditions of war, when one is willing to engage in true jihad, to declare allegiance to the heart’s desire for liberation rather than the ego’s desperate self-preservation. Only when one is fully determined to know and face one’s deepest motivations, does the blinding rage and defiance of ego unleash itself, unmasked, in consciousness. Sheikh Ragip Frager tells us that as we begin to lure the nafs from its caves, it takes on different guises—each with the intent to keep us from the love that moves creation. The first glimpses of the “tyrannical nafs” that unconsciously motivates our psychological self-protection and separation come when we seriously begin to seek greater wholeness, to live a more profound truth. Like all terrorists, fear is its major stratagem. But the ego also disguises itself in the desire to be right, to win or to lose, to fit in or to stand out, to know for sure or to play dumb, to be a special case, to have a problem, any problem . . . in short, the ego lurks in any and every means by which the human mind can perceive itself as separate. And most shocking—the ego fully revealed—is that this psychological illusion of uniqueness has such momentum in the human psyche that it will do anything to survive—even if it literally risks destruction. Truly the ultimate kamikaze terrorist, the ego, when pushed to the wall and forced to give up its games of separation, actually does not even care about our own survival.

And yet, even knowing what the Sufis say, even agreeing that it makes sense logically, or recognizing that there is something within us that keeps the awesome explosion of liberation at a distance, it is hard to believe that the nafs is for real until it reveals itself for real. For myself, while the terror of dissolution was familiar from sitting in meditation retreats, it was only when I was faced by my teacher with the absolute demand to choose—freedom or ego—that my own war on terrorism actually began. Face to face with my blazing teacher and his demand for freedom from limitation, suddenly, I felt myself split down the middle: there was a raging scream from my heart for liberation, while, at the same time, my ego-ruled mind began to warn me that expressing my heart was wrong, dangerous, untrue. As Islamic scholar Charles Upton notes in his article The Doctrine of the Nafs, “When God has become the conscious center of one’s life, then—as in a time of civil war—the various citizens of the psyche are forced to take sides. The commanding nafs only reveals itself as ‘commanding’ when we have begun to disobey it.” Pushed by my teacher to choose, to take sides, I chose to pay attention to the ego ventriloquizing the voice of reason rather than to sing out the heart’s always unreasonable cry for freedom. In that crucial moment, I gave myself to the enemy, became hostage to the terrorist within. Months of siege followed. But even in losing this first big battle, I made a deeper commitment to winning the war.

How do we arm ourselves against such a devious and dangerous terrorist? What do we carry into battle? Nothing. The inner jihad demands that we be empty-handed. This is a war fought with only the courage of our very being to lead us through the minefield created by the ego-driven mind. We can only bring our best Muslim selves—the meaning of “muslim” is one who surrenders. So, oddly enough, this is a war that can only be won through surrender. Yes, surrender means to give up—but, constantly, actively—to turn our minds over to our hearts. In surrendering to the longing of our own hearts, choosing the pull that leads us beyond self, a current begins to take us into the truth of who we are beyond ego. Letting go, letting go, leaning into a trust so vast it is beyond comprehension, a whole possibility for human life calls us to leave behind the pettiness of self-concern for the thrill of the unknown that manifests only as we step forward.

True jihad demands an ever-deepening resolve, a commitment to never run from battle, to get up when shot down and move ever onward. Life transforms in knowing how much glory and goodness are truly at stake, and knowing that the responsibility for human freedom is ours alone. In taking up this responsibility, and only in this, the true heart of liberation comes to life and pulls us forward. The realization of the power of our choices—for good or evil, creation or destruction—calls forth a warrior’s vigilance, an alertness that is the current of life itself. Standing ready on the battlefield of the human predicament, the gap between self and Life closes. Here the terrorism of separation and destruction ends in the true creative fire of human potential bursting into being as ourselves.

%d bloggers like this: