Let us now consider ego from the standpoint of epistemology. Our knowledge of the phenomenal world is gained through a subject-object relation. That is, we as subjects look at objects, discriminate them from ourselves and from other objects, assign them names, properties, and characteristics, and make judgments about then, We tacitly agree among ourselves, for example, to call a certain object a tree. We then forget that “tree” is an arbitrary concept that in no way reveals the true identity of this object. What, then, is a tree? A philosopher might call it ultimate truth; a botanist, a living organism; a physicist, a mass of electrons swirling around nuclei; an artist, a unique shape with distinctive colorings; a carpenter, a potential table. To a dog, however, it is a urinal. All descriptions or analyses are but a looking from one side at that which has infinite dimensions. The essential quality of the tree is more than anything that can be said about it.
Similarly, we tinker with time by dividing it into past, present, and future, and into years, months, days, and so forth. This is convenient, but we need to remember that this “slicing” is artificial and arbitrary – the product of our discriminating mind, which discerns only the surface of things. Timelessness is unaccounted for. Thus we conceive a world that is conceptual, limited, and far removed from the actual. Because we view objects as from a distance, we do not have an all-embracing, direct, intuitive awareness of them. And since we have not penetrated them to their core, our knowledge of them is limited and one-sided.
At the center of this process is the ego-self. Because it stands apart from all other selves, it considers itself the unique center of things. In reality it is merely an objectified self and not the true, living, unconditioned Self, which underlies and unifies all existence. This latter cannot be objectified or be know through reason or conceptualization, for it is inconceivable and unimaginable. It is the elusive, unnameable actor always behind the scenes. Thus all attempts to know our original Self through intellectation and imagination are doomed to failure.
Actually there is no personal self: the entire universe is the Self. Not knowing we are this majestic Self, we imagine ourselves to be no more than this puny body, just a speck in the universe. Thus we mistakenly postulate an other, imagine a gulf between self and other where none exists, and then exalt ourselves and put down others. This is the basic delusion of sentient beings.
THE ESTRANGEMENT FROM SELF
Our estrangement from the real Self is reflected in the unsatisfactory quality of our life — the pain, the existential anxiety, the unfulfillment. This human predicament can be compared to a wheel not running true on its axle and thus grinding. Fragmented and frustrated, we long for wholeness and freedom.
We are split off from our true Self in yet another way. Even as we exist in time and space, in a world that is finite, impermanent, and material, simultaneously we inhabit a world that is infinite, eternal, and formless. Owng to our bifurcating intellect, which divides and separates, we are alienated from our Essential-mind. This Mind cannot be perceived until we are in an awakened state. Thus we are the flawed children of Mother Earth and Father Spirit. Living in our temporary home, the biosphere, with its pain, its beauty, its joy, we are estranged from our permanent abode, the viable Void.
NURSE: How are we flawed? Can you explain that more precisely? And what splits us off? I thought you said earlier that we are whole and complete.
The estrangement from our true Self is brought about by this same discriminating intellect, so we see our self as both actor and observer. This is the root source of our imperfection… Fundamentally we are whole and complete, endowed with virtue, wisdom, and compassion, but since we are victimized by our ego, which fancies itself the true master of our being, we become polarized….
Philosophy, art, literature, and science are attempts, conscious or unconscious, to heal the basic rupture [between belief and disbelief, emotion and rationality]. To the degree that the split persists, we lead restless, discontented lives; we are condemned forever to seek and never to find, for all seeking implies a subject that seeks and an object to be found, once again dividing into two what is inherently One. We cannot seek entrance to a place we have never left. Nor is there anything to attain, for we basically lack nothing. A master of old put it this way:
Before the foot is lifted,
The journey is over.
Before the tongue has moved,
The teaching is finished.
INTELLECT AND EGO
This brings us to consideration of intellect and its relation to ego. It should be remembered that the illusion of ego — of one’s own separate existence as an enduring reality, set off against the rest of the universe — may be seen at the root cause of the problems of life and death: fearful clinging to life and terror of a death which appears to be the annihilation of one’s life. The discriminating intellect is perhaps the foremost instrument of the ego in perpetuating this illusion. In Western psychology, I understand, intellect is usually considered the last faculty to develop in a child. Actually, intellect exists in a rudimentary state even in the embryo. With intellect’s further unfolding, our perception of the world as it really is becomes distorted. I touched on this earlier. Now let me expand on it. Conditioned as we are to filter all perceptions through the intellect, which in turn conveys them to the seventh level of consciousness (where the sense of an ego-I takes hold), we find irresistable the belief that each of us is a discrete and separate entity. As the persistent ego-I awareness develops and strengthens over time, it becomes more and more solidified through the intellect, affecting in turn our perception of the world.
THE NET RESULT IS THAT WE BEGIN TO THINK AND ACT AS THOUGH WE WERE SEPARATED ENTITIES CONFRONTED BY A WORLD EXTERNAL TO US. In the unconscious, the idea of I, or selfhood, becomes fixed, and from this arise such thought patterns as “I hate this, I love that; I need this, I don’t want that; this is mine, that’s yours.” Nourished by this fodder, the ego-I comes to dominate the personality, attacking whatever threatens its position and grasping at anything which will enlarge its power. Antagonism, greed, and alienation, culminating in suffering, are the inevitable consequences of this circular process. The ego-I, or small self,can be compared to a tumor: in one sense it is foreign toe the body, in another, it is produced by it. Or, to change the metaphor, “Far from being a door to the abundant life, the ego is a strangulated hernia. The more it swells, the tighter it shuts out that circulation of compassion with the rest of life on which man’s health depends absolutely, [and] the more pain is bound to rise.
NURSE : But can an ordinary person ever hope to reach even a semblance of this state?
….. But we do need to strive to get out of ourselves, to “get lost,” to immserse ourselves totally in whatever confronts us. In losing ourselves we gain a relationship to something greater than the self:
BRAVELY LET GO YOUR HOLD
ON THE EDGE OF THE PRECIPICE
AND DIE TO THE SMALL-SELF.
THEN WHAT IS NATURALLY REVEALED
IS THE TRUE-NATURE IN WHICH
THERE IS NEITHER LIFE NOR DEATH.
(all from “The Wheel of Life and Death”, Philip Kapleau)