Another tenacious concept that perpetuates the myth of enlightenment and creates much confusion in the spiritual seeker is the belief that the ego dies, and with it all personal history is erased. In this myth, the ‘enlightened one’ supposedly has no sense of self and no story, and therefore he or she is expected to never talk about themselves, to never use the word ‘I’ or ‘me,’ and to never refer to ‘my life.’ The ‘enlightened one’ has supposedly seen that the body and the world are an illusion, and therefore is totally unconcerned with physical well-being or worldly affairs. This image of enlightenment is a fantasy upheld by millennia of religious dogma and patriarchal spiritual traditions. It also taps into our childlike need to enter the kingdom of heaven or nirvana, where bad things never happen and we are rewarded with endless peace.
The stark reality is that awakening is not a death of the ego. As long as you’re alive as form, the ego cannot die. Ego, as a primary sense of ‘I-ness,’ must exist, otherwise you’d be unable to discern inside from outside. It’s very likely that, without an ego, the voices in your head would be undifferentiated from my voice, from someone else’s voice, or from the voice of God, and you would be in a state of psychosis. You might even be a blubbery mess, unable to function in three-dimensional reality. If you’ve ever taken too many psychedelics, you’ll know how disorienting and even terrifying this can be!
As long as we operate within relative reality, the relative function of the ego must continue to operate. A sense of self as a separate entity is absolutely necessary for both physical and psychological survival as form. Death of the ego only happens when form dies. Luckily, as long as there is a functioning neurophysiology, there is a sense of self. It is a sense of ‘I’ that increasingly develops as we emerge from the womb and gives us the capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness. It’s actually the seed of awakening, because without it we would not be able to become conscious of consciousness.
Awakening is also not a transcendence of ego. Transcendence of ego certainly can happen in a variety of circumstances, such as when you experience a mystical state or a state of expanded consciousness such as in deep meditation (samadhi), long-distance running, or giving birth. It also happens if you have an out-of-body experience or near-death experience. The initial experience of awakening can also be an intensely transcendent experience. But if you continue to identify with this transcendent state, you are likely to develop a ‘spiritual ego.’ There is no transformation or evolution of consciousness in the identification with this state, because when the inevitable return of old egoic patterns and personality traits appear there is a tendency to deny that any of this belongs to you.
In true awakening, there is neither a death nor a transcendence of ego. Instead, the location of self is released from its entanglement with the unconscious ego (in other words, the conglomeration of conditioned mental, emotional, and physical responses.) Liberated from the prison of egoic identification, the ‘I-ness’ becomes nonlocalized and unattached. Having recognized awakeness as the inherent nature of all that is (including the self), the self becomes an ‘awake I,’ undefined and unrestrained by relative reality.
Another way of saying this is that the self experiences itself as inseparable from the totality of existence. While certain survival-based impulses continue (protecting the body from danger, the impulse to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, or rest when tired, and so on), there now happen without interference. They simply happen as life’s natural and intelligent movement toward what needs attention while form is alive. The ‘awake I’ is therefore free to respond intelligently and creatively to the moment, and this gives you access to a power that is at one with life itself.
So what happens to the ego in all this? From one perspective, nothing happens. From another perspective, everything changes. In the process of liberation, the once unconscious ego transmutes to an evolved or ‘aware ego’ and gives itself in service to the ‘awake I.’ In other words, the ego stops being the master and bows down to awakeness.
So, yes, in awakening there is a death. There is a death of the self-identity that is wrapped around the ego. But there is also a birth of a whole, integrated human being that includes both the surface sense of self as a separate entity (the self that is born and then dies) and the deeper layer of undifferentiated beingness (the self that was never born and can never die).
Awakeness embraces the paradox of self and no-self. There is no conflict in this apparent duality. While the mind finds this intolerable, the heart abides in unfathomable acceptance. When the silent mystery of spacious acceptance becomes overridingly preferable to the habitual struggle of making sense of it all, the search for a mythical state of enlightenment comes to an end. However, the ever-unfolding deepening into authentic awakening never stops.”
Amoda Maa. “Embodied Enlightenment. Living Your Awakening in Every Moment.” Reveal Press, 2017.
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