Picture the artichoke, whose tender heart is surrounded by the protection the universe gives it in the form of hard, prickly leaves.
Picture your heart, the place where that same universe, call it Eternity, or God, same thing, speaks to us. Picture your heart surrounded by the layers of hard, prickly protection that we have all created for ourselves to protect our heart from the universe. We have done so, at times consciously but often as not without being aware we are doing so, to shield ourselves from hurt. Most of that layering has come simply out of fear. That fear has been both fear that we can recognize and fear of which we are mostly unaware. It is the fear from childhood experiences playing itself out in our adult lives. The fear is often called “reality.”
The fear comes because we have superimposed our ego upon the universe. I use the term “ego” to define that layer of consciousness that exists between our hearts and our connection to that universe. It is our left-brain version of the universe: logical, rational, “real.” Call ego “control” if that makes it easier.
By ego, I do not mean the high blown version of ourselves we project out into the world, sometimes referred to as being egotistical. That version of ego is really a projection of fear disguised as bravado and confidence. Those who are egotistical are not operating out of their hearts. The egotistical person does not trust his or her heart. The egotistical person needs to be in control; trusting in the heart is the opposite of being in control.
No that is not what I mean by ego and yet it is related to my version of ego. Ego is that which separates our hearts from Eternity, from the universe, from God. It is our inner voice, what I have referred to as “the watcher,” the constant noise inside our heads that, out of fear, keeps us from simply being, from trusting enough to let go of that fear, to turn off that voice, to stop watching ourselves.
“It is this watcher, this censor, which creates the sense that we need to control things, for we feel that if we were just to ‘be,’ to co-exist with the universe, we could not trust ourselves; things would not come out the way we want them to.” (The Tao of Love, p.49.)
Ego is the veil through which we see the universe. It is the voice of distrust.
At times, many times, our ego is clearly necessary so that we are able to become fully functioning, intelligent creatures, able to deal with the “real” world. But the very same qualities that the ego provides to us also inhibit us and make us fear. Those qualities tell us that we are separate from the universe, from God, and the act of being separate creates the fear of loss. And the fear of loss tells us that we must attempt to control the universe and all things and people in it lest we lose. The ego tells us that if we do not control things, we must live in fear of losing them. The ego separates us from trusting in the universe. It creates a duality between our hearts and everything else.
In the process of so protecting ourselves, we have prevented ourselves from connecting to the universe. It is our failure to see ourselves as part of the entirety of everything that creates the fear in the first place. So the sum of our actions, both conscious as well as unconscious, has been to create the very fear we fear. We are in truth the very thing we fear. Would we be able to find ourselves connected to our own Eternity, we would understand that there is nothing to fear for all things that are so connected find their own places of harmony and balance. But it is the duality we have created, the separation of ourselves from our Eternity that creates the fear.
And so, in order that we may connect with ourselves, our Eternity, God, and feel safe and whole, we must lose our ego. We must cease seeing the “real” world only through the lens of this ego and begin to see it with our hearts. Reality is not a single concept, something that is uniform throughout human experience. Each of us can create our own version of reality and, if what we create is true for us, then it is real.
By getting rid of ego and beginning to see reality through our hearts and not our heads, we can open ourselves up to realms of possibility that we never before could have imagined. We can become, in a very real sense, unlimited and boundless. We can find new powers, new creativity, new opportunities for growth, for love, for harmony, peace and joy in our lives that before our ego death we could not begin to conceive.
But we must first recognize that we are operating out of ego before we can allow it to die.
Recognizing that we are operating out of ego seems a simple matter. All we need do is to examine our conduct, acknowledge that we are acting out of fear, and then stop for a moment to realize that our hearts are playing little part in our behavior. Simple, isn’t it? Sure it is. But the same simplicity simultaneously makes it all the more difficult to recognize our ego and how it operates to make our lives complex.
We have never been taught that what is simple is what is right. The universe operates simply. Balance and harmony in the natural world, in the animal world, in any world in which ego, call it the mind, is not operating, is simple. It seems the goal of spiritual beliefs to return us to our connection to that universe, to our Eternity so that we, too, can live simply, in balance and harmony with all that is. If indeed this is the goal, the purpose of that goal, the purpose of letting go of ego, is to also let go of the constant fear in which we all live.
But few of us have had much teaching, from parents, from “society,” that told us that what is simple is what rings true inside our hearts. No one ever told us that we could live trusting our hearts. No one ever told us that we could be God or that we are how God operates. Everything we have ever seen, heard, learned, was about seeing ourselves as separated from the rest of the world. If we are separated from anything then, by definition, we must live in fear of that because it is not part of us; it is out there, somewhere. If something that is important to us is out there, then we can lose it and if we can lose it, we must constantly be in fear that we can lose it and as a consequence, attempt to control it so that we do not. Loss. Control. Ego. The triumvirate.
All that we have learned has told us to ignore our hearts and follow our minds. We have been taught that lesson because it is consistent with fear. It is consistent with fear because it presumes that our minds can figure anything out. Equate the mind with control and you can see that fear is the frame of reference in which the mind operates. And fear is the same as ego because fear comes from the separation between our hearts and the rest of Eternity and that is the same definition as ego.
In truth of course, learning to let go of ego, learning to let it die, is a hard lesson to learn. But despite its difficulty, it appears to be the only lesson if it is your goal to achieve peace. Or enlightenment. Or joy. Or love. It is not the only lesson if it is your goal to accumulate furs, large cars and outer world goods. It is not the only lesson if your goal is to preserve a relationship. In short, it is not the only goal if your goal is anything outside of yourself. It is the only lesson if your goal is to reach that place where you can truly say: “I don’t want to be better than you; I want to be better than me.”
And so not only is letting the ego die a hard process, it is also a scary process. Hard and scary. Who wants that aggravation?! But losing the ego is also a wonderful process. Painful but wonderful. Losing ego can bring us closer to our hearts. It can enable us to feel more than we have ever felt. It can enable us to see ourselves in a totally different way and in doing so, find new dimensions to ourselves.
The death of ego may give us the sense that we are living closer to our souls. If the inner voice, the ego, is shut off and we are, as a result, able to hear our hearts speaking to us, that is at the very least a beginning. As long as that inner voice, that ego is loud enough to block the more subtle whispers of our heart, we cannot even begin to act upon our heart because we cannot even hear it.
Shedding ego is a fearful experience until we begin to feel all these benefits. We were taught not to feel but to think. Now we must learn to feel and not think. There is a great deal of unlearning that must take place and it is, quite frankly, a painful process.
But it seems to me that the very height of the mountains and conquering them is what our lives are all about. Along the way, we can find love, and joy, and happiness, not simply in some perhaps mythical hereafter but now, today. The rewards are present rewards. To put it another way, if I am permitted to mix a metaphor and return to the original idea of the artichoke, if, in the process of shedding our egos we can dip it into enough melted butter, it is well worth it all of the effort it takes to get to the heart.
The death of ego is a spiritual idea; one, however, that takes the form of real world experiences. God, as I have said, is us and we are God’s operatives. These experiences that God gives us are important not so much for what they are but more for what they teach. And one version of what they teach is that they are there to allow us to shed our ego and connect with God. And one reason we need to connect with God is to allow us to let go of fear. And one reason we need to let go of fear is that it is fear that separates us from each other and in so doing, keeps us from finding love.
© 1994 Ivan Hoffman