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Blessings, Nayaswami Hriman
We say someone has a “big ego” and we know that this is not
a good thing. Yet, we probably also know that some of those who have
accomplished great things in the world could be described as having “a big ego”
or at least a “big aura,” and maybe more of the former than the latter.
Some years ago there was a lot of talk about building self-esteem
in children. Indeed, much of the training and education of a child is directed
towards learning skills and gaining self-confidence. Now that I am a
grandparent I watch with some interest and a newfound nonattachment to how
much effort adults expend eliciting a child’s likes or dislikes. It seems instinctual
to help a child to develop their ego from its amorphous and helpless state at
birth to that of a strong, balanced, intelligent, healthy adult.
Among the traits of the ego that are helpful and necessary is
taking responsibility for one’s life, developing will power, not blaming
others, learning to forgive, learning to accept what can’t be changed: just to
name a few. Among the valuable traits that reflect both a strong ego and one
that is not excessively self-involved are kindness, thinking of the needs and
realities of others, unselfishness, generosity, and creative solution-seeking:
in short, the Golden Rule!
Is that all there is, then, to this ego-thing? Pet dogs and
kiss babies, so to speak? Be good and you’ll surely go to heaven? If you are
reading this you already know that’s not where this conversation is going!
The Vedantic path and teachings of the ages and sages offer
to us a vision of reality that avers that the ultimate creator and purpose of
the creation is to pierce the veil of illusion of our separateness and reunite
with the only reality that is permanent, beyond suffering, and permanently
satisfying: God (or Bliss or whatever name you prefer).
So on the ego-thing, we have some who say the ultimate state of
existence (usually called heaven) is that we keep our egos and we rest happily
forever praising the Lord, strumming harps, engaging in angel-like good deeds,
or enjoying the everlasting pleasures of heaven.
Others say, “No way!” We “kill” the illusion of a separate self (ego)
and disappear into the great Void.
Photo by Patricia DeAnguera
And, they say further, that on the threshold of this dissolution we
experience momentarily the bliss of release from suffering caused by egoic consciousness but
then we vanish without a trace into the No-thing-ness out of which all things
have come. Hmmmm: a kind of spiritual suicide wish? I’ll take rain check, thank
Another version of egoic dissolution says that the Void is
actually not empty but full: full of bliss! Bliss, in other words, is not
temporary or born of the duality of separateness. Instead, the very nature of God
(the ultimate state or reality) is Sat-chit-anandam: ever-existing (immortal),
ever-conscious (omniscient), ever-new bliss. At least in this version we have
something to look forward to.
This is the Vedantic version espoused by Paramhansa
Yogananda. While this is a one version of ego transcendence, Yogananda took the explanation one step
further in an interesting twist. Yogananda added that inasmuch as Infinite
consciousness must, by definition, contain all that is past, present or will be
or can be in the future, then there must be contained in Infinity the living “memory”
of all those lifetimes during which my soul was
misidentified AS the doer, as the ego. Well, ok, you say, but so what?
The “but” here is intended to provide an explanation for another
phenomenon of the spiritual path. The explanation starts with this precept: no
one can achieve Self-realization without helping others. It’s not that your
final liberation awaits their own but nonetheless, you must become, towards the
end of your journey, the guru to other souls. Yogananda said, in fact, that the
minimum number of souls is six.
(I have no idea why
six. Six chakras? Who knows. I am fairly certain he was not the first to make
this statement but I accept that the principle is intact even if "why the number six" eludes me.)
The annals of spirituality include innumerable
testimonies that to disciples the guru comes in vision or in actual living form even though the guru is no longer on the planet in human form, having “died” days, weeks,
or centuries past. Some, like Krishna or Jesus, may well have even incarnated
into new human forms since the time of that particular incarnation as Jesus or Krishna.
Yet, they appear in the form held dear by their devotee.
Yogananda thus says that out of the Infinite (the Akasha),
the devotee’s devotion calls forth the past form of the guru, notwithstanding
that the guru is no longer in that form, or perhaps in any form whatsoever.
There is, as a bypath, testimony that saints, while still living in
their human body, can appear in vision or dreams to disciples and yet they have no awareness or recollection of this fact, having perhaps been even asleep at that particular moment! It
is the soul, in other words, that is ever-awake and eternally present.
Lastly, Yogananda stated that even an avatar—one freed from
all karma and who returns to human form as a savior—must don the trappings of
ego in order to function distinctly in a human form. The difference between
the avatar and most of us is the degree of identification with that form and
In his famous poem, “Samadhi,” he writes “I, the Cosmic Sea,
watch the little ego floating in Me.” Yogananda defined ego as the soul identified
with the body (which includes the personality).
So we are still faced with the question: is the ego real or
not? Is it “bad” or “good”? The answer? It depends!
Like Moses in the Old Testament of the Bible or Bhishma of
the Indian epic the Mahabharata, the ego can awaken to the desire to be free of
its own limitations and hypnosis of separateness but its very nature IS
separateness. The ego can work to grow spiritually but there comes a point
(after countless efforts to do so) where it must offer itself into
the Infinite (or at the feet of the guru, the Lord, etc etc).
We are given the survival instinct for a reason greater than
just the survival of the body. No such instinct could be at odds with the truth
of our Self. If all reality has as its basis pure Consciousness than the “I can
never die.” The question is “Who am I?” Am “I” the body and personality?
As Bhishma, symbol of the ego in all, was heralded as a
great hero and a man of dharma, so too our ego, in its essence, need not be identified
with the material world, the body, likes and dislikes, and the senses.
the power of individuation, this world could not exist. The so-called “Divine
Ego” is the pure ego, free of identification with thoughts, emotions, and the
world of matter and senses.
But while the ego has great power it can obviously greatly
become steeped in delusion. For its re-awakening, another outside influence is
needed. The power of God using the human channel of the guru can resurrect the
soul’s memory of its true nature. The soul, in attunement with the guru, can
then direct the ego in right action and right attitude until the ego at last
offers itself in final surrender into the Infinite at which point the ego can
be said to dissolve or to expand into Bliss.
At the moment of final surrender, the ego must accept the possibility of its extinguishment but this is its final test. It must face the abyss of nothingness and surrender to it before it can enter into "the kingdom of heavenly bliss." I call this moment the "dark night of the ego."
May you slay the Og(r)e of Ego that the Soul may reign on the Throne of God's Bliss, our true home! Swami Hrimananda
Paramhansa Yogananda, in his now-classic life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," describes yoga as "a method for restraining the natural turbulence of thoughts, which otherwise impartially prevent all men, of all lands, from glimpsing their true nature of Spirit." (Chapter 24).
From Chapter 41 of that modern scripture Yogananda gives this challenging poem from one "of the many great saints of South India...., Thayumanavar: You can control a mad elephant; You can shut the mouth of the bear and the tiger; You can ride a lion; You can play with the cobra; By alchemy you can eke out your livelihood; You can wander through the universe incognito; You can make vassals of the gods; You can be ever youthful; You can walk on water and live in fire; But control of the mind is better and more difficult.
Stilling the agitations of the "monkey mind" is the subject and goal of countless meditation techniques and millions of meditators alike!
Ramana Maharshi is one of the most notable 20th-century advocates of Advaita (non-dualism), particularly in what he termed "Self-inquiry:" the quest to know "Who am I?" The great teachings of East and West essentially urge us to "Know Thyself" and discover "Tat twam asi" (That Thou Art). Watching one's thoughts and/or breath are among the ubiquitous and universal techniques of focusing the mind in order to still the "natural turbulence of thoughts."
Techniques are given, and there are many, to help focus the mind in order to reach the point beyond our thoughts. Too many meditators mistake the path for the goal and continue with their mantras, devotions, prayers, or breathwork "until the cows come home." The cows, that is, of their returning thoughts.
Why is so little attention is given to the cessation of what one teacher calls the "self-structure." The small self (ego, subconscious, etc.) is a little dictator whose mission is to keep us focused on our body, its needs, and to protect, defend and affirm the personality (ego.) It does a good job from a Darwinian point of view but it doesn't give us anything beyond a fleeting and insecure fulfilment and a deeply entrenched habit of restlessness. Praise, one day, blame, the next.
For starters, almost nobody on this planet is the slightest bit interested in the cessation of mental activity called "me." After all, didn't Rene Descartes tell us that "I think, therefore, I AM?" For another, the cessation of mental activity is very, very hard (note poem quoted above). And for those very, very few who make a deep and sincere effort, what they get for their reward is that their ego-self gets to stare into the abyss of nothingness, facing the prospect of its dissolution! So no wonder even meditators take the equivalent of a "rain check!"
[In a humorous aside, Swami Kriyananda, in his landmark book on raja yoga, "Awaken to Superconsciousness," gently chides the Buddhistic tendency to focus on negative aspects of enlightenment (a state of no-thing-ness (nir-vana)) as the reason the enlightened ones, Bodhisattvas, chose to defer their liberation and come back to help others!]
But what, then, is the reward of making the effort? To quote Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "Even a little practice of this inward religion will save you from dire fears and colossal sufferings." I'd add to this that the benefits of meditation, speaking generally and clinically, derive from the very effort to focus the mind inwardly and away from the senses, body, and ego. In an analogous manner, sleep too is essential for mental and physical well-being.
Thus I don't feel to dwell on the reasons the effort, challenging as it seems, is more than repaid. Besides, too great a focus on "what I get from this practice" will tend to undermine "what I get from this practice!" All great teachers of meditation caution that non-attachment to results--even of our meditation--is essential to success in every endeavor, including meditation. Besides, the reasons to meditate are as varied as those who practice it.
How, then, best to focus the mind and transcend the thoughts? On this, too, I have to concede that the prescription is individual. There are many meditation techniques, philosophies, and, as stated just above, reasons to meditate. A strict approach, such as Ramana Maharshi's practice of self-inquiry, is probably too austere for most modern (and restless) minds. It is termed, in the yogic tradition, the approach of gyana yoga. Krishna states that meditating upon the formless (no-thought, or Absolute) is difficult for the average human.
A devotional approach satisfies the heart's natural yearning to be loved and to love. One can meditate upon the image, feeling or thought of one's chosen deity, guru, or even an abstract principle such as love itself! But our culture is far from one that is comfortable with devotion, being, as we are, so fixed upon reason and analysis.
An energetic approach has the advantage of not requiring a complex belief system and is epitomized in the universally popular and useful approach of mindfulness: using the breath as the meditation object (with or without a word formula or mantra). In this Age of Energy, let "pranayam be your 'religion'" to quote a chant popular with Swami Sri Yukteswar!
Deeper practices of energy-meditation may involve a focus on the flow of subtle energy (prana or chi) in the chakras or the deep spine. The most well known of these is termed, simply, Kriya Yoga and was popularized by Paramhansa Yogananda (see Chapter 26 of his autobiography mentioned above).
What's wrong with thinking, you ask? The thinking and intellectual function of the human mind is a mixed gift: it is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thinking is necessarily logical and dual: this is not that, and that is not this! The intellect is a natural extension of the ego for it focuses on naming, labelling, distinguishing, and using for its advantage or protection the objects of the senses (people or things or forces it can control). It has been well said that the mind makes a great tool but a poor master.
Thus it is, by tradition from higher ages of consciousness, the power of the intellect (which can reveal the secrets of nature) is supposed to be given to or used only by one who has become identified with the soul, or higher Self. In such a case, this power is used for the good of all and not for self-aggrandizement or exploitation. It is obvious that at this time in history, this is far, far from the case.
Since the mid 20th century, it has often been said that humanity stands on the brink of self-destruction owing to our mastery of the tools of thinking, reasoning, analyzing and manipulating nature's secrets but that we have yet to save our souls! We have focused too greatly on the outer world at the expense of the inner world of consciousness. To this day, scientific dogma still insists that consciousness is the mere byproduct of matter, the brain, the body and evolution of the species. Reflection, and only a little is needed, would reveal the opposite: "I AM, therefore, I think!"
Thus it was that the noted historian Arnold Toynbee stated that while the west has conquered the east with its guns, the east will conquer the heart of the west with yoga.
And finally, let me share this simple, uh oh: thought! The Thought-less Yogi emerges from the effort to still thoughts randomly throughout the day NOT just in the practice of meditation but between activities; before a phone call or email; at a stoplight. You learn to bring the monkey-to-heel by living increasingly in the "witness box" of the higher mind. This can be achieved whether your temperament is devotional, perceptive, or active.
The state beyond thought, the transcendently aware state, must be felt, or intuited, not conceptualized. It is the portal to higher states of superconsciousness. As in Yogananda's quote above, the still mind "glimpses" our true nature as Spirit, as the formless I AM of all humanity, all creation, and of the Godhead.
So train your monkey to be still and FEEL the stillness wherein no thoughts intrude. You may find it helpful to bridge ego consciousness to higher consciousness through the medium of a visualization from which you then extract the FEELING of transcendence. Examples include the image of the bright blue, cloudless skies on a sunny day; the vastness of the ocean when perfectly calm; the majesty of a great mountain; the roar of wind or water overtaking you; vastness of space in all directions; or the silvery-beam of moonlight filling you with deep peace and transcendent love.
Once the raft of techniques has brought you to the shore, discard the raft and enter into PURE FEELING; PURE AWARENESS with no name, no form, no object to behold.
Meditation has many benefits and no drawbacks (except for those not mentally balanced). But there are certainly yin and yang aspects of meditation.
For example, meditation can be used for the benefit of the ego: concentration for the mind and vitality and self-awareness for the body. Or, meditation can be used to attune oneself to the higher Mind of the soul.
Most of what is taught and most of those who practice meditation are seeking ego-oriented benefits such as calmness, inner peace, and mindfulness. Their meditation practice begins with the intention of "I want.....this or that result." Since this intention is the basis for practically all ego-directed actions, few ever consider an alternative.
Among those who seek higher consciousness, meditation can take the form of an act of devotion, focusing on some form or image such as one's guru, a deity, or even a state of consciousness (such as samadhi, nirvana, moksha, etc.). The devotional approach can remain in the realm of an "I-Thou" act of worship or it can intend to or simply evolve into, merging into one's form of devotion.
There are those meditators who seek spiritual upliftment, consciousness, or even psychic powers for personal (ego) gratification! This can be the initial motivation behind meditation, or, it can be the result of back-sliding when the ego claims for itself the insights or powers which may appear as a result of one's otherwise sincere meditation practice. Such are the temptations that await the dedicated practitioner.
And, let's face the truth here: the ego is our starting point even while ego transcendence is the well-established goal! A paradox to be sure. Let's pause for a moment to consider this "ego thing." Paramhansa Yogananda, the now-famous author of "Autobiography of a Yogi," defined the ego as "the soul identified with the body." Since ancient times and in the highest spiritual teachings of all great civilizations, our true nature and the goal of our existence is to "know thyself" as greater than the ego: as a child of the Infinite! As from the Vedas: "Tat twam asi." ("Thou art THAT!) Admittedly, the details of what THAT is and how we realize THAT may vary in the fine print of scripture, commentary, and intellectual permutations. But beyond THAT there is no argument! Returning now to where we left off: "devotion." As devotion is, in an energetic sense, the equivalent of dedication, a meditator (aka a "yogi") may not think of herself as being of a devotional temperament but the intensity of her focused dedication to meditation amounts to the same thing. A meditation intention and practice that seeks to still the mind by way of one-pointed focus on a mantra, sound, or other "meditation-object," and which essentially seeks to dissolve the ego-identity and sense of separateness, can be said to be a form of devotion, albeit more by concentration of the mind than by focusing upon expanding the heart's "natural love," though in fact the latter may be, and ultimately must be, the consequence.
Put another way, progress in meditation takes dedication and devotion to the goal and to the practice. Such dedication is surely a form of love as much as any classical feelings or forms that devotion might traditionally assume.
It can also be said that one always begins upon the spiritual path (and meditation) from the only point of reference we have: the ego! Gradually, as we progress, we morph into self-offering of the little self into the great Self as one's consciousness expands beyond the ego and body. We see this transformation taking place in the lives of meditators who truly go deep into the practice. We even see amongst some of those who practice yoga postures a certain level of awakening that can rightly be called "spiritual" even if, initially, unintended.
At the risk of going into deep philosophical territory, there is another aspect of the yin and yang of meditation. It goes something like this (using non-technical terms whether from Vedanta, Shankhya, yoga, or Buddhism):
There's a part of ourselves that yearns for stability, constancy, and unchanging reality and truth. There's also a part of ourselves, which like all nature around us, that is always changing and which delights and invigorates in our creativity and engagement in life.
The reconciliation of these two could be described as the awakening of our ever-watchful Self (soul) into the awareness of and participation with the ever-changing reality of creation which swirls in flux around us. By contrast, the ego, that part of our consciousness which identifies with the body, personality, and the seeming separateness of all created things (physical and mental), isn't so much watchful but wholly engaged. The difference between the ego's desires and emotions and itself simply doesn't exist. As a result, the ego experiences the ups, downs, boredom, and occasional peace in an unceasing and ultimately exhausting and monotonous inevitability. In short, we suffer, for no pleasure can be known without fearing and later experiencing its ending or its opposite. Pain, by contrast, feels "eternal" when we are overcome by it.
The alternative to being awash in the ocean of emotion and change is to dive deep into the ocean of peace within. Thus is born the practice of entering into the mindful or watchful state. In the meditative state of quietude, the ceaseless rising and falling of our thoughts, energies and responses comes under our calm scrutiny. We can see flux for what it is: empty, fleeting, and separate from the Self. The deeper we go into this state the more we realize that we are and can be untouched by the waves at the surface of the sea of our senses (and our mind).
The Shiva Self, recumbent and watchful, penetrates the center of the Shakti Self of prana, energy and creation even as the Shakti Self, in the presence of Shiva, inclines to be still to receive Shiva within her Self.
This uniting of Observer, observing and observed
becomes a dance of Bliss, sometimes withdrawn and sometimes immanent in all creation. Even those descriptions which separate God the Father (the Infinite Spirit) from creation cannot fully satisfy the continuum of consciousness both within and without. Paramhansa Yogananda's famous poem, "Samadhi," flows in and out of creation even if it is also understood that Bliss stands apart and whole from the creation and serves as creation's Father-Mother.
But such philosophical niceties go beyond, far beyond, anything practical and helpful for those engaged in meditation practices. Even for us, we find we flow in and out of our own creation (our mind's activity).
Nonetheless, to experience a state unconditioned by awareness of body and ego identity is powerfully transforming, healing, and enlightening. Few meditators, I suspect, aspire to this state; fewer experience it. But not because it is beyond our means.
For indeed, this unconditioned state is the center of our Being and is always present. Whether by Self-inquiry ("Who am I?") or by inner stillness achieved through meditation practice, it exists perennially behind our mental flux. "Be still and know that I AM God." (Psalm 46:10).
Watching one's thoughts is a frequent instruction given as the practice of meditation. But I wonder how many of those using this technique are not, in fact, drawn forcibly into participating with their thoughts and their reactions to those thoughts (rather than remaining truly watchful and unaffected). The challenge of watching our thoughts is that our thoughts are the basis for our separateness. Our emotional response to our perceptions, moreover, cements our identity to those so-called realities. Like the oft given image of perceiving a snake in the dim light of dusk in the path ahead when in fact it is only a rope, we make our share of false conclusions and all too often proclaim, "That's my story and I'm sticking with it." The sense of separateness and its cocoon of beliefs, memories, opinions, desires, impressions, and fears is deeply embedded into our the matrix of our sense of self-identity. In the East, the mind is considered the sixth sense: separate and apart from the Self. In the West, we think, as Descartes declared, "I think, therefore I am!"
Therefore, because thoughts are the issue, it is generally more useful to have and to focus upon a "meditation object." Universally, the breath is the simplest and most available "object" because we all breathe and no beliefs are necessary. There are other reasons as well. The watching of breath can be with or without a word formula or mantra. Other reasons for watching the breath include the observable fact that in the effort to concentrate deeply, we naturally hold or quiet the breath. It is the last obstacle to complete concentration. It is also, ironically, an excellent "object" of meditation for the reason that focusing on the breath can quiet the mind and when restless thoughts subside, the breath becomes quiet. Anyone who is given even a modest amount of training can demonstrate these facts and benefit from this practice immediately. Thus it is that the breath has become (and likely always has been) the most common focus for meditation throughout time and the world. But, it remains an "object" until or unless our sense of separateness begins to dissolve. One can say, intellectually, that we enter the breath or the breath enters us or anything else you want to say. But nothing that can be said can truly describe the experience of oneness. (All words require subject, verb, and object and this very logical necessity is inadequate to describe the state of being that is actually experienced in real time.) The experience of oneness can occur spontaneously and does happen to many people, whether as children or adults. It can happen in meditation even when not held out as a goal or a possibility. But mostly it is best if the meditator seeks the state and has some training and intuition in the possibility. Nothing is lost in such a state even if on a profound level the ego-mind suspects that it is an existential threat to its separateness. In this, the ego is both correct and incorrect. Testimony of the ages and the sages is that nothing is lost in the realization of the state of oneness and everything worthwhile in life (happiness, that is!) is found. But such is the price of the pearl of great price: the very real-seeming threat of extinction. No wonder some teachers and traditions describe this state in negative terms: "nirvana" (no vanas, or no mental activities of the ego-construct). Buddha gave no description of the undescribable. The yogis, however, describe the state as satchidanandam: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss. Some aver that bliss is a passing phase on the path to nirvana; some say (as Yogananda does) that samadhi IS the state of bliss. Well, no matter because all who have achieved it say it is the end of all striving, the end of suffering, and the summum bonum of existence. Let us not split the hairs of Holy Grail! In this, there is neither yin nor yang. Nor is this state the annihilation of our functionality in the human body and in this world. Quite the opposite: freed from the delusion of the limited ego-self, we are free to act in harmony with the divine Self. The awakened Mind then participates freely in the swirl of creation's eternal flux. Stability at the center; movement at the periphery. A dance choreographed by the Higher Mind of God. Yogananda stated "I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this form but He." And why not? Is not both the outer world and the inner world a ceaseless flux inextricably linked in both energy and form? We only separate ourselves in the limited realm of the five (six, actually, including the mind) senses? Our sense of separateness is an illusion, one not difficult to unmask by paying attention, even by reason, and certainly by intuition: for those courageous enough to enter a brave new world. For those who might benefit from several excellent videos on this subject (and much more, both science and metaphysics), I direct your attention to the movie Inner Worlds Outer Worlds. It can be viewed in four half hour segments for free on YouTube or the entire move for $3.99: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1LtuE8zRMo
Aligned with this is another movie called simply Samadhi. It is followed by four guided video meditations. Although these are strongly influenced by Buddhism terminology, Vedanta, Sankhya and Yoga terminology are also included. References to Egypt, native American, Christian terminology are also presented. In YouTube.com search for "Samadhi." The two-hour movie is in two one-hour parts and in various languages as well.
Similarly, four guided Samadhi meditations are excellent and are based on watching the breath. Search on Samadhi meditation. While I personally and most of the readers of this blog practice the techniques taught by Paramhansa Yogananda and therefore don't "need" the resources above, they are well done and in their essence are not contradictory to what Yogananda taught, though their emphases and terminology may differ in parts. Joy to you! Nayaswami Hrimananda