Skip to content

DOORS – Chapter Fourteen

January 10, 2019

portoni

The fact that life and death are “not two” is extremely difficult to grasp, not because it is so complex, but because it is so simple. —Ken Wilber

So I have written about a journey in which we are always just beginners, and yet it has an end. When that will come, however, I will not be around to write about it, so how shall I end this book? I do not know what life has yet in store for me, but could I possibly speculate about a final door? Perhaps I could. After all death isn’t something that just happens at the end of life; it is with us all the way, so let me dedicate this last chapter to what I’ve seen of it.

To start, it was a brush with death that woke me out of slumber and got me seriously on my quest. From that moment on, all that had been before became insufficient. My ego was exposed for what it wasn’t and it felt like being reborn into naked wonder. Humbled and feeling like a child again, I was eager to learn about the reality I had just glimpsed at, but my ego was still there and soon tried to reassert itself.

The ego structure

But before I get too far, I must first clear some things about the ego. I have already spoken about it in chapter ten, but to go where I wish to go now I will need to revisit some of the same points. For example, the fact that in spite of its often negative connotation, we cannot think of eliminating the ego altoghether.

Our ego is part and parcel of our human experience; therefore it is neither possible nor advisable for it to disappear. For most of our lives, it remains our sense of awareness, our separate and temporary identity. It consists of our thoughts and ideas about ourselves and the world about us, and because these things are in our minds and are directly related to our environment and physical being, the ego is therefore a temporary state of awareness.

The ego only exist as long as the body does, and it is just as true that there would be no body without it. So the ego is not the problem, and developing a healthy ego is even a necessary first stage of our human development.

But the time comes, in that development, when we will begin to move beyond exclusive ego identification. How? Well, it comes in different ways and there is no exact formula for it, though the most common is ageing and nearing death. As we move towards it, we are bound to discover a self that is more than our ego.

However that happens, at whichever age, the developmental challenge will then be to stop thinking that our ego is who we are; that it is our consciousness and being. As we grow into that new stage of awareness we let go of our old perspectives and, with age, it tends to happen naturally.

Eventually we do wake up from youthful ego perception, which is where we began our adult life; thinking we were what we looked like, what we studied, what we did, what we made ourselves into or heard others say about us. Our ego was that first and most obvious identity, a filter through which we saw everything else, including religion.

Of course all religions and Jesus himself always taught that the ego had to be transcended, that it had to die (John 12:24) and that there needed to be a rebirth to even see that there is more (John 3:3). This regeneration and transformation was what many initiation rites illustrated.

Baptism, for example, was the metaphorical illustrations of this death and its role in life; buried with him in baptism” said Paul to the Colossians, and buried with him through baptism into death in order that… we too may live a new life”, said he to the Romans.

He was not speaking of a final death, but of the dying that works within life to transform it, to lift us from mere ego awareness into being fully human (John 10:10). In a variety of ways and with different symbols, all religions speak of this ongoing death and surrender of the ego.

It is not an actual and final death, but the act of transcending the ego, of unseating it as the sole definer of our identity. It is the abandoning of its centrality for the rediscovery of another identity, a broader, shared and timeless one that was previously obscured by the ego.

Somewhere out of sight, under the sands of our shifting thoughts and feelings, laid the rock where Jesus said to build on (Luke 6:48). Our ego didn’t know it and even feared it (Matthew 21:42) but it was that same rock upon which He said we may fall and be broken (our ego) or wait for it to fall on us (with ageing) and grind it to dust (Matthew 21:42).

But in our ego-conscious phase we are not usually aware of any other self beside our physical body and its mental faculties. This is why physical death becomes the all encompassing fear, why we do all we can to hide from it, why we act as if it didn’t exist and ignore it as long as possible.

While unaware of anything else besides the ego, we cannot help but try to preserve it and satisfy it in all that it wants. But because the ego isn’t really our foundational self, but more like a covering, nothing that the ego wants ever satisfies us completely.

Being mostly imagination, the ego’s pleasures are mostly imagined as well. A long anticipated prize, a career,  a house, car, holiday, gadget, and as hard as we try to convince ourselves that we got the coolest things, it isn’t long before we realize that it didn’t deliver what we though it would.

This is the frustrating emptiness of exclusive ego-conscious living. It can be a literal hell, yet one that we choose ourselves, over and over again until we actually wake up to the fact that the ego is not really all that we are, that there is more to us than meets the eye or the mind.

Our ego forms with our early perception of individual isolation and develops in self-conscious comparison to others. From its inception, it strove to assert itself in the community and the world about, seeking success, advantage, image, security and survival in a humanity it perceived as separate and sometimes hostile.

This perceived isolation is what fuels fear, jealousy, pride, tensions and conflicts among people, a condition that can be overcome only when a person begins to surrender its ego and finds its true being. That surrender is the daily dying that Jesus and Paul spoke about (Matt. 10:39 and 1Cor. 15:31).

It is the dying that must happen while we live, or life cannot deliver all it is meant to. In a sense, we are already biologically and psychologically programmed for it. Religion is supposed to help us along, but even without it, if we follow the natural progression of life, we will be led through these same stages of death and rebirth. Though I must admit that modern living seems to be all about preserving earlier stages and avoiding maturity at all cost.

In my own life

When I first converted to Christianity I entered a new world of possibilities, and the Christian symbols became my working interface with ultimate realities. The symbols worked for a good while, but as time went on my ego adapted to the Christian environment and found ways to use it for advantage, image, security and so forth. The more it adapted and the less I felt connected to the realities the the symbols pointed to.

Unable then, to discern the difference between ego and true being, the all controlling mind reasoned that I must have done something wrong, that something must have come between me and said realities. God must be displeased with me, I thought, perhaps even angry because of my sins, carnality, selfishness, and the list went on of possible explanations for my feelings of alienation.

That’s how I reasoned in each moment of crisis, at the lower end of each cycle and before the upswing into a new door. Because I saw only through the symbols that had worked before, it was through the same that I sought to also understand my ups and downs.

The problem was that the template from which my symbols came, was that of a universe with angels above, demons below and a distant God. This not only presented me with a dated cosmology, but also with an innumerable set of unsolvable circumstances that constantly reinforced a skewed perception of god.

God was far away and hard to please. Guilt, fear, courage, joy and all sorts of emotions were channeled and conditioned through that template. To some extent it had fulfilled a need, for a few decades actually, but the time had come in which it was more of a hindrance than a help.

As I began to recognize the difference between ego and soul, I recognized also how the ego found ways to disguise itself with religious symbols and pass itself for what it wasn’t. I saw its recurring patterns and how the old template provided it with the means to create its own deceptions, demons and misery.

It slowly dawned on me that what I had imagined as external, in both space and time, as a heavenly or future realm, was actually within me and already here. While the world of religious symbols had first brought me into contact with it, later it became a veil (Cor 3:15,16) that separated me from it, a caricature that hindered me from moving forward.

As theologian Paul Tillich taught, God is not an external supreme being, but he’s the ground of all being and being itself. As the apostle Peter said,in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Or as nuclear physicist Antonino Zichichi said about science, that it looked into distant space hoping to find the secrets of the universe, but it actually learned more about it when studying reality right here, in the atom and its particles.

So I too, was learning that God was not out there, as some separate being above me, but that I was in him all the time. It was only in my ego that I perceived a separation, but it was an illusion, a mistake about my identity and its relation to God. As one illusion dispelled, the other did as well.

Naturally, a person who fully identifies with its ego, as we all do for a good deal of our lives, will still need the interface of religion and religious symbols. When and if that person has sufficiently awakened to experience the reality that these pointed to, it might be that they begin to appear childish.

In reality, it is the person who was childish when taking religious symbols too literally, because the people who created them knew all along that they were merely pedagogical tools, meant to invite future generations into their own discovery of the ultimate.

That’s the purpose of religion, to be a system of symbols and ideas by which a person may come to transcend his ego and be reborn, so to speak. It is meant to gradually bring people to experience God and true being for themselves, though religion alone is no guarantee that this will happen.

In fact, many remain stuck in religion, as an in-between world of symbols and parables that their ego misappropriates in order to remain in control. That’s how many, in spite of their religiosity, never come to experience the divine reality that they profess to believe in.

Even a person who has begun to awaken, who has touched the reality of true being, will still and for some time be subject to a sort of going back and forth between the two. The ego will continue to demand center stage and will even fake enlightenment to keep control. It will be a veritable case of satan masquerading as an angel of light (2Cor 11:14).

I have been calling it the ego, but other names have been given to it as well. In the following lines, for example, Cistercian Monk Thomas Keating calls it the false self:

The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But as long as you don’t ask it to change, the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory.”

So it was with me, that after each major change, my ego gradually adapted to the new paradigm, mastered the art of it and regained control. Being that pride and narcissism are the ego’s unavoidable attributes, I went from first being proud of my achievements to then being proud of my “humility”, ha!

The ego can in fact simulate anything it wants, like an actor who adapts to any role. It can even pretend to transcended itself, as often happens in religious settings. It is there, in fact, that it earns the notorious label of hypocrisy. Why? Because a religious person does hear about true being, soul, spirit, etc., but if the ego is still in control it will only mimic what it hears while missing the reality of it, and without even knowing the difference.

The ego does the only thing it knows how, it pretends, and it does it with all persuasion of being right, even killing in god’s name. Fortunately, however, the ego is programmed for exposure, which is why religious people, and leaders in particular, are often brought down by humiliating scandals.

You can only go so far in fooling yourself and others, and it’s often at the point in which the ego successfully simulates holiness, that it is finally exposed. That is the inevitable cycle, but one which eventually inaugurates the beginning of true change and maturation.

The person has to have its ego exposed before it catches on and learns that beyond it there is a real self. Once that has been touched, even once, it is a watershed moment. If the ego has been transcended once, it can happen again. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and the ego must now bend its knee to a more complete and inclusive mode of being.

But it usually takes a number of defeats and a good deal of our lives, before we learn to truly let go. Most of us need to repeat that cycle of deaths and resurrections a number of times, before we learn to trust the process and gracefully let ourselves go into true being.

In each of these cycles, when our ego dies, we do experience a temporary liberation from it and a subsequent rising (or falling, depending on the metaphor) into true being. We feel a short of freedom, connection and joy, even in the midst of the dire circumstances that brought the ego to its knees. It is a step up in the spiral of awakening.

Yet the ego never disappears altogether, because like everything else it is part of the process and what even makes the ascent possible. Even sin and the devil have their purpose. That’s why, whatever new step we take, the ego will soon adapt to the new situation, dress himself up in it and try to posses it.

Because of it, the soul will soon struggle for breath again, while the ego will attempt to delay exposure by decoys and false solutions. It will play the guilt card, tell us to pray, fast, sacrifice, mortify our pride, but all in such a way as to keep him in charge. How? By pretending to be our true self and convincing us that those solutions will restore us to god; a god made in its image, of course.

This is how the ego plays both parts, that of god demanding obedience and that of the devil accusing us of failing to obey. Yet, as badly as I am describing it, let me remind you that it fulfills a very necessary purpose. Perhaps the words of a person who has written much about it, will shed more light:

Remember, please remember, you do not (you must not!) fear, attack, or hate the False Self. That would only continue a negative and arrogant death energy, and it is delusional and counterproductive anyway. It would be trying to “drive out the devil by the prince of devils,” as Jesus puts it. In the great economy of grace, all is used and transformed, and nothing is wasted. God uses your various False Selves to lead you beyond them. Note that Jesus’ clear message to his beloved, Mary Magdalene, is not that she squelch, deny, or destroy her human love for him. He is much more subtle than that. He just says to her, “Do not cling to me” (John 20:17). He is saying, “Don’t hold on to your needy False Self. We are all heading for something much bigger and much better, Mary.” This is the spiritual art of detachment, which is not taught much in capitalistic worldview where clinging and possessing are not just the norm but even the goal. You see how trapped we are. Great love is both very attached (“passionate”) and yet very detached at the same time. It is love but not addiction. The soul, the True Self, has everything, and so it does not require any particular thing. When you have all things, you do not have to protect any one thing. True Self can love and let go. The False Self cannot do this. The “do not cling to me” encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is the most painted Easter scene, I am told. The artistic imagination knew that a seeming contradiction was playing out here: intense love and yet appropriate distance. The soul and the spirit tend to love and revel in paradoxes; they operate by resonance and reflection. The ego (False Self) wants to resolve all paradoxes in a most glib way and thinks that it can. It operates in a way that is mechanical and instrumental. This is not always bad, but it is surely limited. The ego would like Mary Magdalene and Jesus to be caught up in a passionate love affair. Of course they are, in the deepest sense of the term, but only the True Self knows how to enjoy and picture “a love of already satisfied desire.” The True Self and False Self see differently; both are necessary, but one is better, bigger, and even eternal.”Richard Rohr – Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self

Along the way, I too discovered that I mustn’t fight, judge or justify my ego, but simply not cling to it. In principle I always knew that letting go of it was the solution, but in practice I didn’t know how to do it. How do you, in fact, let go of your will, thoughts and ego?

As the Beatles sang there will be an answer, let it be, let it be” I kind of sensed that it meant more than I knew then. The same with the noted phrase let go and let God”; so many things spoke to me about this, but at a deeper level than I could rationally process or apply.

That kind of surrender seemed to come only when I got to the end of my rope, when extenuating circumstances forced me to. It was the contraptions of adversity that pushed me through the birth canal and out into new life. Someone else was doing the pushing and I had no choice but to let go.

Eventually I would yield to it, but only after the pain, the struggle and the unavoidable death. So how does one learn to willingly let go, let it be, surrender and become free of an ego that persistently demands control? That’s what took me the longest to even begin to figure out, and I am barely scratching the surface.

“We may yearn to “let go and let God,” but it usually doesn’t happen until we have exhausted our own efforts.” Gerald G. May

Death – The last door

I do believe, however, that this has a lot to do with the final door that awaits us all. I think these cycles are our lifelong preparation for it. As we accept these earlier deaths, consider them a natural part of life, stop fighting them and learn to let go, we learn to transition from death to life and vice-versa, to trust the process and not be afraid of it.

As we let go of former identities, past egos and a temporary self, we learn that there is always new and better life in the present, not matter the age. As we let ourselves go into the unknown, our true being emerges and we enter into a dynamism that is beyond time and death.

How so? Well, as I touched on before, the mystics encapsulated this mystery into the paradoxical symbol of a God who is three and one, with one of the three being both human and divine, but still one, in himself and in the three. The rational mind can never understands this, which is why it is called a mystery, but what was the idea behind it?

As we’ve seen, God is not a supreme being somewhere in heaven or beyond the scenes. To call him a supreme being is in fact to bring him down to the realm of beings. He is more than that, he is being itself (I am that I am) and the source of all being.

As such, the mystics rightly represented Him as the movement of three entities emptying themselves on each other and in turn being refilled by each other. God was a Perichoresis or Circumincession, Greek and Latin terms that mean “rotation”, in essence a dance of love, of self-emptying and mutual refilling, and not an exclusive dance either.

In fact we could describe it as an ascending rotation, meaning a spiral, because its movement generates the material world, which it then indwells, even incarnating himself in it. So the life that we live and see, proceeds from this spiral and is continually drawn back into oneness with it (John 17:21-23). That is the dance.

God is the dynamic movement and perennial cycle of being, the foundational principle and pattern of all that is, the reality of which we are forever part of, and it is love. That’s the hinge upon which life revolves and from which we can never depart. It is what each of us is like, at our seminal level, and what it means to be made in His image.

Even in our perception of individual separation, while thinking to be the masters of our fate and to act independently, even then we are never far from it, except in our thoughts. In reality we are always tied to what Richard Rohr calls the Divine Dance.

As we move through life, we gradually learn to hear the music and follow its steps, to empty ourselves and also be poured out. As we let go, it sometimes feels like dying, but then we learn that the fall is not unto death, but unto refilling and resurrection. We have thus fallen into the very pattern of being and into a life that is beyond time.

I have danced the dance and have had glimpses of the true self, from which I came and to which I shall return. For now my ego is still here and I see it all the time. It never stops trying to claim center stage, whatever the stage, even that of religion, spirituality or the search for true being.

It even pretends not to be there by disguising himself as true being, but because he has no enduring substance, his ploy never lasts. Nonetheless I see it always, even in the lines of this book and at this very moment.

What I have learned, however, is that the discovery of true being does not require my ego’s disappearance. No, true being is always here and it is in the dance. It is in the process of letting my ego do its bit, entice me away into illusion, then noticing it and letting it go again, letting it fall like dirty clothes and nakedly return to the center again.

The ego is like the silence in the music, it gives it movement and makes the dance possible. It is part of it, so not only do I forgive it for his pernicious ways, but I thank it for allowing me to find true being again and again, and deepening that discovery every time.

The ego is what it is and will always be there, but now that I can finally see it, by observing it, I have actually shifted my sense of identity. Now it no longer defines me as it used to, and the truer being in which I rest is large enough to accommodate my ego too.

By discovering what wasn’t the whole, but only a part (through what the mystics called the via negativa, by unlearning instead of learning) I have also discovered the rest. As Richard Rohr would say, everything belongs”, and that includes my ego too. There is no something without a nothing, no light without darkness, no life without death and everything exists in alternative waves of ups and downs.

I used to fear loss, humiliation and defeat, and I still do to some extent, but now I know that even these belong, particularly in our youth. That’s when even fear can work in our favor, by keeping us from doing what we shouldn’t. Even the fear born of pride can act as a deterrent, a safety mechanism that the ego provides, when ego is all that we are conscious of.

That’s why it says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. There is a time for that, but there is no rest in fear, pride or the ego, which cannot go past such a beginning. So life is made in such a way that the confidence of pride, the restraint of fear and the structure of the ego will eventually unravel.

Due to age and the trials of life, the ego will start to crack and the light will begin to shine through. It is the beginning of ego transcendence, and there isn’t a specific language or set of beliefs that bring it about, it just happens, even for atheists.

There also isn’t a specific time for it; it could happen while still young, rarely though, or a few hours before death, more common, but generally it is a post middle age affair. In any case, whenever we see a person who no longer feels the need to defend his ego, to latch on to it for identity, it is often because he has begun to experience something deeper, bigger and truer, even if he can’t explain it.

At that point, fear and pride become less of an issue and even death is less of a threat. That’s what happened to me, and the more I recognized and let go of my ego, the easier it became to admit mistakes, to apologize and to forgive myself and others.

That incessant running commentary that used to occupy my mind, to give me a constant update on how I fared, compared to others or my own expectations, had less of a grip on me. The same for that constant tension that I used to experience while trying to be good, wise, spiritual, get what I wanted or avoid what I didn’t want.

While moments of freedom from such were few and far between, now they have become a daily occurrence. It is like having found the reset button. Just as often, however, I can slip into old modes, especially if in the company of those still preoccupied with their ego and judging from its standpoint. Both, flattery and criticism can still get my old ego stirred up.

So, though less of a boss than it used to be, my ego is still there, yet I remember when I couldn’t let go of it at all, when I would tense up, afraid that if I did let go I would fall into a void, with nothing there to catch me. Now I know what’s there and that it’s solid ground; the ground of being, of love and of the master of the dance.

“Whoever lets go in this fall, dives into the source and is healed” – Rilke

So I learned to trust the process and not to fear it, not even death, which for me was the beginning, when only seventeen. That’s how my journey started and that’s where it will end. But whether early or late, this is the journey that all must walk. Having recently accompanied a few folks to their dying moment, I know that the changes that I speak of are in everyone’s path.

In writing this, I hope to have stirred your curiosity and desire to explore these things for yourself. Yet, I don’t think you would have read this far unless you already had some experience of it. Perhaps, we are just traveling companions having a chat about our journey. If so you already know that to die while living is to live while dying.

For you have died to your separate ego, and your life is hidden with Christ in the Ground of Being”. “We know that our old ego was crucified with Him so that separation might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to separation. For anyone who has died has been freed from separation. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him…In the same way, count yourselves dead to separation but alive to the Ground of Being in Christ Jesus.- Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of separation and death.…For through religion I died to religion so that I might live in the Ground of being. I have been crucified with Christ, and my ego no longer lives, but Christ lives in me. (My paraphrasing of Colossians 3:3, Romans 6:6-11, Romans 8:1 Galatians 2:19,20)

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: