The individual self is part of who we are, and it is only a problem if we do not see all of who we are as holy. If we see all as holy, then we do our best to heal the extreme separateness the ego has fallen into because of the wounds of our karma, culture, childhood, and civilization, and the existential problems of life itself.
Living as we do, between Heaven and Earth, the spiritual path has never been an easy one. With so many approaches to the task of "finding God" created over so long a period, you would think that there would be some consensus about how to handle the difficult challenge of relating to the human personality and its problems.
The truth, however, is very different. Not only is there no consensus, but instead, spiritual paths have divided pretty much along two main approaches, both hoping to deal with the problem of duality and Oneness and where the human ego fits into this scheme.
Two Approaches for Dealing with Duality and Oneness
The first approach, the one most of us here in the West grew up with, is the theistic or deistic path. This understanding places the Deity outside the person. It asks individuals to find the will of God and, to the best of their ability, follow the path that brings them closer to their Creator.
The other main approach might be called the nontheistic, advaitic, or nondual approach. In this approach, God is not considered to be something separate at all. Instead, the personal ego is regarded as an illusion that one must see through in order to come to an understanding of the basic ground of being beneath appearances.
These two paths use different language to describe the achievement each recommends. The deistic paths speak of saints, God-cleaving, revelation, and illumination, and the nondual paths speak of self-realization, enlightenment, and awakening.
It is my belief that the possible distortions inherent in both these approaches—and certainly in the way they have been communicated—attempt to erase the very vehicle that allows us to live as divine creations.
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The Healed Ego Brings Us to the Gate of Enlightenment
The vehicle that enables us to live as who we are—that is, as individual personalities in finite bodies who are simultaneously manifestations of Spirit beyond life and death—is the human ego. While problematic in its unhealed state, the ego in its healed state is the best vehicle we have for bringing us to the gate of enlightenment. To that end, I would like to describe a different approach to working with the ego, in which the personal self is not seen as the antagonist of self-realization or a life devoted to God.
In this view, we go beyond the concept of an enemy and find Wholeness where it already exists: in the human ego, which allows for both self-realization and God-connectedness. From this perspective, enlightenment is a form of nonviolence to all, including one's own ego.
However, the usual understanding of the God-awakened or enlightened state is that it is a condition that seems to posit no personal self, but only some sort of "transcendental view" in which the person who has come into the light of understanding or the Light of God is connected to something so great that it makes the ego pale in its light. In this view—found in both the advaitic/nondual and theistic models—the ego is a kind of enemy. In the advaitic context the ego must be seen through; in the theistic, it must be conquered. This is a misunderstanding of what enlightenment or awakening into God actually is.
Yet practitioners of both of these approaches who have achieved Wholeness do not seem to be selfless or colorless people. Instead, they seem to be vivid personalities who know what they want and what they do not want, who stand for what they believe in, even unto death.
Purifying the Unhealthy Ego & Retaining a Healthy "Self"
It is clear from this that it is not the ego per se that has either been purified away or seen through, but the unhealthy ego. It is vital that we differentiate between these two aspects of the human psyche, since it will give us a way to work with ourselves that will allow us to avoid falling into the error of trying to pretend to be what we are not: trying to be "self-less," when every atom in our body wants to have a self; trying to be altruistic and override our own needs while these needs arc overwhelming and powerful.
This behavior sets up a dichotomy between self and other and cannot be seen as nonviolent. It says, for instance, that something of our own self must be lowered or sacrificed in order to be of true service to others, that lowering ourselves and service to others are linked concepts.
Being of Service to Self and Others Simultaneously
Is it not possible for a healthy or healed ego to be compassionate in a nondual way? In a way that includes self and other? Is it even possible that this is the function of the healed ego, that is, to be of service to self and other simultaneously?
To approach the spiritual life without this understanding is to think that we must destroy what God made: an individual. It means we have not yet found a way to see the holiness of creation in a completely nonviolent manner, a manner in which even the ego is not "killed" in order for it to heal. The need to kill, subjugate, or ignore the ego for some "higher purpose" leads to problems down the line and could even be said to have brought us to the desperate conditions we find our world in today.
Redefining the Ego As "The Desire To Exist"
So what exactly is this ego that can sometimes appear in a healthy state and sometimes in an unhealthy state? That can be both an impediment to awakening and not an impediment, at exactly the same time? While we usually think of the ego as a psychological component of the individual human being, we might redefine it here for the purposes of our discussion as the very desire to exist, and in that way see it as a universal quality that is beyond the "human-only" in that it is found in some form or other in every created thing. It appears in the Nothingness of the Absolute and divides the universe into where "we" are and where "we" are not.
We could even go so far as to say that before this division, there is no "universe." And by "we" I mean not only humans but rather all things: here is a proton, there is a neutron, and in this away of perceiving we see the Creation of the world as an act of separation.
This divine and healthy model of Creation must automatically create opposites, since embedded within the very notion of Creation is the act of separating one thing from another. Though the products of this activity of division seem to be in opposition, they really have a common origin in the act of creation. In this way we can say that the conditions of the entire world are mutually co-arising. On the deepest level, the creation of opposites is not in itself a problem.
When we draw a line on a blank piece of paper, we automatically create two worlds: the place the line is and the blank space where the line isn't, the fullness of the line and the emptiness of the unmarked space. It is the same with the world. Every act of creation makes the world dual: hot is responsible for the existence of cold; in for out; here for there. Our pencil line and the blank space need one another to exist! When we forget the act of creation and see only the result of that creation, these so-called opposites, we start believing that things have independent existence, that hot can exist without cold or in without out. We even start naturally preferring one of the opposites over the other.
The Ego Pits Life Against Death, Time Against Eternity
In the human realm, the ego is our personal, psychological agent who splits the world from its intrinsic wholeness into parts we like and want and parts we reject, and this splitting has positive and negative consequences. On the negative side, we buy into the ego's need to dominate and control, and continually pit one part of creation against another: life against death, time against eternity. Through this attitude of loving only half the world, we have no home here.
On the positive side, the ego, this fundamental desire to be, is responsible for the world of individuality and, through that lens, consciousness and self-awareness itself. It is how we get separated as foreground from the background of everything else. It is through the agency of the ego that we get to look at ourselves, to see our own reflection.
Many positive implications arise from this stance of separateness. For example, the healthy, egoic awareness that splits the world into viewer and viewed is responsible for the entire concept and existence of Beauty, a divine quality that could not come into being without the manifestation of opposites and the capacity for self-reflection. It is we, self-conscious, individual beings, who seek answers and reflect upon the beauty of nature. Not only does the eye of the beholder need to exist in order for there to be beauty, but when that eye is the eye of the healed ego, all things are beautiful.
It is because we are made of this beauty that we respond to it so deeply; true beauty always draws us deeply into our own soul and into a deep communion that not even death can touch. Our connection to beauty goes beyond the unhealthy ego's myopic vision and unites the various parts of ourselves into the Original Whole. We can find a home in the world because the entire created world is actually singing the same song.
When we posit an agency or being who created all of this manifestation and beauty, we call it "God" and bow our heads and open our hearts to our Creator. This reverence can happen only as the ego becomes nonreactive to opposites and learns to negotiate the difficulties encountered in the world of duality. Only then can the ego see the opposite aspects of the world and simultaneously take its place in the bigger picture of who we truly are.
©2004, by Jason Shulman.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Inner Traditions. www.innertraditions.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Kabbalistic Healing: A Path to an Awakened Soul
by Jason Shulman.
Kabbalistic Healing is about the process of unification, of joining with reality, and the implications of that process for daily life. It draws upon the author’s work at A Society of Souls, which promotes the belief that the ultimate form of healing is to create a unitive or nondual state of consciousness, integrating the healthy human ego into its proper relationship with transcendent reality. As we deepen our understanding of our true selves and enhance our ability to hold new states of consciousness, we are able not only to heal ourselves but to help heal others as well.
About the Author
Jason Shulman is an internationally known spiritual teacher, modern kabbalist and a recognized Buddhist teacher. He is the founder of A Society of Souls, a school dedicated to the awakening of the human spirit through the work of Intergrated Kabbalistic Healing. He has been a faculty member at The New York Open Center, Esalen Institute, and Omega Institute. He is the author of Kabbalistic Healing: A Path to an Awakened Soul, The Instruction Manual for Receiving God and numerous monographs and articles. His three music CDs, the Great Transparency, Unlock My Heart and Buddha-Cloud, communicate his teachings in a way that goes straight to the heart.