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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 2

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Last week I began contrasting two aspects of every self: the ego and the essence. Our ego is also referred to as our false self or small self, indicating something less than whole. Our essence is also called our true self or nondual self, indicating something in its wholeness. In contrasting our ego and our essence I describe two extremes of a vertical continuum that extends infinitely in either direction, although the essence is inclusive of the entire spectrum. As human beings we are incapable of manifesting either pure ego or pure essence; rather, we manifest varying degrees of each. In addition, we may act more from our ego in certain circumstances and more from our essence in others. I only characterize the two as separate in order to describe the ends. In reality they only vary by degrees. Our ego manifests a part of our essence; our essence includes but transcends the ego. Our true self is the developmental direction toward which the Spirit invites and encourages us. Our false self resists the urgings of the Spirit, mostly for fear of losing or tarnishing what it mistakenly perceives to be its unique nature.

At the heart of our dilemma is that the world seems to confirm and support the partial truths our ego tells – that the life our senses detect is all there is, that we must live for ourselves and accumulate as much material wealth as we can with the limited time we have on earth. The common wisdom of our world tells us to deny the weaker parts of ourselves, hide our vulnerabilities, and put on a good face for those around us. Ultimately, our ego leads us into a lifestyle that is not true to who we are.  The person we pretend to be cannot exist in any sustainable way.

This dilemma is a problem that is exclusive to humans. Plants and trees make no discernible effort to be something they are not. The same is true for rocks, streams, and clouds. Animals do not make false pretenses about who they are. In his book, Falling Upward1, Richard Rohr identifies two halves of our lives. Our egoic or false self dominates the first half as we strive to build a name for ourselves, establish a profession, start a family, or otherwise enter adulthood. As we age we realize there is something missing in the self-image that has carried us to that point in life. This is when our true self may begin to assert itself, and the ego’s influence over us begins to lessen. As we did in infancy, we identify with our support system, although now we recognize God, working through those around us, as our ultimate support system. We celebrate our interconnectedness and recognize that we build ourselves up by building others up, not by tearing them down. We understand in our deepest being that salvation is communal, not individual – that we are all in this together. We strive to be increasingly genuine and true to who God created us to become.

When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to releasing our ego’s hold over the direction of our life. It can feel like dying; indeed, it is a death. We need to allow that small, selfish, and insecure part of ourselves to diminish in order to make room for our true self to grow. Our essence was never born, nor will it ever die. It is our eternal self. It is where our perfectly unique expression of God resides. Getting in touch with this aspect of our being is especially important as we approach physical death, as our true self is what will survive our passage out of material existence. Contemplative practices help us awaken to our essence. Such practices also assist in seeing the essence in others, even when it is invisible to them. God in us sees and affirms God in others. Namaste. This is true love and is a prerequisite to achieving equanimity within, not to mention peace on earth.

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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1          Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, Hoboken, NJ, 2011.

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Taming an Ego

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4:22-24

There is an obstacle between spiritual enlightenment and me. It is not a wall I can tear down, nor is it a body of water I can swim across. This impediment is not an intellectual puzzle I can solve by logic. My nemesis is closer than my next breath. It is the me I most closely identify with – my ego. My ego has evolved over the course of my life under the influence of my family, friends, and experiences. Actually, an ego is not a bad thing to have. In fact, it is necessary to develop a strong sense of who we are as individuals. All of us are endowed by our Creator with specific gifts and talents to be used in service to others. We need to know what those are, and our egos shout out our uniqueness.

Consider that I or me appear 12 times in the first few sentences of this Life Note. Most of us believe the universe revolves around us from a very early age. Our perception seems to confirm it, too. Unfortunately, that perception is wrong, or at least is a misleading truth. We are all special and unique persons created in the image of God. When everyone is special, no one is special. When we seek our uniqueness apart from others, we risk becoming narcissistic, selfish, and wretched beings. When we find our distinctive niche alongside others, our value is defined as part of a larger body, as we were created.

My epiphany about ego as a stumbling block to a fuller life occurred sometime after my 30th birthday. I grew weary of my self-styled life, and my existence lacked the joy of rich fellowship with others. I had a modest following as a solo musician – something that not only defined me, but also consumed my weekends. I also had a group of friends I enjoyed being with. Of course, the times they typically gathered were over the weekends when I was away, performing in clubs.

As I learned to wrestle my ego’s grip from my life, I married, had children, and developed a web of close and dear friends. Years ago, I would have considered my life today as indistinguishable from the masses. Fine, I was wrong. I make music with others, now, instead of by myself. The music, like my life, is exponentially richer. An ego becomes an impediment when we do not balance it with a social life. As Christians, we believe the body of Christ is us – all of us working together – not me, standing apart. I have discovered I am the best version of myself in fellowship with others. Taming a strong ego is hard work. For me, the optimal solution has been in find my special place within, not outside of the others in my life. A good church can help.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your place in the body of Christ.

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Dust to Dust

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It lasts for 46 days and is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray and fast. These are important practices because in order to prepare ourselves to receive the new life contained in Easter, we must first shake off the shackles of that which keeps us from receiving new life.

Fasting is sacrificing something that we will miss in order to remind us of something else of importance. Commonly, fasting is giving up a certain type of food, often dessert. Fasting, however, need not be limited to food. We can deprive ourselves of other desires in our lives, so that our deprivation reminds us throughout each day of the reason for our sacrifice.

Prayer is spending time with God. Most of the time, for most of us, praying is simply talking to God. We share our hopes and concerns; we pray for others having a difficult time. We express gratitude for the blessings of the day. One thing we often fail to do in prayer, however, is to listen. Lent is an opportunity for intense listening. When we listen with an open heart and mind, we open ourselves to transformation and rebirth.

Much of the time, we are narcissistic creatures. Our perception is that the world revolves around us, and we believe that our ego – the self-image that is formed by the world – is our true self. Unfortunately, when our ego has free rein to shape us how it will, we come more to resemble beings of earth than of spirit. Sometimes, I feel the need for an ego-fast. Some fear that by allowing our earthly egos to die or diminish we will become mindless, colorless clones. Instead, we become more complete expressions of the unique God-character we were created to become.

Lent, when experienced prayerfully, is a great equalizer. When we strip ourselves of earthly possessions – those transient, egoistic things that set us apart from others – we are truly one in the Spirit. We are not the same, but we are one. We are neither more nor less unique than our neighbors are. Lent encourages us to get back to our spiritual roots, back to the image of God from which we were created. Only when we release the need to set ourselves apart from others will we begin to manifest as the truly unique and precious expressions of God that we are. And we will notice and appreciate the God-expressions of others around us. As for our bodies, they come from dust, and to dust they will return.

Come home to church this Sunday. A little “dusting” may be in order.

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