Chapter 2 - Making Room for Divine Presence
An overview of the self-centered ego, the primary obstruction to our True Nature. A look into some troublesome aspects of the self-centered ego, as well as pain and suffering, all of which can be significant obstructions to our enjoyment and manifestation of Divine Presence.
Limitations of the Ego
The ego, the little self, is an aspect of our nervous system which is excellent at protecting this sacred temple which we call the human body. However, one's life easily goes astray when one learns to rely too heavily upon the ego, rather than primarily relying upon the inner guidance of that still small voice of Divine Presence which resides in the depths of one's own heart.
We all have a deep inner need to revel in the wonders of love, harmony and beauty, enjoying the direct experience of the Divine Presence, yet we are easily sidetracked by the ego into focusing undue attention on worldly matters, especially the endless self-centered chatter of our ego.
Around the age of two, when it is time to begin to learn the requisite skills for a life not dependent upon the constant attention of a caregiver, we each develop a sense of self and a contrasting sense of other. Unfortunately, without suitable spiritual guidance during this early developmental stage, many of us develop such a powerfully self-centered ego that there is little or no room in our life for our own True Nature.
Psychologists often define ego as that part of the mind which experiences the outside world and reacts to it. The ego is very valuable for nourishing, maintaining and protecting the human body, which is what it was created to do. We need to eat. We need to attend to bodily functions. We need to protect the body from harmful conditions. We are indeed blessed that the ego is so marvelously designed to monitor and coordinate all of those activities which are wonderful and appropriate functions for the ego.
Indeed, the ego's definition of a boundary for the self can be very useful, and can help us to learn valuable lessons such as not to stick our hands into the fire, or not to drop anything heavy on our foot. Learning from the past can help us to avoid doing what was harmful in the past, and the ability of the ego to watch for, and avoid, situations which could cause harm to the body is, ideally, quite beneficial.
However, when we become preoccupied with the chatter of the ego, and forget about the wonders of Divine Presence which continually flow in the calm pure depths of the heart, life becomes increasingly difficult.
Many different methods have been created to analyze various aspects of the ego, and a wide variety of models have been offered to depict the components of the ego, but for the purposes of this spiritual work, all that we really need to recognize is the nature of the results which the activity of the ego is bringing into our daily life. That is, one can learn to recognize what needs to be changed by observing the results of the ego's activity. As the old saying goes: "If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting."
The ego is very useful, and is a part of the grand plan for humanity. However, when the ego grows too dominant and we become so occupied with the self-centered aspects of the ego that those thoughts eclipse our attention to the Divine Presence, then life is out of balance, and such an unbalanced ego will inevitably cause great suffering.
When the ego is relied upon to help maintain health and safety of the body, that's a good thing. But when the ego and its incessant drama and rambling chatter begins to dominate one's life, then the ego restricts one's ability to participate in the present moment by veiling our True Nature, thereby causing daily life to become difficult and troubling. Life should be filled with awesome wonder and delight, not undue struggle.
The Ego as an Entity
When examining the effects of the ego, it is often useful to consider the ego as a potentially troublesome independent entity, an entity which comes along whether we want it or not. This ego entity, which we have not deliberately invited, has full access to the resources of the conscious mind as well as a very strong influence on the amazingly powerful sub-conscious mind.
The ego, through cunning use of both the conscious and sub-conscious aspects of the nervous system, can bring into fruition a wide variety of situations. For example, If one's thoughts are calm, peaceful and loving, then the ego entity will use its conscious and sub-conscious resources to help to bring more calm, peace and love into one's life. Or, on the other hand, if one's thoughts revolve around worry, anger or hostility, then the ego entity will do everything in its considerable power to help to bring more worry, anger and hostility into your life.
Additionally, the often invisible workings of the ego can exert great affects on a wide variety of bodily functions including the immune system, endocrine system, digestive system, lungs and heart. In fact, the sub-conscious mind is so amazingly powerful that it can affect virtually every organ and chemical in the body, either positively or negatively, depending upon one's own thoughts.
In order to keep the ego under control, it is necessary to keep watch over the ego's activity with sincere dedication to one's highest ideals, a somewhat detached viewpoint, and a good sense of humor. The troublesome aspects of the ego can be a bit like an errant child, whose odd ways we may never fully understand, but whose cleverness and penchant for creating mischief need to be reckoned with through discipline, respect, wisdom and humor.
Keep an eye on that pesky ego, never forgetting how easily and rapidly it can run astray whenever the mind is not being consistently guided and nourished by the love, harmony and beauty of your own True Nature.
The Need to Rise Above the Ego
The purpose of one's life is to be a conscious instrument of the Divine Presence. However, when one is too preoccupied with the chatter and drama of the ego, then life's purpose will remain obscured. In order to live consciously in harmony with one's True Nature in every moment, one must find ways to rise above excessive preoccupation with the ego.
In order to prepare for the gift of enduring happiness,
the first step is to wash off the mud and grime of
self-centered ego, allowing the vibrant hues of Divine
Presence to shine forth freely.
It is like someone trying to apply colorful dye to a garment covered with mud. You cannot dye it with colors until you first clean off the mud, for otherwise the colorful dyes will not stay on, but will drop off in a matter of moments.
Sefer haYashar, Rabbeinu Ta'm
There is unimaginable beauty and wonder awaiting, if only we will allow it into our own life. But, all too often we are already so stuffed full of our old opinions, preferences and attachments that we have no room for Divine Presence. We must strive to be empty, only then can we be filled with the beauty which we long for.
Basically, we just need to allow the rambling chatter and self-indulgent drama of the pesky ego to fall away, and then the Divine Presence will begin to flow naturally.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
Illuminated Rumi, tr by Coleman Barks
Go sweep out the chamber of your heart,
Mystic Rose Garden,
Mahmud Shabistari, tr E.H. Whinfield
The Soul as a Verb
The human intellect often tries to imagine that "soul" is a noun. That is, we try to imagine that the word “soul” is the name of some established "thing".
But alas, such a thought is quite misleading. The word "soul" might be more accurately thought of as a verb, an on-going process or activity of God.
When the Prophet was asked, 'What is the soul?' He answered in two words, Amr-i Allah, which means 'an activity of God.'
So, armed with this thought that the soul is an on-going activity of God, we begin to understand that the soul is a active manifestation of our True Nature, and that it is an on-going process.
Our task in life is to strive to remove whatever veil, rust or other sort of covering is preventing the free flow of this process, the free flow of Divine Light through this little window called "me".
To truly enjoy and be engaged in life, we must allow the focus of our attention to shift away from our customary preoccupation with the concerns of "I", "me" and "mine", and focus our attention on the wonders of the All-pervading Light, allowing ourselves to be willing and capable instruments of the Divine Presence, in every situation, in every moment.
For anyone with more than “normal” day-to-day struggle and pain, the process of regaining control from the on-going mental processes of the ego may require some additional preparation and support. In order to pursue the deep cleansing which is required to rise beyond the chatter of the self-centered ego, one must be able to concentrate intensely on the work at hand.
Some people say: “I must get rid of this pain before I can make changes in my life.” But, in fact the opposite is often true, and it may actually be necessary to make major changes in one’s life before the cause of the pain can be fully relieved.
Pain eventually compels human beings to wonder: "Is a cause-effect principle operating in my life? Are my troubles caused by my wrong thinking?"
Many of our most troublesome problems in life are actually caused by our own viewpoint. There are, in every moment of every day, wonderful gifts being offered to every person, but without the appropriate point of view, the wondrous gifts cannot be realized. If you want to have changes in your life, then you may need make some changes in yourself, and the greatest of these changes will be a new point of view.
Unfortunately, it is quite common to excessively identify with the body, imagining "I am this body", "I am having pain", "I am troubled". But alas that is not true! Much the same as you would not say "I am this shirt", you must remember that you are not the body, and you are merely "wearing" this body for a while. From such a point of view, it is more correct, and much more useful, to simply say "There is a body", "There is pain" or "There is something troubling". Yes, those things are really happening, but they are only happening to the body, not to you, because the true “you” is not the body.
To rise above the suffering in life, we must see from a new point of view. We must engage life with an awareness of our True Nature, viewing the body a vehicle for our life experiences, empowered by the Inner Light of the Spirit of Guidance. If only we will permit ourselves to see from this viewpoint, then all of life is transformed. Yes, the body may have some pain. Yes, the body may have some troubles. But that cannot stop us from enjoying our life on earth as instruments of Divine Presence... unless we allow it to.
If you’re suffering severe emotional problems or severe bodily pain, you may need to seek competent psychiatric and/or medical help in parallel with your own inner work, so that you will be able to successfully quiet the mind and enter into intensely focused concentration. That is, if the pain is too severe for you to achieve quietude and highly focused concentration, then you’ll need to seek additional help to ameliorate the pain while you begin to make the changes which will harmonize your body and soul in the light of Divine Presence.
Before any spiritual light from the innermost recesses of our being can break through into the realms of our mind, much has to be accomplished. Impurities have to be removed, distortions have to be straightened out, the vehicles have to be harmonized. It is only in such a prepared mind, freed from these ordinary defects, that the light of higher knowledge can manifest. But when this light of knowledge does appear, the sadhaka [worshiper] has lit his own lamp and in the light shed by this lamp can tread steadily the path which leads ultimately to Self Realization. But the preparatory work must be done before this spiritual light can appear...
I.K. Taimni, Gāyatrī, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1998, p29-30
... a person needs to be whole to take the journey. The point of this is to get your basic self in tune with your higher self. We are talking here about wounded psyches, fractured consciousness and dysfunction. Without addressing these issues, a person can become quite advanced in many ways, and yet at a certain point find it necessary to self-destruct because she/he has not made a true accommodation in her/himself to sustain realization. Many of us started on the path even sneering at the psychological aspect of things, but had to go back to do such things as address our inner child, align the three selves, do a 12 step program, or some form of individual or group therapy.
Wali Ali Meyer, Sufi Ruhaniat Mureed’s Manual, 2005, p77
Once the pain has been attended to, the first task is to begin to put an end to the rambling chatter and self-indulgent drama of the pesky ego. When the ego’s chatter is under control, the gifts of your True Nature will begin to flow naturally.
We all encounter some kind of pain in the course of our life, but we do not necessarily need to suffer. There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a response of the body’s nervous system, while suffering is our resultant reaction to the situation. Suffering occurs when we resist “what is”. As one reduces the resistance to “what is”, so too the suffering is diminished.
Remember, it is not “my pain”, it is just “the pain”. Yes the pain is real, the body is sensing that something needs attention, but suffering is not necessary. None of us want to have pain, but when it arises, what shall we do? With practice and intention, one can learn to reduce or entirely eliminate suffering, regardless of the pain. It is not always easy to rise above the influence of the pain, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
The Stress Response
Another reason to keep the pesky ego under control, and fully accept whatever has already happened, is that the ego's unpleasant dramas, reactive episodes and rambling chatter will cause the body's stress response to dump toxic quantities of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and glucocorticoids, into the blood stream even though there is no external life-threatening situation.
The stress hormones are designed to shut down a wide variety of the body's systems in order to focus all available energy on a suitable response to a sudden emergency. However, with repeated long-term exposure to stress, the toxic brew of stress hormones can impair, damage or even destroy a wide variety of bodily systems including the immune system, reproductive system, tissue repair, hormonal balance, and brain chemistry, resulting in a variety of serious side effects such as predisposition to illness, chromosome damage, atherosclerosis, diabetes, memory loss, and even a profound inability to experience pleasure or to enjoy life.
It has also been shown that the toxic effects of stress can even be passed on to an unborn child in the womb, leaving imprints which create a long-term predisposition toward experiencing stress.
In order to free ourselves from the burden of self-inflicted stress, and thereby create a calm, aware state of mind wherein we can enjoy life and fully appreciate the love, harmony and beauty of our True Nature, we need to find relief from the ego's unpleasant dramas, reactive episodes and rambling chatter. To help reduce stress, acceptance and faith are key. We need to live in acceptance of the present moment, with acceptance of “what is”, armed with faith that our True Nature, illuminated by the Light of Divine Presence, is the best foundation upon which to base every moment of our life.
The Healthy Ego
The healthy ego is founded upon the calm, peaceful, loving radiance of our own True Nature, and brings those qualities into every moment of one's life.
In the unhealthy ego, the undisciplined chatter and incessant rambling keep the mind so preoccupied with self-created noise that the still small voice of Divine Presence cannot even be heard. Therein lies the problem! We need to find a way to harmonize the ego with the gifts of Divine Presence. We need the ego, but we don't need to be dominated by its drama and chatter.
The healthy ego will calmly observe all that occurs in one's
any great drama or undue chatter, and then it will help to skillfully
and mindfully take meaningful and appropriate action.
Suppose a person goes on a bicycle in the streets of Paris and says, 'I shall go straight on, because my object is just to keep the line I have taken. If a car comes my way, I shall not mind it, I shall just go on.' This person will come against something which is more powerful than he, and he will destroy himself. The wise cyclist, therefore, will see that there is a vehicle before him, or that the road is blocked: he will take another way. At the time it is just a little hindrance, yet that resignation makes him safe from disaster and gives him a chance to strike another line by which he will come to the same destination.
It's all too easy for the ego to get out of control. For example, when the ego is not being inspired by the light of one's True Nature, the mind may wander off-course with incessant churning and chattering, fostering all sorts of unnecessary worries, anxieties and problems which lead one (and perhaps also others) into great suffering.
When the self says, 'O no, I must not be treated like this,' then we say, 'What does it matter?' When the self says, 'He ought to have done this, she ought to have said that,' we say, 'What does it matter, either this way or that way? Every person is what he is; you cannot change him, but you can change yourself.'
Everything which is truly worthwhile and enduring arises from our True Nature; nothing other than the Divine Presence really matters, nothing else is enduring, and nothing else can bring such wonders of love, harmony and beauty into one's daily life.
Give up to thy soul-----
Gnothi Seauton, Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is One Truth, the true knowledge of our being (within and without), which is the essence of all wisdom. Hazrat Ali says, 'Know thyself, and thou shalt know God.' It is the knowledge of self which blooms into the knowledge of God.
There are two selves, the separate ego
Katha Upanishad 3:13, tr Eknath Easwaran
The Self is everywhere,
Chandogya Upanishad 13.2-3
Pairs of Opposites - Healthy versus Unhealthy
In this world, we learn by seeing pairs of opposites. For example, we learn the meaning of “hot” relative to “cold”. But when we carefully study the pairs of opposites, such as healthy/unhealthy, hot/cold, big/small, light/dark, we find that in reality there are not really two different things involved, but rather there is only some aspect of the Divine Presence which either is present or is lacking.
For example, consider light/dark. In day-to-day thought we may consider light and dark to be opposites. But they're really not opposites. Light is the presence of a certain type of energy and darkness is merely what happens when that energy is not present. Darkness only exists when the flow of light energy has been blocked or obstructed by something. That is to say, darkness is only a shadow, a place where the light has not reached. So, rather than having opposites, what we actually have is simply the presence of some essential quality, or the obstruction of that quality. (for more on this topic, please see https://wahiduddin.net/views/perfection.htm )
The healthy ego is founded upon and nourished by the wondrous radiance of Divine Presence. In contrast, the unhealthy ego exists only when the natural flow of Divine Presence is obstructed. Therein lies the key to all healing: remove the obstruction, and allow the brilliance of one's True Nature to freely flow into the world.
Loosening the Knots
In order to live in harmony with our True Nature, we must first get this pesky ego, with all of is mental and bodily resources, working for our betterment, not our destruction. Just beneath this thin veneer of self-deception there is a world of awesome beauty and wonder awaiting our arrival, a magnificent world which is only discovered through one’s own direct experience.
Over the years, the undisciplined ego has developed great dependence upon worldly circumstances. We have become tied to our “stuff”, tied to opinions, tied to an unsatisfactory point of view. We are entangled in illusions of permanence in the midst of an ever-changing world. Unless we take the time and effort to patiently make changes to our point of view, these knots will only get tighter, entangling us even deeper in the mire of worldly circumstances, confusion and suffering.
In order to free ourselves, we must patiently loosen the knots, unravel all that has bound us, and joyfully look at everything in this worldly life from a new, less dependent, less attached viewpoint. Instead of being attached and dependent upon worldly circumstances, we need to let go of the old ideas of ownership or control or possession, and simply see ourselves as a temporary caretaker or a witness of “what is”. No longer an owner, no longer a possessor, no longer bound by any illusion of worldly permanence, but simply a temporary caretaker of the body, temporary caretaker of the possessions, temporary caretaker of the wealth and temporary caretaker of all that we have previously called “mine”.
When all the knots that strangle the heart
Katha Upanishad 3:15, tr Eknath Easwaran
These knots have tied us to our “stuff”, and have led us into a daily routine of self-deception which will ultimately be recognized by lack of satisfaction, unhappiness, a vague inner longing for something else. We need to be intimately connected to Divine Presence, not tied to worldly circumstance.
As a first step toward loosening the knots, strive to recognize some specific ways in which your own ego has dominated and distorted your understanding of life’s circumstances, and then utilize techniques such as relaxation, concentration, contemplation and meditation to gradually make changes, illuminating the darkness of “I”, “me” and “mine” with the wondrous light of Divine Presence. A spiritual guide can be a great asset in this journey, helping one to directly experience some specific aspects of one's own True Nature.
Before you go to bed each night, sit for a short time and review your day. See what you are becoming. Do you like the trend of your life? If not, change it.
Paramahansa Yogananda, Sayings of Yogananda, 1952, p99-100
This process of loosening the knots is a step by step journey, and at each step you’ll begin to more clearly understand the purpose of your own life. Your first glimpse of freedom will be only the shell or husk of a deeper purpose, so don’t stop there, be patient, continue inward step by step, gradually discovering ever-deeper and ever-greater purpose in your own life, until finally all of life becomes an awesome direct experience of Divine Presence.
Wishing you love, harmony and beauty,
updated Mar 4, 2011