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Defending the ego

Babaji teachesThe fundamental spiritual truth is that underneath the superficial differences, people are identical in nature – it is the same spirit or universal awareness that animates our seemingly distinct selves. Thinking that we are separate individuals is then a basic contradiction between who we truly are and who we think we are. Arising from this profound inner conflict is a kind of background fear lying deep in the psyche, the fear of ego death. The existential philosophers had a word for it: angst. Unlike normal fear which is usually fear of something, angst is a broader, background anxiety, without any obvious cause. Edward Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” seems to represent this archetypal feeling; perhaps this is why it recently fetched the highest price ever paid for a work of art at an auction and why it has become a cultural icon. (It can even be found on the cover of the August issue of Common Ground.) To protect itself from this fear, the ego builds a complex entity around the separate sense of “I.” It consists of the “I am the body” idea but also has its roots in the mind in thoughts involving possessions, relationships, beliefs, profession, skills etc. This “I, me, mine” story is under constant threat as people and circumstances conspire to undermine it. Criticism, disease, ill fortune, loss of possessions or family, failure of any kind, all diminish the sense of self. It is as if the ego, unable to face its demise, has fragmented the fear of its death into many small parts – as Babaji says: “All fear is the fear of death.” When any of these faces of the ego are diminished, it tries to repair the damage with self-enhancing strategies: pride, judgement and criticism of others, complaining, seeking recognition, making the body more beautiful or athletic, being right, talking about oneself, justifying one’s actions – the list is almost endless.

For those who practice yoga, or indeed any spiritual discipline, Babaji explains the importance of understanding this inner dynamic: “Because we are separate from others, we always defend our individuality by our actions, thoughts and speech. We are like guards who are watching the bank; they are always ready to shoot anyone who tries to loot it. This act of defending individuality is itself an act of violence.” In other words, Babaji is saying that when we act in any way to defend the ego of individuality, we violate ahimsa, the cornerstone of yogic behaviour. So, if we think we have eliminated violence, there is still plenty of inner work left for us to do. What does this work look like? First, of course, is Babaji’s consistent advice: “Regular sadhana!” But we can continue the work during other hours of the day too. If we watch the mind, particularly its conditioned responses to perceived external threats, we can, with practice, choose not to defend ourselves. If we are wrongly blamed for something, if we are criticised for any action, or if we fail in any venture, we can watch our ego defence – anger, judgement, criticism, rationalisation and so on – arise and not give it any energy; without support it will subside. Over time after repeatedly starving this conditioned response by watching it rise and not feeding it, it will lose its power and eventually dissipate. This allows a fresh response to situations: rather than replaying an old behavioural tape loop from our childhood, we can become genuinely spontaneous. Those around us may appreciate the freedom it gives them, for we are less likely to trigger their defences.

It may be hard for some to imagine a life with little fear, but this is one outcome of our spiritual practice. As the ego of individuality diminishes we develop equanimity and are less vulnerable to circumstances that previously used to threaten us. By weakening the smaller diverse fears we begin to lose the fear of death itself. The “self-created cocoon of individuality” that we have woven with our attachments and defensive conditioning, slowly unravels and eventually “the ego of individuality will come out naked, with no self interest, abodeless, free from all mental and intellectual limitations, and the ego will transcend to its universal form. This is the merging of the embodied soul in the supreme.”