If you had to pick one defining characteristic of popular spirituality… what would it be?
One negative characteristic I should say…
The positive ones aren’t nearly as fun to pull apart.
For me, I’d say it’s the uncanny ability to take a valuable insight—any insight at all—and inflate it to ridiculous proportions.
To the point that it ceases to be insightful and actually does more harm than good.
The pop-spiritual treatment of ego is a good example…
Ego has become the modern Devil of the New Age—the big bad Bogeyman of the popular marketplace.
Why is ego bad?
Because you can transcend it? Because it limits your perspective?
It’s true. You can. And it does.
…but does that make it bad?
Just because you have a transcendent Identity, and can observe your thoughts and personality, doesn’t mean that your ego is destined for the pyre.
Your awareness can rise above your body too…
Does that make your body bad?
Should you shame it for being “less than” your awareness?
Strive to be rid of it?
Why is embodied good?
But ego is somehow a source of spiritual embarrassment?
As with most dogma, it all comes down to a good insight inflated beyond the original intention…
The teachings of the contemplative traditions were intended as a path to freedom.
To help us explore our selves, and express our selves, and become more of who we are.
And perhaps one day they did exactly that…
Back before they got worn down by time, and popular translation…
But what’s left has become a destructive process for sterilizing our personalities.
A way to burn away our differences.
Until everyone starts to look and sound exactly like everyone else…
The bland “enlightened” stare…
The passive tone…
The bowed head and steepled fingers…
It’s really kind of creepy.
Not that there’s anything wrong that, I suppose… So long as that’s who you really are.
(Some people are just authentically creepy.)
But none of it has anything to do with transcending your ego, or enlightenment, or being a spiritual person!
It’s all just posturing and affect and fitting in with the crowd.
Which, ironically, misses the contemplative point!
There’s an important difference between ego and personality.
Between individuality and self-image and transcendent Identity.
Discovering that difference is a life-changing experience.
But the old-fashioned spiritual teachings tend to get bound up in some very cryptic language.
And that makes the experience much harder to discover than it needs to be.
Fortunately, the underlying message isn’t all that complicated.
It all boils down to this…
YOU Are Not Your House
The best way to get a grip on the contemplative approach to ego is to start by understanding what it isn’t…
So let’s start with self-image…
Your self-image is made up of all the things that make you, you.
Your personality, habits, thoughts, values, beliefs, feelings, and more…
It’s everything that makes you a functioning individual.
Now, if you’re thinking that that sounds an awful lot like what popular spirituality calls ego—you’d be right.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell.
Your self-image is like your house.
It may be simple or extravagant.
Solid or dilapidated.
Artful and immaculate. Or piled to the ceiling with a life’s worth of hoarded crap.
But whatever the house you live in, one fact remains unchanged…
YOU are not your house.
You live there. Work there. Sleep there.
You grew up there…
Building new additions, and making changes, year after year.
And yet, YOU are not your house.
YOU are the one who lives there.
The one who runs wild and naked through the halls.
Watches quietly from the windows.
And flashes secret messages through the cracks in the curtains…
You may paint a face on the front porch to hide your true Identity.
Hang hair from the roof, and shout at the neighbors in the biggest, house-sized voice you can muster.
You might even believe your own ruse.
And still, YOU are not your house.
And that’s what the contemplative traditions are trying to get you to realize!
Now, whenever YOU are in your house—that’s ego.
When your Identity is immersed in your self-image.
When you can’t see your house, because you are looking out from inside it.
That’s when you’re in your ego.
But once you discover the difference, you can change that situation as often as you’d like…
Step inside the house… You are in your ego.
Step outside… Your ego is transcended.
Your ego isn’t so much a thing, as it is a condition.
And one of the first goals of a contemplative practice is learning to change that state so that you can come and go as the need arises.
Let me repeat that for emphasis…
Come and go as the need arises.
The goal is not to burn down the fucking house!
Ego isn’t bad.
Self-image isn’t bad.
Your house isn’t bad.
What’s bad is a lack of discernment and mobility.
What’s bad is being a creepy, crazy shut-in who smears faces on the siding and believes that they are the house.
What’s bad is finally discovering that YOU are not your house, pitching a box in the backyard, and then celebrating by setting your home ablaze.
Burning your house down doesn’t make you spiritual. It doesn’t make you free. And it won’t make you happy.
It just makes you homeless.
Unfortunately, that’s the message we’re usually given…
From the frantic shut-ins, who manage to hang halfway out a window—glimpse freedom—and begin shrieking that our houses have us!
From rain-soaked gurus who set up shop beside smoldering ruins, and paint happy faces on their new cardboard hovels…
Just burn your house down, and all of your problems will go away!
No. They won’t.
Don’t listen to any of them.
Even if you step outside and look back to discover that you’ve been living in a decrepit shack.
Don’t burn it down…
Build a Better Ego
Transcending your ego for the first time and discovering your true Identity is a momentous occasion!
It’s like having an orgasm for the first time.
Holy shit! You mean there’s an OUTSIDE?
And I can go there??
How did I not know this???
It’s when all of the old-fashioned teachings stop being a bunch of cryptic mystical bullshit, and become a radiant and unmistakable felt-experience.
It’s always elusive in the beginning…
It takes time to find the exit.
But once you get it. You’ve got it.
And you’ll open up whole new spectrums of experience that aren’t available while you’re hiding out at home.
But there’s also a risk in the beginning…
Sometimes we get so caught up in our newfound independence that we forget how important our homes are.
We taste freedom, look back in disgust, and our fantasies race straight to arson and the open road.
A lifetime spent couped up in the same place… Who wants to run back inside and shut the door again?
But if we just burn and run, we miss the deeper opportunity.
Stepping outside your self-image gives you the chance to look at it from a different angle.
To see where you’ve been living.
See what you’ve been missing.
And decide whether or not your house is still right for you.
Maybe it needs some cleaning?
Maybe it needs repair?
A brand new addition?
Or maybe you do need to knock it the fuck down and build a new one somewhere else!
Whatever you like, you can do it.
It will take time. And hard work. And a whole lot of courage.
But it’s worth it to have the right home.
Because that’s the thing…
You’ll always have a home.
You’ll always have a self-image.
You can choose a mansion on the hill, or a cabin in the woods, or a trendy new flat, or a leaky box beneath an underpass.
Where you live is up to you.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that one is more confining than another.
The door is always open. And your house is always there.
Living in a box doesn’t make you any more free than living in a castle.
Because your freedom comes from your ability to come and go at will.
Not from meager assets and instability.
In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.
Having the right home—meaning the right home for you—gives you a safe place to rest and recuperate.
A place to dream, and plan your next adventure.
And the adventure after that.
Transcending your ego is not the end…
It’s barely the beginning!
Stepping outside your front door is just one small motion in the journey of a lifetime.
A journey that will circle back, and back, and back again.
Sometimes to reflect. Sometimes to rebuild. Sometimes to take a goddamn break…
But you’ll always come home.
Back to who you are.
And that’s why you should build a better ego.
Don’t shame your self and tear yourself to pieces.
Don’t look for freedom in a blaze.
Make your self better and stronger than you ever thought you’d be.
Make your self something to be proud of.
Yes, the “spiritual” people will bitch…
They’ll howl frantically from the windows.
They’ll rise up from soggy boxes, and tell you how horrible you are.
You and your damned house.
Don’t worry about it.
Just smile and wave as you step out on the road and admire your awesome creation—meet up with your best friends down the street—and head off on your next adventure.
All those howling people houses will still be there when you get back.
Right where they always were.
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About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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