Monday, March 13, 2017

Surrendering Ego: Escaping the Trance

"They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the egocage of “I,” “me,” and “mine” to be united with the Lord. This is the supreme state. Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality." -Bhagavad Gita translation by Eknath Easwaran

Relinquishing attachments to the fruits of actions is a central teaching in Yoga philosophy, yet few people integrate this concept into daily life, even if they may understand it intellectually (and even the latter is challenging). The admonition to surrender our ego to God is found in, you guessed it, all of the world's faith traditions. Spiritual masters can do it, but not many of the rest of us can achieve this enlightened state and the peace and bliss it is said to bring. 

Although Christian scriptures are also clear on this point, many Christian teachers will not steer people to the practice of true ego surrender. When I did clinical pastoral education to do volunteer chaplain work at a hospital, the Episcopal priest training us said she does not espouse any teaching that tells us we should get past our egos. She said our egos motivate us to do good work and we have the right to be proud of our accomplishments and to cultivate healthy self-esteem. She talked a lot about her doctoral dissertation and her life accomplishments, to help motivate us. What she said fits very well with modern psychology, capitalist theory and the values of academia. However, taken from a strictly spiritual perspective of wanting to unite with God and achieve enlightenment, what she said is not applicable. Achieving enlightenment isn't one more accomplishment at the apex of our achievement pyramid: not a Ph.D., not an executive promotion, not a Nobel prize, not a six sigma certification. We can't successfully meld the values of our culture with the precious wisdom teachings of ancient masters.

Most people are truly not looking for enlightenment. Most people are not looking for spiritual bliss. Most people are not interested in ancient wisdom teachings, from Krishna, Jesus or anyone else. Most people simply want to survive and get ahead. All of the great masters throughout history were acutely aware of the human condition. Yet, they persisted in teaching their elusive truths which form the basis of spiritual law. 

Following are two of my favorite Bible passages about Jesus' teaching on humility and surrender: 

Matthew 18:1-4New International Version (NIV)

The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

Luke 18:18-23New American Standard Bible (NASB)

The Rich Young Ruler

18 A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 23 But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich."
Jesus makes no suggestion here that spiritual freedom is easily achieved. However it seems clear from these teachings that ego does not have a place in the Kingdom of God. 
In some of the yogic teachings I read, from teachers who are total renunciates, people who have given up family, possessions and high positions in society, I am comforted to see that almost no one is capable of the kind of ego-effacing spiritual surrender called for in the scriptures. We are especially warned not to teach these concepts to young people who need to get a good footing as they start out in life. Yogis are very practical in their teachings: people need to be met where they are and to do what's right for their stage of life. We are taught that the highest levels of emancipation are usually achieved in very advanced stages of spiritual practice, and yet, some people seem to come into an enlightened state early in life. Jesus began his ministry near the age of 30, Luke's gospel tells us. Siddhartha Gautama became known as Buddha at age 35. Clearly, these two were highly exceptional! We can attempt to follow them but I think it's very fair not to expect of ourselves the same abilities to renounce ego in the prime of our lives! 
Surrendering ego is obviously difficult, but does this mean we should not try it at all? It seems like following a spiritual path actually requires us to at least attempt humility and ego surrender. How do we get around it? I don't think we can. 
Admittedly, the happiest and most peace-filled moments in my meditation practice, my yoga practice and my Christian walk have been brief flashes of dis-identification with ego. Though I struggle with the trance of ego and not feeling good enough, I have felt whole, loved, completely embraced by the Source Of All That Is during a few fleeting moments. I have expanded those moments into month long or even year long periods of time where my focus was not on ego gratification. In those moments I was not elated from getting a 3.9 GPA, from completing a top-ranked graduate program, from getting into a top 5 law school, from passing the bar exam, from receiving a financial bonus, from finding out I got my dream job, from achieving the goal of becoming a yoga teacher after teaching my first class--this list could go on and on and to many people it's a very underwhelming list for a person of my age. Why am I not at the undisputed top of my field? Why is my income not the same as or higher than my spouse's? Why am I not managing employees or publishing a book with a reputable publishing house? If this little side discussion seems incredulously disgusting to you, it should. That's the point. 
Living a life characterized by progressive steps towards full ego-gratification is part of the trance of our collective culture of competition and individualism. Progress should be evident to everyone, we are taught. Run the marathon and put the sticker on your car. Work up to your hardest yoga pose and post it on Instagram. Buy the new Lexus with your bonus check. Many people will tell you this is self-actualization. Self-actualization in Yogic or Buddhist terms does not mean ego-actualization. Rather, it means ego-eradication by shifting to the transcendental self! Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, all of the masters taught the concept of transcending the smaller, ego-based self to reach the state of transcendence, to "pass from death to immortality," from our Bhagavad Gita quote above. That is a hefty goal, an undertaking so enormous that most people never get close to even trying. 
We are currently in the period of Lent. Jesus on the cross was taunted by onlookers asking him to get down from the cross if he was truly so great and powerful, if he was indeed God's son. In his death and resurrection, he transcended, passing from death to eternal life. Many Buddhists and Yogis believe that Jesus rose from the dead and they interpret this story as consistent with their philosophies. What a perfect example of surrender and transcendence. Can we take a little of that experience into our lives, for even a microscopic fraction of the bliss, power and freedom of true enlightenment? Be bold, and try. 

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