How can I let go of my ego? This question is asked by many spiritual seekers. If you dabble at all in spiritual matters, you will be bombarded from messages from every direction insisting that you “must let go of your ego!”
The ego becomes this great spiritual boogeyman, and we try to run from it utilizing a great variety of techniques or methods that we either read about or hear from some Great Guru.
Perhaps we give one of these methods a shot, and suddenly, after great consternation and effort we suddenly feel different, as if the field of gravity got turned down several notches and a tremendous spiritual and emotional weight lifted from our body.
Aha! We have discovered it! It. We think to ourselves, “This must be what all the great spiritual masters of old had been talking about!”
Then we might reflexively begin observing ourselves in this state of relaxed consciousness, saying to ourselves “Ahh, yes, this is nice! I could get used to this!”
And then as we get lost in our reflections upon our consciousness, and not the consciousness itself, we suddenly lose the very thing we were observing!
Oh no! Where did it go? That wonderful feeling of bliss? That heavenly lightness and relaxation?
Then, very seriously, we commit ourselves to reproducing the exact conditions of what led us to that state of consciousness, via whatever method we had been practicing.
We think, “Yes, the secret is in the method, if only I concentrate and get very serious about my methodology, I can return to that blissful union with God. For wasn’t that lovely! How I would long to experience that feeling once again.”
And so this process continues on, and in the quest to “let go,” to become “detached from desire,” we become very much attached to the feeling that arises from letting go.
We become attached to the idea of detachment.
We think to ourselves: I really want to be enlightened all the time; I really want to be one with God all the time; I really want to be a spiritual person; I really want to engage in my methods all the time; I really want to detach myself from the material world.
We then become attached to this goal of detaching ourselves from the world. We cannot let it go. If we grow more attached to the material world, we grow frustrated and angry at ourselves, thinking we are farther from God. Lord forbid we have to exit the lotus position and pay attention to the material world to pay the bills! I think often we forget that even Jesus was a carpenter, and Paul a tentmaker.
But one cannot run from God. It is like running away from your own brain. She is always with us, interpenetrating our Soul. He lives within us and They always surround us and envelop us, like the very air itself, at once outside of us and also at the same time always being breathed into our depths, fueling the life-process of every cell in our body.
Indeed, as Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Our interior consciousness is a holy destination for God’s in-dwelling.
So when we are attached to the idea of letting-go from all things to be closer from God, we paradoxically remain supremely attached because “the idea of letting-go” is a “thing” we can be attached to.
So the harder we cling to wanting to let go of everything, the harder it will be to actually let go of everything.
But does this mean there is no room for quiet contemplation and meditation? Does this mean methods of fasting or spiritual discipline have no purpose?
No, of course not. Such things are wonderful and have their appropriate place in the spiritual life.
But as we are meditating, sometimes we get worried about how “ordinary” the whole thing feels. There we are trying to read God’s Holy Scripture or go deeper into prayer and we suddenly remember we owe our boss an email and now we can’t stop stressing about that email, and it seems as if a damn email is taking more precedence in our lives the omnipresence of God Himself!
And so we might be saying our prayers or reading or scriptures or trying to meditate and beating ourselves up because it doesn’t “feel mystical.” It doesn’t feel like those times in our memory where it really truly did feel quite different like we were taking some powerful spiritual drug.
But not every mystical experience is necessarily a moment of ecstatic ego-death where all boundaries of consciousness melt away and we truly experience no distinction between ourselves and everything else.
These types of experiences are indeed real. A true psychedelic experience of LSD or mushrooms involves this exact kind of ego-death, which I have experienced and can attest to its spiritual power.
But the bulk of the mystical journey is composed of much more banal moments.
The vast majority of “mystical” experiences do not “feel mystical.”
They just feel like the normal experience of our autobiographical ego-consciousness going about its business fussing and worrying and commenting and judging and narrating.
When we are attached to the state of detachment, we exert effort in trying to escape ourselves. We get deluded into the idea that if only we use the “right method” we will become enlightened and that this will result in a “special feeling” that will stay with us at all times.
But enlightenment is beyond method. It is beyond effort.
The harder we try, the harder we fail. It is important to take a “Goldilocks” approach and try “just enough.” If you try too hard you become attached to methods of detachment and your ego puffs itself up at how “good” it is at being enlightened and upset at itself when not in these special mental states.
But if you don’t try at all, your ego remains asleep in the dream of work-a-day materiality, ignorant of the Holy Presence available in every moment of ritual. This is why meditative practices like the Jesus prayer can be beneficial to the spiritual seeker: it is within the meditative moment that our attention fluctuates and fights with itself in its effort at “letting go.”
It is kind of like being caught in a spiritual riptide. If you directly swim towards the shore you will just waste your efforts and not make any progress, tiring yourself out. If you stay still you will get swept further out. But if you tack sideways you will find an area of less resistance and you can make your way back to shore.
But in the great generosity of God we can have our spiritual cake and eat it too, for we don’t have to choose between a life dedicated purely to the pursuit of enlightenment and a “non-spiritual” life where we are 100% paying the bills and supporting ourselves and our families.
All these things require us to engage our attention in the work-a-day reality and that reality by its very essence causes stress and anxiety. This is especially true in our modern, neurotic world where 5 minutes on Twitter can expose us to more horrible news than our ancestors could have heard about in an entire year. Now imagine younger generations living and breathing this stuff 24/7 for their entire life. My God!
But don’t get me wrong: I am no Luddite, and think the internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the internet I wouldn’t be able to place the words from my keyboard into your mind halfway across the world, or wherever you are reading this blog post from.
I have the entire world of information at my fingertips! I can literally type in a Bible verse and have it instantly available in 100 languages. I can download entire libraries with a click of a button. Whenever I want, I can engage in conversations with like-minded people from all walks of life across the entire globe. It is a quite special time we live in.
With the world’s greatest scholars and mountains of ancient documents a mere key press away, there has never been a better time to study the Scripture and thereby become closer to God.
But what about all those neurotic distractions of the modern world? How are we supposed to find the quiet and peace necessary to practice our spiritual methods if we have to grind ourselves to dust working three jobs just to barely scrape by? How are we supposed to relax when we don’t have dental insurance and our tooth starts to ache?
You might think, “What a terrible time for spiritual contemplation! Everything is moving so fast in this world and I can barely keep my head above water, let alone find time to meditate or contemplate the Scripture!”
Yes, but everyone needs to shop for groceries. And in every grocery store, one needs to wait in line before checking out. And it is precisely in these moments of waiting, the moments where we are tempted to pull out our phones to ease the horrible boredom of life, that we find ourselves with the perfect conditions to practice the contemplative life.
In fact, it is these “check out line” moments of life, like sitting in a slow-rolling traffic jam or waiting at the DMV, that we are given an tremendous opportunity to find the presence of God.
For it is in these little nooks and crannies of life that we are most likely to find God. It is often not in great Churches or moments of methodological discipline that we find God. It is precisely those moments when you step outside to take out the trash and you look up to see the most beautiful sunrise with birds swirling above your head and the trees swaying that we find God.
It is in letting these kinds of moments come to us and being ready for them because we yearn for them wherein we can easily practice the art of letting go. We must try our best to let go of our frantic hunt for God and, instead, let Her find us by having an open, receptive attitude towards the small joys of life.
The Bible often uses the metaphor of God as the shepherd and us as the sheep. When the sheep is lost, is it the sheep who go in search of the shepherd or the shepherd who goes in search of the sheep? It is the shepherd of course!
Thus, we do not find God on account of looking really hard and really carefully; it is God who finds us, often when we least expect it!
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ezekiel 34:11-12)
So we do not need to try so damn hard to find the peace of God, to experience the bliss of being united with God. The Bible says over and over that God is always with us, as is Christ, for He says: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
But, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with method and discipline and techniques long proven by the experience of time to be effective in getting closer to God. Spiritual traditions from across the world have honed various techniques and methods over the centuries that seem especially effective in bringing us closer to God.
This is true both in a tradition like Buddhism as well as Christianity, as we can discover in thinkers such as Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton, who in the 20th century brought ancient monastic methods of contemplation to popular consciousness, which are essentially Christian methods for letting go into the relaxing flow of God’s eternal presence.
But as great as these practices are, it is absolutely crucial that one does not establish a demarcation in your mind between spiritual times (when you are engaged in these methods explicitly and formally) and non-spiritual times (when you are not explicitly and formally engaged in these methods).
For, indeed, one of Jesus’ core teachings is that it is not so much the outer shell of prayer and ritual themselves that matter, but our intentions behind these practices.
Indeed, the mindset of deep, inner reverence and yearning matters 100x more than the actual behavioral shell, when we are acting out well-rehearsed formulae or merely habitually reacting in a mindless automatism.
The earnest intentionality of a reverent novice who does not have all the elaborate liturgical rituals memorized is far more spiritually effective than the rote performance of a jaded and cynical scribe who has the entire liturgical calendar memorized.
So if you want to know how to let go of your ego, the most important thing in the world is to let go into the process of practicing how to let go, rather than beating yourself up because spiritual practice seems too banal to be anywhere close to what the great mystics of the world have captured in moments of ecstatic union.
Those ecstatic experiences are real, genuine, and worth pursuing, but not if they generate within yourself a desire for the feeling of ecstasy and not the fulfillment of the purpose of such feelings, which is to bring us closer to God. This is because God is always close to us, available in the smallest detail of every experience of the present moment, from now until eternity. This is true when whether we are sitting on the meditation pillow or simply doing the dishes.