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Distinguishing Ego from the Self 3-20-08

Page history last edited by Malati Manjari 14 years, 4 months ago


Distinguishing Ego from the Self 3-20-08


Part 1


Part 2




This amazing lecture with a long question- and answer session was given at a yoga center. Acaryadeva systematically explains the cognitive main elements of which the most subtle one is the false ego. He also explains consciousness,  the difference of perceiving persons as subjects and objects and how to transcend selfishness. If we see others as objects of our own experience and therefore satisfaction and sense gratification, we are in ordinary material consciousness and centered around our own ego, whereas if we are able to love others as subjects with their own reality and want to see them happy rather than myself I am established in my real self. He also talks about the misconception of anthropocentrism and ultimately about Krsna.


Part 1:


I’ll begin with a linguistic note, and that is the Greek word ego, which is the first person singular pronoun “I” - has a direct equivalent in Sanskrit. Sanskrit and Greek are intimately connected as members of the Hindu European language family. The Sanskrit word for ego is aham. The Greek word ego, “I”, stands for aham.
The rule in general or often is that a Sanskrit “h” becomes an European “g”. One example is the Sanskrit word vahana, vehicle which in German becomes wagen (like in Volkswagen). Another interesting example is “huta” which means to invoke. The earliest description of what you might say is a liberal or tolerant conception of God is found in the Rig Veda, which is the oldest book in any language. We have inscriptions and things like that, but in terms of actual book, the oldest book we have is the Rig Veda, many thousands of years old.  In that book God is referred to as puru-hūtaḥ, which means God is invoked or addressed in many ways by different people. It is the same god, but this is sort of a precautious realization.  And again from the Sanskrit word huta, if you change the “h” for a “g”, and little finesse of the vowel, you get the German word Gott, and the English word god.
Using the same pattern, changing the “h” in Sanskrit to the European “g”, we get aham, and from aham we get the Greek word ego. 
If you look at ancient Sanskrit literature, the yoga literature and so on, you find that the word aham is used exactly as we now use the word ego, to mean someone who has an exaggerated opinion of themselves, who thinks too highly of themselves. They use it exactly in that way. In fact there’s a common word ahaṅkāra, which is sort of the egoism. 
Now, if you look at different schools of spiritual practice, different schools of wisdom, there is a generic, and ubiquitous realization that ordinary vanity, being very proud and arrogant, is not spiritual.  Almost everybody figures this out, at least theoretically, because some people are very proud of their own humility.  There are all these traps. Perhaps one of the most common historical traps for a spiritual practitioner is that when you have a group of people, or even an individual practicing spirituality very sincerely or efficiently, or at least impressively to other people, people are attracted and a community forms.
Almost all spiritual schools recognize the value of satsaṅga, spiritual associations.
(A person is known by the company they keep. If we hang out with spiritually minded people we tend to also be spiritual, if we hang out with people who are materialistic, inevitable we get drawn into this.)  So, if the community is really moving and grooving, you get another community and it spreads, and then you get a society and before long you actually get a religion or something like that. Then inevitably, when you get a lot of human beings together, and they have to cooperate together, you have to have some kind of structured organization, and organizations means they have to have hierarchy, no matter how much you try to sanitize it, or use other terms. However you slice it at the end of the day some people are in charge and some people aren’t. 
Then you get the situation where you have a successful spiritual movement, or religious movement, but there is power to be wheeled, precisely because it is successful. There are many followers, and there are many pious people in the world who, when they feel grateful to a spiritual religious leader, want to give a gift, and often gifts are accepted; and then you get a treasury building up, and religious structure are build -  temples, synagogues, churches, meditation centers and so on.  And basically you get all the infrastructure, and all the power, and all the wealth of human society.
Then there’s also a sense that the most spiritual advanced person should be at the summit. Then there’s this tension where someone who is spiritual advanced (or assumes or hopes to be) is wilding power, controlling the people, spending money and so on. Then you get people coming up to the ranks of the spiritual organization who are overtly ambitions, or often covertly ambitious, and they learn the ropes. They realize that if you behave in certain ways then you impress the other people in the community, and they gradually work their way up to positions of religious leadership, but behind it all is kind of more ambition than actual enlightenment.
Even if you are individual practitioner, you may become proud of your own loss of ego.  There is a sense of achievement. As we start to advance, we start to become proud of our advancement.
This is sort of a little preface, having gone to the school of hard knots, and lived in a spiritual organization most of my adult life, and lived to tell about it. 
Whether you study Buddhism or various forms of Hinduism, including the various yoga schools or mystical traditions, and Judaism or Christianity, Islam, or Sufi traditions, or other less well known paths, almost everybody figures out that ordinary arrogance, vanity, and pride is something you have to cleanse yourself of and you have to get past that. I think it is a very common human experience amongst serious people that those moments in which we are not so arrogant and not so vain -  and we are almost humble - your consciousness expands precisely because there is less ego clogging up your head. There’s actually more room for the world to come in. There is actually some space in your hard drive for reality.
Therefore there is this practically universal quest or attempt to free yourself from this arrogance and vanity, and become in a sense selfless. Yet, you’ve got to go somewhere.  There have been historically different ways of understanding where you go when you leave vanity.  If you are going to leave that place of arrogance and vanity and pride, you’ve got to go somewhere, in all humility.  And we have to know not only what we aren’t but what we are.  So what is the cognitive contour, what is the shape, the nature of pure consciousness? Is it simply a neutral awareness, without a sense of personal identity, volition or will? Is it just like this sensing organism, this cognizing thing, and I take it all in? Or, when you reach this point of pure cognition or become free of these impurities in consciousness, are you a person? What is your relation to other people? Do you merge into other consciousnesses, in other words, do pure consciousnesses just kind of coagulate? How do they interact?
So when you get past this initial universal realization that if you want to be in higher consciousness, in a more sublime consciousness, that we can’t just be arrogant, vain, and selfish, there are different approaches to that.
There is one approach in certain historical forms of Buddhism, which attempt to simply isolate pure consciousness without any sense of self, so that you get rid of the ego, or the false ego, and you don’t go to a position of self, you simply go to a position of awareness. If you
know about the history of Buddhism, it is extremely diverse. There are hundreds of different approaches to life, which come under the name Buddhism, and I think the reason is philosophical and also geographic. Buddhism spread and became a world religion and interacted with many different subcultures. Many different indigenous cultures took on specific forms as it interacted with cultures in different parts of the world, also, precisely because it often did not have the same type of heavy insistence on a certain precise doctrine which for example you find in theologies where someone feels, “This is what God is and you can’t mess with this”; whereas, if you’re talking more about psychology, sometimes there’s a little more flexibility. 
So Buddhism was very diverse, but early on in Buddhism, some people adopted this doctrine of anātman or “none-self”, the idea that there is no self. I think this is very problematic, because they also accept karma, and they talk about, for example, being compassionate. There is no person, there is no you, but the non-self should be compassionate, the non-self is reincarnating from one body to another, and the non-self should practice virtue.  They talk about it as if it is a person, but then at the end of the day they say “but it is not a person”. And actually, the way Buddhism evolved, people did start believing they were persons, and actually if you look at the other forms of Buddhism, they talk about going to heaven, and having saviors, and great souls, Bodhisattvas, who reincarnates and comes to save us. The reason I mention this is because these very intellectual approaches like, “There is no self”, have not been big winners in terms of the history of human kind, because there is a persisting self.
Apart from vanity, apart from arrogance, apart from just being a selfish or vain person with a big ego, we are not talking about that, we are just talking about the experience we have, each one of us, of being an individual center of consciousness. For example, we are all unique, which is a great thing. Imagine if we are all clones of each other, we would get so tired of each other.
We are all unique, each one of us. Our fingerprints are unique, our personalities are unique. If you think about it, in all the universes, in all of existence, there is no one who is exactly like you, you are a unique. And so there’s that persisting, really irrepressible sense that, “I am an individual seed of consciousness.”
Here’s really the problem:  Let’s assume for now, that the overwhelming majority of spiritual schools are right, in terms of the ones where people actually practice and attract large numbers of people who feel this is a practical way, in the sense that we are persons, that we are actually individuals. Let’s assume that there is a self, and that overwhelming sense you have of being someone is actually true, is actually a correct understanding, that you really are someone.  Then everything you experience, you experience through your own faculties.
Imagine you were walking down the street holding a camera and just filming, and sometimes turning around 360 degrees. So when the film came out, you holding the camera would always define the special center of what you are filming. In other words, you are always in the center of the film because you are filming. So if our lives were often movies - sometimes too melodramatic in our own private reflections - then we are really in the center of our own experiences. Everything you know about the world you know through your senses, your mind, your intelligence. So the self is the center of all these experiences.  There is a tendency to take one further step and say that therefore I am the center of reality.  There is a sense in which you are the center of your own reality, and when we start to think that our own reality is just Reality, that’s really where we fall into what we call egoism.  There is a word for this in post-modern academic discourse which is “to objectify someone” – which is not a compliment.
I would like to quote a verse from the Bhagavatam, which talks about this ego versus self.
yathā nabhasi meghaugho

reṇur vā pārthivo 'nile

evaṁ draṣṭari dṛśyatvam

āropitam abuddhibhiḥ 

This means: just as there is a mass of clouds in the sky…” or as there is, literally, earthly dust in the air.
In the ancient way of analyzing the universe it is understood or it is stated that there are different mahā- bhūtas, or literally great elements: earth, water, fire, air and space.  And this is not just a primitive pre-chemistry analysis. It really means solids, liquids, radiant energy, gases and space.  Space is often used in this ancient literature as an analogy, for the following reasons:
When you look at these elements, earth water fire air and space, or sky, they go from gross to subtle, so the earth is the most dense, solid element, and then come liquids and then radiant energies, gases and space.  So space is very subtle.
It is understood - I think by modern physics nowadays, and certainly in very ancient times - that space is an element.  Let’s say you have a so-called vacuum. If you were in outer space, you could still measure it. Even if there was no air between us, if we sucked all the air out of this little corridor between us, you could still measure the distance. If you can measure something, it exists. You can’t measure nothing. And so space is a very subtle element, and yet because is so subtle it doesn’t interact with any of the things it contains.  Space contains all the other physical elements, yet it doesn’t interact with them. For example, if you put earth in water, the earth and the water interact, or if you put those in fire, or even air and so on. So the four grosser elements interact with space, yet space simply contains everything and gives everything  in space, yet it doesn’t interact with anything.
This example is used in the Bhagavad-gita, in the Bhagavatam, in many ancient literatures, to explain somewhat difficult to understand relationships. To understand this analogy we have to understand that the word sky in Sanskrit is a synonym for space. The word sky really means the element space.
It says yathā nabhasi meghaugho. We say commonly we say the sky is cloudy. We don’t bother to say the atmosphere is cloudy. The idea here is that the sky is never actually cloudy, space is never cloudy. The air maybe cloudy, but not space, because space doesn’t interact with anything.  So space itself is not cloudy, but we say that. This term “impose” or āropitam  is a very key term in this ancient yoga philosophy.  The whole problem of illusion or egoism is that we are imposing something more gross on something more subtle.
They always have these nice organic analogies in Sanskrit, in pre-industrial culture. The first analogy says that we say the sky or space is cloudy, but it is really not, it is the air within space, which is cloudy. Or reṇur vā pārthivo 'nile, we say the air is dusty, but actually the air and dust are really not chemically bonding, there’s just dust in the air. It says earthly dust because earth is more gross than air. Again we are imposing in our mind something grosser on something more subtle.
In the same way this verse concludes, evaṁ draṣṭari dṛśyatvam āropitam abuddhibhiḥ. In the same way, literally those who do not have spiritual in intelligence (abuddhi) impose visibility on the seer, or impose the quality of being seen on the seer. And what this means is - very simply, and a very powerful point, which is also discussed in modern philosophy - that each one of us is ultimately a subject. In other words, you are person, you have consciousness, and you are a subject, a person experiencing the word. You have your own feelings, your own wishes, your own purposes in life, your own understanding.  You’re a unique individual person experiencing reality - to some extent. 
However, let’s say I am in ordinary material consciousness, and I see you.  So rather than understanding you to be a subject of your own existence and your own experience, I see you as an object of my experience.  The stronger my own desires are when I relate to you, the stronger my desires are to enjoy you in some way, or the stronger my desire is that you do something to satisfy me, exactly in that proportion I will see you as an object of my experience and not as a subject of your own experience. In other words, I will distort you. I will literarily degrade you in the sense you would come down a grade.  I turn you into a thing which is supposed to provide me a pleasing experience, whether is sexual or financial or psychological, like “Vote for me”, or “Say you like me, or “Say you like my art”, whatever it may be. I see you as an instrument of my satisfaction, rather than a subject of your own experience.
The part of your body which is dṛśya - seeable or visible -  the physical elements which compose our body in the scheme of earth, fire, water and so on, are grosser than consciousness. Then in that scheme there is mind, intelligence and false ego, these three cognitive elements which are analyzed in the Yoga philosophy. So your consciousness is subtler than your physical body. It is a more subtle much more sophisticated and an eternal object. Therefore, if I see a consciousness as a physical organism, I am literally degrading or downgrading it. Literally, you are way up there as an eternal conscious subject, and I am bringing you down to the level of a physical object of my consciousness. 
You can see why just on spiritual psychological grounds there were good reasons to encourage people to transcend selfishness just in terms of the enhancement of their own cognition, their own consciousness, and in terms of helping them to develop the ability of actually respect other people.
There is a type of diplomacy which is sometimes confused for respect. For example, let’s say I am trying to get you to sign on the dotted line, to make a deal. I’ll take you out to lunch, and I’ll laugh at all your bad jokes, because I want to make the deal; or the art of seduction even if it’s not just a one-night stand. Maybe I want to enter into a relationship with this person because my vanity, because I would really like to posses you, you’re like an incredible collectible.  I would really like to collect you, and own you, and I’ll treat you very nicely, and I’ll get you whatever you want. I’ll take pride in satisfying all your desires because you’re mine. We can be extremely diplomatic, and we can even feel tremendous respect for another person and have adoration and a desire to do everything to please them, but our ultimate intention, perhaps unknown to ourself, can be that I actually want to collect you. I want to have you.
Our own self-understanding inevitably involves relationships. No one understands himself in absolute isolation. As we know, if you take a little human infant and put him out in the wilderness without contact with other humans, basically he will not evolve. He won’t get any cognitive development, or very little. So we learn language.
There’s a serious issue: Can you think without language? If you knew no language, if you had no language at all at your disposal, could you really think? Is there any such thing that’s really totally non-conceptual, non-verbal thinking?  That’s a serious question whether you would even think.  We acquire language in relation to other people, and we hear their language. By seeing people’s faces and their expressions and feeling their emotions, we develop emotionally, for example, the experience of hurting someone, the experience of pleasing someone, or the experience of arousing overwhelming indifference.
So we really are relational. Our relationship with other souls is one and different in the sense that we are all one, and we are all individual at the same time. We’re not just all one, which would be a disaster because there are so many wonderful people here, why would I want to sacrifice that individuality? Everyone is uniquely interesting. It’s would be like some big corporate merger, where you take a bunch of very interesting little companies and make one very inefficient big company.
So we are all one and we are individuals. It is just like in relationships. In order to have a healthy relationship you have to have a strong sense of your own individuality and a strong sense of your unity with the other person. If you're only united it becomes co-dependency. Your self gets swallowed up in this co-dependence thing.  At the same time, if there is no unity, no oneness, things can go the opposite extreme: “I am an individual and you are an individual and this is my bathroom sink and that is yours. That’s it. It is just a set of rules. There has to be some sense in which two people come together and a new third reality is created that didn’t exist before.
There has to be a sense in which two people come together a new third reality is created that didn’t exist before. However that new reality doesn’t obliterate you or the other person. So there is oneness and difference.
We cannot be psychologically or spiritually healthy unless we really understand other people. Inevitably we interact with other people, we have relationships, and if I am addicted to see other people as objects, as simply instruments of my own satisfaction, it’s not only morally wrong, it’s actually objectively a misunderstanding of the world. 
Self-realization is opposed to vanity. Is not possible for me to realize myself and not realize the self with everyone else, because everyone is equal to me, there’s no self which is less than any other self.  Therefore deep, authentic respect is to really accept that every person is the authentic center and subject of their own existence. I cannot try to be, or wish to be, the center of someone else’s existence not matter how tempting and seductive it may be.
I don’t mean to say that we should abandon all moral rules and just have a big earthly love-in. There are commitments, and I think there’s great value in serious commitments. There is such a thing as special relationships and special love in which certain intimacy is reserved for certain situations, which does not necessarily involve egoism, it can simply involve a special degree of commitment and love.
Now we come to the “G” word, GOD. If we take this seriously, that each one of us is a self, as the ancient yoga philosophy teaches. Each of us is an eternal wonderful person with unlimited beauty, knowledge and happiness. How does it come to be, the fact that we are persons?  Why should that be?  Just like in physics, you can ask the question for which there’s no answer yet: Why should anything exist? Why isn’t there nothing, why is there anything at all? So you can ask the specific question, why do we exist the way we exist?
There is an ancient philosophical understanding called satkāryavāda which means that a cause is present in the effect. The underline assumption is that the cause of the action is still present in the effect. For example you want to find the cause of the disease, and so the assumption is that the cause is still present in the effect – the disease. Most analysis that we engage in, in the world in any field assumes that causes are somehow still present in the effect.  And taking this to be true, we are an effect. We not only are causes, in the sense that we do things dynamically in the world, but we are effects.  Somehow we have come to existence in a certain way. So what would probably likely be the cause, given the fact that we all exist the way we do? What the Bhagavad-gita teaches is that ultimately there is an infinite person. 

When I was a freshman at the college in Berkely I learnt this big word which I can use to bash people who haven’t been to college, which is anthropomorphism. There is always the idea that we are projecting our personality unto a God, and it is just because of our self-centeredness. I would like to suggest you philosophically that it is exactly the opposite. It is due to humanism and human self-centeredness that we think that God is not a person. 

Provincialism, to be provincial, is a somewhat derogatory word.  To be provincial, means that someone lives in a province, not in the capital.  You are in the province as opposed to the grandcapital, where there is sophisticated culture and so on. If someone lives in the province, then all they know is their province. In Sanskrit they say ātmavan manyate jagat, that a person thinks that the whole world is like one self. We are persons, at least now.  We are functioning, doing business as persons in this world, and we have these bodies. Also, because we are to a great extent self centered, egocentric, we take our existence, the way we are, to be central.  We think that if I have a human like body, or if I am a person, then I must be the paradigmatic person. We think to be a person means to be like me, and therefore I would hope God is not exactly like me because I hope for something a little better than that. So assuming God is far greater than myself, and I’m a person, God wouldn’t be a person, otherwise God would be imperfect like me. But again the underline premise which is not stated but is there, is that to be a person is to be like me, as opposed to thinking maybe I am out in the ontological boonies, in the sense that maybe I am not the paradigmatic person. Maybe this conceptual, experiential category - a person - originally is something very different than what I am, and that I am a very peripheral type of person rather than exemplifying and defining in a central  way what this category means. 

It is one thing to say that God is not a person exactly like me, which makes sense, but to say God is not a person is to consider myself to be the unqualified person. In other words, grammatically if you use a noun without an adjective then you are claiming that the noun has some type of absolute status. For example, I may say, “Elephants have large ears.”  What I should say is, “African elephants have big ears”; or for example if I say, “Houses are very expensive”, what I should say is, “Houses in certain neighborhoods, or houses in certain cities are very expensive”; or if I tell you,  “Go down to the house” -  but which house? The red house, the yellow house, the big house, the house on the corner? What adjectives do is they distinguish. If we use a noun without an adjective, we claim that we are speaking categorically for all the members of that category. So if we say God is not a person, then we are saying that I know everything about that category.  In other words, there are no types of persons anywhere in the universe that I’m not intimately familiar with.  Is that true?  Do we know if it is true or not?

To claim that my own existence, and maybe my friends and family, we entirely exhaust all the logical possibilities of the category “person”, is widely pretentious and presumptuous.  When people say, “God is not a person because if He were, God would be limited”, that declaration is based on an incredible presumption of a knowledge that we obviously don’t posses.  All we can really say is that if God is a person, it is not exactly like me, with all my limitations, bad habits and imperfections. But how much do we know about the category?
Our culture has become so materialistic that I looked in a few dictionaries and all the definitions of the word person involved having a physical human body.  I found that amazing, because in our modern culture we’ve actually lost the concept of pure person, not having a human body but just being a person. If you think about it, the essence of being a person is not having a particular kind of body, rather it is being the seat of consciousness, having will, volition, having feelings, having the power to reason. If you think about essentially what it means to be a person, it is not about a human body on earth, it is about consciousness, it is a certain kind of consciousness. Therefore, to declare that there could not be a Supreme being with volition, with will, is absurd because even those who deny God as a person, like in the ancient Sanskrit yoga civilization, such as Sankara, admit that God created the world.  Yet, why would God do something like that? It is an act. How can you do things and desire to do things and yet, you are not a person? To be conscious, to have an individual sense of consciousness which allows you to be one with others and still have your uniqueness – are you not a person? Is it the uniqueness of God that bothers us? Is it the idea of God having will that bother us? In other words, what is it about essentially being a person that’s unacceptable?
Going back to the satkāryavāda, which means the understanding since ancient times that causes are present in the effects, it is actually the most reasonable way of understanding the fact that we are persons.  In terms of freeing ourselves from ego, vanity, greed, and lust, and all these emotions that lead us to see other people as objects of our satisfaction, rather than the subjects of their own satisfaction, it is actually in a relationship that we achieve this. The word for relationship, by the way, is yoga. There are many words, like sambandha, but actually that’s what the word yoga means, a link, a connection, a relationship.  So when your individual consciousness comes into contact with the Supreme consciousness, it becomes cleansed of all these impurities, and you have an infinite object to devote your love to.  As you know, there is nothing like falling in love. The experience of truly falling in love, when it is reciprocated, is like the best thing going in this world. Yet, as we know the object or the person we fall in love with in this world turns out to be, on closer inspection, finite - to our shock and amazement -  and we turn out to be finite in their estimation.
However if you fall in love with an infinite consciousness, your love can grow infinite, and as we know the more our love grows, the happier we are.  Real happiness means to be in love, in various ways, romantic love and other forms of love. So if you find an infinite object of that love, your love can grow infinitely without disappointment.  Your pleasure grows infinitely, and that’s actually the bliss of yoga.  As you truly fall in love, that’s really, I would say, finally the end of the day. The natural easy true way to transcend selfishness is to truly fall in love, or to truly love someone. It can be a child, it can be a partner, it can be a friend; but when you truly love, the selfishness just gets blown away by that love, it washes it way. When we have an infinite object to love, our selfishness is gone forever, and we see other living beings as part of that Supreme consciousness. This is the picture we get. For example in the Yoga Sutras of Pataṣjali it is stated, samādhi-siddhir īśvara-praṇidhānāt, the perfection of samādhi (samādhi is the perfection of yoga), is devotion to God, to the Lord.
Part 2
(from Lecture “Distinguishing Ego from the Self”, Spring Tour, March 20, 2008)

Distinguishing the ego from the self II (ed.)

There are two reasons why we shouldn’t let people treat us abusively. One reason is, is not good for them, because we are all souls, or selves. We are all spiritual beings. Therefore, if someone treats me abusively, they are harming themselves and getting some bad karma. To encourage, or allow, or facilitate people to offend ourselves,  is to facilitate their own degradation. It’s an act of kindness to other people not to allow them, or at least not to remain in a situation where I facilitate abusive behavior, or where there is abusive behavior. Also, as it is said in the Bhagavad-Gita, we are all actually spiritual parts of God.

Let’s say, if someone offends you, your parents will be very unhappy, very disturbed. Naturally, because Krishna or God loves all of us infinitely, it is displeasing to God to see any soul treated improperly, and so therefore, out of devotion to God and out of compassion for that person, we should terminate very quickly an abusive situation. It doesn’t mean we have to attack that person, display all our martial art techniques, but in general it is out of compassion for that soul, and out of devotion to God, we should not allow or facilitate abusive behavior.


If somebody is rude to me, I will probably feel bad for my self first.  Is feeling bad my ego, or is it my self-respect?

If someone criticizes me in a rude way, I try to see to what extent it is a fair criticism. I try to be fair about it, evaluate it objectively.  As far as feeling bad, if we see ourselves the way God sees us, we won’t feel bad.  If you know that you are infinitely loved, that the greatest conscious being thinks very highly of you, then you won’t feel bad.

If someone makes a fair criticism, we should be honest and honorable and say, “That’s a fair criticism and I’ll work on that”. If we feel some an unfair criticism or a fair criticism delivered in an unnecessary harsh manner, then whatever is inappropriate or unfair we should filter out.

What does ego really means to you?  Is ego bad?

Ego is the Greek pronoun “I”, and Sanskrit ahaṁ.  In the dictionary and in our culture, it has at least one negative meaning.  For Freud, of course, it didn’t have negative meaning.  The ego was just a person.  But it has at least one pejorative sense in our culture.  It also has a neutral sense, simply prescribing or describing someone as the subject of their own consciousness - someone who intrinsically contains and expresses a sense of “I” being individual consciousness.  It can also have a positive sense. For example, in the Sanskrit literature, one of the important statements of the Upanishads, is ahaṁ brahmāsmi, “I am spirit”. In other words, I am not simply matter, dead matter, I am actually eternal spirit, ahaṁ- brahma-asmi, I am brahman. Is not intrinsically or necessarily bad to be an individual conscious being, I think is great. 

The word “person” comes from the Latin word that means mask.  Talking about whether God is a person, what is the relation there?

That gets into some of the limitations of etymology, in the sense that words have origins but they can dramatically shift in their meaning.  The word person has dramatically shifted in its meaning, so in one sense is a false cognate.  It no longer means that in English, although originally it did mean that.  Someone may claim that ultimately it still means that, but if you look in the dictionary it won’t say that one of the primary means for person is mask, or a theatrical persona. Unfortunately, we just don’t have any other word, so we are stuck with person.

And again, it is one of those cases where a word has significantly shifted in its meaning. So if I was speaking Latin, I probably use a different word.

I guess it is inviting, if I would ask to see what’s really behind the mask…

Consider the example of a mask. What’s really behind the mask is a real face. In other words, not that you take someone’s mask off and there’s nothing there. There are faces behind the mask. And there’s even a verse in the Isopanisad, one of the oldest Sanskrit texts, that says,

hiraṇmayena pātreṇa

 satyasyāpihitaṁ mukham

 tat tvaṁ pūṣann apāvṛṇu

 satya-dharmāya dṛṣṭaye hiran 

Lord,  Your face is covered by this hiraṇmayena pātreṇa, this golden effulgent covering.  For example, if someone suddenly looked directly at the sun, the light would be so intense that you would lose your ability for a few moments to actually see the sun globe, you would just see the diffused sunlight. In the Vedic literature you find the same idea that from the body of God there is this supreme light coming, which is this light that some yogis meditate on. What they are actually meditating upon is the effulgence of God, the glow of the existence of God. Therefore there is one prayer in this very ancient Sanskrit text saying apāvṛṇu,  please remove this effulgent covering so that I can actually see Your face. So behind the mask is a face.

There is a word for that in Sanskrit, ahaṅkāra, which sort of means egoism, in the sense of identifying with the body. There is also a technical term, deha abhimana meaning to identify with your body. In other words, if I take myself to be the body, “I am an American, or I am male, or I am so many years old”, or whatever kind of body you have, that’s the mask. Or taking the intelligence to be yourself, taking my ideas to be me. Ultimately we’re pure spiritual persons, so when you remove the mask there is a face, not nothing.

One of the things you said earlier on was that the way religions come to agree sometimes is that they are individuals that gather who want to be devotional, and a few people turn into a group, then a group becomes a community, and then communities become a society at some point, then there becomes this need, for organization.  My question is, is it possible to consider that as we grow in our development we can find the capacity such that we wouldn’t have to do this, we would not have to have organization?

The individuals can reach that, but my personal experience is that the whole society moves sort of at geological speed, it moves very slowly. 

For example, interestingly San Francis Assisi was actually removed from his own movement during his life because he wanted to just wonder around and be spiritual, and his followers wanted organization.  In other words, for one thing scholars feel that San Francis died at the relatively young age he did because of all the physical hardships he endured. He wouldn’t dress, he would just sleep anywhere, but people wanted to have rooms and windows and not to sleep out in the rain, and because people were being attracted to this movement of Francis, there needed to be leadership. You need to train people, you have to have a place to train people, and if they are trained by the wrong people they get misled, so you need to have the right people to train them, and that means you have to give authority to certain people to train, and not others. Certain people can actually manage well and organize, and certain people are hopeless for management.  In the real world it just happens.  

It is interesting, Krishna says in the Gīta, those who are really enlightened, ātma-rati, those who have found pure love within the self and complete satisfaction in the self alone, they have no duty in the world. So, there is a type of enlightened anarchy, a type of anarchy amongst enlightened souls, and if you had a society where everyone is enlightened there would be a government even smaller than the most ardent Republicans want.

The Vedas describe these four great cosmic ages, like seasons. For example Satya-yuga, which lasts for a million years.  In the works of the Greek poet Homer, and basically among all ancient people, whether in Greece or India had this understanding, that very far back in time there was a type of golden age in which there was almost no government. There was no need for government because people were naturally civilized.  It is said that the weeds in those days were actually like fresh fruit and vegetables. So people didn’t have to work because very nutritious foods, which were the weeds, grew everywhere.

Just like in this room for example we don’t have to form committees of who is going to be in charge, who is going to turn the lights off, or what do we do if someone tries to stop that person turning the lights off after the program.

My experience, having been in my happy youth very idealistic about these things, over decades of experience I've sort of resigned myself to the fact that anarchy is not so viable for the mass of people.

Is there not something in between hierarchy or anarchy, that it could be an organization that is not either one…

I think the general principle is that every person should be allowed as much freedom as possible, and I think it is inappropriate to unnecessarily restrict anyone’s freedom. In general government should just be the minimum, what is absolutely the minimum needed to prevent significant harm.  I think it is a pragmatic thing.  For example, still in America there are some little towns somewhere where there is hardly any police presence, because you have people who respect their neighbors.  In other countries also, there are places where people have a very high level of civility, they really respect their neighbors and so on, and there’s very little need for police, there’s very little need for enforcement of anything. Everyone sort of does the right thing. You don’t need a lot of laws.  To the extent that there are people who do not respect others, they have to be made to respect others to prevent innocent people from being seriously harmed. In general, the necessary amount of government increases as mutual respect decreases, and as mutual respect increases, the amount of government needed decreases. And so in any given community or society, I think it just depends on the level of culture and civilization of a group of people.

It is interesting because often you find in western civilization, and increasingly around the world, that there is a tendency to selectively call for low governance in certain areas and high governance in others.

When I was an undergraduate in Berkley in the second half of the 60s, I was right in the middle of everything, and my picture was even in the front page of the Oakland Tribune in the middle of a riot.  I remember during the late 60s that the same people, on the one hand in regard to sex, were insisting that there should be no restrictions, there should be no rules, and everyone should be free to do what they want.  In fact the slogan back then was, “You can’t legislate morality”.  The same people were demanding that the government legislate morality in regards to civil rights.  The very same people were insisting that you can’t legislate morality were marching to Washington to legislate morality.

What is the best way that you’ve found that you can get rid of the destructive ego?

My personal experience actually coincides with one of my favorite statements in the Bhagavad-gītā, where Krishna says paraṁ dṛṣṭvā nivartate, that one can withdraw from selfishness by experiencing something higher. In other words, when we were young we played with toys. My mother never came into my room and said, “I’m taking all your toys away, you are too old to play with toys”. Rather, as I became older at a certain point I didn’t want to play with those toys anymore, I outgrew them.  I think the most natural way to get rid of selfishness is to outgrow it, by growing our consciousness, by expanding our consciousness. If we cultivate higher consciousness in a sincere devoted way, then we will actually outgrow selfishness, because our consciousness will get so large that we just don’t care about those things. 

I personally practice bhakti-yoga.  In the Bhagavad-gītā , which is probably the most famous yoga text in Sanskrit, or in any language, Krishna says that of all yogīs, the bhakti-yogī is really the culmination, because it is yoga of love and devotion. Ultimately all of the mechanical aspects, all the breathing exercises, the postures, and the different meditation techniques and so on, really are meant to bring us to the point of pure love. And so in this bhakti-yoga we have what is called a sādhana, practice which begins very early, at 4 o’clock in the morning. Throughout the day it is a process of keeping your consciousness always in touch with God.  The example is given, if you put an iron bar in fire, the iron becomes fire, it becomes fiery.  The principle of yoga is that you put your consciousness in contact with the Supreme consciousness, which is actually pure, and by that contact, by that yoga, your consciousness becomes purified. You experience a higher taste because God is the source of infinite bliss and infinite pleasure. Therefore in that connection with God you experience a much higher pleasure, and a pleasure which is based on giving rather than taking.  It is in the ecstasy of that spiritual love, and that devotion, and that service, that the selfishness becomes insignificant.

Those things that you take now as your life or death which we go through, like “She loves me, she loves me not”, will become trivial because we now we might be obsessed with, “Does she love me, will she ever appreciate me”, but then you get to a point where you realize that actually I’m self satisfied. I love this person but in the sense that I want this person to be happy, not that I want to possess this person, or simply degrade this person, transform them into an instrument of my satisfaction, rather I respect and accept this person as the center and subject of their own unique existence, and out of love, if I can help this person in some way I will happily do so. My love for this person, because it is actually love, is not a craving for this person to gratify me by expressing their devotion through me. In other words, I want to love, rather than be loved. We are all infinitely loved, that’s not a problem.  All of us are infinitely loved, and so it is loving, that we need to do.

Can you describe, if I were to meet someone who has reached that level of consciousness, what would I observe?

That’s a great question. Actually that very question, almost exactly as you put it, is in the Bhagavad-gītā. Arjuna asks that question to Krishna, actually a few times, kair liṅgais trīn guṇān etān, “By what visible symptoms can we see that someone has actually transcended these material qualities?” In another chapter Arjuna says, sthita-prajñasya kā bhāṣā, one who is  fixed in higher knowledge, samādhi-sthasya, who is in samādhi, kiṁ prabhāṣeta kim āsīta vrajeta kim,  how do they speak and what is their behavior? It’s very interesting that that’s a classic question.

The first thing Krishna said in response is prajahāti yadā kāmān sarvān pārtha mano-gatān that a person is known to be sthita-prajñaḥ, fixed in spiritual understanding, when that person gives up all of their selfish desires.  Selfish desires include the selfish desire for one’s own salvation, or the selfish desire for enlightenment, because enlightenment is really like the super “wow” experience, and so therefore we can selfishly desire enlightenment. Instead of taking LSD, I will get enlightened.

It is not a negative state, if you look at Buddhism, which has many good things about it, one thing which is undeniable is that the ultimate perfection is grammatically a negative term.  The sankrit-word nirvāṇa is grammatically negative. The prefix nir means without, so it means without vāṇa, without the current of material existence. Another other principle they are talking about is  anātman, none-self or śūnyatā, emptiness. So without vāṇa, everything empty, no self–these are negative expressions, not in the sense that they are bad, but in the sense that they are grammatically negative. If you study historical Buddhism as it spread into many parts of the world, it actually became a generic religion. In fact, by the time Buddhism was violently persecuted by the Muslims in India (which was kind of the end of Buddhism in its place of origin), it was becoming almost indistinguishable in many ways from Hinduism, because they had taken on so many of the trappings, paraphernalia, rituals, and believes.

People in general can’t dedicate themselves to grammatically negative words. Therefore, if someone has pure love, an enlightened person, would have pure love for every living being and for God. There’s a type of egalitarianism which is not completely free of ego, in other words, “I’m a soul, you are a soul”, and there’s no God who is any better than anybody else.  There is a type of jealous egalitarianism that doesn’t allow anyone to be a Supreme Being, but if we purely love, we would not resent the fact that there is a God and it’s not me. To deny that anyone could be God, above anyone else, is one aspect of vanity.  You see it even sometimes in spiritual practitioners. So if we really give up that vanity, that envy and resentment and we’re completely happy about the fact that there is a God and is not me, and we can love God and love every living being, that is actually the symptom [of someone who has reached that level of consciousness].

As far as recognizing it, there are people who are really good at faking it, but you cannot fool everyone. As we know, history is replete with examples of people who got lots of followers and convinced lots of people that they were enlightened and then something happened and it turned out that they were very unenlightened.

Is it possible to get beyond mind and ego?

We can get beyond the material mind and ego, but actually there is a spiritual mind, there is spiritual consciousness. The understanding that comes out of these ancient literatures is that you–the real you that’s inside the body–that’s the eternal you, the eternal unique, beautiful, all-knowing person, is actually covered. Of course, we are physically covered by the body, but the problem is our identification with the body.

To give a crude example, where I grew up, in Southern California, you sort of are what you drive. There’s a certain status to Porsche. Let’s say I buy a Porsche SUV and then I drive down the street, somehow my ego extends to that car, this hunk of metal, and somehow I become a greater person because I’m driving this car. Obviously I am not that car, but somehow I have psychologically extended my identity to the car so that the status of the car somehow showers me in its glory, and as this car is prestigious I am prestigious because I can own this car.

What happens is that we identify with something which is really extrinsic to ourselves, which is outside of ourselves. We take it in as part of our identity, so therefore, “I am this car”, or “I am this fantastic address, this neighborhood”, or “I am this college degree”, whatever. We take things which are really totally outside of ourselves and we assimilate them into a false identity.

In the same way, there is a very ancient analogy found in many different Sanskrit literatures, which is that the body is a vehicle or a car. It was a very popular metaphor in ancient times that the body is a vehicle, śarīra- ratha. Just as I’m prestigious because this car, I take the body to be the self. Enlightenment means at least psychologically we [don’t fall into that trap].

The body is a great gift, which allows us to practice spiritual life. Is a very valuable object and we can’t vandalize or neglect it. As far as the mind, it is the subtle part of the body. Just as the physical body covers the soul, the mind covers your spiritual consciousness. In all these yoga-literatures and this ancient philosophy, the mind and even our rational faculties, and our sense of “I”, ahaṅkāra, our ultimate composite identity or final sense of who we are is false. So those faculties are covering the soul, and the soul is conscious.

You, as an eternal spiritual person, are a thinking being. You have unlimited consciousness, but now our consciousness is functioning through a covering, because the material world has its gross and its subtle material elements that cover consciousness. 


Going back to the last thing you said, it was so helpful to me because you see people that have really high ideals but it looks like they are judging everybody, and then you see people who are living by really high ideals but you don’t feel judged when you are around them, you feel that they are closer to enlightenment,  and I know I’m judging when I say that…

To make judgments is not to be judgmental, because if we didn’t make judgments we could not refrain from any type of activity. If I decide, for example, that I’m not going to engage in abusive behavior, that’s a judgment. I have decided that is immoral for me to abuse or cheat other people. If I didn’t make judgments like that I couldn’t govern my own behavior. I think it would be like pretending to say that I have decided that for myself it is wrong and bad to exploit other people, but if someone else exploits other people I can’t say anything. Really, the reason that I decide not to exploit other people is because I think it is generally wrong. It is not because I think is only wrong for me. I think as a universal principle people should not abuse and exploit each other.  How could I not conclude that it is a general principle? If I then see someone terribly abusing another person, I can’t say anything. Is it judgmental to take a child away from a child abuser? To be judgmental means perhaps to unnecessarily be critical, but to make reasonable necessary judgments is part of what it means to be a civilized human being.  So to make judgments is not to be judgmental.

But your emphasis is on the love, and not on the judgment, even when you’re taking the child away from the abuser you’re seeing the person, the self…

Yes, because is compassion and love, because the child has to be helped, and even the abuser has to be saved from creating more atrocious karma and just degrade himself, so we can do it out of compassion and out of love, but we have to make judgments. It doesn’t mean we are judgmental. If we didn’t make judgments we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, because that’s a judgment. Theoretically you could stay in bed until the end of your life.

I guess I’m trying to say that I see a difference in  people where is coming from love or is coming from anger…

Yes, exactly. That’s very important because as we know some of the most judgmental people we ever meet are people that tell everybody else not to be judgmental. And so it is important to make that distinction, that it is our sacred duty to make reasonable judgments about what’s right or wrong in life, and yet we should not be judgmental. For some people that’s their biggest thrill in life, finding out that someone did something wrong.

All over the world, in all the major religions, there is recognition that there is such a thing as a Holy Name, the name of God which is God, and that God, or the Absolute and Divine can be fully present in the name. To give one simple example which I found fascinating in Judaism there were two great temples built in Jerusalem. Both were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans. When the first temple was built in Jerusalem, the Old Testament says again and again that it was built as temple to the name of God. It was actually the name of God that lived in the temple. As God was in heaven, so God lived on earth in the temple as the name. So all world religions have this notion and in Sanskrit it is called mantra.  It is the idea that by chanting the name of God you are directly in a state of yoga. You are in intimate contact with God because He is present in his name. In Sanskrit it is stated, abhinnatvān nāma-nāminoḥ that there is no difference between the name and that which is named. The idea that there could be a name which is the thing itself occurred to the Greeks. There is one platonic dialogue in which they discuss whether Greek words have any special relationship with the objects they name.

In ancient Greece the word for foreigner is also the word for barbarian. They were focused on their own culture. By chanting names of God you are in an intimate state of Yoga. By this intimate direct contact with the names of God the consciousness is cleansed. That is a very powerful method which has been used in spiritual traditions all over the world.