I was recently discussing the journey inward with a Christian friend of mine, and the conversation ended up revolving around the higher states of consciousness that are the fruit of the Buddhist path. He was very open and receptive to what I was saying, but there was one sticking point he kept coming back to.
How, he asked, could people, with all their flaws and imperfections – all their sins, in that religion – ever get in touch with the undifferentiated timeless perfection I was describing? How could we ever reach that level?
The truth is, he’s right. Your conventional self – the series of stories, desires and labels our society considers to make up a person – does not get to go there, at all. Your egotistic personality structure can never become enlightened.
But there is something inside you that can be.
Scientifically speaking, we know there are different levels of cognition, of awareness, some more subtle and, well, aware, than others. Your conscious mind is just the tip of a very large iceberg that processes an extraordinary amount of information. For example, your retinas transmit 10^6 bits of data to your brain every second, an amount 10,000 times greater than the plodding 100 bits/second your conscious awareness operates at.
When you begin to engage with these more subtle levels of cognition, you come to realize that all your conventional self really does is get in the way. During meditation, the attentional mind is forever wandering and looking for the next thing to do, like a fish out of water, flopping around. It worries about the bills, scratches your nose, and daydreams about the cute boy you saw at the grocery store. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Needless to say, these gasps and flops are very distracting, and make it hard to tune in to the finer whirring of your brain.
For example, in the Shaivite tradition of Hinduism, the goal of the meditative path is to realize that you, the atman, are identical to Param Siva, a transcendental timeless nondual omniscience that is all things in existence. While, on an absolute level, your daydreams and desires are Param Siva, your cognition is not operating on an absolute level (if it was, you wouldn’t need the path!) and, if you want to realize these higher states of consciousness, you need to put yourself aside completely.
To put it another way, your ego can only go so far on the spiritual journey. After a point, it becomes nothing but dead weight and must be dissolved.
This dynamic is also why the more esoteric/magical practices don’t really work for people who haven’t fully transcended themselves. If you want to, say, read someone’s future, or send healing energy to someone on the other side of the world, you’re going to have to work at an incredibly subtle level of existence, a vibration so fine that it is nigh imperceptible. If you’re trying to do advanced practices because you want to impress others or have ‘magic powers’ or any other number of selfish reasons, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s a little like the mystical equivalent of trying to drive with sand in your gas tank: You probably won’t be able to start the car, and even if you get it going, it’s not gonna end well.
If, however, you approach these practices from a place of humility and selfless service, you just might find something wondrous.
In fact, the entire journey inward is like that. Each of us can become blissfully pure and calm in every moment, untroubled by the trials and tribulations of life. We can meet God inside ourselves – we can even become a god, an enlightened being, here in this very life!
We can’t do any of that, though, if we don’t get rid of our egotistic, grasping, delusional sense of self. As long as that’s there, we can become deeply spiritual, but we’ll just be deeply spiritual narcissists. In this regard, my Christian friend was right: the ego is eternally, irredeemably sinful. If we really want to go all the way, we have to let the person we think we are go.
Besides, that person’s probably a bit of an asshole.