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Egoism

It is not known when or where this talk was given by Phiroz Mehta. It does not appear to have been recorded

We all regard ourselves as separate individuals. From our infancy we are brought up with such distinctions as ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, dominating our whole life. We think this is natural. And yet, careful observers of children note that in the earliest stages a child naturally refers to itself impersonally: “Krishna likes milk;” “Radha wants doll.” But the elders bringing up the child soon dispel such impersonality and foster, instead, the consciousness of separate personality. Most of us have little sense of our underlying unity, and we deny in practice our derivation from a common source.

Matter, mind and spirit are matter, mind and spirit everywhere. Their synthesis in each living complex called man always makes a new pattern. But even as two leaves, though never identical, derive from a single tree, even as all the literary works of a Tagore, though strikingly different from each other, derive from the single genius, so do all men and women, uniquely different though they are, derive from a single source.

In essence, one; in expression, infinitely diverse. Expression, being more obvious, rivets our attention more than essence. So our fundamental unity awaits rediscovery and revitalization, whereas our sense of separateness is so overwhelming, that we behave as if our limited ‘I’, which is predominantly if not wholly egoistic, is our whole self.

This separatist ego, the ‘I’ of everyday life, is the root source of all our troubles. We must note it is not the true individual but the limited ‘I’ — consciousness which is the source of trouble. To make the problem more difficult, this separatist ego is part and parcel of the whole self! More difficult still, it is precisely this limited self-consciousness which has to be fashioned into the instrument of our redemption. The discerning mind has to penetrate deep into trust; active understanding has to transform our consciousness; living the spiritual life has to restore our unity with reality.

The ego is not intrinsically evil. The ordinary conviction we all have – ‘I am’ – is empirically correct. But trouble enters because we do not really know in which sense it is correct, and consequently, desire, thought and action become distorted.

If we try to answer what we mean by ‘I’ we shall find ourselves in difficulties. We behave throughout life as if this ‘I’ were a real entity, something quote unmistakeable, so much so that all our desire, thought and action is prefixed by ‘I’ (as when we say, “I will”, “I want”, “I like”, “I am going”, “I am working”, “I am eating”, “I am studying” etc.) and our whole life is unceasingly devoted to — ourselves!

But what is this ‘I’? Is the ‘I’ which thinks the same as the ‘I’ which eats, goes, plans, works, suffers etc? Or is it that we have a vague sense of selfhood which identifies itself with whichever part of our whole being is in the immediate limelight so to say? In that case, though we do not really know the ‘I’ (perhaps it does not exist at all!) we may reasonably say “I weigh 10 stone” or “I eat oranges” or “I think” or “I enjoy”.

A little examination shows us that there is no substantial, unalterable entity called ‘I’, materially or mentally or in any other sense. From the moment a fertilized ovum comes into being there is perpetual change. After birth there is the continuous change of mind and consciousness accompanying the continuous change of the body, in accordance with the changeless laws governing such change. ‘You’ are the result of all the previous forces which operated to produce you, at any given moment. Rather than say ‘my mind’ or ‘my body’, we should observe the presence at any given moment of a complex pattern of mental states or physical conditions. Since nothing is static, we should recognize ourselves as a continuous stream of becoming. But because we are able to recognise that there is relationship between the ‘you’ today and the ‘you’ of last year or of ten years ago, we can for all practical purposes recognize you today as the same you we always knew, and not mistake you for some other person. Further, although we, as we appear, are a continuous stream of becoming, there is in us something of the nature of a creative synthesizer which holds the dynamic pattern of our being together and causes the recognition of our distinct personal existence.

But, unfortunately, in maintaining this sense of distinct personal existence the emphasis is on ‘I am separate from you.’ Of course you and I are each distinct, in fact unique individuals. But the separatist ego, instead of merely recognizing objective facts, assumes sovereignty over us, and behaves as if it were our whole self, and as if it were unrelated, in fact opposed to, other selves. Hence I become the slave of my separatist ego (Satan!) who usurps the divine authority of the real me.

What is the part played by our ordinary ‘I’-conscious­ness? It is largely, but not entirely, that of a distorter and a deceiver. This self-conscious part of my being is like a corrupt messenger giving me a twisted, falsified message from the universal, the infinite, to my whole being which is the individual and finite. Why the corrupted message? Because the ‘I’, unaware of the truth, cannot help it. Imbued with a sense of separateness, the ‘I’ does not perceive, despite all protestations born of superficial knowledge to the contrary, that I and you, my self and my environment, the particular and the universal, the finite and the infinite constitute one reality, a single integrated whole of uniquely different parts. Hence I cannot put my trust in the universal. So I believe and act as if I would starve, be hurt, suffer deprivation and grief unless I lived unto myself, at the expense of others if necessary. Therefore I act in competition with or even in enmity against my fellow man, to fulfil my needs, which are also his needs. Worse still: my separatist ego misinterprets my real needs. He lays down that security means a permanent job, a house with a garden, a large bank deposit, and what not else; otherwise says he, I would just perish. Similarly, he asserts that happiness means that I must have such and such pleasures, surroundings, successes, applause, and what not else. But these fantastic pictures of security, love, happiness, well-being and fulfilment, arbitrarily imposed on me, have little or no resemblance to true security, love and happiness, or to the true nature of my actual situation. They are distortions, since the self-conscious ‘I’ is the controller of my waking state — the driver of the engine — he drives me off the rails continuously, and heaps trouble upon trouble for me, and also for you, since you and I are mutually involved in our interdependent world.

Strutting on the world stage with pathetic self-importance, this petty ‘I’ so successfully deceives me that I forget that security, love, happiness and well-being are all a natural and inevitable part and parcel of the world process; that I have not to fight or struggle for them but to let them come to me in their proper destined measure and shape as the natural consequence of true perception and of duty done; that they are not rewards in a distant future of futile turmoil today but are immediately present in the process of right living here and now. How many happy things we miss now because we thrust our noses into the mire of thoughtless, anxious, violent, muddled, unfruitful actions in vain hopes of a future happiness! Think! While we are engaged in egoistic living we miss the comfort of trees and sunshine, the charm of sea and sky, the inspiration of meadows, mountains and stars, the delight of children’s laughter or intelligent conversation, the peace of just being, the ecstasy of that larger consciousness which would be ours when the limited ‘I’ becomes the servant that he is instead of the usurping master.

The question will now be asked: Very well, what do I do to free myself? Consider first the real power of this pretender, the egocentric ‘I’, as compared with the unknown power that lies within my whole being. Who, or what, performs or directs processes of major importance to life like digestion, the functioning of the vital organs and ductless glands, instinctive reactions which may save life in some emergency, healing when sick or wounded, revitalizing through sleep, procreation, the mechanism by which sense impressions and experience are converted into ideas, and very much else besides? Not the ‘I’! They go on in obedience to beneficent universal forces operating within my whole being, unconsciously, whereas the conscious ‘I’ can do nothing about them. In fact passing moods and actions are very much under their thumb. So I begin to see how the ego is a thievish appropriator of my whole being; how something much more inclusive, wiser, more able and more powerful is the real inner sovereign over me; and, above all, how this something is in tune with the forces of life, of creation, preservation and regeneration. Not only religion and philosophy, but psychology too recognizes that our roots lie deep in this unseen and unknown part of our being. From within we draw our substance and nourishment. From the hidden depths wells up creative energy which it is the duty of the self-conscious ‘I’ to use rightly. The understanding of these facts grows with careful observation. Self-knowledge, self-responsibility and self-realization are the steps involved in this process of freeing ourselves from bondage to the ego, and allowing the deeper levels of consciousness which are in alignment with universal reality to function. In this way the self-conscious ‘I’ is freed of separative egoism, and is fashioned into the instrument of our redemption.

We must note that it is the self-conscious ‘I’ alone which can, and has to, make the effort for liberation. The ‘devil’ of his own free-will and effort, has to transform himself into ‘god’! The little self dies, by willing and intelligent sacrifice, in order that the true self may be born. When this happens, the clamorous, egoistic ‘I’ will become quiet, the wise direction and creative expression, and the still small voice of the spirit will be heard. Amidst the bustle of everyday life, the disciplined ‘I’ will always be aware of the sure touch of the guiding hand of our inner being. True individuality will have flowered out, and rampant egoism, the maker of disorder, will be a thing of the past.

“But we know all this” says the impatient man. “We have heard all this philosophy long ago.” It is one thing to have superficial knowledge, which merely means an untidy mind cluttered up with inanimate thoughts. It is quite another thing to realize the transformation of mind and consciousness through faithful discipline and long experience. Then only can we truthfully say “we know all this”. Superficial knowledge is a burden. Real knowledge is the source of practical efficiency.

The universal forces of creation, preservation and regeneration are eternally active. When they operate through our own being we become aware of them primarily as the stream of desire which is undefined in its inception — ‘pure energy’. But the separatist ego mistranslates this pure energy into petty personal wants and desires, dressed in fantastic shapes. He tries, ludicrously and tragically, to bottle up the universal ‘Spirits’ into a misshapen vessel of his own making. Thus arise all the perverted forms of desire — and pop goes the cork, with results too well known in our experience. Thus selfishness comes into being and ruins our lives.

In the article ‘Heart’s Desire’ we saw that the purification of desire by freeing it of all lust was each individual’s responsibility. To do this successfully, we now see that there is a deeper and a more primary responsibility — to free the ‘I’-consciousness of its enslaving egoism. When this is done, the former is quite easy. In fact, experience will show that when the ego is the servant, when the awareness of our inner self and of the Universal is the strongest feature of our consciousness, all the petty “I want”-s or “I like”-s will vanish like shadows of the night. The lurid fires of lust will be extinguished. Only the steady light of pure desire will remain as the dynamic inspiration for right action, which creates and maintains true security, love, serenity and well-being.

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