Thursday, 22 November 2007

The Paradox of Trashing the Ego

There is a popular Jewish joke about the former Novardok Yeshiva, one of the more extreme exemplars of the mussar movement that developed in Lithuania in the latter part of the 19th century. This yeshiva placed great emphasis on “the negation of the ego and the physical world” (Wikipedia). Students wore tattered clothing and engaged in deliberately humiliating activities to achieve that end. The joke goes as follows:

Chaim, a new student, arrived at the Novardok Yeshiva. Being a novice and not knowing exactly what was expected of him, he simply observed what the other students were doing and copied them. When it was time for davening, observing his fellow yeshiva students engaged in fervent prayer and shokeling back and forth with great intensity, he did the same. During the period for Talmud study, he mimicked the others with their sing-song chants and exaggerated hand gestures. Finally, it was time for mussar self-examination, when each student retreated to a private corner, beat his fist remorsefully against his chest and repeated the refrain in Yiddish: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” (“I am a complete nothing!”) Observing the behaviour of these students, Chaim sat down and, pounding his fist against his chest, likewise repeated the same mantra: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” One of the veteran students seated nearby observed Chaim disdainfully, turned to another old-timer and commented, “Look at this one! He’s been here just one day, and he already thinks he’s a gor nisht!”

The concept of bitul ha-yesh, literally the “negation of substance”, first appeared in certain schools of kabbalah and came to prominence with Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the 18th century pietist Hasidic revival in Eastern Europe. The idea of “annihilating the ego” is well-known from different forms of Eastern mysticism as well as in Sufi and Christian mystical thought. It has resurfaced with contemporary spirituality, including the new pop kabbalah, so that once again many spiritual seekers are pre-occupied with this arduous task.

The questions addressed in this article are three-fold:

What does it mean to annihilate the ego?
Can it in fact be done?
Should it in principle be done?

As the American philosopher Ken Wilber has pointed out, the whole notion of “ego” is based on a mistranslation of Freud. In German, Freud used the 1st person pronoun “das Ich” (the “I”) to indicate the self-sense that one possesses in relation to others. The translation of this into the Latin “ego” has led to the misunderstanding that the “ego” is some kind of entity independent of self; applying this mistranslation to the mystical concepts mentioned above, the “ego’ is viewed as a negative force that somehow obstructs the perception of a higher Self.

A statement such as “I am working hard to get rid of my ego” is an inherent tautology, for the “I” that is working hard is, in fact, according to Freud’s definition, none other than “das Ich”, i.e. the ego itself.

Even the lesser effort to eliminate pride, an endeavour endorsed in the ethos of most exoteric religions, is still laden with paradox. It is said that the last words of the Baal Shem Tov, a paragon of humility whose heart was open to every human being, were from Psalm 36: “אל תבואני רגל גאוה” (“Let me not succumb to the habit of pride…”). The Hasidic manifesto Yosher Divrei Emes heaps scorn upon those who adopt a manner of humility, as this pretext itself is used to enhance one’s perception of self, thus fuelling the fires of pride through its supposed negation.

Another well-known story is told of Reb Dovid of Lelov, a paragon of humility in the panoply of Hasidic masters. In addition to being humble, Reb Dovid practiced an extremely ascetic lifestyle, fasting during the entire week and eating only on the Sabbath. On a Friday afternoon on a scorching hot summer’s day, he was wandering through the Polish countryside on his way back home to Lelov. After six days of fasting, his stomach ached and his throat was parched. Suddenly, he came upon a clear, gurgling stream of pure spring water. He was sorely tempted to have but one small drink of water to make the remainder of his journey bearable. After all, it was nearly the Sabbath; in a few hours he would be enjoying a meal in the comfort of his home, so what did it matter if he had a little drink of water now? Surely, God in his mercy would understand.

He knelt down beside the brook and cupped the cool, fresh water in his hands. At that moment, the voice of his own conscience spoke to him: “Oy, Dovidl! Oy, Dovidl! You have gone for six days fasting for the sake of your Maker and now, because of your lowly desires, you intend to discard it all? Have you not the power to overcome your personal needs and wait but another three hours to enjoy a meal on the Sabbath as is your wont?” Reb Dovid braced himself with resolve, let the water slide from his hand, rose up, and resumed his hike back to Lelov. All at once, he was overcome with a sense of great elation and self-satisfaction at having overcome his thirst. At that very same moment, he froze in his tracks, having recognized that emotion for what it truly was: spiritual pride. He then returned to the stream and drank freely from the crystal waters.

I often visit the Bodhinyana Monastery of Theravada Buddhists in Serpentine, not too far from my home in Western Australia. It is always a serene experience for me. I have a warm rapport with the abbot, Ajahn Brahm, and often engage in discussions with the monks. Once, I discussed the issue of celibacy with one of them. Most kabbalists would find general agreement with the first three of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha: life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire and negation of desire eliminates suffering. The theoretical disagreement lies in the application of one facet of the Eight-Fold Path, the ostensible Middle Way and the means to eradicate desire.

That facet pertains to the Buddhist view (shared by Catholicism) that abstinence from sexuality is a way to overcome its magnetic allure. Apart from the Torah commandments to produce offspring and for a husband to provide his wife with sexual pleasure, according to kabbalah the sexual act is both paradigmatic and reflective of the union between Divine transcendence and immanence.

My somewhat wistful comment to the Buddhist monk was that I envied the simplicity of the Theravada sangha: no monetary possessions, no home (or mortgage on one), no wife and children to deal with. It seemed to me far easier to reach spiritual fulfilment under such idealised conditions. The monk expressed profound surprise; he had never before considered the path of the Buddhist monk to be an easy one. The Jewish mystic, however, is expected to reach enlightenment through engagement with the physical world rather than renunciation of it. Although, on the one hand, this might seem like a far more pleasurable experience in temporal terms, in spiritual terms it appears on the surface to be a gruelling if not outright impossible task.

That, however, is only the view from the surface, where physicality seen in dualistic terms is an impediment to the sublime. Indeed, this was the view reiterated by many of the kabbalistic schools, particularly those influenced by the Gnostic perception of the physical world as a reality that had to be transcended. Even the kabbalah of the Ari was tainted by this perception; the kabbalists of Safed followed a path of extreme asceticism, where extensive fasts, self-mortification, flagellation and tearful prayers were par for the course. It was the innovation of the Baal Shem Tov that developed Lurianic kabbalah beyond this surface dualism to the absolute unity of panentheism, where everything that existed was a manifestation of the One. The very notion of evil, according to the Baal Shem Tov, was only so insofar as our relative perception of it imbued it with this negative quality. The physical world was more than just an emanation from God, as defined by previous schools of kabbalistic thought; it was an actual manifestation of the Divine, present in all created things.

Bitul ha-yesh, “the negation of substance”, was not a state that one needed to struggle in order to achieve. It was the state of things as they are. For if every physical manifestation is in reality nothing more that the presence of the ineffable Ayn Sof, then there was no “substance” or “yesh” to begin with. Rather than an arduous task to alter reality, one only had to perceive it as it truly is. What need was there to annihilate the ego, when it never truly existed? Like the Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness is form, and form is emptiness”, every aspect of the manifest world, including the perception of self, was in fact the Nothingness of Ayn Sof. Even more, without that vessel of the “I’ or the “ego”, no manifestation of the Divine was even possible. The two were mutually symbiotic. Godliness would not exist without an ego to both perceive and manifest it.

In the Tibetan school of Dzogchen Buddhism the “Great Perfection” is considered the natural state intrinsic to all beings. Only as a result of karmic flaws do we miss seeing the absolute goodness inherent in what we truly are. The ultimate goal is to clear the mind of the mental clouds that obscure this truth and to then maintain it in every aspect of physical existence.

Similarly, in Hasidism the aphorism בכל דרכיך דעהו (“Know him in all your ways…”) was foundational in establishing this material world, and the perception of self known as ego essential to it, as the meeting place of the Divine rather than the escape route implied by the earlier ascetic versions of kabbalah. One might argue that all of this is mere polemics. Is there any difference in the end between getting rid of ego and clearing away the mental flak that hampers a true perception of what ego really is? My contention, however, is that the difference is existential rather than semantic. By viewing the ego as inherently evil, one not only perpetuates a dualistic outlook but also runs the risk of falling into the trap of spiritual egotism, where the ego takes pride at its very efforts to eradicate itself. When, however, we relinquish not our ego but our mental pre-conceptions as to what that is, we arrive at the foundational understandings in both Dzogchen and Hasidism. Then, the ego itself becomes the “Great Perfection”, the mirror of Emptiness in which the divine Form is reflected. It is at that point that we can all heave a deep sigh of relief, sit back and, whatever we are doing, perpetually enjoy the blissful condition as the gor nishts we really are.


  1. Hi Moshe,

    Thanks for a great article! As a Kabbalah student I find it's true that a lot of life's truths/Kabbalistic notions are riddled with paradoxes and how to deal with the Ego is certainly one of the major ones. Is it a separate entity from myself or is it not? Is it evil or not? Does it exist at all?? At this point in my studies I'm thinking that it's definitely a real and opposing force designed to push downwards like gravity and my job is to push it back, overcome it, see it as evil in that way because i need to fight it (it's a war) but at the same time know that it was designed by the Creator that I may overcome it using positive force in order to get to a higher level and eventually reaching Oneness with the Creator. Therefore the Ego is good! Everything really does come from God.

    I've just come through a particularly powerful bout of doubt and negativity myself and I thank the Light and Rabbi Shimon that I have come through it somehow in a positive way and I know exactly what you mean about the danger of taking spiritual pride in this. It is hard work after all. But what should keep me from patting my Ego on its back with the help of the Light is knowing that the next battle will surely be even bigger than the last one. I now know the true meaning of "No rest for the wicked!" Can't rest on my laurels, there are many more walls to break through. The Ego may appear evil but it ultimately has a holy purpose of transforming us into the Image of God. You're right, the Ego should become the Great Perfection but it will take a lot of spiritual work to reach that state of Spiritual and Sacred Emptiness. If we deny that the force of the Ego exists as a powerful Opponent, then we run the risk of it having complete control of us, and the chance to become One with our Creator and reveal Light in the world will never happen for us (God forbid).

    So yes I do believe that we have to acknowledge the Ego's existence, but at the same time know that it's real purpose is for us to be able to exercise our free will which is to do exactly the opposite of what it wants. And then we come to realise that it's not "evil" at all if it's job is to make us the best versions of ourselves.

    And hopefully the more we overcome our selfish desires the more we can see how much work there is to be done and this should stop us from taking spiritual pride in our work.

    If I express myself in a very simplistic way I apologise and I do hope I've made some sense to you :-)

    Yours in gor nisht(ness) and
    Blessings and Light, Sharon

  2. Hi Sharon

    a little late in the day (almost a year!) but maybe this will help.

    In Kabbalistic terms, if Malkuth represents the Ego - ie the earthly self - and Kether represents the Higher Self or Higher Ego, then the Divine Marriage between the Prince and the Daughter which is spoken of in the Zohar etc makes sense. Its not about trashing the Ego or defeating it but 'marrying' it to the Higher Ego. And Malkuth is not an accursed place but a part of God, joined to him through the Sephiroth but distant nonetheless. The ultimate hope of the Kabbalist and the human race in general is that one day Malkhut will be permanently married with Kether and all will become One, as the Zohar says.

    Malkuth is associated with King David and if you read the story of David you find unfolding the classic quest of the Ego to reach God. If Israel represents the Psyche, then David's efforts to secure it and rule it justly indicate the Kabbalist's efforts to put his or her psyche in order, to arrange the Kingdom so that the Temple can be built. If one sees David's battles with opposing nations and rebellious forces within his own realm, including his own son as the Kabbalists' struggle to come to a harmonious state with his own passions, energies and desires, then one sees how the Ego is needed to bring oneself under control. The process is difficult and connection to the Divine is intermittent - David has to sing and dance before the Lord 'with all his might' in order to communicate with him - but it is possible.

    It is to David's great regret that he is unable to build the Temple in Israel in which to house the Ark and then God. God tells him that he is 'a Man of Blood' ie too steeped in the earthly world and its bloody struggles to be spiritually pure enough to build the Temple. But God promises David that his son, Solomon, will be 'a man of leisure' (ie study and not warfare) who will be able to perform the function of builder of the Temple. If David represents the highest achievement of the Ego-Personality, Solomon represents the possibility of the Higher Self-Personality, the man with Wisdom and Understanding (ie Chokmah & Binah Consciousness). To David are attributed the Psalms, the great songs of the Soul's yearning for God. To Solomon are attributed the Books of Wisdom - Proverbs, Ecclesiates, the Song of Songs and the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (I am using the non-Hebrew names here because I don't know the Hebrew ones, I am afraid! I hope I am not causing offence!).

    The beauty of the relationship between David and his son Solomon is that David agrees and gives way to God's decision, ceding Israel to Solomon willingly. This is the demonstration of how the Ego can give way to the Higher Self or Ego. Its a process of enlargement and letting go of the Ego-based personality for a Higher Purpose. One sees it reflected, perhaps, in Moses' passing on of the job of entering and conquering the Holy Land to Joshua through the Blessing. Moses has done the David work but Joshua is to do the Solomon work (of course, Moses is not associated with Malkuth at all, I am just drawing an analogy). In the New Testament, it is reflected in John the Baptist's ceding the ground to Christ. John represents the furthest the Old Ego can reach - a state of great sanctity and holiness - while Christ represents the New Ego. In John's Gospel John the Baptist acknowledges that 'I must decrease that he may increase'. In other words, the Ego must recede to allow the Higher Self to grow...

    Another parallel is the story of King Arthur. Only once Arthur's realm is established and the rule of law, represented by the Round Table, set in harmonious place can the Grail Quest take place (remember that the Grail appears in the centre of the Round Table ie the centre of the psyche). Further, Arthur cannot undertake the Quest, only his knights can. Thus Arthur, having 'set his lands in order', gives way to Perceval and/or Galahad, the spiritual questors, the Solomons to his David, who can journey to the Higher Consciousness.

    So in fact its not about smashing the Ego up at all, or battling it. The Ego is crucial in organising and integrating the Psyche in order to enable it to embark upon the Quest for Truth. But the Ego must recognise its limitations. Arthur, David, Moses, John the Baptist are all remarkable, amazing, transcendent figures but it is left to Perceval, Solomon, Joshua, Christ to go into the spiritual realms of the Higher Ego. But without Arthur, David, Moses, John, there can be no spiritual quest. The combination is the all. Joshua would never have got to the Promised Land without Moses, Solomon could never have built the Temple without David etc etc etc. *

    An even simpler illustration is this: if you take the letter 'I' to represent the Ego and 'W' to represent the Higher Ego (the WE as opposed to the I) and draw a W above the I, what do you get?

    You get a man with a crown on his head, or a tree with its branches spreading out...

    To me, this demonstrates the point perfectly... The 'We' Consciousness depends upon the 'I' Consciousness to grow and to be incarnate in this world. Otherwise, what would be the point of being here?

    Its also worth remembering that according to Kabbalah we are united to God through the levels of the Soul known as Chayyah and Yechidah which exist in Atziluth and Beriah even as we are aware of ourselves only as Nephesh, Ruach and Neshemah. Thus if the Ego represents those lower elements of the Soul and the Higher Ego represents the higher elements then once again it is about connecting the two, not smashing one up in favour of the other. For the most holistic relationship with God, the Ego and the Higher Ego are integral to each other.

    * NB I am aware I am on dangerous ground in including Moses in this matrix as its pretty clear that Moses, of all the people mentioned, is more than just the Ego Personality. His genius was to perform both roles. I only include him in the sense that he laid the ground for what Joshua went on to do, but the main acheivement was obviously Moses'


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.