The true longing of our spiritual life is to touch reality, to connect with what’s really real, and thereby to become more real ourselves: more authentically and fully human. This of course implies that to some extent we are not presently in touch with reality, and maybe not fully real.
According to the spiritual wisdom teachings, each of us suffers in separation from the really real insofar as we are deeply entangled in managing a separate personal identity, called our ego (Latin for “I”).
It might occur to us that extinguishing our separate ego, or preventing its formation in the first place, would make spiritual fulfillment more likely. Numerous philosophies, methods, and techniques have been devised with that end in mind. But they all fail, as they are destined to fail, since the discipline of eliminating the ego is dependent upon the individual’s desire, will, and persistent effort – that is, on the very thing they are setting out to abolish.
Religion is divided on the question of what to do with the ego. If it’s not to be annihilated, perhaps it needs to be rescued. If not snuffed out of existence, should we be concerned for its salvation instead – getting it safely out of this world of suffering and into some immortal paradise beyond?
It rarely occurs to those on the inside of this debate that there may be a third option, a kind of ‘middle way’. Neither destroyed nor delivered, but rather used as the means to what we’re really seeking, which is to touch reality and become more fully human. We’re not talking about using someone else for our own fulfillment, for that would just be another example of glorifying the ego and gratifying its self-centered ambitions.
To understand how and where the ego fits into our spiritual quest for the really real, it’s helpful to know what it is. My diagram is focused on this center of self-conscious awareness, stretching out from there in four directions. We’ll begin at the bottom, curve up to the left, zig to the right, and then curve up again to the top.
It’s important to keep in mind that all four directions (or dimensions of self) are correlated around the ego and only make sense from the vantage point it provides.
Let’s start with your centered sense of being a separate and unique individual. We’ll explore the contents of your identity shortly, but for now I will just ask you to let your awareness drop from that self-conscious center and into the deeper support of your experience in this moment. Underneath and supporting self-consciousness is a sentient nervous system, which is continuously picking up and processing sensory information from your environment and body.
As a sentient being, you sense, feel, and perceive what’s going on around and inside you. Beneath that, however, is the wonderful conspiracy of organic urgencies keeping your body alive. Organs and organ systems, glands and the circulatory paths by which they communicate, and down into the metabolic marvel of bones, tissues, and individual living cells.
And then there’s the physical substrate of matter, providing structure and magnetism for all of those miracles higher up. Inside of matter is the strange quantum realm of energy, which you can’t see or overtly feel, even though it suffuses everything about the physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious being that you are.
You should have noticed how each deeper drop into the grounding mystery of your existence requires that you surrender a little more of what makes you a separate and unique individual.
As your awareness lets go of all those attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that define who you are, you enter the increasingly less personal dimension of what you are. But notice, too, how with each deeper ‘layer’ in the essence of what you are, awareness opens correspondingly farther out to include more of reality. While ego awareness hovers close to your center of personal identity, sentient awareness connects you not only to other sentient beings, but to the entire sensory-physical universe.
All of what we have named so far can be placed under the category of ‘interiority’, inside and beneath the self. This withinness of your life does not belong to your ego, but rather supports it as its grounding mystery. To enter the interior dimension of your life, however, it is necessary to release all of those things that make you separate and special.
Descending by this interior path is one way you can touch reality.
Let’s think more about this “separate and special” person you are. What we summarized earlier as the attributes, attitudes, and ambitions that make you who you are do not refer to physical traits as much as personality traits. What we call ‘identity’ is not something you’re born with, but instead must be constructed in the long process called socialization. By this process your tribe shaped the behavior, implanted the values, and instructed the beliefs that aligned with its collective way of life.
Think about this: To be somebody and have an identity, you must belong to some tribe where your identity is recognized. Yes, you are a human being; but who are you? That’s something we can’t determine until we know the social context in which your identity is held. Your tribe provides you with a role to play, along with the script you’re expected to follow. Of course, there is typically some flexibility built in to allow for your particular talents, interests, and ‘performance style’.
We can distinguish this element of individuality from the social role itself by naming it a ‘mask’, as the face and outward expression in how you play the role. Interestingly, the Latin word persona refers to the mask a theater actor wore during a stage performance, and our words ‘person’, ‘personal’, and ‘personality’ derive directly from it.
Over time and through countless performances, a role begins to fuse with the sense of who you are. No longer is it something you step into for the purpose of engaging a social role-play, for it has by now fully insinuated itself into your behavior, beliefs, and worldview. At this point, the construction project achieves a critical victory, in establishing your character in the story of who you are.
You should note that all of it – mask, role, character, and story – are narrative constructs and have no true reality of their own. However difficult it may be to hear, it should be clear that moving from ego into what makes you a separate and unique person is actually taking you farther away from what’s really real.
But – and now we start our zig across my diagram to the opposite side – this very identity, constructed and ‘put on’ as it may be, is what gives you a place in the role-play and connects you to other persons.
If I remind you now about your own interiority, how deep below and detached it is from the theater stage where you and everyone else are trying to manage your personal lives, it should make sense if we call this third dimension ‘alterity’, referring to “the state of being other; otherness” (from the dictionary).
The interiority of the other is inaccessible to you, and even if they would share as much of their inner life with you as they possibly can, there will always remain something there that is ‘wholly other’ – unknown and unknowable, unspeakable and utterly ineffable. Despite all your best efforts to know them, and given the fullest confession of the other person, their otherness will continue to both confront and elude you.
Even if you were to uncover all their secrets and unravel the many strands of their personal narrative, their grounding mystery within would be absolutely transcendent to you.
This is true not only of other human persons, but of each and every existing thing there is. A grain of sand, for instance, presumably doesn’t possess a living body or sentient mind, but its simple interiority carries an otherness that still confronts you as impenetrable. Yes, you could smash the grain of sand into its component elements, but then you have only created countless more objects, each confronting you with its alterity.
As it relates to the spiritual life and our longing to touch reality, this dimension of alterity confronts us with the mystery of otherness. Reality is always other – even ‘wholly other’ than what we can experience or know, think or imagine.
Having established the fundamental duality between individuals, each hosting a profound interiority and confronted by the impenetrable alterity of the other, we can now make our final swing upward in my diagram. What is reality? It is all of it, together; a higher wholeness; the turning unity (uni-verse) of being and time. We are not speaking here of something else beyond the totality of things, but rather to the consilient (literally “leaping together”) dynamic by which all things are connected, involved, and contribute to the greater whole.
Indeed this greater whole is an emergent property of all those exchanges and transformations working together. When you are able to go beyond yourself, this time not letting go of what makes you separate and unique, but investing it and giving of yourself to the emerging unity of your life with others, you are touching reality in another way again. Not as grounding mystery or absolute otherness, but as genuine community.
Going within to the Ground, going out to the Other, and going up into Unity: these are the three ways we can touch reality and become more fully human.
In my next post we’ll take a look at how these translate into religion, and where religion commonly loses its way.