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Ego as Spiritual Guide

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The person who does spiritual practice “on their own” has ego as a teacher and guide. That can sound extreme, which it is, and it can sound like an advertisement, which it is not.

At some point while training in Zen Awareness practice, I got it that anybody could be my teacher. Anybody. I knew that as long as I didn’t agree to “guidance” in conflict with the Precepts, I’d be fine. The secret to the whole process is not finding someone wise to follow; it’s in becoming wise enough to follow.

I read that Thomas Merton struggled against the direction of his “superiors,” and speculation was that his willingness to submit to the guidance of those who were his intellectual and spiritual inferiors made him the saint he became.

I’ve “joked” for years that our difficult decisions would be easy to make if we were willing to stop someone on the street, tell them our story, ask what we should do, and do what they said. Of course I’m not joking; it’s just that the suggestion is so appalling to conditioned minds that only as a joke can the idea enter at all.

The ego is quite content to “practice” awareness as long as it’s not threatening. To “understand” how things work, to gain insights, to learn what enlightened masters knew is all perfectly acceptable. But when it comes to the serious side of life—children, health, money, career, retirement—ego needs to be put firmly in charge of the decisions. After all, something could happen. Something could go wrong. A mistake could be made.

All this letting go, accepting what is, trusting, facing the inevitability of death is a wonderful theory, but it’s not going to fly when push comes to shove. On a bright sunny day, with a full stomach, after a good night’s sleep, cash and credit cards safely ensconced in the wallet, it’s lovely to be open, expansive, and generous. But when there’s an unexplained pain, an accident, a loss, a frightening diagnosis, the closing down and tensing against feels automatic. The mind races, the heart pounds, the body contracts. Survival. It’s not even a conscious thought. The system just lurches off frantically in search of the thing that will make me safe.

Promise me something. Tell me what to do and sound like an expert when you say it. Be the authority I can believe. Save me!

Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate “lives” for those moments. (Consider it’s trying to manufacture that urgent, threat-to-survival scenario throughout days when absolutely nothing threatening is happening. Be careful, watch out, what about…, what if….) When something “legitimate” happens, there’s a near-hysterical ramp up of fear, anxiety, and worry.

Urgency is the single most powerful weapon egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate has in its arsenal. Get a human being in a state of urgency and that human will do just about anything the voices of ego-identity say to do. Panic and unconsciousness go hand-in-hand and are potent fuel for a rapid descent into suffering.

It’s true that every moment of life is our best opportunity to wake up and end suffering, and some best opportunities are better than others. Those “big jolt of fear, giant resistance, dig in the heels and hold on (or push away) for dear life” times are the best of the best. Sadly, almost everyone misses those best of the best opportunities to awaken and end suffering because those are the very times the conditioning is strongest to look to ego-identity for information and direction.

For those of us practicing awareness, that “legitimate” moment is our signal to stop. Just stop. Sit down. Breathe. Attend to the breath until calm is restored. Pick up the recorder; talk to the Mentor. Get that repetitive, fear-mongering voice in the head outside the head. Breathe. Listen to the wisdom, love, and compassion that’s available. Make no decisions in a state of urgency. Realize the yammering voices in the head are not urging “good” decisions. Take some time. Trust life. Look to the heart. Remember what’s important.

If this were the end of my life, how do I choose to be?

May I live each moment in that way.

In gasshō,

Cheri


living_compassion

About Cheri Huber

Cheri Huber has been a student and teacher of Zen for over 30 years. She is the author of 20 books, the newest being What You Practice Is What You Have, the sequel to her widely-read There Is Nothing Wrong With You. Other titles include The Depression Book, The Fear Book, and When You're Falling, Dive. In 1983, Cheri founded the Mountain View Zen Center, and in 1987 she founded the Zen Monastery Peace Center in Calaveras County. She and the monks at the Monastery conduct workshops and retreats at these centers, other places around the U.S., and internationally. In 1997, Cheri founded Living Compassion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to peace and service. She also has a weekly, Internet based call-in radio show, Open Air.

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