By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986 and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article is the second part of an editorial which was posted as the March, 2002 reading. This article was first published in the February, 1986 Prabuddha Bharata.
Another agent of transformation of ego-consciousness is the ideal. An ideal is a psychological phenomenon, which serves as a model of perfection and stimulates goal-oriented activity in the soul. Ideals are of two types, subjective and objective.
A subjective ideal is a model or template, which the self uses to shape itself. It is the prefiguration of the possibilities of the soul. In the ideal the self finds fulfilled all that it wants to achieve in life, all that it wants to become.
The subjective ideal itself is of two kinds, the ego-ideal and the spirit-image. If you ask a small child about her or his future, the child will say, “I want to become so and so.” Children may regard a parent, an elder sibling, an older child or a well-known public figure as the personification of all that he or she wants to realize in life, and the child uses this image to mould his or her own ego. That becomes the child’s ego-ideal. There is nothing wrong in having such an external ideal to start life with. In fact children need such ideals during the early stages of development, and one of the functions of epics, mythology and fiction is to provide such ego-ideals to dream about.
The elimination of such ideals from childhood through rationalization and overemphasis on scientific knowledge is one of the main causes of rootlessness and vulgarity that characterize many young people today. About this trend Abraham Maslow wrote: “Every age but ours has had its model, its ideal: the saint, the hero, the knight, the mystic, the gentleman—all these have been given up by our culture. About all we have left is the well-adjusted man without problems, a very pale and doubtful substitute.”
One may accept the image of another person as a model for one’s own self-development but everyone will sooner or later realize that no external image can serve as a perfect model for oneself. Everyone has to evolve their own ideal of perfection out of their own soul. Abraham Maslow wrote: “Eric Fromm has shown that, apart from superego which we acquire from our parental environment, there is also an intrinsic conscience in us which is based on the unconscious or preconscious perception of our own nature, our destiny, capacities, etc. It insists that we be true to our inner nature.”
It is this search for a perfect self-ideal that leads a person ultimately to spiritual life. Spiritual life is based on the belief that we are the spirit, the Atman, which transcends the ego. This understanding gives rise to the spirit-image by which is meant an idealized concept of the Atman through which one can establish an intimate relationship with the Deity. One may thus visualize oneself as a child of God, as the mother of the Divine Child, or as an angel or simply as a luminous being. This spirit-image by its very sublimity produces changes in one’s consciousness, transforms the ego and finally supplants the ego-ideal.
But a subjective ideal, however high or sublime, is not enough to bring total fulfillment. Most people—though not all—need an objective ideal to adore, to center their love upon to bring a sense of completeness or wholeness into their lives. The attitude towards such an objective ideal may be described as, “I do not want to become one like him or her, nevertheless I need this person as an inseparable part of my life.” A man may have his own ego-ideal, yet he may feel his life incomplete without a wife, and vice versa. Parents need children to complete their sense of parenthood.
Experience, however, teaches us that no ordinary human being, however good and virtuous, can serve as a perfect objective ideal. Ordinary human beings may satisfy some of our emotional needs but not the higher needs of the spirit. Only the great incarnations of God like Krishna, Buddha, Christ or some of the archetypal divinities worshipped in Hinduism can really measure up to the lofty standards of the human spirit. That is why they have been universally accepted as perfect objective ideals. Such a universal objective ideal is known as the ishta-devata, that is, the chosen ideal of God.
There is a close relationship between one’s spirit-image and one’s ishta-devata. Spiritual aspirants should choose as their objective ideal only that divine Being who is in harmony with their own spirit-image and, if possible, one who is in harmony with their ego-ideal.
It is a mistake to look upon the ishta-devata merely as an aid in concentration, for even when one is not practicing meditation. the objective ideal continues to influence one’s thoughts, emotions and actions. There is a lot of difference between meditating on a black dot or gazing at a crystal and meditating on ishta-devata. The former may intensify one’s awareness, but the latter transforms the ego.
Even if one regards the ishta-devata as a mental projection (as in Tibetan Buddhism) or as an “archetype” (as the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung did), still the objective ideal has a great power of transforming the ego. Dr. Jung has shown that the archetypal symbols of God play two important roles: transformation of consciousness and integration of personality. He regarded the self as a center with the power to integrate the conscious and the unconscious and believed that, if this center was not occupied by the image of God, it would lead to disharmony and mental illness.
If mere symbols can produce such great changes in the mind, how much more powerful must be Reality itself! In Hinduism an ishta-devata is regarded not as a symbol but as a living manifestation of divine Reality. According to the Tantras, meditation on a deity automatically purifies the mind. Simply by adoring a divine personality one’s ego gradually gets transformed by absorbing to some extent the ishta-devata’s divine attributes. Those people who have established firmly their ishta-devata in the core of their heart will find their whole personality getting naturally integrated around that center.
Another transforming agent, which has a powerful influence on the ego, is love. Unlike knowledge, which is acquired from outside, love, is supposed to be inherent in the soul. Since it is generally assumed that everyone has enough love within themselves, everyone is expected to love everyone else. This assumption is, however, seldom found corroborated in actual life. A good many human problems and sufferings are caused by inadequate or misdirected love. This shows that love is not a simple emotional experience. Rather, it is a complex psychological phenomenon associated with different levels of personality.
At the level of the body love takes the form of physical attraction or fascination. At a higher level it becomes an expression of the unity of prana. An intense form of this love is found in the mother with a newborn baby. At a still higher level love manifests itself as the ego’s fellowship with other egos. This is the type of love that characterizes relationships among friends, colleagues and members of societies. At the highest level love is an expression of the oneness of the Atman with Brahman. This is the transcendent love or bhakti, which the soul feels for God.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition love is regarded as I-Thou relationship. Even God is the “wholly Other,” an eternal Thou. Love is not a subject-object. It is not an I-it relationship—like the relationship between a carpenter and timber or between a butcher and sheep—but a direct subject-subject relationship. The person who is loved is not treated as an object. Human relationships are a mutual exchange, a dialogue. Clearly, love in the Judeo-Christian tradition is conceived as an encounter between two egos. Egos are discrete entities with barriers separating them. The function of love is to overcome these barriers—a negative function.
This dualistic conception of love has two drawbacks. In the first place, it makes love an obligation—not a free and natural attribute of the soul but a duty imposed by God’s commandment. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This view is based on the belief that human beings are by nature selfish and sinful and that love is a divine gift. Secondly, it regards love for one’s own self and love for others as mutually exclusive and contradictory. By treating love for oneself as a sin it encourages self-hatred and taking recourse to selfless service as a form of escape from oneself.
According to Vedanta, love is an expression of the non-dual nature of Reality, which is nothing but the Supreme Self of whom all individual selves are parts. Love is not a supernatural gift but a natural attribute of the human soul. There is nothing to separate two selves except ignorance—ignorance of the true nature of the self—and ignorance is removed only by knowledge. When ignorance vanishes, true love already inherent in the soul, manifests itself spontaneously.
The natural relationship between human beings is not that of “I-thou” but of “we.” It is not necessary to hate oneself or escape from oneself in order to love others. Selfless service is not a special kind of activity but the natural way an enlightened soul acts. What one does for oneself should conduce to the welfare of others and what one does for others should conduce to one’s own welfare. In brief, love is the progressive integration of other selves into one’s true Self. The only authentic way to love others is to integrate their selves into yours.
An unavoidable step in this integration process is the transformation of ego-consciousness. The limited “I” must change into an ever expanding “we.” In a natural way this takes place to a limited extent in the family, in the friendship circle and in the monastic community, but it usually goes on as an unconscious process interrupted and distorted by instinctual drives like fear, hate and greed.
If freed from these lower obstructions, and if cultivated consciously as a spiritual discipline, love becomes one of the most potent means of transforming ego-consciousness. However, love can accomplish this task only if it is genuine. Merely imagining that one has love for others or cultivating polite and pleasing manners can bring about no inner transformation. Genuine, unselfish love is found only in spiritual people.
Prayer, worship, japa, meditation and similar spiritual disciplines form another class of ego transformers. These disciplines, unlike work, ideal and love which operate during the normal course of everyday life, are usually practiced at “specific” times. They produce significant results only when they are practiced with great intensity and steadfastness.
Though the methods discussed above bring about transformation of ego consciousness, they do not deal with the ego directly. The most effective way of changing the ego is to get hold of it, understand its workings and re-educate it. For this the ego must first of all be encountered in the depths of one’s consciousness. Most of the time we are driven into various activities without ever encountering the driver, the ego. We encounter so many people but seldom the ego. The ego has no visible configuration; it is not even a mental image. Nevertheless, its lineaments can be understood by encountering it directly.
This encounter is not a meditation of the ordinary kind, which is usually concentration of mind on an object such as divine image, name or concept. Nor is it thinking about one’s past or present actions and reactions. Encountering the ego is a direct communion with oneself. It is an immediate experience which may be best described as a kind of self-revelation. The ego generally puts on several masks, and much of our ordinary understanding of ourselves is based on self-deception. Encountering the ego is to know the ego without its masks. This self-revelation gives us a true picture of ourselves, a deep insight into our present problems and their causes which lie buried in the past.
Lack of self-knowledge is one of the basic causes of our failures and sufferings. It is also the main obstacle to spiritual progress. Many spiritual aspirants do not realize that before they begin their meditation if they spend at least fifteen minutes in encountering the ego, it will greatly improve their concentration and make meditation more realistic. The ego can be truly encountered only in the silence and stillness of the depths of one’s consciousness. The daily practice of this kind of interior encounter will soon bring about a great transformation of the ego and one’s total awareness.