A Fool and His Ego are Soon Parted
None of these things are pathological per se, and certainly not as they pertain to the ego as such. There is nothing wrong with achieving success or renown, so long as one keeps perspective and puts everything in its proper place. And much depends on caste and temperament. There is a form of yoga proper to each person, yoga being the most generic and universal description of the various paths of ego transcendence.
In fact, where I part company with certain spiritual schools is precisely over this question of the ego. I am sure this results from my psychoanalytic training, which appreciates just how much of an accomplishment it is to develop a healthy ego. For Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was quite modest; on one occasion he said words to the effect that it was to convert intense suffering to garden variety unhappiness. In a less cynical mood, he said that it was to develop the capacity to work, love and play -- which is to say, cultivate productivity, creativity, and deep and satisfying relationships. None of these things should be minimized. They aren’t chopped liver.
Speaking of chopped liver, one of the beautiful things about Judaism is that it systematically elevates all of these activities to the center of spiritual life. It is a very “worldly” religion, but at the same time, it specifically attempts to illuminate this world with the light of another -- to see the sanctity in everyday living. There is no monastic tradition in Judaism, no attempt to escape, even vertically. Rather, the task is to create a life in which vertical energies descend into the day-to-day activities of this world, regardless of whether one is engaging in a business transaction, eating a meal, or raising a child. Everything becomes an occasion to vertically “re-member” the divine and therefore “forget” the ego.
In this sense, Judaism is very much a form of karma yoga (which is not to say that it doesn’t have its bhakti, hatha, raja, or jnana aspects as well, as all religions have each but tend to emphasize one; in passing, let it also be said that each religion can also become a shadow of its dominant mode, which is why, for example, Judaism can veer into legalism, or “bhakti” Christianity into a mindless and sentimental fideism, or “raja” Buddhism into an impractical escapism that sees the world only as illusion).
Mere ego transcendence without discernment will inevitably lead to foolishness. Remember, all religions evolved within traditional cultures, so one must be very cautious in isolating a particular spiritual idea from its overall context -- not just its scriptural context, but its culturally embodied context.
Let’s take the wrongheaded idea that the ego is the source of all our difficulties, something we must jettison entirely. It is one thing to do that in a supportive community of fellow spiritual seekers who are all "on the same page,” another thing entirely to indiscriminately apply it to the wider world. Doing so will lead to moral idiocy.
We see this, for example, in recent statements by the Dalai Lama that "There is a perception among the Western media that Islam is militant but that is not true,” that “All religions have the same potential for peace," and even that “The concept of war is outdated. Violence is unpredictable and it can go out of hand. Conflict situations should be resolved through negotiations.” This is the same sort of dangerous moral lunacy that was promulgated by Gandhi, and it is manifestly false. Not only that, but believing it would clearly lead to more evil in the world, not less.
But as I said, if you believe the world is simply “maya,” or an empty illusion, it should not be surprising that your moral categories are going to be a bit muddled, since morality specifically applies to this relative world that we inhabit. The Dalai Lama is undoubtedly correct in affirming that the concept of war is outdated in the land of samadhi, but it takes a lot of nirvana to say that this world would be a better place if we would simply negotiate with Islamists, nazis, or other implacably evil monsters of depravity.
If the Dalai Lama were a manava his word, he would have stayed in Tibet and negotiated with Mao. Yes, Mao was the most evil man who ever lived, having been responsible for the murder of some 70 million human beings. But hey, conflict situations should be resolved through negotiations, not by safely jet-setting around in countries that believe evil is real and must be confronted.
Do you see the problem? Frithjof Schuon wrote that “The reduction of the devil to the ego amounts in practice to the devil’s abolition…. The door then stands open to a puerile optimism, which is all the more dangerous in that it is mingled unsuspectingly with progressivist optimism.… Moreover a too exclusive -- and in any case inconsistent -- ‘satanization’ of the ego entails a too simplistic ‘divinization’ of the ‘other,’ which means that replacing the devil by the ego goes hand in hand with replacing God by the ‘neighbor,’ whence an ‘altruism’ that appears as an end in itself and thus loses all contact with metaphysical truth, and so with genuine spirituality.”
Is this not self-evident, both in theory and in practice? It is not only a certain type of Buddhist who is susceptible to this kind of moral foolishness. Obviously it can also afflict Christians who take this or that statement by Jesus out of context in order to support the deeply immoral idea of pacifism. In reality, there is no right superior to truth. Therefore, if your morality is not grounded in truth, it will cease to be moral despite your good intentions.
This, of course, is precisely what is wrong with all forms of leftist “do-gooderism,” and why their ideas do not work in practice. To be perfectly accurate, like the Dalai Lama’s ideas, they will work, but only in paradise -- as will Mao’s ideas. But if you willfully confuse the herebelow with paradise, a lot of people are going to be hurt and killed. And you won’t get paradise anyway.
As Schuon explains, if brotherly love becomes the highest ideal, the distinction between truth and error is attenuted if not obliterated. Since the ego is considered “error” per se, “there is then nothing wrong with believing two and two make five, provided one ‘does good’ or ‘renders service.’” This amounts to an escape from ego “from below” instead of above, since it is not possible to simultaneously transcend the ego and “abide in error,” as it were.
“From here,” as Schuon explains, “it is but a step to acceptance of the Antichrist out of humility or charity, even for the sake of being ‘nice.’” While these lovers of mankind are technically correct in appreciating the dangers of intellectual pride, it is another thing altogether to try to transcend intelligence along with the ego.
Doing so merely replaces one kind of pride with another. The other day, ShrinkWrapped had an excellent post on what amounts to the “pride of pacifism” or the selfishness at the heart of selflessness. You should read the whole thing, but the gist, for our purposes, is the idea that there is no one so proud and narcissistic as the pacifist who demonizes the war or President Bush as a means to morally elevate himself, thus spuriously converting cowardice to courage.
You will notice how incoherent this becomes. The Vietnam war, for example, was supposedly a terrible, immoral thing. And yet, because of it, we have “great” war heroes like Jons Carry or Murtha who can instruct us on the ways of war. Somewhere in their hearts, these people must believe that great good came from great evil, since they believe that no one who hasn’t fought in an even immoral war is morally qualified to either lead or avoid war. This means that if we follow the pacifist and eliminate all war, we will eventually have no one qualified to either fight or capitulate. But we needn’t worry. As we speak, there is someone fighting in Iraq who, twenty or thirty years hence, will be morally qualified to make cowards feel courageous.
To be continued....