[Ego and real self]

Dear Donagh,

Thanks for your blog.  I get a lot of benefit from it.  But sometimes it’s hard to follow.  I know you often mention it, but could you tell us again what you mean by the ego and how it’s different from myself.  If you asked me I'd have said they were the same thing.  But you seem to be saying theyre different.  And you bring it into everything, especially religion.  Do we have to believe in it, or to not believe in it?  We never heard of it when I was in school, and our priest here in [….] never mentions it at all.  Can you throw some light on it please?  Thanks very much.  Nora L. 

Dear Nora,

I'm grateful for your letter; it gives us a chance to look at this topic again. 

You must have heard it said of someone that he “had notions about himself.”  Or herself.  That was a common expression in my part of the country.  We could see that his idea of himself was nowhere near the truth.  But he would defend that idea of himself as aggressively as he would defend himself physically if he were physically attacked.  Call that idea that he has of himself, his ‘ego’.  That's it.  There’s no more to the ego than that.  It’s just a mistaken, but deep-set, notion about oneself. 

But there’s a lot more to him than that.  He’s not doing himself justice.  There’s a lot more to all of us than that.  What we really are is a lot better than even the highest ‘notion’ we have about ourselves.  Even the smallest bit of reality is better than a whole world of notions.  When any of us, as children, began to boast or ‘talk big’, my mother would just say, “High notions and low stations.”  No impatience on her part, no raised voice, no lecture – just that one memorable phrase.  Impatience would have upset everyone, a raised voice would have made us defensive, a lecture would soon have been forgotten.  It takes a lot of wisdom to dislodge an ego, or even to give it a good shake.  Our normal efforts only help it to dig in deeper.  I'm very impressed now, at this great distance in time, by my mother’s method: just a quiet, humorous and persistent calling down to earth and back to reality. 

Down to earth.  That would be the ‘low station’.  But it is ‘low’ only in comparison to the airy notions and the fancies that take flight into unreality.  Here on the earth, bedded into reality, is where our real self lives – our ‘true nature’, as many call it.  It may not seem to be much, but it is real.  It is like treasure buried in a field.  Remember the parable in the gospel?  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Mt 13:44).  In the gospels, the words ‘kingdom of heaven’ mean ‘the presence of God’.  In our humble being, our low station, we are the place where God lives.  A Dominican mystic, Johann Tauler, referred to it in the 14th century as “a place where God may do his work.”  We can scarcely understand it at all, because we can scarcely understand God at all.  Around the same time, another mystic, an Englishwoman named Julian of Norwich, wrote, “Our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured that we cannot come to knowledge of it until we first have knowledge of God, who is the Creator to whom it is united.”  Our soul, our deepest self, is so mysterious, she said, that it is almost easier to understand God than to understand it.  “I saw most surely that it is quicker for us and easier to come to the knowledge of God than it is to know our own soul.”  This treasure hidden in the earth, hidden in this ‘low station’, is what we really long to discover. 

We long to discover it, but we tend to look in wrong directions.  We look up into a world of dreams and fantasies of greatness, but all the while it is under our feet.  We look at places far away, but it is right where we are.  This isn't a new notion; Christians have known it from the beginning.  “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves,” wrote St Augustine in the 5th century, and others have been repeating that without end.

As you say, we didn’t hear about this in school.  More’s the pity.  It would have clarified a lot of things and prevented misunderstanding.  It’s a pity that people forgot to draw out of meaning of Jesus’ words, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33).  It must mean that there is something double in us: if we are to live, there is something in us that has to die.  The false identity that we live by has to fall away.  We have to learn, deep down, that we are much more than we settle for.  The ‘ego’, the shallow identity that we pull around ourselves, is only our own idea of who we are.  It has to die.  We don’t need to pull these rags around ourselves; we are something much greater. 
This is a difficult thing to learn.  Shallow things we can learn very easily, but deeper things are much more difficult to learn.  You can't just look it up in Wikipedia; it has to be personal knowledge; it has to grow on you.  The word ‘realise’ would be better than ‘learn’.  Slowly, as we develop the habit of letting go our own foolish trains of thought – which we could call ego-thought – a deeper realisation begins to flicker for us.  Or sometimes it comes all of a sudden.  That kind of ‘knowledge’ (or rather realisation) is knowledge of our true self. 
Did it ever strike you that the Penitential Rite at the beginning of the Mass seems strange when you think about it?  In the earlier translation it sounded really strange: “To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins!”  It would be very odd if you were to begin any other kind of celebration in this way: a birthday party, for example, or a debs’ ball.  Shouldn’t we try to look our best at a celebration – dressing up nicely, and keeping all nastiness well out of sight?  I once heard a priest say, “To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us forget about our sins!”  Was that better?  It may sound much more positive, but it wasn’t better.  We bring ourselves to Mass as we really are – not an edited version.  That gives us great freedom.  It’s nice when you don’t feel you have to hide, or pretend anything.  We come as the sinners that we are.  This means that we are standing in the truth, not in the glow of some kind of self-delusion.  But we don’t pretend that we are standing fully in the truth; we admit that we have brought our egos with us.  So, as we stand there before the altar of God we are affirming our real identity, our true nature; and we are also (and at the same time) acknowledging the false identities we want to be rid of.  I find this thought to be of immense value.  We are not pretending to be better than we are; and at the same time we are not wallowing in self-rejection.  That's the ‘double’ something in us: ego and true nature.  Both are there, whether we look at them or not. 

I hope this is of some help to you, Nora.  Thanks again for your letter. 


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