The one who gathers the flowers of sensual pleasures,
Whose mind is distracted
And who is insatiate in desires,
Him the Destroyer brings under his way.
As the bee takes honey from the flowers,
Leaving its color and fragrance unharmed,
So should the sage wander in the village.
The Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha), Ch. 4.
Modern spiritual teachings often reject or disregard the importance of subduing the ego in spiritual development. Let it be, they say. It will always be there. Let it do what it does, be whoever it thinks it is. It has decades of conditioning, which can’t be easily undone. Just see that it is not You. Disassociate from it. When you awaken, the worst of your habits will drop away.
It all sounds plausible, but in practice, proves not so simple. It is true we are not the ego. We are untouched by any of its shenanigans. It has nothing to do with our awakening. It cannot touch the pristine perfection of who we are.
But we disregard it at our peril. As long as it seems real, it is a powerful force. Ignoring this fact can lead to unskillful action in our lives, even to a lack of responsibility, and at worst, to the indulgences of "crazy wisdom," where the ego, imagining itself to be enlightened, abides by no social restraints or conventional morality.
But if we truly are not the ego, why is any of this a problem? It is not. It’s not a problem for Oneness, who is always untouched. But it will be a problem for the character, who will bring suffering upon itself and others. Again, this is of no concern to you if you have absolutely no identification with the character. In that case, you are truly free of karma, and can allow the ego free reign.
But the catch here is that the more we become caught up in worldly games, indulgences or pleasures, the harder it is to dis-identify with the ego. You get drawn into its drama. You become enmeshed in its latest snare. You are buffeted by its volatile emotions. All of this distracts you from seeing who you are, from living as the One you are. You become small. And you stay small. You know that you are not the character. You are the vastness. But somehow this fails to resonate in the here and now. What we discover empirically is that we do need to rein ourselves in before our untouched, original nature can be genuinely experienced.
This is why all spiritual traditions advocate various codes of conduct and practices aimed to diminish the ego, to move us away from the center of the small self. A certain dispassion for the pleasures of this world keeps us aloof from its endless diversions and games. Charity, kindness, and forgiveness help us to focus on others. Restraint of the senses safeguards us from the shadowy netherworlds of sloth, gluttony, addiction, lust and greed. A simple, clean life allows the mind to settle, creates a feeling of space. It becomes calm and clear, open to directly perceiving What Is.
The five precepts of Buddhism for the laity are to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Likening the senses to a team of chariot horses, Hinduism, too, stresses the importance of self-governance:
Undistracted by his fine horses, a driver who is skilled rides happily...[But] senses out of control bring one to grief, as untrained and disobedient horses bring a driver to grief on the road.
The Mahābhārata, 5(51)34:57-58.
This might strike us as mundane. We have no quarrel with self-control or leading an ethical life. But many of us were attracted to Buddhism or nonduality because they seemed to offer something more sophisticated and liberating than mere exhortation to good conduct. And, for the most part, we are already mature and well behaved people. Our carousing days, if they ever were, are past.
And yet, we still find ourselves often struggling, not living as truth, despite a clear understanding of nondual teachings, and despite at least one, and maybe several intense spiritual glimpses or awakenings.
Vedanta and Buddhism both hold that a primary hindrance to living as awareness in the here and now is an agitated, distracted mind. And the cause of this is an impure mind. This does not mean we are not good people. We are likely not committing any egregious wrongs.
But some honest self appraisal can be of aid. Are my primal impulses under control? Do I spend a lot of time in worry or in anger? Do I hold resentments? Do I use food to soothe emotions or to mask boredom? Or shopping for the same? Or travel, or endless busy-ness? Could I be more generous with my time or money?
Lack in any of these areas pleases the ego immensely. It shores it up, gives it strength, keeps it going, first by providing momentary relief and distraction, and then by pulling us into remorse and struggle. Using food as emotional balm leads to poor health. Consumerism may lead to debt. Anger unleashed undermines relationships. These foibles lead to guilt, regret and energy expended in efforts to mitigate the harm cause. They also prevent us from discovering and facing the deeper emotional issues that need to be healed.
All of this clouds our vision, casting shadows over the glory of who we are, here and now.
You are not a flawed person who needs improvement. Modern spirituality is right on that point. You are not a person at all. But this seeming person, this character, can cause a lot of mischief when left to its own devices. Don’t give it free reign. It needs your love and firm guidance. Practice the precepts; address any weaknesses. This will displease the ego (which is why changing our ways is not easy!) But effort made toward these ends over time will very effectively diminish the illusory sense of self, which is, after all, the only thing that darkens our present experience.
We don’t want perfection. That would require too much energy, and may even have the untoward effect of bolstering the ego: Look how good I am! A few weaknesses or flaws are good for humility. We aim for the level of character development and conduct which interests the ego the least, which gives it little to latch onto as identity. Be boring to yourself! This will, quite magically, intrigue your true Self, drawing its attention and light. As you graciously step aside, it deftly takes the lead.
Continue to be the good soul that you are. And strive to be a little better. Guide the self gently into a more sattvic way of being. Be a little more generous, gentle and kind. Be mindfully moderate with all pleasures. Be of even temperament, facing both fortune and misfortune with equanimity.
The ego, or character, will counter you along the way. It senses itself thinning out, as you spend less time indulging its impulses and more time thinking of others or in inquiry or contemplation. It perceives itself growing more ethereal, as your true self begins to dawn. Persevere; don’t listen to its objections. Soon you will find yourself in a quieter place.
The mind is still and clear. The mind is pure. And so the One Mind, reflected in all individual minds, shines brightly through. The peace and joy that have always been there are now felt, not by the character, but by the One whose very essence is peace and bliss – You. You are coming to know your Self.
Wander through the village as a sage. Enjoy the nectar of this world, but leave its color and fragrance unharmed. Move gently through the crowd, lightly over the earth, and quietly into the sublime ocean of all that Is, ever was, and ever will be. It’s all yours. It’s all You.