It is very difficult to live in this world without an ego that seeks for its own satisfaction. You may have a negative view of ego but its capacity for identification is essential for almost all of our actions and the motives behind them. As the Buddha said, there is almost nothing that we can think or do that does not aim to get what we want or avoid what we do not want. These are the two fundamental gestures of human beings…affirming and denying, or as he said, clinging and averting. This is ego and this is what ego does.
Do I know what it would be like to have no ego? Would I get up in the morning? Would I have anything to say? To be without ego, even just for a little time, is like being naked before the world. It takes great courage and immense capacity to initiate even the most basic actions.
As Buddha said, ego is the root cause of unhappiness, the source of our conflicts and disappointments but it also protects us from the terror of meaninglessness. Its contraction around itself shuts out the fearful immensity of space. Ego is the gravity that shapes the world and gives it coherence.
The ego hides itself in its identities which it justifies and promotes…identities such as father or mother, friend, teacher, worker, employer…any role I assume to give my life structure and purpose. We find meaning in the identities we have accepted, which are nothing more than the conditioning and habits formed around the ego to act as its container and protection. Ego has no independent existence, no substance other than what it borrows from the things it identifies with.
So, is that all there is? Does ego define and explain everything we can think and do? I suggest there is something else quite mysterious and completely unlike ego which is virtue. Virtue is an action for its own sake, something that arises outside the ego, without identification, which offers satisfaction and contentment without self-seeking. In virtue, we sit in the lap of angels and do the work of another world. Your ego will seize on this as something for it to achieve but virtue does not come from us. It’s a gift, a trickle of grace come down from heaven. This is what distinguishes virtue…it is not ours and it does not depend upon us for its existence. We cannot make it but we can destroy it.
I experience a spontaneous impulse of compassion or kindness towards another human being or animal. At the very moment of this impulse, it is decided whether it is virtue or not. If I claim it for myself, feel proud or important or virtuous, the impulse is diverted and is no longer virtue. If it is allowed to flower in the moment of its expression without identification, virtue lives as a corridor for the descent of higher qualities.
Can virtue be facilitated? Perhaps. There is a third gesture between clinging and averting…the gesture of releasing…Buddha’s middle way. When my ego reaches to grab what is good for itself, can I release the gesture of grabbing and allow the good to stand without me? This is the gesture of freedom which allows virtue to exist and flower. Every virtue allowed to unfold without my appropriation blossoms into love.