As the coffee break was ending, one participant in the retreat was overheard saying, “It says in this book, ‘false ego’. False ego? What is that?”
There wasn’t time to investigate, unfortunately. Was the person referring to the Ten Sufi Thoughts, where it speaks about the annihilation of the false ego? Was the obvious note of puzzlement there because the mureed had assumed that all ego is false? The term ‘false ego’ seems to imply that there is an ego that is not false. What is that?
In spiritual circles of many different traditions it is common to blame everything upon the ego. Depending on the path and the context, we are told to ‘overcome’ our ego, to ‘master’ our ego, to ‘purify’ ourselves from the stains of ego, and even to ‘crush’ our ego; various exercises are given to the seeker on the spiritual path for developing the will power necessary to over-rule the impulses of the ‘me’ instinct. What is more, with only a little bit of tuning, we begin to see that virtually all the problems of life come from the actions of ego, either the rough-edged, vigorous–and apparently very real!–egos of others, or our own obsessive, endlessly self-centred point of view. What parent has not said–or thought–in response to a teenager’s melodramatic moaning about the unfairness of life, ‘You know, it isn’t always about YOU! You’re not the center of the universe!’
To complete the condemnation of the ego, Hazrat Inayat Khan goes so far as to equate it with the Devil (although he makes it clear that the Devil is a condition and not a being separate from the Divine Presence, for nothing, not an atom, can be separate from God). In volume XII of the Message series, in a chapter on mastery, he says: …the ego always wants feeding, and the more you feed it the more energy it has. What are you feeding it with? You feed it with your inclinations, by getting praise from people or attentions, benefits, help, or love. Whether these come justly or through injustice, rightfully or not, this ego is never satisfied; it keeps on wanting attention. As a result it begins to rule over the higher faculties of inspirational and spiritual power, of wisdom, reason, and justice – all the beautiful qualities. This Nafs or ego or Satan (for the ego is Satan) governs all these faculties, and a man cannot become saintly until he has crushed it; there is no other way whatever than this. The saintly personality cannot come into being until all this is achieved.
Why, then, do we say, ‘false ego’? Is is merely a sort of rhetorical device, like saying ‘sweet sugar’ or ‘bright sun’? To understand this, we must look more closely at the phenomenon of the ego, the identification of a specific person or thing with ‘I’. In ‘Cosmic Language,’ part of vol II of the Message series*, Hazrat Inayat devotes a chapter to ego, in which he makes it clear that the soul, divine in origin and nature, becomes identified with what is nearest to it when it comes into manifestation: the physical body. The vehicle, the body, becomes ‘me’, although it is limited, fallible, and transitory, and therefore does not deserve to bear such an honour. If one begins to examine life carefully, one discovers that everything one thought was ‘mine’ was in reality only borrowed: my possessions, my body, even my thoughts–all are only temporary guests. So who or what is ‘I’?
In reality there is only One who merits the use of the word ‘I’, which is to say, the Only Being. When a realised soul sails beyond the narrow harbour of the individual self, and glimpses the endless, borderless, bright sea of Being, it becomes clear that ‘I’ is All. The fifteenth century German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa said that “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.” This means that every dimensionless point of the infinite spread of consciousness is ‘I’; the disconsolate teenager mentioned above is, after all, the center of the universe–but she or he misses the point that so is every other atom, particle, and being (and from that ignorance and separation comes the unhappiness). From this it becomes possible to see that the compassion of the illuminated soul for the pain of others is not something imaginary; it comes because every sorrow, of every being, is ‘my’ sorrow, just as every joy is ‘my’ joy.
In other words, it is not the ego which is false, but the misidentification of the ego with such a small portion of the infinite treasure house which is the home and heritage of every being. What is crushed is not the ego, as such, but this false conception. Really speaking, it is exchanging poverty for infinite wealth–and yet, it is so difficult to do!
*This volume is now being translated into Spanish, and hopefully will be available for the Quito retreat in August, 2016.