Tag Archives: philosophy

The Most Life-Altering Concept in Philosophy

The human ego is an illusion. Breaking free from this illusion, at least periodically, is a critical step towards spiritual growth. The ego is nothing more than a mental construct, which identifies with ones thoughts; it is empowered when we believe we are what we think. The ego strings together past events and projects into the future. It is the part of ourselves that compares and separates us from others. For most people their sense of self is closely tied to the ego.

Human brain glowing lateral viewThe concept of self that I want to point out is a wider state of human consciousness. It is pure awareness in the present moment, independent of other experiences. The words enlightenment, awakening, transcendence and mindfulness have been used to describe something similar. I see self-awareness as a fundamental result of consciousness, while the ego is a mind created entity.

The illusion I want to point out is that when we define ourselves, more often than not, we are describing our ego. By doing this we are missing out on a more complete sense of self, one that numbs our subjective individuality in favor of an interconnected reality with the outside world.

The Illusion

I am only beginning to recognize the full deception of the illusion, and the power to be transformed by becoming aware of it. For me, it is still a work in progress, although I have already experienced a shift in how I see myself.

The idea that the ego is an illusion is difficult to explain. Even if it is understood in principle, it still has to be internalized and applied to one’s life. So convincing is the illusion of the ego that for some people the words on this page will be meaningless. They are totally convinced they are their ego (nothing more, nothing less). However, once the illusion is identified the implications can be profound and life changing. Realizing that the ego is not what it seems can be the first step towards spiritual transformation.

Our ego is derived by the continuous stream of experiences. Our memories and experiences are woven into a coherent story, the story of me and the story of you. The stronger the attachment we have with our story, the stronger the identification is with the ego. In addition, the story is also projected into the future. Contrary to popular thinking, someone with a large ego does not necessarily believe he/she is better than other people; they simply identify more strongly with their story (their past and future).

The ego identifies with the external world in different ways, and misinterprets the external reality for the internal reality. To the ego, we are what we do, have, own, make and look. Our sense of identity is tied in with possessions, money, status, occupations, roles, appearances, and the opinion of others. These are things mostly outside of us, and they become part of our story. But things we identify with are not who we are.

The Collective Ego

There is another aspect to the ego which is just as prevalent. These are the things we identify with as a group (the collective ego). Being absorbed by our ego creates a mental position that separates us from life and other groups of people. Collectively, these mental positions are strengthened and become even more destructive. The collective ego takes several forms, such as: nationalism, race, religion, politics, ethnicity, tribal and ideologies.

world war 2 tanks

As long as we can say: “We are right and they are wrong,” or “We are good and they are evil,” or “It’s us against them,” then the door is open for all kinds of abuses. The collective consciousness that completely separates humanity into distinct groups is the root of war and violence. Contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth:

“By far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”

Breaking Free From the Illusion

Eckhart TolleEckhart Tolle has written several books on spiritual growth. Central to his message, in The Power of Now and A New Earth, is the human dysfunction associated with the ego. And that an enlightened state of consciousness is possible by dissolving the ego. This can only occur when we access the dimension of the present moment. The ego arises through the stories in our minds; fully focused on the present there is no story. The ego exists only as a mental construct, just like the past and future. In reality, only the present is real.

In the The Power of Now, Tolle recalls his experience of breaking away from identification with the ego. After a lengthy period of anxiety and depression, one simple thought completely changed his perspective of life. On one especially dreadful night he thought:

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

The Transformation of Consciousness

Tolle realized that his suffering was caused by his identification with the ego. This was the ‘self’ he could not live with. He learned that by relinquishing the ego, his anxiety and depression would also disappear; his state of mind shifted to deep peace and bliss.

The core problem is the stress that arises in order to maintain the false self. The ego is never satisfied for very long, as it always needs to be built up. What arises in most people is a deep-seated feeling of longing, of never having enough or being enough. It is an endless game of striving, struggling, competing, fighting, arguing, and so one.

We all have an ego, a form of self-preservation I suppose. No doubt it evolved as a survival mechanism. A strong sense of individual identity must have been an advantage in a highly competitive environment. We still compete today on many levels, but for the most part it is not life or death. The key insight is to see it for what it is: an unavoidable part of the human condition that has to be kept in check.

Tolle also realized that the entry point towards enlightenment is the present moment. That is The Power of Now, the transformation of consciousness that emerges by letting go of our story, and living fully in the present. The true self is the conscious awareness behind our thoughts, the ego and our story. Living in the now, free from the grip of ego, is the simplest and most practical philosophy for well-being and mental health. That is the most life-altering concept in philosophy.

 

References:

Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006), 73.

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 2004), 4.

Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion (Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2012.


 

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A Special Time

This blog site was inspired by our book, The Landscape of Reality (Nov. 18, 2014). The blog is an offshoot or extension from some of the themes in the book. The blog will focus on creative ideas and concepts from science, nature and philosophy. All with the intent of providing a perspective of life that is in line with the physical and natural world. The content will be tailored for a general audience. I define the three fields in the following manner:

  • Science is about a factual and logical understanding of the world and the universe. The foundation of science is verifiable evidence.
  • Nature is more closely associated to living things and how we experience the world, but not exclusively. One could also view nature as the source, and science as the field of study.
  • Philosophy is about how we think and apply the concepts, what it means for us.

 Why a Special Time?

In all of human history, no time compares to the last century in terms of change and increased knowledge. Aside from advancements in science that have eased many of life’s burdens, new and exciting discoveries are revealing the universe’s true colors. The scientific endeavor has uncovered explanations of our world and beyond, which call to question long-held beliefs. We, as individuals and as a species, have the opportunity to understand the nature of our existence in ways that past generations could not have imagined.

Galaxy Cluster

Galaxy Cluster

Lawrence M. Krauss and Bob Scherrer wrote concerning the picture of the large-scale universe:

“We live at a very special time…the only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!”

There is an intriguing implication behind this quote. According to Krauss, due to the expansion of the universe, galaxies will get increasingly farther apart. At some point in the far future, galaxies will become so isolated that all evidence of the cosmological picture of the universe will disappear. From any galaxy, potential observers will not detect anything beyond their own galaxy. They will arrive at the conclusion that the universe consists of only a single galaxy (the same view that people had before the last century), and they will be completely wrong.

 A Drastic Change of Perspective

  • Before the last century: The earth was viewed as part of a solar system, within a collection of stars (there were no known planets outside our solar system). All stars were contained within a single galaxy of a static universe.
  • After the last century: The earth is now known to be located on the outer edge of an ordinary galaxy (hundreds of planets outside our solar system have been discovered). The Milky Way is part of a huge conglomerate of billions of galaxies within an expanding universe.

 A Philosophical Angle

Before the development of modern science, natural philosophy was the term used to describe the study of nature and the physical universe. In this sense, science emerged out of philosophy. The critical difference that allowed science to branch out from philosophy was the requirement that science relied on experimentation to acquire knowledge. Still, the two have been closely linked for a long time.

In the early period of science the focus was on uncovering the laws that governed nature. The application of science came later as mankind learned they could manipulate nature for their own benefit. Now the applied sciences seem to have captured the imagination of the general population. Technologies of every kind are dominating our lives. But I caution that an opportunity to fully appreciate and understand the laws of nature is being missed. And that our excesses from modernization are growing faster than our ability to monitor the changes to our planet and ourselves.

Nevertheless, it is clear that science cannot be viewed solely as an applied field. The current scientific picture has philosophical implications as well. Learning about science can be an intellectual pursuit that has the power to enrich our lives at a philosophical and emotional level. The time is ripe for making science accessible and meaningful to the general population. Explanations from different areas of science are now merging well together, and form a view of reality that is utterly fascinating and awe-inspiring. Those are the feelings I hope to convey in the blog posts that will follow.

Ray of Sunlight

 

References: Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012)