Your ego is bigger than you think. It's not just your swagger. It's not just that mild dominion you feel after beating a friend at parcheesi. Those are a part of your ego, but only a part of it. The larger ego is made up of every element of your psyche that identifies itself with your body, the world, and this culture through which we move. For most of us, therefore, it is our "person." It is the whole of what we know of ourselves. So, feeding your ego isn't just convincing yourself you're wonderful, which is easy to recognize in ourselves, but it is reaffirming your identification with the body and the world, which is not so easy to recognize. When you feel pleasure you affirm the body. When you seek enjoyment you affirm the body's place in the world. When you stroke the mind with the respect of others or the satisfaction of possessions or a pride in your intelligence you feel secure in our culture. These and an infinite number of even more intangible subtleties nourish the ego.
Religions have a problem with ego. And I'm not talking about any one religion--but all of them. Review all of the religions and you will see, one by one, that each of them seeks in its injunctions and admonitions to nullify this ego. All of the religions---in their origins---have seen that it is the ego that stands between man and God. The ego and only that. So each in its own way has sought to disassemble the ego with rules, to take the ego apart bit by bit. The idea is to remove this ego; since to remove it means removing the one obstacle between man and God, which is the ultimate purpose of religion.
All religions seek to limit the senses. All religions seek to remove the importance of culture. All religions seek to take away the acts that strengthen the ego socially. They take from a man vanity and riches. They take from a woman jealousy and lust. They tell a person to withdraw his senses and not to indulge them. If all of these advices are followed, the affirmation a man gets from the culture around him fade away, and the indentifications that define him as one with his body are removed. If all of us could follow all of these rules honestly and without hypocrisy, all of our egos would evaporate. There would be nothing then between us and God. Religion would triumph over our humanness. We would be naked spirit in a neutral body looking through it to the truth.
But this is in the origins of religions. This is the saint or yogi answering the questions of their direct disciples and those disciples scribbling down the answers. The direct disciples understand the master's advice is about freedom from the ego. So the disciples follow the advice toward that end and find that freedom. Those who come just after the direct disciples understand this also because the direct disciples tell them. And the next generation understands it, too. But eventually the simple point of the advice--to be liberated from the ego--is lost, and all that is left is a confusion of rules. Then, thousands of years later, we come along. By then religion is just a crowd of people who have no intrinsic understanding of the simplicity of the message force-feeding the rest of us an organized list of dos and don'ts.
This is a great tragedy. The ego, in its bewildering complexity, is really just an illusion that we have the predilection to believe in, and then are very forcefully taught to believe in by mom and dad and our teammates on the rugby team and television. It is a million impulses that identify us with our body, and a million lessons that situate our consciousnesses in our culture, not the least of which is religion itself.
Watch someday a preacher standing before a crowd of people. Watch him grandly preach these dos and don'ts. Watch the people listening to him who righteously believe they dutifully follow these dos and don'ts. And see how none of them realize, not even the preacher, that as they stand together and stroke each others feelings of piosity, they are all together reinforcing their secure place in their culture, and thus reaffirming their egos. Together, therefore, they stand erecting invisible barriers between themselves and God while believing they do just the opposite.
This is a slight exaggeration, of course. There are true believers who have glimpsed beyond the veil of their ego to the truth; and who understand intrinsically the use of the rules and so can obey them or not without harming their quest. And there are people who will finally pull this veil completely away in their lifetime, an occasional preacher among them. But these I think are hidden away in sacred huts, or are ministering quietly to the lonely dying. They never stand importantly before others, or walk boldly among them.
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