One of the most potent advice you can give someone is to ask them to go within, or to know themselves.
We have all heard the old sayings from eastern philosophy.
I try in this episode to throw some light on these beautiful sayings. Join me as I walk you through a basic introduction to what it means to go within, what is the ego, what is the self and what are some illusions surrounding them.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, or Uncle JK as I fondly call him, used to say, “When I understand myself, I understand you. And out of that understanding comes love.” The man was right!
This surely will be worth your time, I promise.
I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought otherwise.
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In the previous episode, we talked about the word “God” and how it is usually misinterpreted to mean “The Creator” by almost all of us. A natural follow-up to that episode should be me talking about what the word actually means then. I concede to that, and that is what I’m going to try to get towards in this episode.
The important words in this sentence were “try to get towards”.
You see, in the olden days in the Indian tradition, it is said that people (both saints and otherwise) used to meditate for years altogether and would then finally get a glimpse of what the divine really is. Now, when I say they got a glimpse of the divine, I do not mean that a deity descended from the sky to greet them. That is a good idea for a TV show, and possibly one of the only ways to dramatically depict the idea, but it is not the truth. By getting a glimpse of the divine, I mean the understanding of what it’s all about, finally dawned on them.
What could be more divine, than understanding? One of the deepest, if not the deepest prayers we hold sacred in our hearts after all, is to get an understanding of what the hell is really going on? Out there! In here! Everywhere! And to have that understanding, is surely divine.
It is said that this understanding used to take years of earnest meditation to get to, and in the Indian tradition, people used to dedicate the later half of their lives trying to get to it. But we live in the information age now, where everything is available to us at the click of a button. And that too in a summarised format. So why would we wait an entire lifetime to get to it? Give me a brief overview of it and I’m all set.
Alas, this approach cannot work to reach the degree of understanding we’re talking about. You may gather all the words that summarise the understanding, but to really grasp what is being meant by those words, there is some work that has to be done. One has to unlearn a lot of what one thinks he/she already knows, one has to shine light on one’s own hidden beliefs and idiosyncrasies, etc etc. But more than anything, one has to really be willing to understand, and that means being willing to accept being wrong. Not wrong in the past, but wrong in the present moment.
So, consider listening to these episodes as the work that you’re doing to get a glimpse of that understanding. Of course, these episodes are like a finger pointing to the moon. They are not to be mistaken for the moon itself. We’ll try to reach it, slowly but surely.
Now then, what I wanted to cover in this episode is the idea of the ego. It is one of the key pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of Life, the universe and everything really. And this is another word which I had to unlearn a great chunk about. The word ego is usually confused with pride and arrogance, so if I was to say to you “You have an ego”, you would normally retort and get back to me saying, well let’s just say “not something too nice!”
But you do have an ego. All of us do. It just doesn’t mean being arrogant or being proud. Let me walk you through this.
Ego is actually the Latin word for ‘I’, and that is what it really means – a person’s sense of ‘I’. ‘I’ as in the letter ‘I’ not the organ ‘eye’. With my thick English accent, maybe it’s better to get that out of the way before you need to rewind to figure out what the hell this Indian dude was on about!
So, back to it. Your ego means quite literally your ‘I’. I am so-and-so, I feel so-and-so, I think so-and-so; we all say these sentences all the time. Whenever you’re saying or thinking in terms of ‘I’, it is the ego. And we all do that. So, we all have an ego. I hope you’d not be too mad if I said so now.
To have an ego barely means to have a sense of self, to have a sense of ‘I’. It doesn’t mean being proud or arrogant, etc. Of course, in everyday language, you can refer to pride in terms of ego with some adjectives. For eg: someone with excessive self-pride can be referred to as having an inflated ego. But whenever you encounter the word ‘ego’ in a philosophical text, or in this podcast, unlearn that previously learnt meaning. Know that ego refers to one’s sense of self. One’s idea of all of what comes underneath the word ‘I’.
And why is that important in the context of Life? In the context of God? In the context of understanding God?
Because your existence, after all, is maybe the first thing you can be absolutely sure of. I repeat myself – The fact that you exist, is maybe the first thing you can be absolutely sure of. Even if this entire world is a dream, you exist in that dream. Even if it’s a simulation, you exist in the simulation. So, it’s pretty obvious that any enquiry you do about the nature of the world around you should start with exploring yourself. This is what going within means. All of those old Buddhist and Hindu sayings you hear – “Go within!”, “Know yourself” – this is why they are saying all of that. The answers to our deepest questions lie hidden where we tend not to look – within.
You, your ‘I’, your ego – is the gateway to understanding Life, is the gateway to understanding God. And that is why the ego is important. Again, when I say ego, I do not mean your pride and self importance and arrogance. I mean your ‘I’.
Ok, so how do we go about exploring this ego? Well, for one, as is the case with any exploration, we’d have to observe it. Which is a tricky business really, observing yourself. But that is one of the beauties of our minds, we can do that. We can use our cognition, our thinking capabilities to turn its back and think about itself. In other words, we can go within. So let’s try and do just that.
What is this ‘I’ really? If you think about it, this ‘I’ is something that is consistently with us right from the time we’re born until we die. At all points in our waking state, and even in our dreams, we have a sense of ‘I’ – a consistent sense that there is a fixed entity that is behind all of this experience that we’re having. You know, a watcher behind all the sights that are getting registered, a hearer behind the sounds – an observer behind the observations. This is our ‘I’, we identify ourselves with this sensation – a fixed center somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears.
Now, one of the biggest illusions surrounding this ‘I’ is that it is a fixed entity. That is how we live our lives isn’t it? I will identify this constant entity ‘I’, which my parents got to name ‘Chetan Narang’, and I then go about telling everyone this is who I am, this is what I do, etc etc. In reality though, this ‘I’ is not a fixed entity, it cannot be. I mean, look at it from a little distance. The Chetan Narang who is speaking to you today cannot be the same Chetan Narang who was a rebellious teenager a few years ago; cannot be the same Chetan Narang who was a little toddler just trying his best to play some cricket a few years before that; would not be the same Chetan Narang who would maybe be recording episode 200 of this podcast some day.
But our own personal experience says otherwise. We experience this constant ‘I’ in the background always, and we feel that there is an element of everlasting experience in this ‘I’. Don’t you feel this way? I’m sure you do. You feel that there is something that has stayed the same in you right from your birth till this moment and you feel that that something would last till you die. Well, at least till you die.
This constant ‘I’ is an illusion. Not an illusion in the sense that it doesn’t exist, as is normally misinterpreted by a lot of “spiritual” people these days. It is an illusion in the sense that it is different from what it seems to be. Just like a mirage – when you see down a long road on a hot day and there seems to be water way down the road – that is an illusion, The road exists, the light, the heat, everything exists – but they together give the illusion of there being water.
In much the same way, we think a thousand different thoughts every day. We have been, ever since we came “out” of this world –
You see what I did there right? I hinted back at the last-but-one-episode of this show The separation fallacy. We do not come into this world, we come out of it.
Anyway, we think a thousand different thoughts and it is an endless process, and out of these thoughts also emerges the illusion of there being a constant entity behind these thoughts. Picture it in this manner – You light a stick of wood at one end or both ends, hold it in the middle and then swirl it around. If you get enough sticks to do this with, it will end up giving you the illusion of there being a constant ring of fire. Is there really a ring of fire? Of course not. It is an illusion generated by the movement of the sticks. Much in the same way as looking at a bunch of fishes swimming together in clear water can give you the illusion of there being one single big creature that’s swimming and not a thousand small fishes.
Such is the illusion surrounding our constant ‘I’ too. The real nature of our ‘I’ gets lost in identification with this constant nature of the illusion created by all of our thoughts and feelings and emotions and sensations., much like the ring of fire illusion created by all of those fast-moving, multiple fired-up sticks.
To put it in more poetic terms, this ‘I’, that me and you live under, is more a verb than a noun. It is constantly changing, ever evolving and is never as fixed as the illusion makes it to be.
But then, isn’t the next obvious question – what is the true nature of this ‘I’? What is the right, wholesome way of looking at the ego, at our own ‘I’?
Both very real, courageous questions. But I think we need to pause here. This episode has already gone on for longer than I had initially thought. And that’s fine really. We covered something quite fundamental today, fundamental to a whole bunch of other things we would be talking about in this show ahead.
For now, I’ll pause here and let you trip on all that this episode covered for some time.
As a short, sweet recap, I want to point out three key takeaways for you from this episode:
- In this show, or rather in the philosophical context, ego does not mean self-pride or arrogance. Rather, ego refers to a person’s sense of self, their sense of ‘I’.
- One of the biggest illusions surrounding this ‘I’ is that it is a fixed entity. It isn’t. Remember the ring of fire illusion. That is how our ‘I’ gets lost in identification with thoughts, feelings, sensations.
- Last but not the least, do not expect to get in a few minutes or hours what used to take years of dedicated meditations for the saints of yesteryears. Do the work. The results will flow, as they always do.
For the very curious listener, if you marry this episode with The Separation Fallacy episode, which was the second episode of this show, you’d pretty much already have a quite clear idea about what the next episode will be about.
Ohh that’s going to be an interesting one! For the somewhat less curious listener, I hope what I just said helped incite at least a little more curiosity than before. If not, I sure hope you turn up in the next episode anyhow.
Because after all, you do not know what you do not know.
Check out the episode on The Unlearning Playground YouTube channel here