The Last Frailty
O Kabir, be not proud of your body
It’s just bones wrapped in skin.
Those who rode on stately horses
With a canopy of royalty over their head,
Now lie buried deep.
Kabir, The Great Mystic
Pride in our body, pride in our accomplishments or possessions or anything else – Kabir and all the great saints have alerted their followers to the battle that needs to be won against the ego, humanity’s last and greatest frailty. The saints tell us that this is what separates us from the Lord – it is the biggest threat to our spiritual growth and the main source of all our suffering.
The ego is no mean enemy. This final battle to conquer it will inevitably be a difficult one because it means we have to kill something of our own selves. To a large extent on this plane the ego is our own identity. It is who we believe ourselves to be, this body that we think we are. It is our sense of self, our self-image. It is our reference point on our journey through life. It is the ego that makes us see the world through the prism of our likes and dislikes, through our prejudices, narrow mindedness, bigotry and biases, as well as our preconceived notions and ideas.
The ego is our individuality. Being our identity, it sets us apart from other people’s identities. It provides us with a sense of being separate from other people and from the world in general. It is a tiny fortress, and from the ramparts of this fortress we observe the world.
How did it come about that we became little islands of separateness? When the soul left the regions of pure spirit and entered the realms of mind and matter, finally landing up on the physical plane, the soul or true self became identified with the mind, body and senses, and the ego was born.
When a child comes into this world he is born without any knowledge or consciousness of his own self. He is not aware of himself as such. First he becomes aware of what is happening on the outside. This is natural. All the senses – acting through the eyes, ears and the organs of taste and touch – draw his attention outward. This is how a child develops: first he becomes aware of another person, probably his mother, and then he becomes aware of himself as distinct from that other person. And this sense of separate identity will probably exist throughout all of his life.
When the passenger liner the Titanic went down in 1912, she was not sunk by the tip of an iceberg. She was sunk by the enormous mass of ice below the surface. We know that up to nine tenths of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. Similarly, a huge part of the ego lies submerged. There are thousands of ways in which the ego manifests in our daily life, and most of the time we are oblivious of it. We never sit back and observe its antics.
The scientists tell us that on average there are about 50,000 thoughts coursing through our minds each day – most of them about ourselves. Every moment of our lives we are keenly conscious of ourselves as individuals. We’re proud of our intellect, our achievements in the academic, scientific, or corporate fields. We like to show off. Perhaps we want to buy a fancy car, not because we need it, but because it is a reflection of our prosperity. The same could apply to our clothes or furniture.
But how can we own anything in this world? How can anything be ‘mine’ when we don’t even own our own bodies? Did we retain the body we had as an infant, as a child, as a teenager? These bodies have come and gone. Scientists tell us that our bodies do not have a single one of the molecules that they contained seven years ago. So every seven years one’s body is completely rejuvenated. This means that if we reach the age of seventy, we’ve had ten different bodies!
How can we be proud of our looks, our intellect or our wealth? Our looks fade with age; we can lose our job and our wealth. Millions of jobs around the world may be lost as a result of a global economic crisis. What about our intellect? As we get older we become forgetful and our memory fades. We could suffer a stroke and have brain damage. We see the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease on the increase. So these gifts which the Creator has given us can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Nothing is permanently ours.
Because of the ego we tend to see the world through a series of filters: our upbringing, our parents, our education, our country, our beliefs and prejudices. It’s like a person wearing a pair of yellow sunglasses. This colours everything that he sees. The ego creates its own world view and regards that view as infallible. People become trapped in a false identity. This identity seems real and they are unable to see its inconsistencies and shortcomings. So they create a mental fortress for the ego-self and they move their consciousness into it.
Once people are trapped in such a false identity and they accept it as real, they will be completely unable to see its inconsistencies and unwilling to admit its shortcomings. Nothing anyone can do or say will get them to come out of this mental box, however reasonable and sound the argument may be.
Much of the pain we feel on this plane is because of the ego. Many of the actions that add to our crippling burden of karma stem directly from our ego. We also suffer when the our ego feels hurt, threatened, humiliated or neglected. But because we have become so accustomed to being trapped in our mental box, we are scared to look beyond its boundaries. So we put up with the suffering. We know nothing else. We live in ignorance.
What is the message that the saints try to get across to us? It is that humanity is living in a state of ignorance. Their purpose is to reawaken people to their true identity as spiritual beings. We need a spiritual teacher because the only way to escape the ego’s mental box is to establish contact with someone who is outside of that box. We cannot solve a problem with the same state of consciousness that created the problem. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We need a spiritual teacher, a Master, a being who has no egotism. He may inhabit a physical body, but inwardly the Master is merged in the Lord. Being in touch with reality, he sees things for what they truly are. He is objective and, most importantly, his primary attribute is love.
It’s here where our hope lies of finally winning the battle against the ego. Maharaj Charan Singh often spoke of love as losing one’s identity and merging with another being. Through our meditation and our growing love for our Master, humility will come; surrender will come. Through our love for him we will want to surrender to him, eventually lose our identity and become him. In the process the ego, which has been standing between our souls and the Lord, will gradually become eroded.
In one of his poems Kabir says in words of great simplicity:
As long as ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’,
I kept saying,
I could not recognize the Lord.
But now, O Lord, you alone exist;
I am not, I am not.
Kabir, The Weaver of God’s Name