The Difference Between Spiritual Growth and Spiritualized Ego

develop spiritual growth and freedom with a spiritual counselor coachI was initiated as a Buddhist nun in my late 20s by an enlightened master from Thailand during a 40-day Vipassana retreat. I shaved my head and eyebrows, wore a modest white robe, and spent most of the day meditating according to a specific technique passed down this lineage for thousands of years. In the early morning I’d recite some prayers, eat a light breakfast, meditate until lunch time, which was the last meal of the day, and then go back to meditating in silence for the rest of the day.

It was a simple yet disciplined life that helped me release a lot of mental clutter and to better understand how the ego-mind works. The less active your mind becomes, the easier it is to discern what’s true and what’s illusion—that is, what comes from intuitive wisdom and what may be disguised as understanding but is really motivated by ego. For instance, I had read many books about Buddhism, but those teachings remained a mere intellectual exercise that made me feel ‘knowledgeable’ until I put them into practice and experienced them on a regular basis. I only understood their meaning and purpose through experience, which is the foundation of Buddha’s teachings.

During the retreat I’d have to check in with one of the monks accompanying my teacher to receive daily instructions regarding this ancient technique. I had been meditating on my own and, since I’ve always been receptive to energies and other dimensions, I’d access very vivid states of consciousness. But when I explained I was having an awesome meditation with visions and spirits and colors all around me, the monk quickly dismiss it all as ‘a greedy mind’ and advised me to focus only on the technique. What???

Disappointed and all, I was determined to follow his instruction to see where it’d take me while I observed my ego squirm and rebel against his authority. In time it proved fruitful, as I experienced an increasing focus and inner silence that eventually took me to certain levels of Nirvana, a state where the ego completely disappears. Needless to say, through that process my mind came up with innumerable tricks and illusions to stall my progress, all of which I witnessed in my meditation peers as well.

Spiritual Growth Equals Ego Dissolution

When I moved to the US and got initiated by an enlightened Hindu guru, my learning continued with a different flavor. It was easier to recognize old patterns and tendencies through my interactions with the teacher and fellow disciples, but I still had so much to discover about myself! Retreats were not as austere or as long as with Vipassana and they were permeated with devotion and faith. They still were, however, intensely focused and I was able to reach higher consciousness, ego-less levels of meditation or Samadhi (the equivalent of Nirvana) over the years.

It became evident that only single-pointedness leads to higher consciousness while the ego-mind grabs every opportunity to distract and deviate you from it. The self-discipline and self-awareness required to achieve a higher perception of life and spiritual growth means the dissolution of ego. The key is to maintain that focus and presence of mind in ordinary life and pierce through the coloring of the mind that wants you to remain stuck in the false self-images and illusions you get attached to.

One thing those spiritual groups had in common with any other group I’ve ever seen was a certain ‘cult-ish’ pack mentality we all learn from family and social dynamics, because the ego works in the same predictable way for everyone. So whether it’s the individualized or the collective ego, its purpose is to separate, compartmentalize, and keep the illusion that you can control life in some way. It may shape the belief that you belong somewhere if you behave a certain way or prove loyal to specific beliefs that separate you from those who don’t. The ego is like a pair of scissors that turns your interactions into judgements where you (overtly or secretly) compare yourself to others.

The paradox is that the more you work toward dissolving your ego, the more empowered your sense of self emerges as your need to ‘belong’ or compare to others diminishes. You stand stronger when you take spiritual responsibility for your life and understand that it’s a journey of self-exploration and self-knowledge leading you to your Higher Self. No labels of being ‘spiritual’ or ‘right’ or ‘better than…’ are needed, because those belong to an ego-based judgement that fuels the illusion of separation—from others, from your life, and from who you really are.

Spiritual Freedom Requires Spiritual Responsibility

You are never disconnected from your reality; it’s a mental movie you project and color with your perception, because your soul purpose is to know and accept yourself with all the good and bad of your experience. Once you embrace all of who you are, with no attachments or aversions or regrets, you step into a higher level of self-awareness. You may grieve over and heal past wounds—all the places where love was missing—but as you do this you also allow deeper aspects of yourself to emerge.

Being ‘spiritual’ has nothing to do with how many spiritual books you’ve read, how many workshops or retreats you’ve attended, or how many positive thoughts you think throughout the day; it has nothing to do with self-sacrifice or depleting yourself to empower others either, especially if doing so comes from a need for approval or validation. But the ego will use anything and everything to make you believe you are ‘spiritual’ while remaining in control of your perception. This is what I call a spiritualized ego; it makes you feel superior because you may have gained some clarity where others remain ignorant.

The problem here is not what other people do or don’t, or how much more aware you are in comparison; the real issue is that you’re letting your ego identify with a self-image—a spiritualized image, in this case—and as long as it does this, you remain its slave, bound to an illusion that stalls real spiritual progress. The mind is greedy indeed, like that Thai monk pointed out to me, and anything that feeds a sense of self-importance, either because you feel like a victim or better than others, comes from ego.

Great humility is needed to keep growing and developing emotional and spiritual freedom (see Why Humility Is Essential For Healing), which doesn’t mean placing yourself below others, but remaining centered in yourself and focused on your growth without having to prove or justify anything to anyone. Humility is a quality of the Feminine that means being fully present and willing to surrender to the spiritual forces within you, like an innocent child disappearing in the embrace of his or her Divine Mother.

Here are a few pointers to help you recognize real spiritual growth (as opposed to a spiritualized ego):

  1. You are disciplined with a regular practice aimed at dissolving (transcending) the ego (such as meditation, chanting, prayer, or mantra).
  2. Spirituality is an intimate process you don’t need to prove or justify (for instance, you don’t have the impulse to think or say, “I’m very spiritual”). :-)
  3. If you belong to any spiritual group or lineage, you remain independent and focused on your practices regardless of what others are or aren’t doing or saying (all groups hold dysfunctional, cultish tendencies and spiritual groups are no exception).
  4. If you talk about spirituality you do it to gain deeper insight, not motivated by the need to feel superior or to convince others of your beliefs.
  5. You fully embrace the idea that your spiritual path (or self-ascension) is the one that leads you to Know Thyself.
  6. You are willing to commit to an ongoing process of self-exploration to uncover all your hidden, ego-based motivations.
  7. You understand that spiritual growth comes from honesty, mental discipline and emotional effort, not external circumstances or people.

Getting to a place of surrendering to divine love requires letting go of everything that is not love: all your fears, attachments, aversions, rebelliousness, and pride, to immerse yourself in the path of self-knowledge that leads to the Self. Contact me today if you’re ready to begin your journey with clarity of purpose and an individualized road map to keep you on track and your ego-mind in check!

© 2016 Yol Swan. All rights reserved.

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