What follows is only one perspective. It doesn’t cite any experts. It doesn’t claim any special authority. If nothing else, I hope it stimulates some contemplation. Take from it what you will.
Among those of us who might be called contemplatives, esotericists, or philosophers in Masonry, there is often talk of the ego. Defining the ego can itself be messy business. Are we merely talking about our potentials for selfishness and narcissism? Are we speaking of Freud’s concept of the analytical mediator between the infantile id and the parental superego? Is it simply the self-concept, the way one habitually thinks of ‘me’? Or are we speaking specifically about a self-concept wrapped in the illusion of oneself as an entity with its own unique existence apart from everything else? Sometimes in conversations about the ego, one person is speaking about one of those concepts while another is speaking of a different one, and they never realize they’re miscommunicating with each other.
In any case, one of the most common things we hear is that the ego must be destroyed. The suggestion is very often made that only after this occurrence will we receive a total revelation of light. It is commonly claimed that after ego death one will be functioning at a higher level of consciousness, liberated from many if not all of the follies of humanity. Sounds pretty good!
However, let’s consider that no matter which definition we’re using, the ego cannot end itself. It cannot think or will itself away because that thinking and willing is itself an assertion of the ego. So even if we fill ourselves with the desire and intention for ego death, we’ll simply be stuck with an ego that is possessed with its own fantasies about becoming something else, something better than it is. In addition, to the degree that we think we’ve succeeded, we’re susceptible to spiritual pride and even delusions of grandeur. To the extent that we think we’ve failed, we can experience disappointment, frustration, perhaps even guilt, shame, and self-loathing. In fact, it’s possible to have both sets of thoughts and feelings, those of success and those of failure, swirling around each other. So maybe striving for ego death doesn’t sound so good after all!
As an alternative to that vision of ego death, there is another beginning with the observation that ego is a recurring temporary phenomenon of conscious existence, at least so far as humans are concerned. In this view, we are speaking more specifically about ego as the self-concept, one’s more or less stable sense of ‘me,’ although the following observations also have relevance to other definitions of ego. So, with a little reflection, we can observe ego is something that comes and goes rather than being an ever-present entity. For example, consider dreamless sleep in which there is no conscious self-awareness, and thus no ego. Similarly, when we are powerfully shocked or stunned by some event, for a moment we can literally forget ourselves, and thus ego disappears. Then, when we wake up from sleep or “pull ourselves together” after a great shock, we re-member ourselves in rebirth of the ego.
When the ego goes away, however briefly, we can call that a death, but then it is reborn like a phoenix from the ashes of the previous ego. When it is reconstituted from mostly the same material as its previous existence, and amid relatively similar circumstances, the new ego is nearly identical to the previous. To use a Masonic analogy, it is like rebuilding a fallen temple from the scattered stones of the previous edifice. Thus the similarity of the reconstructed ego facilitates the illusion of continuity, the notion of a more or less stable ‘me’ from moment to moment. Since this kind of ego death and rebirth is so common and so frequent, we get accustomed to ignoring it and operating on the assumption that the present ‘me’ is the very same ‘me’ as before. On the other hand, sometimes the moment of its passing can occur in a very poignant and spiritually revealing context, and so the reborn ego is significantly different in some way. That’s the kind of ego death often getting the most attention among people concerned with spirituality, philosophy, and contemplation, yet confusingly spoken of as if there was no ego rebirth afterward.
Masonry can be seen as a system that works with precisely this kind of ego death and rebirth. Throughout our rituals and ceremonies there are reminders of death and rebirth, which may be taken as pointing toward ego death and rebirth in addition to the inevitable failure of our physical bodies and some kind of continuing existence for our souls. We also have the symbolism of repeated destruction and rebuilding of great temples, and the rise, passing away, and revival of great organizations or movements for the good of humanity. And then there is the very important myth acted out in our third degree. These stories certainly have meaning in their more common interpretations, yet we may also view all of them as ego-death/rebirth allegories.
This Masonic perspective on ego death is at odds with the notion of permanent ego death. Rather than postulating a moment of psychospiritual attainment in which one’s existence is finally and forever afterward without ego, Masonry challenges us to deal with the phenomenon of ego rebirth. It regards the ego itself as material to be crafted into new forms, which is to say Masonry constantly asks us to realize and work at becoming the person in this world we each most want to be. That work includes accepting not only the reality of ego death, but its necessity if we are to experience the greatest possible transformations in life. But, if we must embrace ego death, yet the ego cannot destroy itself, then how do we proceed? What can we, while we are operating with ego, do to engage the process more fully?
First, we can accept and even welcome ego death. Just as a child may learn to overcome the fear of sleep as a temporary death, so too may the adult learn to overcome the fear of ego being shattered. This step is supported by coming to terms with the fact and the consequences of being strongly conditioned to try concretizing one’s identity into a never changing form – this occupation, that religion, this political philosophy, that family role, this nationality, that personality type, etc., etc, ad nauseam. We humans condition ourselves and each other like this because it makes our relationships and thus our lives more predictable, which we value because predictability can make life easier, safer, and more comfortable. While there is nothing essentially wrong with ease, safety, and comfort, when they become the overriding principles of life they can smother our potentials for growth, discovery, creativity, and even joy. They can make life terribly boring and unproductive, tolerable only to the extent that we fall into a semi-conscious and zombie-like existence. In fact, a bit of reflection on the common tropes of zombie movies can reveal much about our collective awareness of this problem.
In addition to welcoming ego death, there are things we can do to more fully prepare ourselves for it. We can learn more about the entire process through reflecting on its allegories in myth and ritual, and by studying relevant teachings in various systems of spirituality, philosophy, and psychology. More importantly, we can practice mindfulness and meditation, and in so doing become more directly familiar with the cycle of ego’s death and rebirth, as well as its resistance to the process. We can develop awareness of the symptoms and signs harkening to the potential for an impending death, and thus be better prepared to welcome it rather than try to resist it. Similarly, these practices can build an appreciation for the wonderful experiences of liberation, rejuvenation, and awakening to new possibilities that occur in the aftermath of ego’s death pains; we can go into them knowing they are also the pains of rebirth.
Through various spiritual practices, we not only welcome ego death but make ourselves more susceptible to it, just as a hard day’s work followed by a good meal, then lying down and relaxing makes us more likely to quickly and easily fall asleep. Speaking from my own experience, when ego death occurs in the context of intentionally making oneself available for it, it’s very tempting for the newly reborn ego to claim the event as a victory, as if it happened because ‘I’ consciously willed it. But those who have significant familiarity with this process know that there are significant factors outside our conscious awareness and control. So it is that we may employ the same practice, under exactly the same conditions, and not be able to repeat the same results. This observation is not to say that such practices are therefore worthless. There is plenty of evidence that some practices are more consistently fruitful than others, and certainly more so than doing nothing at all.
In closing, I suggest Masonry offers us pointers on how to make ourselves more accepting, aware of, and available to the kind of ego death we’ve been considering. It does so through its rituals, ceremonies, and myths, and by challenging us to take up the work of contemplative practice, hinting at numerous possibilities for such practice, and practically shouting about others. One of the possible hints was addressed in my recent poem, “Chanting AUM in the Great Architect’s Presence.” For an example of the shouted possibilities, consider the Craft’s repeated directions for us to work at specific virtues. Anyone who does such work with much discipline and depth of honest self-awareness will be confronted with many of his weaknesses and shortcomings, perhaps even a sense of helplessness and inability to finally manifest one’s notions of perfection. Such awareness can go a long way toward facilitating ego death and rebirth. It’s surely a rough and rugged road, but one that’s worth it if we truly do desire to travel in foreign countries and seek a master’s wages.