Ego & Essence

by Don DeMercurio

This morning, as I begin this post I’m having a memory of sitting in a class almost 30 years ago with my first spiritual teacher, Audrey Abernethy. She was a Theosophist, a healer, and medium trained in the Spiritualist church in England. She and her family had moved to the US post-WWII, following a job prospect for her husband. Less than 5 feet in stature her presence emanated a power that commanded a singular authority.

Each week for over 10 years, 12 to 18 of us would gather in Satsang in the living room of one of the students to receive a teaching followed by discussions, revelations, and experiences that often went late into the night. The topics always related to the nature of the Soul. This little woman who refused any compensation gave of herself as an act of love and service. She would sit in a small rocking chair, close her eyes, and enter a trance state while we sat in anticipation, feeling the energy field in the room begin to change. The substance of the space would fill with a presence and a voice unlike her own would begin a teaching and a transmission.

Over the years, Audrey channeled many different entities and the spirit of each of them would permeate the space with a particular quality of Essence. It was during these teachings that I first developed a capacity to discern subtle energies and to recognize that essence discriminates itself into various qualities that each relate to different domains of function, capacity, and relationship within our human development and within all of creation. These aspects of our deeper nature might arise as a joy, clarity, power, compassion, brilliancy, truth, just to name a few . At other times, it would be of a nature that melted all defenses or sometimes arose as a feeling of being held in a soft embrace. What was significant was not so much what was being said as much as the effect of the essential quality that was infusing the teaching.

I do remember a series of teachings on the ego and personality but at the time it remained elusive. It wasn’t until many years later as I began working with the Enneagram and then in the Ridhwan School’s teachings through the Diamond Approach to Self-Realization that I was led to a way of understanding the ego and its relationship to essence through direct experience. And, that is what this post is pointing towards – understanding the meaning of these two concepts through direct experience.

Whether we recognize it or not every one of us is in a continuous dialogue between Ego and Essence. To be wholly with this dialogue with sincerity and curiosity is one pathway to embodied Self-realization. In my own experience,of all of the conversations that we engage in during our lifetime, this dialogue between Ego and Essence is perhaps the most important and sacred conversation of all. And, it’s a conversation that can only have meaning if we are awake to it. As I continue this post I’ll explain more about what it means to be awake to this deepest conversation of our life and what it requires of us.

If we approach the question of what is the ego from the viewpoint of everyday life it is possible to recognize the assertion of the ego in 3 distinct ways. The activity of the ego can be felt and inquired into as sensation in the body, as emotion in the heart and as mental activity in the mind. These are the three centers of intelligence that govern our physical and spiritual experience and reflect where we are in any moment in relation to awareness and presence.

The primary distinction we can use to know whether we are operating from our essence or from ego activity is that “Essence Is” and “Ego Does”.

The Body experience – When the ego is asserting itself there is always an accompanying sensation of tension in the body. This tension is the result of the ego efforting to generate a particular quality of essence that it is out of touch with. For example, when we are in a situation that requires strength and we aren’t in touch with our essential strength, we tighten our muscles, grit our teeth and muster the strength to accomplish the task. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this and it can often lead to the realization of our own inner strength, but this is how it feels. This is how we directly experience our ego structures.

In contrast, when we are in touch with the essential quality of true strength, it arises naturally according to need. As true Strength arises in us we feel an inner sense of capacity, courage, aliveness and certitude that allows us to accomplish the task at hand with ease. Rather than the tenseness that accompanies the ego activity, there is resiliency and gracefulness in the movement of the strength. Essential strength has the grace and suppleness of a leopard chasing its prey. Whereas, ego strength feels more like the jerkiness of a backhoe pounding into the ground, pulling at the dirt, lifting and dumping. One of the gifts of our ego is that it gives us a way to approximate true nature so that we can live in the world with some efficacy even when we are blocked to certain aspects of our nature. But, as we inquire into our history around qualities that feel blocked to us, we can inevitably free up these qualities and integrate them so that they are available to us when we need them.

The Heart experience – When the ego is asserting itself through the heart we experience the emotion of it as a feeling of passion in the heart. For many of us, our associations with passion are positive, especially if we have experienced depression or the inertial pull of the ego to go to sleep on itself. Passion can give what we’re doing a feeling of meaning and it can free up the libidinal energies that are connected with the animal parts of our soul. Passion gives us a feeling of aliveness and command over our own existence. When a passion is present in our hearts, if we pay attention, we notice that there is also a feeling of turmoil that accompanies it. Passion also has a tension that is circling around attachment or aversion. It’s striving ultimately to satisfy a desire that will generate a feeling of some form of completeness .

I’ll use the example of the essence of Will to illustrate this. Imagine that you have been given charge of developing and implementing a new project at work. It’s a project that has a creative component to it and a timeline for execution. When essential Will is present and flowing in us there is an accompanying feeling of inner support, a feeling of steadfastness, solidity and a sense that we are in the flow and going with the flow. Even though the project is going to take time there is an effortlessness in moving with the flow and momentum that is inherent as each piece follows the one prior and each new stage of the project connects with the next. There is a feeling of satisfaction that accompanies the work and an appreciation for the people involved and the creativity and elegance of the process. Instead of feeling our heart driven by the passion of pride there is a feeling of humility that is fed by a feeling of being part of a bigger flow of creativity. Likewise, rather than the manipulation of self-interest, there is a feeling of loving service to what is being created and what is actually doing the creating.

In contrast, when we are not in touch with our essential Will, we can become willful, pushy, pig-headed. We pull and push on our internal energy, and manipulate others and our environment to get things done. Creativity is subjugated to productivity, collaboration turns into manipulation. We lose touch with our heart’s joy for what it loves and the passion of pride supplants the virtue of humility.

The point here is to notice in your own experience the way in which essence arises and moves through us and with us in life and the way in which egoic activity always has an element of suffering as it is attempting to approximate something that it feels missing.

The Mind experience – Ah, the mind! This is perhaps the simplest to describe and the most challenging to overcome.

We’ve all had the experience of insight arising effortlessly, resulting in a full-bodied awareness of whatever we were searching for an answer to. And, we’ve also had the experience of our mind suddenly understanding something that we weren’t even looking to know. We call this insight when it arises in the mind, intuition in the heart, and instinct in the gut. We experience these when we are in touch with the essence of intelligence.

When the essence of Intelligence is flowing through us and we are in touch with it there is a clarity and awakeness in the mind; a brilliancy and a vividness to our perceptions. Our mind has a natural capacity to easily assimilate, organize and synthesize our ideas and experiences. It also has a heightened capacity to see clearly into the truth of things. When the essence of intelligence is flowing through us, there is a spaciousness that gives our thoughts room to flow. True intelligence not only provides what is needed in the moment but also flows through us as inner guidance. So, when our mind is in the flow our mind is open and at peace with where we are and naturally guided towards whatever is arising next.

In contrast, when the egoic mind is asserting itself, it is in a constant state of problem solving, fixation and worry. Because the ego is formed as a result of the loss of contact with our deepest nature there is an intrinsic awareness of something being wrong and something missing. Our mind is constantly trying figure out what is wrong and what to do about it – operating to keep us away from what it perceives as a deficient emptiness that it believes can only lead to loss and ultimately to the death of itself. Because the egoic mind isn’t in touch with true intelligence it can only try to solve this dilemma by rearranging what it already thinks it knows, in other words old information which has been filtered through a distorted lens of reality.

And, finally – The solution to all of the dilemmas of the ego is Essence. And, the way to Essence is Presence – presence to whatever is arising in us. The work isn’t to get rid of the ego, but to see through it by penetrating it with awake awareness. This work is ever-unfolding because true nature is in an eternal process of self-revelation. Our spiritual work never ends. It’s not about problem solving, fixing us or getting to a better place. It is about understanding we are a miracle of life, deepening into it’s ever-unfolding potential.