My primary teacher illustrated the futility of the ego fighting the ego with a wonderful story featuring a wrestling match.
“There you are,” Rama would say, “in the ring and it’s your self fighting yourself. Now, you’ve got the upper hand, you’ve got yourself pinned to the mat … but wait – now you’ve struggled up again, and now…” His voice rose and fell like a sportscaster reporting a “fight of the ages”.
He switched to pointing out that we can never win this battle. As long as there’s a self, there’s a battle. As long as there’s battle, there’s the self.
He said he saw his students trying this, over and over. He said he’d love to help. But it’s only when you finally “get it” and stop trying, that you can get out of the loop. It’s only when you give up the battle, stop trying to win, that it stops.
I have found the image and description accurate, frustratingly so.
I was reminded of it recently when a friend remarked that she is trying to overcome her ego.
Rama was definitely onto something when he said that the answer to the ego fighting itself doesn’t come by fighting the ego fighting itself. He would, since he had long since left the wrestling arena behind.
The alternative is not calling non-ego or non-self “the light” and ending up trying to “get into” the light and “get out of” whatever we perceive as non-light or blockage to light. All that light vs non-light stuff is the ego, still. It’s just a re-statement of ego vs ego. Attachment and aversion. Only to states of mind, or perceived “levels” of awareness. My teacher warned about this too, of course, and of course, we all tried this method too, at least until we realized this too creates more struggle, not less.
Trying to find an alternative in “egolessness” is equally useless, because then the ego tries to learn how to “do” egolessness. And referring to a “real us” as its opposite sounds good, and I’ve used that phrase myself, but I know it’s inaccurate and leads to more of the same – the ego trying to become “the real me” and to slash away anything that is not that.
What I have learned in recent years [and could have learned from my original teacher, if I had been ready to stop the wrestling match then] is that the opposite of an ego fighting itself occurs in a different fashion entirely.
All of what’s been described above is something trying to not be what it is or become else. That is the hallmark of the ego, which is entirely constructed this way. Every time the ego “works on” overcoming itself, or improving itself, or redeeming itself, or whatever it does to become the “better self” it wants to be, or thinks it “should” be – all it can do is use ego constructs to attempt to destroy ego constructs. It creates them, repurposes them, reinforces them.
In fact, according to Buddhism, the ego does not actually exist, it only has an appearance of existence which is created through these constructs. [An image which comes to me through which I understand and try to explain this concept of “ego constructs” is that the self/ego is like scaffolding – a temporary structure made up of various inherently separate parts lashed or bolted together to create some kind of a surface on which our apparent self is “supported”, like an actor on a stage. Not one piece of the scaffolding will support us, and to take it apart, we must address and handle each piece, one after the other, until it is all down.]
Stepping out of battle mode means being aware of it all, not pushing away “dark” or grabbing on to “light”. Not fighting anything, being everything, nothing above and nothing below. No barriers to anything that is “outside”, no dis-identification of all that is “inside”.
It’s awareness that gets us out of the loop.
It’s not fighting the ego constructs (components of the scaffolding), not creating more constructs to understand or explain existing constructs (aka “stories”) – simply being aware. Aware of each construct (each component piece of the scaffolding, if you will) – paying attention to it and honoring it for its role – because it did come to exist for a reason apparently – but neither fighting it, nor reinforcing it, not attaching to it or rejecting it.
Watching a particular ego construct “coming up” at any given moment is bringing it into awareness. You may notice a construct in any moment in your life, something conforming to a pattern that seems to be generated externally or as a result of the past.
In awareness, something might happen and might not. It might dissolve in the light, having played its part and no longer needing to attempt to grab our attention. It might not yet be ready. It may lead to another level of self-discovery.
It’s not really for us to say what happens. Only the ego wants something to happen. It’s the mind (the protective tool of the ego) which will spout an opinion about what should or should not come next.
Awareness is just … awareness.
That reminds me of what Rama said about meditation – it’s not a verb, you cannot “do” meditation. You “are” meditation.
In awareness, Eternity happens. “Within us, without us” as George Harrison sang.
“Nothing to do, nothing to undo”, as many masters have said.
I still battle with my self. I climb wholeheartedly into the ring, or just find myself there. Sometimes, I think I’m there battling with someone else. But it’s always really me.
Except, sometimes, I catch myself wrestling and instead of trying to egg one “self” on or attempt to suppress another – I remember to just pay attention. Not to the crowds in the stands, not to the wrestling ring, not to the sportscaster. Not to what brought me to this moment, not to the wrestlers, but … to the moment. To the one thing before me. It gets real simple and the noise of the match goes away.
Because instead of trying to wrestle with (get away from, deny or “evolve” even) any kind of energy, any idea, any action of mine, any thought or emotion or intrusion or … whatever … I’m simply paying attention. I’m letting it (and “myself”) just be.
If what we are is awareness, and our awareness is like the sky through whichour thoughts and feelings fly like birds (as we tell beginning meditators) — what happens if I don’t try to shoot them down and don’t try to ignore them away? What if I turn to face each thing? To face what seems to “be” me and neither cling nor cringe? To face what seems “not me” and let it just be?
When I pay attention this way, things change. I’m not who I thought I was. The ego that is battling is finding it harder to find handholds. The “me’s” are not into fighting so much.
Sometimes I just pay attention to what it’s like paying attention. Not sure yet what’s down that rabbit hole. It may be the same ring with a new name, or a different game entirely.
Beyond that … oh, I don’t know. I believe it is my ego that tells me there is something beyond that. In the now, when I remember to simply be in the now, there is just awareness, paying attention. And it seems to be doing something that the years and lifetimes of ego vs ego could not. Taking me out of the ring, if only for a while – dissolving the ring, if only a little bit at a time. Grace.
Thanks to Rama, Namkha Drimed Rinpoche, Yuan Miao, Byron Katie, Lucia Rene, Leslie Temple-Thurston, Mary MacNab, Gangaji, Pamela Wilson (via Lucia) and others for (recognized) insights included here. Imperfect reflections are my own!