“Every one of us is followed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him.” –Thomas Merton
POSTULATE: The individual self — ahamkara in Vedanta, and understood in the West, incorrectly, as the ego — has never been the real issue or obstacle to spiritual realization. The problem is an overactive nervous system that projects a sense of the ego, a ghost-like self behind the “I” experience of the true self. Re-examining what it is that observes the observer is the key to realization.
It is not a baseless projection, for the human being not only reflectively observes its experiences (which many organisms are capable of doing), but also appears to observe the observing of experiences – making possible all manner of abstract thought unavailable to the rest of the animal kingdom. In a very real sense, we don’t merely watch events happening before us: we watch ourselves watching them.
But this projection demands a deeper explanation than our dualistic theological rationalization that it is evidence of a disembodied soul or spirit that is separate from the body. Most imperatively, we must unlearn the definitive fallacy of the modern hyperindividualistic West (which increasingly means “everywhere”): the assumption that this egoic presence is the self.
This assumption is harmful for two conjunctive reasons: 1) The ego’s identity, and the layer of memories, plans, and intellectual constructs that define it, is a pure abstraction, with no correlative existence in the natural world, and 2) This ghostly identity, as ghosts will do, clings to the body that seems to host it, recognizing only this mortal entity as its sole ground of being. (This will be illustrated and substantiated later.) The result is a self-affirming vicious cycle in which the natural self cleaves to a shell of what it is and shelters the ghost from dissolution, while the ghost fights a never ending battle for a beachhead of permanence for the ego against the natural ravages of entropy. I believe this cycle is the basis for a handful of neuroses, from mild borderline personalities to the raging malignant narcissism that, understandably, is getting a lot of attention in American political discussion these days.
This second layer of neural activity — our thoughts about our thoughts — is therefore both our greatest evolutionary strength and an even greater downfall because it binds us each to a ghost of our own device, at odds with nature, and needing constant defense and reassurance that it is what it thinks it is. But it is not a downfall to which we are hopelessly fated, and metatheology provides a direct and compelling answer: The second layer is not real — or, we could say, it is real only in the sense that any stage in the world becomes part of Denmark whenever Hamlet is performed, and the ghost it produces is no more who “you” are than the deceased king is the actor who plays him.
Metatheology dismantles the feedback loop of narcissism and returns the ego-identity to its rightful place as the natural self, like a Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree of clear mind, witnessing the eternity of Brahman in whatever comes before her. There is no shadow self witnessing the witness, no ghost in nor behind the machine.
In reality, the ego is nothing more than a self-aware organism’s momentary experience of itself in the cutting edge of the present. That’s it. It isn’t a series of moments stacked like pancakes from birth to whenever. It isn’t a “thing” at all, and it isn’t really synonymous with anything that can be called a thing –certainly not your organism itself, unless you are constantly aware that you are growing hair and pumping blood and doing billions of other activities.
Your ego doesn’t exist in my experience, and vice versa. We have a general agreement to validate each other’s egos as long as they don’t get out of line with societal expectations, and the validation reinforces the illusion of a substantial self behind your experience, like a character in your dream assuring you that you aren’t dreaming.
It isn’t even accurate, therefore, to call the ego “malleable” because there is nothing to shape. It is Silly Putty without the putty.
What we generally call the ego, though, is not the natural experience of subjective selfhood, but that ghost-like feeling of observing our observations, of cataloging them within a nexus of memories, plans, ideas etc. and calling that nexus “Jane Doe” or “Joe Self” or “Waldo Noesta.” It is literally whatever you think you are in response to what you think you’re not. In truth, you are in no way separate from your environment, but as soon as you define the experience of selfhood, you are crafting an abstract ghost, a self that will feel as though it is in the natural universe but not of it. That is the fatal mistake, the unsustainable identity with an abstraction rather than the direct experience of selfhood indivisible from the whole (or Atman in Vedanta).
This “ghost of the ego” is thus one step removed from reality. If you jump back in fear because you momentarily mistake a garden hose for a big snake, your natural self has only experienced a garden hose, but the ghost experienced a big snake. That’s how far removed the ego can be from physical reality when it identifies with the ghost.
To understand this separation better, imagine you have lived your whole life inside a room where a stereo is playing music, which is being recorded at other locations and broadcast over the airwaves, then picked up and converted to audible sound by the stereo.
If I were to pop into the room and ask you where the music is coming from, you would naturally say “the stereo.” You would have no concept that the original source is a whole host of musical instruments being played at recording locations all over the world (or far beyond even that, following all the multidimensional links of cause and effect, one can say the music is created, like Carl Sagan’s “apple pie from scratch,” by the source of the Big Bang itself), and that what you are hearing is a simulation that can be distorted in any number of ways. If you could leave the room, you might find an orchestra playing right outside the door on the front lawn, and bask in the beauty of its coordinated movements and effort to make pleasing sounds. But you can’t. The room is the only place you can safely dwell. You are stuck in the belief that everything you hear comes from this little black box, and if it ever loses its power source, you will be trapped in stone silence forever.
In this analogy, the true source of the music is akin to Reality itself, the divine ground of being which our nervous system (the stereo) refines and condenses into a simulacrum of what we deem immediately available and important (something like the fine-tuning function of a stereo). You, the listener in the room (which represents the physical body) who thinks the music is coming from that little black box, are that general misconception of the ego. You are a ghost haunting your own room.
Because here’s the thing: The analogy itself was a set up. The real you is the stereo; there is no separate listener in the room. It just happens to be a stereo that has developed the ability to fine tune itself and hear its own audio output, to record it for later playback and keep an extensive file of such recordings etc. Those advanced functions of the stereo are still part of the natural self experience, they are critical evolutionary traits without which we have no business surviving as a species. But the side effect is existential confusion at best and a dread, haunted terror at worst, so we are also hard wired to seek more durable identities beyond the limits of the mortal organism and its ghost-ego. Dualistic theology addresses this need but continues to assume too much about the ghost, casting it as a non-corporeal entity that transmigrates from the deceased body. Only when we use non-dual thought to cross into metatheology is the ghost unveiled as a trick of the mind. There is no one else in the room, no “you” separate from the thing simulating the music.
(If the stereo begins to suspect it is being listened to externally, it is not because the ghost is real, but it could very well be the real perception of the “metapersonal” Self that is you but not just you. That’s a subject for a whole other article.)
So how does metatheology address the myth of the ghost in the room? Primarily by bridging what seems like an ontological distance between the source of the music and the stereo. If we can conceive of those two entities being the poles of one event of interbeing, and identify the self with the interbeing rather than one of the poles, we can let go of the need to identify as the abstract listener of a listening, the observer of our observations, and experiencer of our experiences.
When we talk about ego or selfhood in metatheological terms, we aren’t denying its existence, but we are confirming it exists as an aspect of Existence itself. The natural self can be likened to an activity of the universe in the way that a wave is an activity of the ocean. By analogy, the ego is not the wave –it is what the ocean thinks it is in the particular place and time that it is aware it is waving. Because it isn’t the wave that is waving –”wave” and “waving” are two different ways of expressing the exact same activity of the ocean. Metatheology reminds the self-conscious wave that it is also the ocean.
Likewise, your experience is real, but it isn’t “yours,” because there is no separate “you” having that experience. It isn’t an experiencer that is experiencing. You and that experience are the exact same activity of the universe. Essentially, “you” got the experience on loan from the universe, and you pay it forward simply by returning it to its rightful owner in death, either before or at the moment your organism disorganizes.
This is why self-attachment is problematic for human beings –not because there is something wrong or evil about the temporal self, but because the true self, the immediate “I” experience of the present, cannot be grasped. The futility of attachment is the problem, because first of all, you are binding that experience to the ghost in the room, something that simply is not there, and you will latch on to any “alternative facts” that support your perception of this unholy ghost. And secondly, if you identify with that ghost, you will tether yourself solely to your subjective experience and not also its objective environment, and you thus divorce yourself from the boundless abundance of Nature, which is the bridge between subject and object. Metaphorically speaking, by claiming to be your ego and nothing more, you tripped over a hose in the Garden of Eden, and next thing you know you started talking to a snake.
The solution then is not to withdraw from life, but to immerse yourself in it. Don’t be a ghostly listener to the music, the unique song that is God/the universe’s self-expression called YOU. Be that song. Sing it loud and proud. Or lip sync along with the vocals and the musicians’ melodies coming through the stereo if you prefer to see it that way. Just don’t forget that you are the song.
Thomas Merton (seen here with the Dalai Lama in 1968) had one of the greatest metatheological minds of the recent past among writers based in the Abrahamic faiths, and he seemed to demonstrate a keen understanding of “the ghost in the room” with passages like: “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask…All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something covered its surface.”