Winding forest road

Killing the Ego: Does it Hurt?

"The reason tonight is so great is… I'm not here!" I grinned ecstatically into his worried face.

By LAURA OLSHANSKY

There's a macho streak in some schools of enlightenment that makes them talk about killing the ego. You can't just relax the ego or stop identifying with it… you have to kill it. Preferably with a rusty chain saw. It's a kind of suicide. It takes more guts than anything else you'll ever do. The reason people don't get enlightened is because they are pussies.

I used to believe this stuff. I used to get scared when I meditated because I felt like my ego was on the verge of dying, and I thought it was suicide.

But over the last few months, after years of meditation, my ego has finally begun to slip away, and it doesn't hurt at all. On the contrary, it's extremely pleasant. Nothing I want is being lost. I function better than ever in relationships and all other aspects of life.

In a moment I'll describe what it's like so you can look forward to it instead of worrying like I did. But first I should acknowledge that I'm in the early stages of selflessness. I'm not enlightened yet. Selflessness comes and goes, sometimes staying for a few minutes, sometimes an hour. During these periods my ego seems to be completely gone, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe a year from now I'll look back and say, "You thought your ego was gone! Hah!" But so far as I can tell now, my selfless periods are really selfless.

The first time it happened I had just been thinking about the Advaitan idea that the Self is covered by overlays (including the ego) so you see them together and think they are the same. A minute later I started meditating and looked for the thing that Ramana Maharshi calls the "I-Thought." I think he means a certain distinct clump of attitudes and feelings that seems to be me, except I can look at it, so it can't be the real me as Ramana defines it. As I looked at this clump I let my attention relax, exactly as if I were looking at it with my eyes and letting them go out of focus.

And just like that, the clump — me — dissolved. Scared the shit out of me. (How could it scare the shit out of me if I wasn't there? I'm using the word "me" in two different ways. It's hard to explain this stuff, so try it for yourself, you'll see what I mean.)

But over the next few days I induced the experience repeatedly and it turned out to be incredibly pleasant. Anxiety disappeared because nobody was sitting in my head planning for a thousand hypothetical contingencies, worrying about what might happen, mentally rehearsing an endless list of plays I might find myself in, scheming to maneuver in the world to obtain what is desired. That's what an ego is: a mental masturbator that seeks pleasure by imagining enjoyable scenarios, a schemer and worrier, a thinker of thoughts and maker of plans to avoid what's feared and get what's wanted. All that activity stopped.

In its place was the same old me, except there was no thought of me. And there was no thought of world either. Nobody was bothering to think of separations like that.

The lack of separation was so complete that the next day, while hiking in the woods, I was startled by the sight of two large moving objects bobbing around at the bottom of my field of vision. (I wasn't really startled because I was fearless but I don't know what other word to use.) What were they? My hands pushing the wheels of my wheelchair! The mental apparatus that normally filters my hands out of my view of "the world" because they are part of "my body" was shut off, and they grabbed my attention just like any other large moving objects would have.

The same day I was sitting in a crowded office while harried customers and demanding employees dealt with each other. I had my own business there, but for about fifteen minutes I just sat and looked at their faces. It was utterly pleasant and relaxing. I observed them intently, with affection and sympathy, but I wasn't thinking anything about them. I didn't want anything from them. I wasn't planning what they might say to me or I might say to them.

What could I want from them except for them to like me? But this wasn't an issue, since I wasn't there.

Nevertheless I was feeling a lot of affection...a general affection that wasn't aimed at anybody in particular, since there weren't any anybodies.

I noticed that this way of just being was familiar. It was, I thought, the way I perceived things when I was a small child — three years old, perhaps. I used to just look at things. Just look.

Another striking thing was the absence of any urge to be somewhere else or do something else. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I was content.

This state is so pleasant, you really have to try it for yourself.

But here's my best story. (It happened before the events I just described, at a time when I had reached a less complete state of selflessness.) My husband and I went out to dinner for a rare, precious night without the kids. Everything was wonderful — we were communicating with a deep sense of connection and intimacy — when he noticed I was smiling.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"I'm not really here," I said happily, expecting him to realize how glorious this was. "There's no Laura. She was an illusion and now she's gone."

A look came over his face which I've seen on actors in movies, but never expected to see in real life. A look of grave concern, as if I might be having some sort of breakdown. I mean, he really thought this. He reached across the table, squeezed my wrist, and said: "This is Laura. You're Laura. Laura is real."

He stared into my eyes with something close to panic. I almost laughed but luckily I didn't.

"No, it's ok," I told him. "Don't you feel like I'm totally present tonight? Like I'm listening to you more than usual? Like I'm just completely here with you and reacting purely to you and nothing else?"

He did feel those things; he had been noticing them too. He's very sensitive in that way and I had been exceptionally present with him all through dinner. That's what happens when the ego disappears — there are no distractions, no tendencies to interpret what somebody else is saying for personal advantage, no axes to grind. All you can do is listen and love and react wholeheartedly.

"Well, the reason tonight is so great is… I'm not here!" I grinned ecstatically into his worried face. I could tell he was wondering which hospital to call.

He still doesn't get it, but he's stopped worrying about it, because both of us have been happier since my ego started taking vacations.

I bet you will be too. So don't worry, just go for it.

Copyright 1999 Laura Olshansky

Laura Olshansky was the first editor of Realization.org.

This page was published on December 8, 1999 and last revised on February 1, 2014.