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Moving Beyond Ego

Why do we prefer to talk about religion, fight over it, even kill for it—everything but live it?

Sand dunes, photo by Guilherme Cecílio

In this holy season of Lent and Passover, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Pastor Don Mackenzie have written about the trance patterns we are stuck in and the need to get “out of Egypt.” This reminds me of an Islamic teaching story that my parents, who were my most precious teachers, often urged me to think about when I was stuck in unhelpful patterns of thought or behavior.

Acknowledging our own shortcomings

During lunch break at work, the Mulla was getting more irritated with each passing day. Every time he opened his lunchbox, he found the same thing: a cheese sandwich. Finally, he complained bitterly: “I’m getting sick and tired of this lousy cheese sandwich.” His co-workers offered some advice.

“Mulla, why don’t you ask your wife to make you another kind of sandwich?"

“But I’m not married,” the Mulla said.

“Then who makes your lunch?” asked the puzzled colleagues.

“Well, I do!” replied the Mulla.

A central teaching of this story is that many of our recurring problems stem from lack of awareness about our own patterns. When we are unmindful of our patterns of excuses, fears, biases, and attachments, we tend to focus on externals. From that place of blindness, we blame others, bemoan life, and work furiously to change people and circumstances. Sadly, we neglect the urgent and abiding need to look within and work fervently to change our own patterns and perceptions.

This chronic unwillingness to look within is also a hallmark of religious institutions, which are, after all, a collection of human egos in varying stages of development. There is a witty saying that religion is what happens when, after God has revealed basic truths, the devil steps in and says, “Let me organize them for you.” Too often religious institutions focus on externals, making idols of theology and rituals and trumpeting the superiority of their beliefs. But despite the human failings of religious institutions, it behooves us to remember that at the spiritual heart of every religion is a twofold message about our existence: we are mysteriously placed on earth by the All-Merciful God, first, to evolve into the fullness of our being, and second, to be of service to God’s creation. We need to work on ourselves continuously so that we become more fully human, and at the same time we need to offer ourselves in service by being a “lamp, lifeboat or ladder” to God’s creation.

Achieving humanity through inner work

Every religion offers specific insights and prescriptions for this inner work. The Quran specifies three stages of the ego that we are asked to transform (12:53, 75:2, 89:27 ). In the first stage, the ego is a “commanding master” and can lead us into wrongdoing. By working to transform the ego into an “assistant,” we move into the second stage where the ego learns about the power and beauty of choices. In the third stage, the ego is at peace because it is aligned with the soul. And there is more! Once we start this ego work, a cry pours out from the depths of our being: “O God, open for me my heart!” (20:25).

That is the crux of inner work: to transform the ego and open the heart. From a compassionate, wise and spacious being will flow compassionate, wise and spacious actions.  The poet Rumi summarizes this critical work in two utterances: “Marry your soul. That wedding is the way.” By this he means that we must work constantly to align our ego-personality with our divine nature. Elaborating on the heart work, Rumi says: “Take a pick-axe and break open your stony heart. Know that the heart’s matrix is glutted with rubies. Springs of laughter are buried in your chest!”

The truth is that we prefer to talk about religion, fight over it, even kill for it. We seem willing to do everything but live our religion. Doing the inner work is highly inconvenient and we often complain of rough handling when life offers opportunities to polish our hearts. But if we complain of every little rub, how will our hearts ever be polished to reveal their divine essence?

Reaping the rewards of increased consciousness

Granted, there are awkward and difficult verses in our holy books that give religion a bad name, and we must seek to heal and integrate these verses by illuminating them with the light and insights of our higher, divine nature. Those difficult verses aside, the major thrust of all sacred scripture is the moral imperative to live in a way that reflects the holiness of our Creator. These sacred injunctions are exquisitely beautiful but are also highly exacting, for they demand that we grow in consciousness.

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Take, for example, the Abrahamic teachings about our relations with one another. Jews learn from the Talmud that if they despise another human being, it is as if they are despising God. Similarly, Christians are taught to love their enemies (Matt. 5:14) and Muslims are urged to make their enemies their bosom friends (Quran 41:34). Why do we not take these injunctions to heart and live them? The answer is simple: it’s hard work and terribly inconvenient. We find it much easier to counsel others about the importance of doing their inner work, and too often we prefer to focus our energy and attention on the popular narrative of religious institutions: believe this tenet and do that ritual, and you are assured of a safe passage to heaven. But there is no getting around the command to do our own inner work. The Quran says clearly, “God will not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in their hearts” (13:11).

Our friend the Mulla stars in another story. This one about avoiding the hard work of inner growth. One day the Mulla went to the speaker’s dais in the town square and bellowed out, “O people! O people! Do you want salvation without effort, freedom without sacrifice, riches without work, truth without falsehood, knowledge without difficulties…?” The Mulla repeated his message several times and each time the crowd multiplied, swelling in number, and they began to clamor, “Yes! Yes!” Brimming with satisfaction the Mulla then promised, “Excellent…thank you! You may rely on me to tell you about it in good time.” The story goes on to relate that the Mullah became rich by preaching on this subject for a hefty fee.

In this blessed period of Passover and Holy Week, let us remind ourselves of the sacred work of getting to know ourselves, of establishing a relationship with ourselves, of moving from our mask to our real face. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Know thyself and you shall know thy Sustainer.” Psalm 46, beloved to Jews and Christians alike, tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.” If we search for a similar insight outside the Abrahamic faiths, listen to the words of the Buddha: “Know others and you become wise. Know yourself and you become enlightened.”

Returning to the roots of our true selves

There is an extraordinary facet to this essential work. In a revelation to the Prophet Mohammad, God said, “Between Me and you there are no veils but between you and Me, there are seventy thousand veils.” As we diminish our personal shadows through the light of awareness and compassion, we come closer to our divine light. We realize at a heart level the amazing truth taught by virtually every sage over the ages: we are in essence a profoundly spiritual being having a human experience. In a stunning epiphany the Prophet Muhammad exclaimed, “I am He and He is I, except that I am I and He is He.”

If we are stuck at the level of consciousness where we have no connection to our divine essence, believing that the sum of our existence is our ego-driven personality, we are truly caught in a trap between a meaningless birth and the terrifying non-being of death. In the too-brief years between such a birth and death, we are condemned to content ourselves with a few scraps of pleasure while our egos desperately seek to satisfy themselves by acquiring more and more goods and physical experiences.

During this holy season, may we focus our spiritual energies on living the true spirit of our various religions. May we taste the essence of who we really are. May we return to the root of our real self. Once again, the words of the 13th century sage, Rumi: “You are a ruby in the midst of granite. How long will you continue to deceive us. We can see the look in your eyes. So, please, return to the root of the root of your real self.”


Jamal RahmanSheikh Jamal Rahman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jamal is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at Interfaith Community Church in Seattle. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Fragrance of Faith: The Enlightened Heart of Islam and Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources.

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