Ego and Emptiness

April 12, 2023

Shambhavi talks about the concept of ego and emptiness as an experiential phase in spiritual practice. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I was thinking about that quote about how the teacher's job is to assassinate the student's ego.

Yeah. Ego is an interesting word because it's almost entirely misused when applied to spiritual traditions. Ego is a word that comes from the Greek. The reason why we are so familiar with it is basically because of Freudian psychology and the Freudian schema of the self.

And when it's applied to spiritual traditions, generally, it's used to mean two things, one or the other, or both. Sometimes it's meant to mean your sense of "I," your I-ness. Other times it's meant to mean your selfishness or smallness or attachments of some sort or another.

In some traditions, mostly from India, but also sometimes from elsewhere, this idea exists that we're trying to get rid of ego. Sometimes people from a different kind of tradition will say, well, that means we're not supposed to have any I sense.

We lose the sense of I. That's kind of a definition of self-realization. In other traditions—and I'm assuming this is true of the Rinpoche who originally said this, and I don't think most of the teachers in Tibet that I've had, that I've studied with would say that their goal is to get rid of I sense.

That seems to be more of an Indian-Hindu-tradition kind of a thing. But they would say we want to get rid of all your attachments. That means your need, your compulsion, your desperate need to have things be a certain way and not be a certain way.

To be a certain someone and not anything else. To achieve certain things and not have any failures. To be seen a certain way and not seen other ways.

For instance, one of my very favorite Buddhist teachers, Patrul Rinpoche, he would say things like, to be admired is bad, to be denigrated is good. To be thought well of is bad, to be thought ill of is good.

In the sense that when we're in situations where things are not going our way, where that ego and the sense of our attachment to things being a certain way and being seen a certain way. And getting certain rewards. And feeling a certain way about ourselves.

When those needs or those compulsions are not being manifested, we're experiencing their opposites. What happens? Well, if we're just being ordinary, then we just feel terrible. That's our response.

We feel terrible about ourselves, or we're pissed off at other people, or we're desperately depressed. Or something like that because we're not getting what we want, what our karmas want.

Then we're trying to crawl out of those situations and fix them so that we can get what we want. This is when we have no distance from our karmas. We don't understand what's really happening and we think it's just good to get what we want and bad to get what we don't want.

We're just caught in this endless loop of trying to avoid certain things and have other things come about. This basically, as I've said before, lays waste to our entire lives, this effort of chasing the things that our karmas want and avoiding the things our karmas don't want.And of course, those karmas are not all personal karmas.

In fact, I would say most of them aren't. If we had to do some sort of a chart of how much of our karmas is just sort of our idiosyncratic individual crap, and how much of it is stuff we inherited from our families and our cultures and our nations and our religions, and whatever they were.

There's a lot of sources for the things that we want and that we don't want. And all of them are limited. Every single one of them is limited.

Anything we think about how I should be and how life should be and how other people should be and how everything should not be. All of those things have us imprisoned. And they could all be thought of as aspects of ego, attachment.

But in the direct realization traditions and particularly in Trika Shaivism—which in a sense, the whole Tantrik tradition. All of the Tantrik traditions from India are in a sense answering or providing an alternative to or an answer to the other aspects of Hinduism.

The other, like Advaita Vedanta and Vedanta and other Sankhya, and all of the more transcendental type of traditions. This tradition is trying to provide an answer to that. And the answer, in terms of this sense of ego or I sense is, I sense is everywhere.

We can't get rid of it. It's what existence is made of. That existence itself is a self-aware subjectivity, a self-aware consciousness and has itself a sense of I. And that our sense of our little I is just that big sense that's being held in a restricted, limited state.

And our job is not to destroy that. Our job is to destroy the restrictions and then liberate that I sense so that it can reconnect with the bigger I sense and be free to express itself without all of these limitations.

You could compare that to some sort of smaller river that's going into an ocean eventually, that someone has dammed up. And now the river is in a weird configuration because it's been dammed. And what we're trying to do is remove the dam.

We're not trying to get rid of the river. There's nothing wrong with the river itself. It's just been made to be in a shape that's not natural or relaxed for it. What we're trying to do is blow up the dam. [laughs]

Of course, in the direct realization traditions, all of the ones that I've had any contact with, whether it's passing or deep contact, have this fierce side. Where this idea that you would assassinate or, as I just said and laughed blow up, is kind of part of the tradition.

That we would want to have a more fierce relationship with a teacher where things could be done and pointed out and played. That would more quickly divest us of our limitations.

But it takes a special student to be able to handle that and to see what's happening. To understand the play of that relationship with the teacher. I would say that it's very rare in this country in this time and place to encounter that.

Someone with that, who desires that kind of relationship with the teacher. At the same time, I would say that anybody who sticks around, like here with me, must be in some way slightly okay with having more direct feedback. And having an experience where you're more exposed.

This is not the same. You could all be doing something else. You could be part of some Zen community, where you're just sweeping and arranging things and sitting for an hour a week. And no one ever says anything to you because everyone's just sitting quietly. [laughs]

Or you could be in a Buddhist community where people are talking more about their everyday behavior and how to cultivate compassion and everyone's trying to be very nice to everybody else. And treat everyone with this gentleness, whether it's real or assumed.

But in any case, that's my experience of a lot of American Buddhist communities I've been in is that people are trying to be gentle. And you could be in some other kind of community.

I mean, there's thousands of different kinds of spiritual traditions where no one's going to come up to you and say, that was a lie. [laughs] And you're not going to be exposed to all these people in the community, of what's happening.

And you're not going to be given certain kinds of practices that are more direct. If you want to ramble on for 15 years about your interpretations of all your psychological ins and outs, someone's going to listen to you.

And that's not the case here. [laughter] So even though most of you are not really down for the full on assassination, you're all here. You're all putting up with and trying to digest to some degree the fierceness that's just inherent in the tradition, that is not erasable. It's just part of it.

Even in some of the practices we do where we use really sharp mantras, there's practices where we use shocking sounds to clear people's minds or stuff like that. That's all part of the direct realization way also.

That we would do something unnerving or a little bit shocking to help you to clear all that crap out that you're always complaining about. What I'm saying is even though most of you are not really being assassinated, in fact, from my point of view, you're being downright coddled.

My teachers have been so much more fierce than I am. There's not even a comparison. I gravitated toward that. I wanted that. I'm not complaining about that at all. But I've learned over the years that that's not what most people want.

And yet they're here. And I have a certain personality and I like this kind of tradition. So there's obviously a resonance here between me and this more fierce tradition, more direct tradition.

So you're getting some of that, but not the full assassination. And then on the other hand, this idea that the teacher would apply that method. Of something very intense like assassination is, I don't know, I'm kind of outgrowing that whole idea anyway.

I think I used to be much more aggressive about it when I was younger. Partly because I liked that from my teachers, but also partly because I didn't realize that it wasn't going to be right for a lot of people and that it's okay. It's not a problem.

Is there a difference between the feeling of longing and the feeling of emptiness?

What would make you think it's the same thing?

Well, I thought that, I have just been assuming what I feel is longing, but then the DSM-5 says it might be chronic feelings of emptiness. [laughs]

Well, the DSM-5 is not Buddhist, apparently. [laughter] What is meant by emptiness in this tradition or in general, like in Buddhism, is that our experience of things as being solid and meaningful in a certain way is totally conditioned.

When that conditioning goes away, there's a sense of openness or emptiness to everything, including our body. There's a sense of things are not as fixed as we thought they were, or not as solid, or not as understandable.

Not as known in that limited way. Another word for this is shunya, which means void. That things are now voided of our normal projections onto them.

And so then the experience of things is of much more movable and not fixed. It's hard to describe, but it's just a sense of everything is no longer inhabited by our ideas of its solidity and permanence and meaning and right and wrong.

It's the same as some sort of non-concept. Different people have different experiences of shunya. And some people get addicted to it and never move on. And other people find it kind of like, Whoa, [laughs]. Everything isn't what I thought it was.

But I think the emptiness that the manual is talking about is a feeling of want. A feeling of hunger. Some emotional hunger or something not being filled.

And that wouldn't be considered to be emptiness in this kind of tradition because you're filled with that hunger, feeling like something's missing. That's describing some basic hungry ghost orientation that in essence, that's something that everyone experiences.

The feeling of something missing or of emptiness in a very ordinary sense is what in a sense drives us to practice. Because it is actually, even though we can make a lot of stories about it and also feel very badly about ourselves because, well I'm not getting what I want.

If we didn't have all those stories about it, if it weren't in the DSM-5, then in a sense, it's a true perception. That we are not being fully nourished because we have not recognized the actual source of nourishment, which is God.

So until we recognize that, everyone feels that sense of emptiness or hunger or want. And that is the engine of our sadhana. It's just that when it has attached itself to an object or objects, for instance, one object it attaches itself to is ourselves.

I am a person who never gets what they want. No one is ever going to love me the way I want to be loved. I'll never find this. I'll never find that. I'm always missing out. That becomes an object of attachment. That view of ourselves becomes an object of attachment.

Or it could be something else, a job or a love interest, or if only this, if only that. I need to have this in order to be happy. I'll never be happy if I don't have this.

Then we waste that longing that could be leading us to actual fulfillment. So if you feel that emptiness, think of it as an opening. And see if you can re-attach it to its proper destination.

Because the answer isn't in coming up with a better view of yourself. Or of anybody else. Or in getting anything in particular or getting rid of anything in particular either.

Those solutions can only provide temporary appeasement. The real appeasement is in reconnecting that longing to its real destination, which is the Self. That eternal value that can never be taken away or damaged.

Anything that we attach to that's not that, is completely an aspect of impermanence. And really doesn't have the ability to nourish us in that way. It's not that it's not nourishing to some degree, or satisfying to some degree.

Or appeasing for some period of time. Or making us happy for some period of time. But that emptiness will still be there because it is put there by God, to find God.

So it's not going to go away just because you have the boyfriend you want or the house you want or the job you want or the view of yourself you want. Everyone thinks you're wonderful. You have 500,000 likes on Instagram.

None of that is going to make that sense of want go away, because God put it there so you could find God. In many traditions, shunya is the goal. In most Buddhist traditions in the United States, they talk about it as if it's like the end of the line.

Like, I'm going to discover everything's empty. What does that really mean to them? It almost feels like the same thing when people in Hindu tradition say everything's unreal. I also think they don't know what they're talking about.

But the better Buddhist teachers, the old school ones, will tell you as Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, there is no such thing as emptiness. Emptiness is an experience we have along the way.

It's an experience that can lead us to God and it's an experience when our concepts and normal ways of experiencing reality are taken away. And we can have this sudden or maybe creeping destabilization because things just aren't how we thought they were.

There's an experience of emptiness. But that turns, if we keep going, that turns into an experience of fullness and eternity. Not always emptiness and impermanence.

Most of the American Buddhists just get stuck with emptiness and impermanence. They don't even know really what they're talking about, as far as I can tell. But the better Buddhist teachers I've had don't get stuck there. And will give the complete teaching, right?

Really, everything is full, not empty. We have to burn down the house and experience that open space before we can start experiencing how full that open space is.

Then in your mind, then what is waking up and releasing ourselves from all these kind of karmas and all these restraints? How might that differ from like shunya being the goal and other traditions?

Well, there's all different kinds of traditions that lead to all different kinds of fruits.

But I guess I'm asking about our tradition.

Yeah. In our tradition, shunya is halfway. It's just somewhere in the middle, having that recognition of how things are. It's interesting. I was just thinking about this the other day.

Because I had mentioned in satsang that there was two times when I feel like I've had that full download about what enlightenment really is. But then I realized there were three. I forgot about one. Two of them were all about light.

They were all light-filled and full of aliveness and beauty and music and wisdom. And this just sense of overflowing abundance. But the other one was dark, and it was much more about the emptiness.

And that was the earliest one, actually. That was the first one that happened.

What was the dark one like?

It's not describable. It's not describable.

What was the void like? [laughter]

The only thing I can tell you that in all three of those circumstances, I did not lose awareness. So this idea that we would become insensible and lose awareness did not happen.

And two of those just directly involved Ma, something that Ma made happen in her way. Those were the two more... It's really indescribable. But just like whatever ananda is, that's what it was.

And that's where I learned more about what ananda really is. That's where I learned that everything is made of wisdom. That's the major download that I got, having not been taught that, but that became apparent.

But the earlier one was, someone else gave me that experience. That was more like what's called turiya, the fourth state, waking, sleeping, dreaming, and turiya.

There was also some sense of awareness in there that was happening. But the whole thing happened in darkness. I thought that was interesting. It's like another way of contacting that. It is the emptiness part.

That was the first thing that ever happened that was that significant in my spiritual life. It took me literally many years to integrate that experience into my everyday life. When that happened, I went on retreat.

Because I recognized, okay, this is way beyond my pay grade. [laughs] I have to go on retreat and see if there's anything of this I can keep. So that it doesn't just remain this one-off experience.

I did that, but it took me many years after that to really integrate. Now I can find the darkness everywhere. But it is like the emptiness part. It's the non-solidity part.

I couldn't really say more about it, but each one of those experiences taught me something very significant about how reality is. That was the result, right, and changed my relationship to embodiment in a sense.

And in one instance, scared me off enlightenment itself. [laughs] As I was saying the other day, like, in one of them, I was in such an extraordinary state that I thought, if I was in this state all the time I just wouldn't be able to have a normal life.

And I wasn't really ready to not have a normal life. So we'll see what Ma has in store.

Is shunya related to the sandhi in any way?

Yeah, absolutely.

There's some overlap that would be magnetizing in a pleasurable way.

Absolutely. That happened to me, too, when I learned all these practices of the sandhi, resting in them too long and then screwing up my breath. Because they are magnetizing.

It's just so peaceful to not breathe and just be there in that dark that has light in it, but it's also dark and restful. Yeah, it is related to that. Some people are terrified of that or just makes them nervous, or they don't want to stay there.

But then other people want to stay there. The trick isn't to continually be having to do those techniques, but to discover that that is everywhere. That's what I was describing about Shamatha.

People do listening, abiding, and then they do Shamatha, and then they do nonconceptual meditation. I tell people when they're ready to do nonconceptual meditation, and it's based on, have they yet discovered that this idea is everywhere, or they still think it's just at the end of the breath.

If you still think it's just at the end of your breath and you still need to do Shamatha to get in contact with that, then you need to keep doing Shamatha. Until it just seems to the person doing it is utterly superfluous.

I can't really actually do Shamatha anymore. Because there's no differentiation between the end of my breath and my breath and anything outside of my breath. I start to try to do it. Like, if we're doing it in a group, I'm just like, I just can't keep doing it.

There's not that structure to my experience of the sandhi. And I think people start to have a little bit of that experience when they've been doing Shamatha for a while. Then they don't need that structure anymore.

It was surprising to hear you describe that experience as another one alongside the other two that felt like, full on. So it sounds like each of the three were different experiences of full on?

Well, they were different downloads of things, but the third one was just all-encompassing. I've written about that, what happened on the balcony at Ma's ashram. But the first one was when I got the name Shambhavi.

The first one?

Yeah. I went to sleep and I woke up at midnight and there was someone standing at the foot of my bed. And said, I'm going to give you this initiation and named an initiation in Sanskrit that I'd never heard of.

Then I woke up three hours later or I came to three hours later after having gone through this dark experience. Then the next day, this same figure came back and gave me the name Shambhavi.

My teacher at the time thought it was some passing maha siddha, but I don't really know. I don't have any evidence for or against that.

If shunya is halfway, what's the end point?

Fullness. purna bramha narayani, full of wisdom and energy. Full of the light of wisdom. Living compassion, living creativity, livingness. Full of that eternal self. No, emptiness need apply.

Emptiness is an experience. Fullness is what everything is. Emptiness is always in relationship to something, but the fullness of the Lord is not in relationship to anything.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.