Ed was an old friend of mine. Around the age of 27 he had an insight which clarified a lot for him about the ego. Not long after he had this insight, I experienced an enlightening conversation with him.
This conversation happened one evening when we were talking about spirituality. I had been practicing zen for several years, without attaining any deeper understanding. Because Ed did appear to have some insight, I asked him straight up: “Ed, how do I drop my ego?”
He looked at me and simply replied with “Ego!” I didn’t understand that answer, so I asked him again “Ed, how do I drop my ego?” And he replied again by just saying “Ego!”
By this time I was quite fanatical about getting a straight answer from him, so with a lot of focus I asked him for a third time “Ed, stop this nonsense of giving me that short answer, come on and give me a straight answer – how do I drop my ego??” He replied by strongly saying “EGO..!”
I actually had not expected him to say ‘ego’ again, because I was expecting he would finally give me an explanation. But something in the way he said “Ego” again, made me look inside and I caught myself in the act of trying to get rid of my ego, which happened in a split second.
In that moment I saw that having an ego wasn’t the problem, but that by wanting to get rid of it I made it into a problem. I became aware of that subconscious habit and I had never been so directly and clearly aware of it before.
Later I tried to explain what I had realized to my girlfriend and it soon became apparent to me that she didn’t get it. So when she tried again to understand by asking “Do you mean that...” I stopped her in the middle of her sentence and replied “NO..!”
At that point I saw that she momentarily let go of her grasping for the answer and it seemed like she caught a glimpse of what I was trying to explain.
If you are trying to ‘get it’ the answer can only be NO. You cannot get it because you are it. You are doing all the ego stuff so how can somebody else stop that for you? The only thing somebody else might unexpectedly do is make you aware of what you are doing.
So I ‘got’ that there is nothing to get for the ego. The value of this insight was that I saw that the fact that there are difficulties in life is not a problem, but the fact that you WANT TO GET RID of those difficulties make them into a problem.
For the first time in my life I had a direct awareness of how I make difficulties into problems at lightspeed through creating resistance and grasping for a ‘solution.’ It was as if the most outer layer of my ego–attachment had been peeled off.
In the days and weeks after that enlightening experience, exactly that experience itself became my problem. That became an obsession of running around in circles faster and faster, constantly becoming aware of and subsequently dropping the ego’s grasping habits.
This became worse and worse until one night it became so intense I reached breaking point. At that point I went through the eye of that storm and I let go.
After that crisis, I was no longer compulsively glued to my insight. I was able to just enjoy watching the ego’s grasping habits instead of being trapped in the vortex of constantly having to drop the mind.
It was only after this insight that I understood what is meant by the second Noble Truth of Buddhism: ‘Desire is the cause of suffering’. Earlier, I always thought that meant that you should try not to have desires in order to end suffering.
But trying not to have desires just means that your ego is trying to get rid of a problem, in this case the problem of having desires. That is why the Buddha way is unsurpassable, because as long as YOU are trying to attain it, you cannot.
Yet desire IS the cause of suffering, but that actually refers to the subconscious ego desire of wanting to control everything by getting rid of perceived problems. So when you think you are doing the right thing by trying to get rid of your desires, you are actually just fanning the flames and strengthening your ego.
But then again, sometimes we need to do that in order to discover how deluded we are.