it is very important to make a distinction between two concepts that are often erroneously used interchangeably: ego and self.
we think of ego and self as referring to the same inner reality, but self is the opposite of ego. the first principle to understand is that there is no i unless it is the i in relationship. there are two modes of relationship: i-thou and i-it. the relationship of i-it spawns the ego, while the relationship of i-thou creates the self. it is only through the relationship that the ego appears and that the self emerges. there is no self and no ego that precede the relationship.
the i-it is the relationship that produces the ego and imposes it over the self. the i-thou is the relationship that removes the ego and frees the self to its true pre-ego nature. the self precedes the ego, but the ego is the subsequent accretion of the economic-culture over the original self. nothing could be added to the self, nor removed away from the self, unless through a relationship.
the distinction therefore is between the ego and the self, not between the self and the emptiness of being. the ego is what it is, but the self is an entity within me only to the extent that i enter into a true encounter with the other. the self cannot be said to be within me, as there is nothing within me outside of the relationship, but the moment i embrace my neighbor, i become the self that is my true nature. in other words, the self exists only in the between of you and me.
therefore, the focus of our spiritual practices ought to be not towards the within, nor towards the without, but towards the between. our practice must be directed to the dialogical encounter from where alone the self can emerge.
the i, by itself, does not exist. what exists is the i in relationship. there is either the i of the i-it or the i of the i-thou, and each is a different i. the i of the i-it is the ego, and the i of the i-thou is the self. the buddha expanded on this insight by speaking of the "no-self". the state of no-self, or what is known as sunyata, is what in dialogical terms i refer to as the practices of i-thou. the state of no-ego is the one we attain in the between of the i and the thou.
the self, which is the between of the i and the thou, is our true nature. it is the lotus flower the buddha held in his hand on the morning of the faithful smile.
zen master dogen zenji spoke of the dropping of body and mind. we will understand the existential demand of sunyata when we define the ego as the it and the self as the thou. dogen's "dropping" is not an ontological category, it is an existential demand we answer to for it requires we make the life-choice to live a life of it or to live a life of non-it. what does it mean to live a life of thou? there is no life of thou per-se, there is only a life of non-it.
ego or self is not only a matter of inner consciousness, it is a matter of our concrete, ordinary, here and now lives of relationships. ego is like a crust of artificial "its" that attach themselves to the self and over time succeed in repressing it into a state of existential depression. the self, therefore, is not something to be attained, it is the true nature we can access in the here and now if only we dis-cover its presence. that is to say, the self needs to have the covers of it attached to it removed and "dropped" away. and this is the most fundamental meaning of the buddhist concept of non-attachment. we do not detach from the self, we detach the ego from the self. in terms of practice, non-attachment is the life of i-thou.
in this dialogical context, the buddhist concept of sunyata should not be understood as the emptying of the self, but as the dropping of the ego. sunyata should be understood as the life of i-thou rather than the non-life of i-it. the self that is free from ego, becomes able to perceive reality as is, unencumbered by the ego-filters of false-consciousness and false-volition. the free self is often described as luminous and spacious, able to enter into a true relationship with the true-selves of all beings.
the ego is unable to know the other as other, it only knows the world only as another version of itself. confirmation of otherness is the manifestation of the dropping of the ego. if we only look within we will only find the ego, but when we look not within and not without but between i and thou, we will find the true self. the true-self is free and joyous, and sees the other as the other is.
sunyata, therefore, is the pealing away of the its that constitute the ego and the release of the true self that lies behind. without the ego to mediate our life with the world, our true-self becomes the part of us that relates to the world and with whom the world relates.
buddhism argues that we can meditate our way through the ego and into the no-self. meditation can help us drop the ego by helping the self detach from the "its" that bind it. the process of meditation helps the self become cognizant and aware of the its that oppress it so it can break through their falsehood and proceed to drop them. meditation teaches to drops the ego by detaching it from the self. as argued above, this is the true meaning of detachment as used in buddhism: it is not a detachment from the self but of the self from the ego.
but a dialogical perspective asserts that the dropping of the ego requires more than awareness and cognizance. we will not detach the ego from the self unless we engage in a life of i-thou relationships with all beings. it is in the relationship that meditation is actualized.
the dialogical approach to the ego and its detachment from self, identifies the i-it relationship as the process that leads to the creation and manifestation of the ego, and it is therefore the reversal of that process that will to the goal of liberation. the free-self manifests itself only as the living relationship of an i and a thou and therefore we can speak in terms of the process of i-it-ego and its reversal within the practices of i-thou-self.
the self is not a new "becoming", it is what remains after the it-ego has been pierced through and dropped away. since the basic human condition is one of relationships with all beings, and since i-it and i-thou are the two basic forms of relationships, the "dropping" of the ego requires a reorientation in the relationship practices we engage in in our daily lives. i-thou is not a manner of mystical relationship, it is simply the relationship that remains after the i-it relationship has been dropped and abandoned.
the mind cannot become enlightened unless it lives an enlightened life. the dialogical approach does not deny the importance of the liberated mind in the context of liberated relationships, but argues that the dropping of the i-it must be practiced as an integral part of the practice of meditation. meditation and i-thou relationship ought to be regarded as one and the same practice. as richard rohr said: "we do not thing ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking". just like the torah said: "let us do and let us hear". in other words: we cannot learn to love and feel compassion other than by loving and being compassionate. nothing can teach us to love, for love is what will teach us. i learn to touch by touching you and by accepting your touch. how many times are we going to fail? hopefully many.
and here is something important that martin buber explained. dialogue is not mysticism, it is its exact opposite. in i-thou dialogue there is no merging of the self with a higher being. there is the saying of thou to all beings. from the inner and outer realms of the true self, dialogue is the non-ego confirmation of otherness. similarly to the bodhisattva who refuses to enter nirvana because his task is to help liberate all beings, the "dialogist" does not enter mysticism for his task is to remain present to all beings.
nagarjuna, the teacher, arrived at this conclusion: "clinging is to insist on being someone. not to cling is to be free to be no one." pessoa, the poet, knew this too, but being a poet he also understood this crucial distinction. pessoa said: "because i am nothing, i can imagine myself to be anything. if i were somebody, i wouldn't be able to." the master wants nothingness, while the poet wants imagination. for this reason we need to hold clear the distinction between the ego and the self. attachments, or clinging, are part of the structure of the ego, not of the self. but this dropping of the ego cannot be done outside of a dialogical context. and it is for this reason that i am not inclined to accept the monastic or introspective path to detachment. buber said that solitude is the place of purification, but if i purify myself just for my-own sake, it is the ego the one who emerges victorious. in a deep sense, as dogen said, the path and the goal are not two different and separate stages of practice, they are one and the same state of being.
a few postscripts
the lack of distinction between ego and self is a false argument employed by those unable to transcend either. and that is part of the misunderstanding too, since there is nothing to transcend. there is no essential distinction between ego and self, there is only an existential dichotomy to be overcome. the distinction ego-self lacks importance except as it pertains to the dialogical project of i-thou. ego-self is not an ontological category, it's an ethical project.
ultimately, from an ontological perspective, there is no ego to step out from, and there is no self to step in to. our living task is to answer the call of the between in the encounter of my-i with the whole of existence. if we decide to avoid terms such as inner-outer, and especially, if we step out of linguistic constructs, what is left "behind" the words is nothing other than the simple experience of being-in-the-world. (dasein for lack of a better term). in that being-in-the-world the i emerges in the between of our dialogical encounter with any being. that's why liberation is an ethical project, not an ontological category of being. it is our choice to say thou or to say it, and there will be a radically different i that emerges when we say it, (the ego) and another when we say thou (the self). we are attached to it but we are freed by thou.
the dialogical conclusion is that once we find the self that is trapped within the ego, as buddhism also speaks of, and as logotherapy argues as well, we will need to realize that the self is just a potential waiting to be made manifest. but what stands in the way? it is the context of our societal economic-cultural system that conspires to repress the self in order to be able to augment the ego instead.
it has been said that a cup's value is in that it is empty. but rather than letting us experience the freedom that emptiness affords, the economic-cultural system makes sure to fill the cup for us with contents of its own. none of the practices required for enlightenment are possible within the capitalist system: our capital-oriented cultures invent the ego and operate through it. capitalism requires the ego in order to sustain itself. the self is the threat to the cultures of capital. therefore, when psychotherapy or religion speaks of ego-self, to the extent that it abstracts the ego and the self from their larger social-economic context, the only thing it can accomplish is to make us better adjusted to the system we have docilely accepted as our lot. this is what thoreau described as accepting our quite desperation. we are made to be "comfortably numb" by the enlargement of the scope and reach of the realm of ego. if we don't change our between, then nothing ultimately changes.
in a most essential way, there is no path to the within, nor there is a path to the without, there is only a path-towards the between. "towards" denotes the intentionality of meeting the other in the between of the i-thou. it is in that going towards the other that the narrow bridge of existence, as the bratzlever rebbe called it, will lead us to both the within and the without. the only way to get oneself out of one's own ego, is through some one else's self. without going towards, one goes nowhere, not to the within and not to the without. we go towards the other, and in every thou we meet we are addressing the eternal thou.
this is the most transformative and revolutionary statement jorge luis borges has ever made: "our nothingness differs little". this should be understood in this way: there is no such entity as one single nothingness all individuals partake of. if nothingness does exist (which of course it does not) there could be no single path to it, same to all and equally open to all. each person has its own unique and individual nothingness.
it is our fear of thou that makes us collapse one thing into its opposite. rather than saying "emptiness is emptiness," some of us say "emptiness is completeness" and the reverse. but melancholy is what it is, and only being true to what one is, can redeem the universe. and it is possible to be in a redeemed universe and yet be alienated from it. that is what i find fascinating in cioran's statement: "melancholy redeems this universe, and yet it is melancholy that separates us from it." it is the human predicament that we need to find a "purpose" in everything, even in suffering, for life to be bearable. viktor frankl called it "logos", the goal or purpose that confers meaning to life, and it is in that meaning that we find a measure of comfort.
meaninglessness seems to be the source of all our despairs. i accept that, but i can't understand the "purpose" behind resolving meaninglessness. not sure if it is even resolvable as is. we think of the spiritual life, or satori, or nirvana, or however we name it, as being one state of being we can all reach and experience. we think there is a teaching and that there is a teacher. but if we cancel all that out, our lives will be transformed in their search for meaning. we make our paths as we walk on them said machado the poet. if there is no path, there can be no tour guide, and no pre-determined destination to arrive at. there is no-nothingness and neither its opposite. but here's the most important part of this: if we only look inside we will not see the path. if we only look outside we cannot recognize the path. but if we look in-between you and i, then, at least, we can try to take the first steps.