For spiritual seekers and contemplatives, the notion that ego is to be transcended is neither novel nor unpalatable. Quite the contrary, the small, petty, and afflictive ego is seen as a false entity that needs to be dealt with in one way or another. Through spiritual practice and especially meditation, one is encouraged in many wisdom traditions to gain insight into the nature of the false ego and with deep wisdom to let go of it. In letting go of ego, it is believed, one is finally able to make an end of the suffering that this ego causes to oneself and others. For ego lies at the root of our afflictive states that bring on suffering in all its forms. To be able to accomplish this feat is thus an act of selfless spiritual merit that benefits the world at large. It eradicates the suffering we can cause the world, its ecology and society, and inspires us to act in selfless love and compassion towards all living beings. For the end of ego means the beginning of egoless altruism. This is the standard discourse when it comes to a spiritual solution to affliction-causing egoism.
Corollary to this idea of transcending the small, confined ego is the now highly popular idea of oneness with the planet and ecology in a quasi-mystical fashion—a spiritually expansive way of being that valorizes human nonduality with the planet and that calls for a compassionate response towards the environment and communities in ethically just ways. For some, this form of planetary consciousness is expressed in the view that humans are integral components of Gaia, who is our Mother. Here, the planet is seen as a living breathing whole organism of whom we are an indelible part, and for whom we are co-responsible. In this view, Gaia, as the sum total of all planetary systems and consciousness, is alive—the very matrix in whom we humans live and move and have our being. For some, Gaia is the feminine God or better the Goddess—a variant of pantheism of a female-gendered kind. For others, Gaia is part of the cosmic Goddess who is none other than the infinite feminine universe herself. In any case, eco-spirituality entails a quasi-mystical union of identity with Gaia, however she is conceived.
But is this union with Gaia truly egoless as it first appears? No. The petty small egoic self might be absent but this does not necessarily mean that the ego in some expanded subtle form is not present. In fact, I would argue that the ego is very much alive and well albeit hidden from view. This ego exists in a subtle and expanded form, not so easily discerned because of its translucency and by virtue of the fact that reification is by nature nebulous and elusive. Reification is the concretization or ‘thing-ification’ of a process into an entity of sorts, distorting what is processual into a static bounded entity. Gaia, as the whole of nature or the infinite feminine cosmos, is reified as some divine entity with which one’s ego, correspondingly reified, is identified.
On the basis of a reified planet or cosmos gendered as feminine (also reified as a real inherent quality), one constructs a reified sense of self inseparable from reified Gaia. Herein lies the tangle of self-grasping ignorance at the root of cyclic and repetitive anguish. However spiritual this sense of union might feel, the truth is that the delusion of self remains untouched and the wellspring of anguish unextinguished. Thus, it does not take much for fires of greed and hatred to be enflamed by anything or anyone that seems to threaten one’s sense of identity located in Gaia. This is especially salient when we witness ongoing neglect or destruction of planetary ecology. From the personal anguish we feel as a result of this neglect or destruction, we generate hostility and ill will towards perceived perpetrators of ecological damage commensurate with our degree of emotional attachment to our identity conceived as Gaia.
Is this true and lasting freedom? No. Freedom as such eludes us, when we are caught in ecocentric egoism as described above. This bondage is not easily discerned and prone to highly emotive reactions, given the rapidly deteriorating predicament of the planet and our worsening sense of insecurity and fear. There is also a high risk of ecocentric self-righteousness on the part of ecospiritual warriors who feel deeply that they are woke while others less ‘green’ than them are somehow irresponsible or immoral. This is tragic. This is spirituality hijacked by ecocentric egoism and its corollary sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority. As contemplatives, we need to be exceptionally mindful to guard against this unhelpful and damaging sidetrack. Only when we are able to disentangle ourselves from everything, including the planet and even the cosmos, are we able to be truly liberated in unsurpassed freedom of the mind.
And in that unexcelled freedom of the mind, we are poised to be enlightened by the Spirit of Christ as to His person and work, thus effecting our redemption and justification as we say “yes” to Jesus. With Christ at the centre and as our eternal and final home, we are enabled and empowered to act creatively, wisely, and lovingly in the world in perfect accord with God’s sovereign will and purpose, and without an iota of self-righteousness or moral/spiritual superiority. We indeed come to the end of ourselves in all degrees of subtlety in the One who loved and died for us. Only then do we find supreme uncreated freedom beyond freedom, supreme uncreated excellence beyond even the unexcelled in creation. All words end here in the First and the Last, the eternal Word. Amen.