In 1966, Michael Caine starred in the movie Alfie, a story about a cockney womanizer; a typical, unconscious, playboy type, living from woman to woman. His life gets complicated by his unconscious choices and, after a string of setbacks, he asks the question, “What’s it all about? You know what I mean?” It took him a while to ask. That it did so is not unusual, however.
What is it all about? Alfie, frustrated and tired of the game, dissatisfied when his shallow existence becomes suddenly exposed, finally asks the quintessential, existential question, “What is the meaning of life?” The mythologist, Joseph Campbell once said that people think they are seeking “meaning” in life but what they really want is “aliveness.” Ummmm, what’s that all about? I’ll get to it in a minute.
While we are buzzing about, working, perhaps raising a family, paying insurance, going shopping, and doing the thousand things that we seem to need to do, and the many others that we have made more important than perhaps they really are, we may forget this question. But in the quiet of the night, or in some other unanticipated, vacant interstice in our lives, this question can unexpectedly rear its head. When it does, it can be disquieting and strangely disturbing with its rapid appearance, like suddenly finding ones’ self standing on the edge of a freshly dug grave. It can also happen that the question appears when we are feeling very melancholic and depressed, like Alfie. “There has to be some reason for my life,” we think, “for this whole show! What can it be?”
Eckhart Tolle suggests the ego has persuaded us that the meaning of life is to be found in all the things and situations through which the ego is seeking to identity itself. Thus, if we have more we will be more. So we buy stuff, and we identify ourselves with our job, our car, our family and social position and so forth, and we struggle to be great achievers. We become attached to these things because the ego needs them to define itself. Since we are unaware of any part of us that is not the ego, we allow it to define who we are, or who it is. Everything is impermanent, so we need to constantly refresh the objects through which we identify ourselves. This suggests that this is why we created a consumer society, to satisfy the ego’s need for constant identity through things. Unfortunately, as the the Buddha made very clear (and it should be obvious to the thinking person), due to the impermanence of everything, attachment is the cause of suffering. We find, that the consumer religion’s promise of a happy life, if you just buy stuff, doesn’t work any better than the ego’s relentless drive for identity in other areas, it’s attachment to beliefs and ideas, to judgment and blame , to opinion and certainties. Our dissatisfaction is eternal since we can never satisfy the ego’s need for new, impermanent things with which to create and refine its identity. The question “what’s it all about?” reflects the frustration we feel as we chase the illusion that temporary things and situations can fulfill us, and we discover, like Alfie, that they are not doing the job but just creating more need and frustration.
Here is a thought. What if we already possess our purpose and meaning before we develop our ego and before it tries to create these things? What if we are not just looking for the wrong thing, as Campbell suggests, but are also looking from the wrong place? Confusing? Not really. Both are true.
Three great Rumi lines beckon us toward the truth. It is the ego that tells us we are not whole, that there must be something more, some purpose out there. The lack of wholeness turns out to be our ego seeking identity. To know this is true we need only ask “who is asking the question?” It can only be the ego because what Rumi called our “clear consciousness core” is not concerned with this question. It knows its own eternity. It doesn’t need identity with “other” to define itself. But how do we find this “clear consciousness core?” Good news. No need to look for it. It is already on board. Rumi described it as “inside your looking.” It is your non-judging awareness, the witness, your conscious self. You can access it at any present moment. And, when you experience it, you will understand why Rumi also said, “There is more to want here than money or fame or bites of roasted meat,” summing up our culture (and those before us) in one neat little sentence.
When we practice awareness, we are able to see the ego’s dance clearly. When we make the choice to stay in awareness, rather than get lost in the ego’s stories, we simultaneously diminish the power of the ego over us. When we let go of the ego in this manner, there is, automatically, more wholeness, more completeness. We act from “the clear consciousness core of our being.” And, living from this place, being a conscious being is why we are here!
Of course, this is the opposite of what the ego and the egotistical and egocentric world would have us believe. There will always be plenty of second force trying to drag us back to the land of ego.
We are required to access our courage. There is a great reward. With our choice of awareness we are able to change our automatic, mindless and heartless, egocentric reactions into considered and loving response. We are able to let go of the tyrant piece by piece by fully understanding how it causes us (and everyone else) so much suffering. Each time we choose love, we let go of the ego’s reliance on the tools of separation: fear, judgment, and blame. The space these unskillful ego tools occupied is replaced by love and compassion, and it feels good. That wonderful aliveness, that Campbell speaks of, becomes our reality. As he wisely understood, what we have actually been seeking all along is this aliveness, but we have been unable to fully experience it with the ego distracting us with its programs.
If there is any meaning to life, it is realizing who you already are, a consciousness that fulfills its purpose by seeking and giving love. Our quest for this realization is cleverly diverted by the ego. The good news is that we need not seek the meaning of life, only unveil it. Then the aliveness we deeply desire as living beings emerges brightly.
This is why I call letting go of the ego “the magnificent gesture.” The great beauty of making this choice it is that you, your family, your friends and every person you meet, benefit greatly.