Spirituality could be defined as the practice of bringing one’s ego under control. Many paths instruct adherents to become egoless and to cultivate an attitude of selflessness. “Enlightened” individuals are beings who have transcended the ego and are living in a state of expansive love for all beings. As people progress along the path of spiritual development, they drop their focus on the labels and identities of the world, such as their worldly reputation and financial status, and identify instead with the substance of their own soul.
This is a beautiful thing, but there is a trap built into the process. Sometimes, the ego identifies just as strongly with the spiritual self as it does with the worldly self, if not even more strongly. The ego loves anything that makes it feel superior, so it is not unusual to have the subconscious thought, “I am better than others because I am more spiritual than they are.” This can be a great block to one’s growth and a deterrent to cultivating true unconditional love for others. Here’s a few points for avoiding that trap:
Realize Everyone’s Soul-level Equality
During the times of the American and French revolution, one radically new idea came to the fore: “All people are created equal.” From the ego’s perspective, this is rubbish. The world presents a million ways to measure another person as better or worse than ourselves: wealth, education level, class, race, IQ, looks, personality, career rank, and on and on.
In the eyes of the ego, everyone is different, so there is no such thing as equality. So, there is no reason to treat any one else with decency, especially if we perceive ourselves as superior. The only basis for equality therefore, is the soul itself. We value kindness and fair treatment only because we acknowledge that other people are in possession of a soul.
While we speak in terms of levels of consciousness and levels of spiritual attainment, ultimately every person you meet, from the most powerful politician to the panhandler on the street, is in possession of a glorious, beautiful soul. We speak of “growing our soul,” but that is only the process of revealing it within our being. No matter how covered up it may be within ourselves, the soul is always there as the ultimate, infinite expression of who we are. No matter how far we are in the process of revealing our own soul, there is no reason to become arrogant about it since everyone else has the exact same gift within themselves.
Strip Off Your Spiritual Masks
Sometimes the spiritual ego can lead to insincerity, too. If “highly evolved spiritual person” has become part of the ego’s identity, a person might start to just “go through the motions” of spiritual practice for the sake of fitting in or looking good to other people. Perhaps they will wear spiritual symbols, attend spiritual workshops, or use spiritual jargon as a ways to signal to others that they are spiritually advanced. Similarly, areas that need deep spiritual work are hidden away and denied, in order to “save face” as a spiritual practitioner. Spiritual practice then becomes a mask that is worn, rather than a true path to growth.
Make Love Your Aim
If you intend to perform Hongik, the philosophy of being of wide benefit to humanity, practice humbleness first. Be humble before your compatriots. Respect the souls of all people, and treat them as if they are more precious than anything else in the world. That is the way to make your own soul precious, not by looking “spiritual” in the eyes of others. The first step in practicing Hongik is always humbleness because it is not genuine otherwise. Instead of seeking spiritual status for yourself, respect, praise, and love the people around you; that is true advancement.
Every time your ego is activated by habit, bring yourself back to humbleness, but be kind to yourself as you do, exercising deference and humbleness toward your own soul, as well. If you make a deliberate choice to be humble, your actions will be different automatically. With humbleness, your ego is melted away, and growth is natural and comfortable.
Avoiding spiritual egotism is ultimately a matter of keeping the right perspective as you progress. Unlike most worldly achievement, spiritual advancement is about letting go of certain things, not about gaining something. We drop the pretenses and false identities of the ego so that we can feel our oneness with all that is, not to make ourselves stand out from others as better or more advanced. In other words, we become humbler, not more prideful. Only then can we feel the bliss of loving as widely and as deeply as possible.