Lecture, May 24, 2003, International Theosophical Centre, Besant Hall, Naarden, The Netherlands

Is the Self an Illusion?

P. Krishna

Well friends,

We have seen so far that the conflict and violence in society arises from the conflict and violence that is there in our consciousness. And the conflict and violence that is in our consciousness arise from the ego process in our consciousness. So the next question that we must explore is what is this ego? Does it actually exist as a reality in nature, or is it an illusion in the sense that it is merely a creation of our own imagination? That is an important question, because if it exists in nature, then you cannot eliminate it. Then it is something like the tree, or your body; you cannot eliminate it. But if it is based on some assumptions, which don't have any existence except in our own imagination, then it has no existence in nature, it has an existence only in the imagination. Just as fairy tales are created only out of our imagination. They may be in a book, but they are not real, they are not actual stories. And when we know that it is only imaginary, it doesn't create illusion. But when it is created in imagination, and I take it to be real, then it becomes an illusion.If the ego is something that actually exists in nature, then we can only learn to cope with it and the problems it creates. Then we need to study Dale Carnegie's books, which teach us how to manage the ego: How to Win Friends and Influence People.It teaches us how to oil our way through society in order to be successful.

But what we are exploring here is something quite different. We are exploring whether it is possible to dissolve the ego, through understanding the process by which it forms, so that you do not have to manage it. So freedom is something totally different from management of the ego, or the refinement of the ego. The highly sophisticated, highly educated person expresses his ego in a refined way, a more sophisticated way than the uneducated person.But inwardly there is not a tremendous difference between the two individuals. On the other hand there is a tremendous difference between the person who is free from the ego and the one who is trapped in it.

So I want to explore with you this afternoon whether the ego is an illusion created by our own mind.First of all one can observe for oneself that there is no ego anywhere in nature other than in human consciousness. Animals may be violent to some extent but animals don't have an ego. They are not intentionally and deliberately violent. And the human child,when it is born, is like an animal,it has no ego since it doesn't have the capacity for thinking and imagining.So we must examine: when does the ego come into existence as the child grows and how does it arise? Because, after all, we have all been children, so we have gone through that process. If I examine that, I find that after a few years of its birth the child acquires a language and acquires the capacity to think and to imagine. These capacities in themselves are not the ego. They have come to us in the process of biological evolution, which is a part of the order of nature. When we couple these capacities with the instinct of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, which is there also in the animal, then that produces the recipe for the formation of the ego,because with the human consciousness there is not only physical pain and physical pleasure, but there is also psychological pain and psychological pleasure.

I not only remember factually what happened, but I also record in my memory the pleasure and pain of that experience.I remember it and I can desire repetition of that pleasure in the future. And I also remember an insult,and feel enmical towards the person who insulted me. The memory of that insult can create a permanent enmity. I remember the person who ill-treated me and therefore in future I avoid him.The memory produces fear, because I am afraid he will ill-treat me again. But you must have noticed that when you ill-treat a dog, it comes wagging its tail again the next day, it has forgotten that ill-treatment and not felt insulted! But we have the capacity, not only to remember the event but also to nurse this psychological grievance within us. That is what brings in fear and suspicion in our relationships.Children are also capable of getting hurt, but you must have noticed that after a few days, they have forgotten the hurt and quickly make friends with the same person.But as we grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult to do this. And that is the beginning of the ego process within us.

So the question arises whether it is possible not to record anything psychologically; to record only facts, but not to record insults and flattery. One is not objecting to all memory, because factual memory is necessary and it does not create illusion or the ego. But the psychological memory interferes with the quality of my relationships in the present. That means you may have fought with your husband or wife ten years ago and you may factually remember that you had a fight, but if you are not carrying the residue of it in terms of hurt then it does not affect your relationship today. It is the memory of the hurt, that constitutes psychological memory. And that is what creates a difficulty in the relationship.We often observe that we have friends, both of whom are very good human beings, but something goes wrong between them; they can't manage to live peacefully together. It is not that they don't want to but they just can't. And that's how relationships harden and break down.

So that is the next thing to look at in our life, why do we record flattery and insult? They are non-facts. If somebody comes and says to me," Oh, your lecture was divine, it was wonderful, you are a great man ", it's an exaggeration, it's a lie. Why do I find that so pleasant, why do I record it ? Or he comes and says,"You are a stupid fool, you're wasting your time, you don't understand anything" and I feel insulted and I keep that insult in my mind and I feel enmical towards this person.We looked at that this morning. We said if you're carrying a begging bowl, and if somebody puts something in it, you treat him as a friend and if he takes something out of it then you treat him as an enemy. So is there some kind of an image I am forming, a reputation I am seeking, for which I find that flattery useful and the insult painful?

So I must ask myself why I have this image, why I seek this reputation for myself? You will find that it comes from the fact that we would like the community to think us better than we actually are. I don't want people to know me exactly as I am, I pretend, and I like to create an image of a superior human being and let them carry that image about me. Of course that creates a conflict in me because I have to be constantly living up to this image and acting different from what I actually am. But I am willing to tolerate that conflict because I want the advantages of what this good image in society gets me, which means that I am not completely honest. And we are dishonest because we are seeking some profit out of it. That itself is the ego process.

So the next question that I must ask is, is it possible to live without a single image? Be completely honest, be myself, irrespective of what people may think about me. Let your wife or your friend know you exactly as you are, with all your weaknesses and faults and so-called virtues and accomplishments and let them decide whether they want to stay with you or not. I don't want to pretend in order that that person remains friendly with me, because I have seen the complication that results from such pretence.It lowers the quality of our life. It creates the conflict between what I am and what I want others to think I am. That image is just an imaginary thing, that is not the actuality of me, so it is based on illusion. The ego, that division, comes from the image, not from the fact.The ego arises from the manner in which I approach life.

It is easy to see that my house doesn't create the ego in me, but I create the ego in relation to my house.It arises if I feel attached to it and become very possessive of it. And that seems to be true of everything. I can approach everything non-egotistically or I can approach it egotistically. I can do my work non-egotistically and I can do the same work egotistically. So the ego is not in the activity. It lies in the manner in which I look at that activity and involve myself in that activity. Which means, I need to watch my motive. With what motive am I relating, with what motive am I doing the work? A scientist may be working 16 hours a day in his laboratory, because he wants to learn about space, he wants to learn how the sun shines and why the sky is blue. That is his interest, that is his passion, that is what he wants to learn about. In that, there is no ego. But the moment he starts feeling that he should be the first to discover that, that he wants to do this in order to get the Nobel Prize, the same activity becomes an ego activity, because then he is not doing it for the joy of learning, he is doing it for a result, a reward.

So the ego is very subtle and nobody else can really know what my motives are.

There is an interesting dialogue between Arjuna and Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna asks Krishna, what is the liberated man like? How does he sleep, how does he work, how does he live? And Krishna says, he lives like the ordinary man, he works like the ordinary man and he sleeps like the ordinary man, but it is not the same thing because he does not do it for the same reasons ! It just the inward difference of motive which distinguishes if it is an ego process or it is not an ego process.So it is not a matter of what you are doing or what you are not doing, but how you approach what you are doing and how you approach the not-doing.

This is not something that is highly philosophical and difficult to understand. After all, we teach students in school to play a game for the joy of playing and to excel at the game for the love of excellence and not give too much importance to the result, as to who wins and who loses.If you give too much importance to the result it becomes egotistical activity.So you can play the game egotistically and you can play the same game non-egotistically.If you are not egoistic then it doesn't matter even if you lose, there is the joy of having played and it gives you joy to compliment your friend on having played better and having won the game. There is no frustration. That is what we mean by the sportsman spirit.Now,life is also like a game. And if a game can be play non-egotistically, why can't life be lived non-egotistically? Of course it can be. We have somehow accepted that it can't be and that assumption may be an illusion.

The ego is born out of the illusion that we think that if we work out of self-interest, we will benefit. Actually if you work with self-interest,which means in order to receive rewards, to have more power, more money, a better reputation, it lowers the quality of your life.We want all that in order to be happy but happiness is destroyed by the egotistic approach and therefore the quality of your life is lowered.So it is an illusion to think that to approach life with self-interest is in our self-interest! Normally we think that it is bad to be selfish, because other people will suffer and I will benefit by my selfishness. We are saying, you are defining benefit too narrowly, too unintelligently. You are not separate from the other person and what you consider to be a benefit is really, deeply, not a benefit.

If we see the truth of that and we really perceive the danger of the ego process, not through an explanation, not merely as a rational conclusion with which we agree, then that perception of danger will act on consciousness and eliminate the ego process. Your wanting to do it doesn't act. Your agreement also doesn't act, because knowledge and ideas don't change consciousness. But a deep perception of the truth changes consciousness. And we have this capacity for insight.

Let me give you an example. Let's consider addiction to smoking. The human being, before he took to smoking, was not addicted to smoking, which means he could look at a cigarette and it did not create an irresistible desire in him to have that cigarette. But for various social reasons he starts smoking and that gives a sensation of pleasure. That pleasure is recorded and he wants to repeat that pleasure. He wants to have more and more of it, and that sets up a chemistry, and now, when he looks at a cigarette it produces an irresistible desire to have a cigarette and he has got addicted. So something has changed in his brain, in the computer we talked about this morning.Earlier, the computer was not creating the desire when it saw a cigarette but now it creates an irresistible desire when it sees a cigarette. And the question we are asking is, can that habit break? Or must he constantly struggle with this, can he only control the urge but never be free of it again ? I have watched my friends. They keep struggling with this. They have to avoid all places where people are smoking or where cigarettes are kept; otherwise they are tempted back to the cigarette. But, occasionally, you do come across a person who felt a pang of pain in his chest and he realizes that the cigarette is killing him. When that happens and the danger is actually perceived the desire disappears !Something deeply changes in his brain and breaks the neural circuit which was creating that irresistible desire. Krishnamurti called it a mutation in the brain. If that happens you are free, you don't have to cope with that problem again.The habitual cycle is broken.

This means it is possible to bring about an actual mutation in the brain cells through a deep insight.Only then there is an actual transformation of consciousness, which means the actual response to a situation changes. Otherwise there is only control.After all, we do not get a desire to put our finger in the fire, because it is so clear that it is dangerous. If you saw the danger of the ego in that way, you wouldn't touch it. We don't need big explanations as to why it is dangerous to put our finger in the fire. The scientists can give you an explanation which is true, but you do not need it in order to not be tempted.In the same way, the ego process cannot stop due to an intellectual conclusion that it is bad for us and it should stop. If we become aware of the danger of it, through a direct perception, then the intelligence of nature acts, not your intelligence and your decision. The same intelligence which prevents you from falling down a precipice, or which makes you get on one side of the road when a truck is coming. You don't need long explanations for having to do that.

So, is it possible to perceive for ourselves the danger of the ego process the way you perceive the danger of fire? It is complicated because in the case of the fire, the consequence is immediate. The action and the pain are not separated from each other. But in more complex ego processes, the suffering comes later on, after a time interval. So the cunning mind says, this is beneficial immediately and I will do something to avoid the pain. This cunning use of time,has to be seen to be false. This whole way of approaching life, with a view to maximise pleasure and to maximise profits for oneself, is the ego process.There is an interesting observation made by Krishnamurti which we need to dwell on. He said,"Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived."

But our education has made it appear to us like a series of problems to be solved. And that person is considered intelligent who solves his problems quickly and efficiently. Again, that is not real intelligence, it is an illusion.Real intelligence may not simply be the clever use of thought. It may be the capacity to see holistically all that is involved in this approach. And that holistic perception is what one calls an insight. And without that insight there is no wisdom, there is no truth. The rational, analytical conclusion is not the truth. Truth lies at the level of perception and perception is not an idea. So this whole ego process may be something every human being gets trapped into, because every human being has the capacity for memory,for imagination, and he has the instinct of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But we also have the capacity for awareness and fortunately that capacity is not from the past. It is not based on memory and thought. So I can watch this whole process take place within me, I can see all that is involved in it, I can see how it arises and what it does to my life, and I can come upon this perception that the ego process is a great danger -- far greater than setting my house on fire.It sets my whole life on fire !That perception acts to eliminate the illusion.

So the ego is an illusion but it is difficult to see it as an illusion. It is easy to agree or disagree that it is an illusion. But to perceive the truth for oneself, so that the process ends in one's own consciousness, that is not an intellectual quest. Because the ego is imaginary, because it is something that we create ourselves, because it is not part of nature, therefore we can end it. And that is the challenge of the religious quest, and the challenge life places before every human being.


Questions and Answers after this lecture
Lecture V - science and religion