Buddha said to wear your ego like a loose-fitting garment. The ego, that “me” we each fabricate over a lifetime to present to and interact with the world, serves a purpose, but it's not real. Okay…it’s real, but it's not real real.
I’m in my 6th decade now, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ego, loss, and letting go. It’s true that we all face loss throughout our lives. Relationships end, people we know & love die, we lose jobs/houses/pets, tragedies happen. These losses are a natural part of living. And loss, especially in midlife and beyond, does something else besides make us suffer—it also chisels away at the ego by chipping away at our created identities—the things and people from which we have each built the story of ME. It was always a fiction, but I’m learning lately how comforting and safe that fiction has been for me, and how bare, how raw, it can feel to let it go, to strip it away.
The Jung Center says, “Aging means more than just staying on the physical plane while the years pile up. It includes activities like unifying the opposites...In these years we can work on individuation, as the ego experiences a host of realities that incline it to give way to the Self [my emphasis]. Submitting to the direction of the Self can foster the ‘gradual spiritualization of consciousness’” (http://jungiancenter.org/enjoying-the-afternoon-of-life-jung-on-aging/).
The layers of my garment—musician, student, mother, partner, daughter, grandmother, teacher, friend, etc.—come and go. I resist the going, because I’m human, and humans don’t like change in spite of what we say. And because our garments become familiar, protective, and cozy, we want to leave them on. Some of us even forget they’re garments at all; we don’t wear them loosely anymore—we live in them like skin.
Stripping off a layer (or having a layer unexpectedly stripped off) can be painful and confusing: You have a stroke, the stroke takes your voice, are you still a singer? The band breaks up, are you still a musician? Your kids grow up, they leave and turn into adult humans (even really cool humans), are you still a tiger mother? You lose a job, your friend commits suicide or gets hit by a car, your mother gets cancer, you graduate, you get old and infirm—are you still a bank teller, friend, daughter, student, wild woman? When the layers come off, it can feel like you’re under attack, losing yourself, coming undone, lost, invisible, no one.
It took years of meditation, inner work, waking up, a willingness to be honest about what I feel and believe, and a willingness to SEE my own misconceptions, but I’m finally getting it through my thick head that none of this was ever ME. (And, by the way, we all put on and take off layers all the time—I’m still tightly wrapped in teacher, daughter, grandma and other delightfully comfy, cozy layers—it’s knowing they’re only layers that matters.)
I believe that the spark & truth & love that is our true nature, our connectedness within all TRUTH, has never been and can never be altered, diminished, taken away, or lost. Once I figured this out (remembered it?), I could breathe a little easier through life’s inevitable chiseling away. I won’t lie and say I always smile peacefully through loss now, but it no longer completely undoes me.
I’m not crazy about the word “annihilation,” but this quote from Jack Kornfield rings true for me: “Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible [my emphasis] be found within them.”
That’s how it can feel—exposed—when layers come off. So now I like to think of my layers as scarves…filmy, silky, sheer, loose, beautiful scarves that at least keep the wind off my face. My scarves come and go, there are an infinite number of ways to wear them, and I never leave them on in the house (ME).