Holding to an ordinary notion of self, or ego, is the source of all our pain and confusion. The irony is that when we look for this “self” that we’re cherishing and protecting, we can’t even find it. The self is shifty and ungraspable. When we say “I’m old,” we’re referring to our body as self. When we say “my body,” the self becomes the owner of the body. When we say “I’m tired,” the self is equated with physical or emotional feelings. The self is our perceptions when we say “I see,” and our thoughts when we say “I think.” When we can’t find a self within or outside of these parts, we may then conclude that the self is that which is aware of all of these things—the knower or mind.

But when we look for the mind, we can’t find any shape, or color, or form. This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can’t actually be found—which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home. The house seems to be empty, but all the housework has been done. The bed has been made, our shoes have been polished, the tea has been poured, and the breakfast has been cooked.

15 Buddhas, Atta Kim, 2004, chromogenic print, 74 x 92 inches. © Atta Kim

The funny thing is that we never question this. We just assume that someone or something is there. But all this time, our life has been managed by a ghost, and it’s time to put a stop to it. On one hand, ego-mind has served us—but it hasn’t served us well. It has lured us into the suffering of samsara and enslaved us. When ego-mind says, “Get angry,” we get angry; when it says, “Get attached,” we act out our attachments. When we look into the “slavish” arrangement we have with our ego-mind, we can see how it pressures us, plays tricks on us, and causes us to do things that bring undesirable consequences.

If you want to stop being the slave of a ghost, you must demand that ego-mind show its face. No true ghost will show up when it hears this! You can practice this simple meditation throughout the day. Whenever you don’t know what to do with yourself, challenge your ego-mind to show its face. When you’re cooking your dinner or waiting for the bus, challenge your ego-mind to show its face. Do it especially when ego-mind overwhelms you, when you feel threatened, fearful, or enslaved by it. Just straighten your posture and challenge ego-mind. Don’t be gullible, wiggly, or spineless. When you challenge ego-mind, be firm but gentle, penetrating but never aggressive. Just say to your ego-mind, “Show me your face!” When no mind shows up saying, “Here I am,” ego-mind will begin to lose its hold on you and your struggles will lighten up. See if this isn’t true. Of course, maybe your mind does have a face and your experience will be different. But if you don’t find a mind with a face, you won’t take your struggles so seriously, and all of your pain and suffering will lessen.

When we question ego-mind directly, it is exposed for what it is: the absence of everything we believe it to be. We can actually see through this seemingly solid ego-mind, or self. But what are we left with then? We are left with an open, intelligent awareness, unfettered by a self to cherish or protect. This is the primordial wisdom mind of all beings. Relaxing into this discovery is true meditation—and true meditation brings ultimate realization and freedom from suffering.

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