The Compass and the Ego
- By Fa Chao Shakya
- Jun 15
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A compass is a navigational instrument with a magnetized pointer that aligns itself with the earth's magnetic field, always pointing north. We have used the compass for millennia to find our way. It's been used by seafarers, explorers, and travellers alike to help get from one place to another. When we lose our way, we pull out our compass, get our bearings, then find the path again. But our journey as a human being is also a journey of the mind, of the psyche, and of the spirit. How do we navigate these other waters when there is no ocean's surface that allows us to use a tool such as a compass? Well, a compass may be useless in these situations, but it serves as a good analogy for an essential aspect of the spiritual journey, for we do need a compass - without one we'll get lost just as surely as an ancient sailor would get lost without knowledge of the sky, the compass, and the sextant.
To understand how to use our spiritual compass, let's look at how we use a physical compass. First, when we lose our way, we know we can find out which direction to take by using the compass, that is, we have faith that the compass will help us get back on track. We know that to guess or to choose based on what we think is the right direction is not as good an option as looking at the compass and letting it tell us. So we look at the compass and follow exactly the bearings it gives. We have confidence that the compass will point us in the correct direction and that by following its guidance we will arrive safely at our intended destination.
When we get lost we do nothing but look at the compass. We make no choices of our own - we let the compass make the choice for us because we know how to read it and we have faith in it. This is an essential thing to remember as we tread a spiritual path. We must use only the spiritual compass and let nothing interfere with it. If we start guessing, assuming we know better than the compass, then at best we'll stay lost, and at worst, we'll perish. We must leave the ego behind in order to proceed with the right attitude that will allow us to use our compass.
But what would a "spiritual compass" be? To know it, we must first understand the ego, for as long as the ego holds the high seat, our spiritual compass is completely invisible.
Why does the ego not allow us access to the compass? Why does it confuse us and cause us to make the wrong decisions? After all, if it didn't misguide us so often, then we wouldn't need to talk about "finding our compass" in the first place.
Many Zen teachers have spoken of the ego and its destructive nature when left to its own devices. They tell us that the fundamental Principle of the Universe -- Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature or Self Nature -- governs all: the entire cosmos of which we are part. Buddha Mind is not, as some mistakenly suggest, our individual soul.
As we begin to embark on our spiritual journey Self Nature is unconscious - that is, we do not consciously, or knowingly, recognize it. But unconsciously we do. Self Nature manifests as thought in our conscious lives but it does not remain in thought because it is not fixed. We only get glimpses of it now and again, and most often we pay it no attention. The act of making it fully conscious, recognizable to us in every moment, is what the Spiritual path is all about: it is the destination of any spiritual journey.
The Buddha Self uses 'form' to manifest in this world but It has no attachment to form. So in manifesting as form It remains non-abiding. No where. To be in-tune with Buddha Nature, from moment to moment in our lives, we too must have a mind that is non-abiding, that is, nowhere fixed.
Ultimate Reality, or the Principal of All that Is, manifests within us and acts on us - on the mind, on the body, on all aspects of our lives. Through Reality, the mind apperceives itself: it becomes conscious of its own consciousness.
It is exactly this "being conscious of our own consciousness" that gives rise to the ego - to "I Am-ness," to Descartes famous exclamation: "I think, therefore I am."
In this way, the Unconscious becomes conscious of itself and an urge for assertion arises.
But what's the point? Why does this happen? This urge for assertion which manifests the ego has been, throughout the millennia, necessary for our day-to-day survival. It has kept us safe from the sabre-toothed tiger, allowed us to form societies, protect our families and communities from attacks, encouraged us to grow wiser and more cunning - all of which have promoted the continuation of our species. In fact, without ego, without this urge for assertion, we could not do the simplest functions of daily living, like driving a car or finding our way back home or cooking our food. We need the ego, but we need more to be happy, to be content - we need a direct connection with the source of the ego.
What happens when we don't have that connection?
To function in our daily life, the apperceiving mind in its egoistic state uses the brain, in which all the 5 senses (skandas) and consciousness coordinate and communicate. The ego, now a master-at-large, has a wonderful machine (body), which functions obediently in response to its urges. In this role, the ego, which is without a Self (without Universal Knowledge), urges us on in carrying out those mundane tasks which constitute our daily life. The ego functions through the material process of thought which uses memory to guide it. This is its mechanical movements, and they are always derived from experiential images of the past.
Unfortunately for the ego, in carrying out and perfecting these routine tasks it ignorantly considers itself capable of resolving everything, not only the mundane and material problems of our daily lives but all of our problems! It attempts to solve new mental or psychological problems that arise daily in our lives because solving problems is all it knows how to do. Yet, because it can only operate from the point of view of past experience, the ego struggles hopelessly to resolve problems that are outside its domain of knowledge - outside of its realm of past experience. The ego knows nothing of spirituality, nothing of God, of Buddha Nature, Adoni, Bhagavan, Brahman, parama-Isvara, Rama, Ek Onkar, Waheguru, Nirankar, Aten, Mithras, Yahweh, Yehoshûa , Allah, Yezdan , Abraxas, Cao Ðà?i, Akua, Tenchi-Kane-no-Kami, Mioya-Ookami, Ahura Mazda, or any of the other thousands of names for Ultimate Reality that cultures around the globe have given It. Yet, despite the stronghold of the ego, the ubiquitous quality of All that Is has been perceived by all cultures throughout recorded history, a knowledge that cannot be known through the ego; the personal, isolated self, for the more it tries to comprehend it, the harder it gets, the greater the confusion becomes, and the greater and longer suffering endures.
We need to recognize that mental (emotional or psychological) problems are not the same as material problems and that they require different solutions. If a car breaks down, a mechanic uses memory and applies thought to carry out the repairs. But when faced with emotional problems, the ego cannot use thought, which is of the past, to resolve them. Emotional problems are complex in nature and require a different approach - an approach that is built on a spiritual foundation.
The reason this is so is because the ego always works to resolve a new problem with a past solution; consequently, it naturally falls into dualistic conflicts and it becomes muddled by an unending stream of disconnected thoughts which obscure the clarity of truth. Trying endlessly to solve the problem, it has no success and succumbs to fear; in a state of fear it becomes further trapped in its own confusion; confusion leads to pain and sorrow; pain and sorrow lead to frustration and anger; frustration and anger lead to despair and violence. We cycle downward into an ever increasing pit of hell, all because the ego operates in the darkness of its own ignorance about that which has given rise to it.
This is when we most need a guide -- something to help us up and out of the pit. This is when we need a spiritual compass.
Once the ego sees that it has derived its conscious "mind" from the Unconscious Mind it stops dead in its tracks. It remains silent. It stops all attempts to manipulate things because it realises its own futility in this area. In this silence it makes no movements. This silence and stillness (non-doing/non-action) flow from the Principle of All that Is, from Buddha Mind.
The Buddha Mind is itself the pointer, the spiritual compass. As we work to create a spacious mind, spontaneously a discovery takes place that leaves us silent - it leaves us quiet and receptive. In normal daily life, the ego finds its way, but through this discovery there is a newfound harmony in life. There is peace and happiness.
Through the awakening experience we call satori, we find our compass and our spiritual journey proceeds with the confidence of a master mariner at sea.