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Self-Acceptance or Ego Death?

Featuring: Deepak Chopra, Cheri Huber, Paul Lowe and Saniel Bonder


Enlightenment equals ego death. For millennia this equation has held true. While the term "ego," meaning "I" in Latin, is obviously a relatively recent addition to the English lexicon, just about every major enlightenment teaching in the world has long held that the highest goal of spiritual and indeed human life lies in the renunciation, rejection and, ultimately, the death of the need to hold on to a separate, self-centered existence. From Shankara's rantings against the ego as a "strong and deadly serpent" to Muhammad's declaration of a "holy war against the nafs [ego]" to the Zen masters' fierce determination to use any means necessary to break the ego's grip on their students, this "ego-negative" interpretation of the spiritual path has remained enshrined in enlightenment teachings for ages, for the most part unquestioned and unchallenged.

Yet in the course of our research for this issue, it became increasingly apparent that the meaning and significance of ego death are undergoing radical revision in our Western spiritual culture, a culture steeped in the values of autonomy and self-reliance and informed by a psychological understanding of human nature. In some contemporary spiritual teachings, this revision is a shift in emphasis, some might even say a translation of older values into a modern context. But in others the rejection is more total, a radical reformulation of both the path and the goal of the spiritual life. In fact, the ideal of ego death is more and more often viewed with suspicion rather than respect, skepticism rather than reverence—as a chimera, an illusion, a pot of fool's gold at the end of a mythical spiritual rainbow.

It was perhaps never more obvious to us that the tectonics of the spiritual world had profoundly shifted than when, last September, a series of books crossed our desks that seemed to capture this changed landscape in stark relief. Titles like Relax, You're Already Perfect and There Is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate, A Compassionate Guide for Learning to Accept Yourself Exactly As You Are made crystal clear a conclusion that had been dawning for some time: that the teachings of self-acceptance have earned wide recognition as an alternative approach to the path of liberation. "Much of spiritual life is self-acceptance," popular Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes in his best-selling book A Path with Heart, "maybe all of it." To Kornfield and many other harbingers of this kinder, gentler spirituality, it is a crippling self-judgment or self-hate (rather than a narcissistic ego) that is at the root of our spiritual dilemma—a core psychological wound that true spiritual work enables us to acknowledge, uncover and ultimately heal. "We must accept ourselves as we are" is a common refrain of these teachings—in order that all the parts of ourselves that have been hidden away in the dark corners of the psyche, including the ego, can be reconciled and integrated within a whole and unified vision of self. To the advocates of this approach, the traditional ideal of ego death is simply an anachronism in today's eclectic and democratic spiritual culture, a relic from another era that invokes a patriarchal, hierarchical and dualistic view of the spiritual life in which man is separate from God, and the spiritual seeker is called to engage in a self-defeating effort to kill the "bad" part of their personality.

What most intrigued us about this new paradigm was not that the message of self-acceptance plays an important role in the burgeoning Human Potential movement—after all, the groundbreaking book I'm OK– You're OK has been popular since the seventies—but rather the fact that the philosophy of self-acceptance has now found its way into teachings that have enlightenment as their goal. But is that where it belongs? What role should self-acceptance play in the lives of those who aspire to profound spiritual liberation?

In a break from our usual interview format, we approached four spiritual teachers who emphasize self-acceptance in their own work and asked for a written reply to a single question addressing this important issue. We contacted the omnipresent pioneer of new age spirituality Deepak Chopra; one-time heir apparent of Osho Rajneesh and maverick therapist, now independent spiritual teacher, Paul Lowe; Zen meditation teacher and author of a popular series of books on Zen and psychology, Cheri Huber; and former long-term disciple and spokesperson for Da Free John, now independent teacher of the way of "white-hot mutuality," Saniel Bonder—and they each graciously agreed to participate. And while these four diverse teachers did not always confirm our suspicions about this new face of East-meets-West spirituality, their articulate and illuminating answers force one to question many traditional beliefs about what's truly important on the path to liberation.

–Carter Phipps


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