Many religions and spiritual traditions venerate selflessness, ego-loss, transcending individuality. Here's the problem with that notion, according to both Buddhist philosophy and neuroscientific evidence:
There's no such thing as a "self."
So getting rid of one not only is impossible, but the belief that we have such a thing that needs to be done away with, or markedly reduced, perpetuates the delusion -- in much the same way that an obsessive attempt to rid one's garden of fairies feeds this fantasy by all the attention given to it.
Another aspect to this problem is the widespread belief in an enduring soul or true self which only becomes apparent when a supposed false self fades away.
For example, lots of people believe in the oft-heard adage, "we have thoughts and feelings, but we aren't those thoughts and feelings." Which implies that we are something more permanent than the passing show of experiences in our psyche.
However, it's more accurate to say, "we aren't our thoughts and feelings, but we also aren't anything else."
This is the Buddhist and neuroscientific view of psychological reality. No-self is what we always have been from birth, are now, and will be until we die. Understanding this -- or at least seriously considering that it is true -- is key to understanding what it means to be "spiritual."
For many years, over three decades, I believed that my spiritual goal was to become self-realized, which would open the door to god-realization. In other words, the whole atman/brahman, soul/spirit, drop/ocean thing.
But countless (almost) hours of daily meditation, combined with just living life in an eyes wide open as much as possible attitude, have brought me to a different way of seeing what spirituality is all about.
I don't claim to fully grasp the following classic Buddhist verses. However, in the past I found the first much more reasonable. Now, the second resonates with me. Here's an excerpt from Mark Epstein's book, "Thoughts Without a Thinker," where he describes some Buddhist seventh-century happenings.
The foremost disciple, Shen-hsiu, who was expecting to assume the role of the master, presented the following.
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling.
A perfectly acceptable resonse, Shen-hsiu's verse made a virtue of the empty and reflecting mind, a recurrent motif in Buddhist literature. But the clear mirror, like the true self, too easily becomes an object of veneration. Such a view merely replaces the concrete self with a more rarefied version that is then thought to be even more real than the original.
An illiterate kitchen boy, Hui-neng, grasped the imperfection of Shen-hsiu's response and presented the following alternative:
The Bodhi is not a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing,
Fundamentally not one thing exists,
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?
...Hui-neng avoided the common misconception of liberation as a mind emptied of its contents or a body emptied of its emotions. The mind, or self, that we conceive of does not exist in the way we imagine, said Hui-neng; if all things are empty, to what can we cling? If the mind itself is already empty, why should it have to be cleansed? If the emotions are empty, why do they have to be eliminated?
Again, spiritual seekers are faced with some clear (though not always easy to discern) alternatives. Having been a "wipe the mirror" meditation-guy for many, many years, I realize how difficult it is for people who've embraced a self-realization path to recognize the validity of another way.
I urge you, though, to open yourself to the notion that you are not a self. Nor a soul. Nor a drop of the divine ocean. You're as empty of intrinsic being as anything or anyone else in this vast, mysterious cosmos.
Here's some more quotes from Epstein's book that I like a lot. They're well worth pondering.
For both sexes, something similar can seem the only option in spiritual circles: the need to see some one as embodying the idealized qualities of the awakened compassionate mind can be very strong. The wish, in this case, is (again) for some object, person, or place to completely represent the sought-after qualities of mind.
Meditators with this misunderstanding are vulnerable to a kind of eroticized attachment to teachers, gurus, or other intimates toward whom they direct their desire to be released into abandon. More often than not, they also remain masochistically entwined with these figures to whom they are trying to surrender.
...This approach implies that the ego, while important developmentally, can in some sense be transcended or left behind. Here we run into an unfortunate mix of vocabulary. Yet listen to the Dalai Lama on this point:
Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming nonexistent. Rather, this sort of "self" is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as nonexistent something that always was nonexistent.
It is not ego, in the Freudian sense, that is the actual target of Buddhist insight, it is, rather, the self-concept, the representational component of the ego, the actual internal experience of one's self that is targeted.
The point is that the entire ego is not transcended; the self-representation is revealed as lacking concrete existence. It is not the case of something real being eliminated, but of the essential groundlessness being realized for what it has always been.
Meditators who have trouble grasping this difficult point often feel under pressure to disavow critical aspects of their being that are identified with the unwholesome "ego." Most commonly, sexuality, aggression, critical thinking, or even the active use of the first person pronoun I are relinquished, the general idea being that to give these things up or let these things go is to achieve egolessness.
Meditators set up aspects of the self as the enemy and then attempt to distance themselves from them. The problem is that the qualities that are identified as unwholesome are actually empowered by the attempts to repudiate them.
...Rather than adopting an attitude of nonjudgmental awareness, these meditators are so concerned with letting it (their unwholesome feelings) go that they never have the experience of the insubstantiality of their own feelings. They remain identified with them through the action of disavowal.
In a similar way, those with this misunderstanding of selflessness tend to overvalue the idea of the "empty mind" free of thoughts. In this case, thought itself is identified with ego, and such persons seem to be cultivating a kind of intellectual vacuity in which the absence of critical thought is seen as an ultimate achievement.
...Contrary to this way of thinking, conceptual thought does not disappear as a result of meditative insight. Only the belief in the ego's solidity is lost.