"Losing your self." "Ego-loss." "Becoming one with the cosmos." These words sound good, but do they really mean anything? And even if they do, is that thing desirable?
For a long time I was an active member of a religio-mystical organization (Radha Soami Satsang Beas) that put a lot of emphasis on soul drops merging into God's ocean.
Again, a superficially pleasing image -- brings to mind a super orgasm of consciousness, a final busting loose of boundaries into a cosmic Ahhhhhhhh...
But here's the thing: if nobody is around to merge, or bust loose, or have a soulful orgasm, what's the point?
More: how can it be said that anything has even happened, if there's no entity aware of the happening?
Plotinus, the Greek mystic philosopher, addressed these questions when he said that it'd be crazy if, after strenuously striving to understand the nature of God, someone ceased to exist right at the point of attaining that goal.
That's one problem with the notion of losing your self to find your self, a philosophical enigma wonderfully discussed in the "Lose your self" chapter of Julian Baggini's "What's It All About?"
And this is great; Baggini nails it:
So it's clear that ego-loss doesn't actually entail losing a sense of I-ness, or awareness of existing as an entity separate from the cosmos. Like Baggini says, loss of awareness is called death, not enlightenment.
However, wouldn't lessening one's sense of ego or separateness be a good thing? This could be desirable for a couple of reasons.
(1) It brings us closer to reality if the universe actually is founded on unity rather than multiplicity. (2) It enables the self to flourish by decreasing anxiety and other negative emotions caused by a sensation of me, me, me.
Reason #1, of course, doesn't carry with it any guarantee that coming closer to the monistic truth is going to be pleasant. It could be painful and unpleasant to merge into cold, dark, uncaring emptiness.
This isn't how religious, mystical, and spiritual teachings view ego-loss. Rather, it's seen in the Reason #2 sense -- as something that's going to lead to much reduced suffering, and maybe even total elimination of psychic pain.
Here's how Baggini sees the situation. Makes sense to me.
The reason I am being a little brutal here is that I think there is a terrible dishonesty among some of those who claim that what they are trying to achieve is a lessening of attachment to ego. The clear truth is that people who find this path satisfying are living contented lives.
In other words, they like their "spiritual practices" because they make them feel more content, at peace, or whatever, than alternatives they have tried. So despite all the fine words about losing their egos, they are in fact simply engaging in another form of self-gratification. This isn't materialistic or harmful to others, so we tend to look upon it quite kindly. But it is not in any sense a way of life which shows disregard for self-interest.
I've spent a lot of time around people (one of whom was me, for many years) who believed they were engaging in "selfless service" to a guru or God through inward meditation and outward forms of volunteerism.
Yet their selves got a lot of satisfaction from this. And they considered that all this bhakti (love) would help them get closer to cosmic truth.
So there were a heck of a lot of benefits to the self in all of this supposed selflessness. A final quote from Baggini:
Whichever way you look at it, this is about satisfying the self, not lessening concern for it. It may be a worthwhile form of life, but it must be seen for what it is.