Imagine it were true that you and God are not separate. Imagine that you could find within yourself infinite love, infinite joy and infinite wisdom – and imagine that this were true for every man and woman on this earth, no matter whether they were rich or poor, clever or stupid or good or evil. The good news is that our divine nature is not buried deep within us – it’s just a hair’s breadth away! It literally lies around the corner of every limiting thought and feeling that we experience.
I had the good fortune that my Buddhist teacher Garchen Rinpoche introduced me to this most wonderful state of mind in 1999 and from then on there was a source of spiritual joy within me that never dried up, no matter whether good and bad things were happening in my outer life. In 2002 Garchen Rinpoche instructed me to teach to others what I had found in myself and in this book I will show how to access your own divine nature and use it to find love, success and happiness in every area of your life.
Buddhist teachers have explained that our divine nature is basically space that is imbued with unconditional love, joy and intuitive wisdom. This space can be experienced as a sense of freedom or liberation as in moments of boundless joy. Like a bird in mid-air, we feel totally free and unobstructed in our possibilities. When we experience our divine nature we are not limited or weighed down in any way but have a sense of complete openness and joy without the slightest sense of needing to protect ourselves. There are a host of beautiful qualities to be found in our divine nature which can arise effortlessly from its basic space:
Unconditional and deep feeling of peace
Intuitive wisdom and direct understanding
Sense of complete freedom and liberation
Sense of loving interconnectedness with all beings
Supernatural abilities like clairvoyance, spiritual healing or being in two places at the same time
Power to make all our wishes come true.
‘But how is it possible’, you may ask, ‘that we all have those wonderful qualities just under the surface of our ordinary experience and yet we feel so little of them?’ To answer this question we need to look at the part of our personality that is traditionally called the ego and how it interacts or interferes with our divine nature.
The ego and the divine nature
There are basically three ways of living of our life which will determine how much we can experience our divine nature. The first way is to live totally from the viewpoint of our ego and if we choose to live in this way we will probably not even get a glimpse of our divine nature. The second way is to live totally from the viewpoint of our divine nature which means that we are enlightened and will experience our divine qualities continuously. The third way is to live partly from our ego and partly from our divine nature. This is the lifestyle of a spiritual seeker.
Living life totally from the viewpoint of the ego
People who only believe in the things they can see, touch or which can be detected with scientific instruments usually live their life exclusively from the ego. They might even believe that feelings like love and compassion are mere electrical impulses in the brain. These people are usually convinced that they cease to exist as soon as their body has exhaled their last breath.
Men and women who live in this way are not necessarily bad people. They might be cultured and successful and they might be able to raise their children in a decent way. Unfortunately they will lack one important thing – they will never be really happy. Even if they fall in love (which is the easiest way to get a glimpse of our divine nature) they will often maintain a subtle cynicism that will hinder them from enjoying their experience more fully.
People who live entirely from the ego shut themselves off from the wonderful qualities of their divine nature and this is why they will always feel somewhat uninspired and dull except for brief exceptions when they are able to fill their inner emptiness with an orgy of consumerism of some kind. Whether this happens through shopping, making money or self-centred sex doesn’t really matter. All these things can give us only a brief high and leave us somewhat depleted afterwards.
The viewpoint of the ego is defined by the belief that only material things exist in the universe and that these things are, by definition, separate from each other. This means that in the ego’s world complete union is impossible. This continuous perception of being separate is the root cause of all suffering because we are constantly trying to get what we are missing without ever being able to completely unite with the object of our desire. For example, when we live exclusively from our ego even the best situation will soon become boring and leave us craving for new excitement. Sadly, for the ego there will never be complete satisfaction.
Living life totally from the viewpoint of our divine nature
An enlightened person will experience feelings of love and oneness on a continuous basis, which is a supremely blissful experience. What’s more, people who are enlightened always know what is right and appropriate in any given situation in order to bring happiness and healing to all beings. This spontaneous knowledge comes from being unobstructed and inseparable from the highest source of wisdom. Compared with the joys of being enlightened, all unenlightened life is suffering and an enlightened person will always strive to help everybody who hasn’t yet reached this joyful state.
The experience of the divine nature is a state of being rather than a sense of identity.
An enlightened person wouldn’t go around and introduce himself, ‘Hello, I am John and I am enlightened’. If you sense that you are boundless love, statements like this simply don’t make sense. Someone who is enlightened is still capable of acting as if they had an ego-identity in order to communicate with other people around them.
Living life partly from the ego and partly from your divine nature
Spiritual seekers from all traditions practice opening up to their divine nature and its wonderful qualities through prayer and meditation. For many people the first step is to perceive their divinity outside themselves and building some connection through prayer. However, this perception of God being outside and separate from ourselves is only half of the equation.
If the spiritual seeker is successful one day the glorious moment arrives when they get their first real experience of their own divine nature. This can be an amazing feeling of oneness full of wonder and awe accompanied by feelings of joy and bliss. In that moment the duality between ‘me’ over here and ‘God’ over there will fall away and give way to an all-encompassing experience of unity and love.
Usually, these first glimpses into our divine nature don’t last long and they can also be mixed up with subtle tendencies of the ego that wants to make these experiences into solid (and therefore separate) things. Then, the ego reckons, could we wrap them up nicely and show them off to others and repeat them whenever desired.
If, however, the spiritual seeker can resist the temptation to try to ‘own’ theses beautiful states and all goes well, the experiences of the divine nature will come more often and will last longer. Gradually, the experience of the divine nature will become more and more pervasive and the illusion of the ego with all its limitations will cease to exist. This is what is called enlightenment.
Many people have therefore concluded that the ego is nothing but an evil-doer that has no good purpose whatsoever and merely stands in the way of our wonderful divine nature. Some teachers have even gone so far as to proclaim that the ego should be crushed and destroyed! Spiritual seekers across the traditions have subjected themselves to unspeakable suffering in order to erase their sinful ego. Self-starvation, extreme asceticism and self-denial on a broad scale have been part of many spiritual movements. The ego has been viewed as evil and sinful or even as the devil and therefore it has been mercilessly attacked. Even today, in our culture of self-realisation and self-acceptance you will find among spiritual seekers a lot of self-denial, unnecessary guilt and general lack of self-confidence.
Many practitioners see the ego as something distasteful that we should get rid of as soon as possible. But nothing could be further from the truth!
The ego as such is neither bad nor evil. On the contrary, it is our good old ego that will deliver us to the doorstep of enlightenment. Who had the idea to be a loving person and to pray and meditate on a regular basis? And who made sure of finding the time to go to church and to actually sit down and meditate? The ego! In its typical way it felt separated from enlightenment and went out to find it. And if it was wise enough, it chose a valuable and effective spiritual path in order to learn to rest in its divine nature for longer and longer periods of time.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a strong ego. On the contrary, the stronger our ego more strength we will have to make space for spiritual practice and to pursue our path to enlightenment with determination. Then, as time goes by, those qualities of the ego will be complemented and enriched by our dawning sense of our more loving and wise divine nature and finally be replaced by it. Let me illustrate this dynamic in a graph:
Point 1: This is the position where we start when we come to this world. As babies we have no sense of ego because we feel at one with our environment. However, babies are not enlightened as some romantic idealists would have it. They can’t feel love or intuitive wisdom like a mature spiritual person.
Point 2: Toddlers are the sweetest egotistical little monsters one can imagine. All they care about is themselves. Let me tell you a little story I heard from a friend. One day, she told me, she fell and hurt herself so badly that she lay on the ground howling in pain and unable to get up. Her little three-year-old son stood beside her – totally unmoved. Instead of comforting or helping her – as she had done a thousand times for him – he demanded mercilessly, ‘Get up, mummy, I want a drink’. The behaviour of this little boy is totally normal and it shows that attitudes like compassion and love are learnt. They will only develop in children when they see adults behaving in this positive way. However, toddlers have no really developed sense of their ego, either. Although they often behave in a totally self-centred way, they are completely dependent on their caregivers and they can easily be suppressed and dominated.
Point 3: This is the position of someone who has never gone beyond the self-centeredness of a two-year-old child. Such a person has a strong sense of ego which he or she uses for totally egotistical purposes. An example would be a ruthless and powerful criminal.
Point 4: This is the position of the average person. There is only a limited amount of love for others and there is also confusion and weakness of the ego. This weakness may result in feeling overly responsible for others or in being easily dominated and hurt by other people.
Point 5: This is the position of a spiritual seeker who confuses overcoming their ego through enlightenment with self-denial. People in this position can sometimes have wonderful meditative visions and experiences of bliss but in the real world they are at a total loss. Their sense of ego is so weak that they get easily overwhelmed by more dominant people and their self-suppression doesn’t allow them to assert themselves properly. Neither are they able to put their spiritual insights into practice so that they could be of real help to others.
Despite their weakness, spiritual seekers in this position often feel overly responsible for the people around them. But when they do get close to others they quickly come to the point where they can’t tell themselves apart from the other person anymore and thus lose their sense of identity and independence. Then they don’t know what they want and they feel at the mercy of others with little ability to assert themselves. This is a very painful and neurotic experience and people in position five often prefer to be alone and may lead an unsuccessful and lonely life.
What’s worse, they often feel that the cause of their predicament is their attachment to their ‘sinful’ ego and that they are still not selfless enough. They don’t realise that only strengthening their boundaries and a stronger focus on what they want would help them. Only then would they become able to be loving and have the strength to bring this wonderful quality into the world.
Point 6: This is the position of a successful spiritual seeker. As you can see, their sense of ego is just as strong as their ability to rest in their divine nature. In this position people are equally loving and compassionate, as well as clear and strong so that they can pursue their projects with determination. They can be as powerful as a tycoon but, in contrast to an egotistical person, their motivation will always be completely altruistic.
Complete enlightenment happens when people go entirely beyond their old sense of identity and spontaneously act in a loving and altruistic way. At this ultimate stage any form of deliberation will fall away and the individual will be a natural expression of boundless bliss and love – their divine nature. However, in order to arrive at this final stage of human development a strong personal will and steely determination are absolutely necessary.
The positive and negative qualities of the ego
The next question is obviously, ‘in which way can we use our ego to foster the experience of our divine nature?’ To answer this question we will have to distinguish between the positive qualities of the ego that support the unfolding of our divine nature and the negative qualities of the ego that hamper or even completely stop this process.
It is interesting to observe that the negative ego can manifest in two completely opposing ways: it is either very selfish and self-aggrandising or it is overly self-denying and convinced it is bad and worthless. Most people swing regularly from one extreme of their negative ego to the other. The following two columns explains the different parts of the positive and negative ego.
We all experience a mixture of positive and negative qualities of our ego, no matter how far we have developed on our spiritual path. Therefore, in order to go further we need to strengthen and develop only the positive sides of our ego so that our divine nature can find more and more possibilities to manifest in our stream of experience. At the same time we need to transform and overcome the aspects of our negative ego that hinder us on our way to experience ultimate love, success and happiness.
One thing that I found very confusing on my own spiritual journey was that Eastern spiritual teachings rarely talk about the feelings of inner worthlessness or even self-hatred. They usually speak almost exclusively about the ruthless and megalomaniac side of our negative ego while the problems of low self-esteem are mostly ignored. We may be told by Eastern spiritual teachers, for example, that our self-cherishing is the root of all evil and that we should think more of others and less of ourselves.
Like many of my fellow students I followed these teachings as well as I could but I was puzzled because I didn’t know how to apply them to the problems of low self-esteem and destructive relationships. In my work as a counsellor with co-dependent women, for instance, I encouraged them to nurture themselves more, stop compulsive helping and regard their needs at least as important as those of others. I knew that this was the right thing to do but I was still confused because from a spiritual perspective it looked as if I was encouraging my clients to become more ‘selfish’.
After thinking about this confusing predicament for some time it dawned on me how this misunderstanding might have come from. Spiritual teachings that come from Asia are mostly made by men and directed to men due to their patriarchal cultures. And it is typically men who suffer more from the arrogant and ruthless expression of the negative ego. By comparison, teachings which focus on typical female problems like dependency and low self-esteem are rarely, if ever, talked about.
It is therefore important that we translate spiritual teachings from the East for our personal needs and that both women and men learn to differentiate the two sides of their negative ego and find ways to overcome them both. Let me give you example. If I would think about myself that I am stupid and have no right to give other people advice, I would limit my possibilities of being happy and successful, let alone finding my divine nature. But if I believe that I am the greatest writer under the sun I am not doing much better. I might be able to indulge in my own arrogance a little bit but people will not necessarily like me for that. It will only be a matter of time before I fall off my self-created pedestal and go back to thinking that I am stupid. This is the typical process of the negative ego that is always swinging from feeling inferior to feeling superior.
But if I were in the state of my positive ego I would refrain from both these inferior and self-aggrandising thoughts and just write my books as well as I could while trying to find joy and satisfaction in the process. Somebody who experiences the healthy self-esteem of the positive ego doesn’t need to have conceited ideas about themselves. They will feel good about themselves but humble at the same time because they know that they still have their weaknesses. In other words, with healthy self-esteem we find love and with unhealthy self-esteem we find arrogance and selfishness. Finally, if I were enlightened I would rest in sublime bliss and wisdom and effortlessly write books which give people exactly the kind of information they need. Thoughts about myself would not play a role anymore. Therefore, the attitude that leads to happiness is neither conceited, nor self-denying and self-sacrificing.
The best way to relate to ourselves is with compassionate love and in chapter seven I will give more advice about how to achieve and maintain this beneficial attitude. Love dissolves the knots of guilt and self-hatred that the negative ego has tied around our throats and it prevents arrogance, as well, because loving ourselves makes us more compassionate with others. In other words:
Genuine self-love is the starting-point of any meaningful psychological and spiritual development.
Unfortunately, self-love is an anathema for the negative ego. When it is in one of its inferior phases it sees self-love as something self-indulgent and sinful and when it is in one of its self-aggrandising phases it will see it as something weakening or outright stupid. Obviously, both these attitudes makes happiness impossible.
All suffering comes from our limited ideas about ourselves.
Twenty five years ago I emerged from a childhood in a highly dysfunctional family with a big bunch of bad neuroses. Both of my parents were heavy drinkers and I had suffered really bad abuse and rejection. As a result, I developed many psychological problems and neurotic symptoms in my late teens and twenties. The worst of these problems was a pervasive and deeply painful feeling of despair and loneliness. My life was truly a living hell.
Like many people in similar situations I couldn’t resist the temptation to blame my parents for my misery. I felt my mother was responsible for my intense anxiety that had started after a phase of ongoing physical abuse and also for my low self-esteem because she had completely rejected me from my earliest childhood. I also thought that my father’s alcoholism had left me irreparably damaged and was responsible for my destructive relationship patterns with men. I had many sessions of therapy and read many books that affirmed this line of thought but, unfortunately, the more I blamed my parents the more I became depressed.
Then, at the age of 24, through a wonderful turn of fortune, I visited a Buddhist centre and for the very first time heard that my innermost nature was not damaged beyond repair. With great wonder and awe I listened to the teaching that our true nature is always happy and merely covered up by afflicting thoughts and feelings.
Once I let these words sink in I started to get better. Instead of trying to find someone I could blame for my horrible state of mind I applied this most liberating spiritual teaching and started to look for my divine nature. It was this change of how I saw myself that would help me first to develop the qualities of my positive ego and eventually bring me all the happiness that I had ever wished for. By contrast, when I was still identified with my negative ego I was totally at the mercy of negative feelings like depression, anxiety and anger. I had no ability to distance myself from these feelings because on a deep level I believed that they were inevitable, that I deserved them and that they were what I was. In other words, the root of my suffering was these limiting and wrong ideas about my identity. The same is true for everybody else’s suffering, as well.
Where do all these limiting ideas about ourselves come from?
According to Buddhist teachings everybody – even children who had the most supportive and loving upbringing possible – is afflicted by negative and limiting thoughts about themselves. There have been quite a few experiments in the 1970s where well-meaning and caring parents put their young children into anti-authoritarian nurseries. The idea was to prevent the children being given wrong and limiting ideas about themselves by adults and to help them to unfold more of their natural positive potential. Unfortunately, the results of these experiments were as sad as they were thought-provoking.
Left to their own devices and without much interference from the adults, these children didn’t create a loving and peaceful community among themselves. On the contrary, they created an extremely aggressive pecking order where the biggest bully mercilessly dominated the weaker children. In other words, the undisturbed children displayed even at this early stage the two sides of the negative ego of either believing to be superior and a rightful dominator or as being inferior and a victim. Consideration or even love for each other didn’t get any chance to unfold.
In a flippant way one can say that that victim mentality or arrogant conceit is a genetic disease every human being is born with and which is constantly reinforced through contact with people who are equally ill. On the other hand, our positive ego and divine nature can only unfold if we are able to heal ourselves from this hereditary disease. This process needs determination but is not impossible.
Unfortunately, the limiting ideas that we are seemingly born with are not only re-enforced through our personal surroundings but also through our entire culture. The greatest negative influence on Western civilisation in this respect comes from the Christian church with its ideas of original sin. But before I go into this topic I must make it very clear that the teachings of Jesus Christ are very helpful in discovering our divine nature. His sermons and displays of love and forgiveness are beautiful expressions of the highest nature and have nothing to do with the negative ideas that some churches have used.
In all Christian societies we are shown horrific displays of the torture and the cruel murder of Jesus and we are told that he had to go through all this torment for our sins. Unfortunately, for people who are impressionable and vulnerable every contact with such guilt-inflicting messages will reinforce feelings of their unworthiness and badness. Instead of strengthening the trust they have in their own divine nature and bringing out its positive qualities, they will experience an increase of their negative ego and all the suffering that comes with that.
The second negative influence that we are subjected to in every Western culture is the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin. It says, more or less, that we are just some sort of intelligent ape. This implies that the more deeply we go inside ourselves the more we will find primitive animal-like instincts like violence, promiscuity and stupidity. Sigmund Freud with his model of the primitive drives of the ‘id’ went on to cement these ideas firmly into most people’s minds. You just need to go to any dinner party and talk casually about psychology to find that many people believe that diving deep within themselves is a dangerous thing because they might find all sorts of neurotic and anti-social patterns and drives. Freud and his successors are also the originators of the faulty belief that somehow our upbringing is to blame for all our current misery. Unfortunately, thinking in this way is extremely debilitating because it reduces grown men and women to be as helpless as the children they once were.
But before we go too far in blaming Freud and Darwin, let me say that everyone who believes in their ideas about our negative and primitive deeper nature wants to believe in these theories. We are all ill with the disease of the negative ego and the great scientists of our time have just reinforced what people wanted to believe anyway.
When I went through the phase of blaming my parents it suited me well to believe in Freud’s theories because it gave me the opportunity to vent some of my anger. However, when I came in contact with the liberating teachings about our divine nature I quickly noticed that this anger actually hindered me from realising more of my inner goodness. What’s more, as soon as I had the first glimpses of the spiritual joy of my true self I started to feel more compassion towards my parents. I realised for the first time how much they were suffering themselves and my desire to take revenge lessened and finally disappeared.
How wonderful it would be if everybody could understand that just beneath their everyday worries and stresses lies an infinite potential of happiness, love and wisdom. How liberating would it be to know that deep down in our conscious and unconscious mind there is nothing but goodness. Even a short moment of resting in our divine nature will help us to realise that the whole idea of being scarred by our past is merely an illusory mental construct.
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