The dawn of ego

The newly born infant enters the human realm pure of heart and mind. In the beginning all is one: no form, no feeling, no perception, no memory, no consciousness. Despite the varied manifestations and appearances of the world, for infants all sight, sound and feeling are the expression of one unconfined essence without name or distinction.

Immediately, feelings of good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant arise. Cries and simple quiet are the initial expression of these wordless feelings, and comfort and distress establish life’s first duality.
Within days, the visual and auditory objects of the world become attractive, stimulating or irritating, perceptions of the five senses sharpen and the early discriminating mind arises. A sound, a taste and a touch all become associated with feelings.

Shortly thereafter, memory begins, and with it anticipation. This is not the memory of thought but the memory of feelings and perception, the memory of the body and a characteristic of early formation of individual mind. This is memory born of desire, for it is desire that particularly marks the human realm.

Slowly the quality of one essence dissolves. As months slide by, feelings, perceptions and memories become associated with words. Things and experiences are identified, objectified and externalized in a process of continued individuation. Self-consciousness – a sense of self – suddenly arises, and with it the stirrings of ego are born.

In Buddhism, these stages of ego development are called the “Five Skandhas” or “heaps;” a process of aggregation, an accumulation of experiences, sensations and thoughts that once gathered constitutes the formation and sustaining of ego. As is true in many of Buddhist teachings, the Skandhas are less a matter of dogma than objects of contemplation. In deeply contemplating each stage, a permanent, truly existing self cannot be found, allowing original mind to overcome ignorance and experience the pure essence buried under the layers of fixed concepts and discursive thoughts that distinguish ego-mind.

Our granddaughter Isabelle is only 17 months old, but already well along the path of ego-development. She does not fully understand the complexity of the world, of course, but she understands desire, the meaning of yes and the meaning of no. From here on in, her ego will continue to develop rapidly, though richly perfumed with ignorance. She will be told about “up” and “down” though our position on earth is more accurately “in” and “out.” In school she will be taught about straight lines, yet in reality no such straight lines exist. She will be called “good” and “bad” despite the fact that such judgments are relative, mostly a cultural matter of context and interpretation. Ignorance thoroughly permeates.

When she grows old enough, I will tell her about her true nature, which is unconfined and luminous – identical to the pure essence underlying all things. At first I suspect she will not understand, but if she cares for her grandfather in time she may become curious, reflect upon and contemplate this mystery. And as she grows older still, perhaps she will set aside ego’s ignorance-based hopes and fears, find each present moment of life precious and discover wisdom in kindness and compassion for others.

Like everyone, Isabelle carries the seed of awakened heart within her. To grow, it needs attention, love and care. I ask you, what else is a grandparent for?