Deeper Understanding of the Ego – Patterns, Contractions, and Tensions

By Acharya Shambhu

The first revelation of nondual teachings is that we are already Divine. Isn’t that great! If we can just realize that we are Divine, we have arrived. But, is this our experience? It certainly isn’t my experience all the time. The teachings also elucidate, right after the declaration of our Divinity, that our true nature is obscured. The implication is that if we cannot find the light that is already within and reside in our true nature, we have to lift the veils to uncover the light.

Let me explain. The concealment happens through three veils, which, in part, express themselves through the ego. We already saw that, ultimately, at the highest level, the source of the ego is the heart, wherein the heart of consciousness is the source and the field of consciousness in which everything is present. If we could just find our heart and reside in the heart space, we will find our freedom. The issue for many of us is that, due to karma, there is a density of obscuration that covers the light. This means that in our spiritual practice we also must develop the capacity to digest the concealment so that enough light can percolate through. In my experience, it has been critical to understand that we have to burn the candle from both ends – we must develop the capacity to open our hearts and digest concealment. Nondual spiritual practices provide us with the tools to do both.

In the Opening the Heart blog we focused on learning how to tune into our heart. This blog will shed some light on the tendencies of our own ego and how they impact our daily experience. We will discuss patterns, contractions, tensions, the nature of resistance, the three veils, karma, and the practices to free ourselves from karma. The teachings about concealment propel us to practice self-inquiry, a process that can shake us to the core of our very carefully constructed self-identity.

It seems to me that in our society we spend a lot of time and effort trying to accumulate knowledge about the world, but we spend very little time getting to know ourselves. We all want to sound smart and funny, entertain people with our stories, show off how much we know, etc., but, at the end of the day, it is all noise, just a child’s play in the sense that we have not really grown up to look at ourselves in the mirror of our own consciousness. We have not really taken a hard look and examined: “Who am I,” “What really motivates me?,” “What are the results of my actions?,” “Could I act from a different place?,” “Is life really about me, or maybe there is something more?” It is my experience that the reason we are not asking ourselves these questions is because of our resistance to change. The source of our resistance is the ego. If we truly want to understand ourselves, let’s take the magnifying glass and examine the ego on a deeper level.

Just to be clear, I love getting together with my friends over a beer, etc. I love listening to other people’s stories, I love sharing my stories, we learn from each other. But, over the years, my social experiences have changed from feeling inadequate if I had nothing to say to the simple joy of sharing and listening, with no agenda on my part, just being in the presence of the people in my life. And yes, this is an invitation to discuss the nature of concealment over a beer. Let me know, maybe after all, this topic is easier to discuss in a bar!

The Ego Spaghetti Bowl: Patterns, Contractions, and Tensions

The nature of the ego, the I-maker, is limited identity. The ego is relentless. It will hold on to its identity, it will fight and fight, it will resist letting go. As Nathaji says often, the ego is a leprechaun, it will morph endlessly, trying to pull us out of our heart.

One of the tricks from ego’s playbook occurs after we have had an opening or have burned some tension. The ego will come up with very subtle, hardly perceptible reasons to hook our attention again. For example, “I did forgive that person, I let the situation go, but I was right after all.” Translation: “I had a real breakthrough, I felt an opening, pat on my back, I am growing, but I am superior to the other person, they don’t get it.” In this situation we might have had a partial opening, but it illustrates a subtle arrogance that we are better than other people and ultimately humility was lacking. Watch for the “buts,” they mean we are still attached to our identity or some sort of condition, which is the ego’s attempt to cling onto us.

All resistance to change stems from the ego. I think it is extremely important to understand the nature of our own resistance, as the cost of resistance is the perpetuation of our suffering. Patterns, contractions, and tensions result from living in ego and are the energies that keep us bound in limited understanding, stuck in limited consciousness.

There are two fundamental patterns: self-rejection and self-absorption. Self-rejection at its highest-level means rejecting our divine essence, which is the trap of the ego to sustain its suffering. Self-absorption is the focusing of our life force on self-interest. Self-absorption, in effect, reinforces our self-rejection as it binds us in self-pity and self-importance, where the focus is still on limited self-identity.

Contractions emerge from these two patterns and represent our inability to stay open to the ever-flowing changes in life, which has two effects:

1. First, we live in conditions. We tend to reject life since it does not pan out the way we want it to – we are not in flow with life and search for the perfect condition to be happy. For example, “If I only had a partner or a better job, I would be happy.”
2. Second, we miss the realization that every situation is an opportunity for growth. Contractions happen when we are so caught in a situation that we squeeze the very life force out of the change that is trying to take place, prohibiting any real growth. For example, someone persistently annoys us and we blame the other person. Life might be trying to show us our arrogance, but we are so contracted in our reaction to the other person, that we are blind to the opportunity to free ourselves from our arrogance.

Tension is the surface expression of patterns and contractions, the acting out of patterns and contractions.

We might, for example, function from a resonance of being a victim, i.e. self-absorption. This resonance feeds our self-rejection, making the realization that we are an individuated expression of the Divine an impossibility, “How can I be Divine when everything and everybody in my life seems to show me that I am not good enough?” This belief contracts our energy and we close our heart. We do not open to the flow of life which constantly tries to remind us to shed our victimhood, to surrender our limitations, and experience in ourselves a higher truth. Because we are not open, we act out our tensions either internally with our thoughts, “You see, I did it again, I am a failure,” or externally with our actions by avoiding or blaming people, and maybe resorting to substances such as drugs, etc. Either way, we end up reinforcing our patterns. To top it off, feelings of sadness or despair might further steal our energy and make it harder to free ourselves from our ego.

Spaghetti bowl jpeg

Exercise 1: Self-Inquiry:
Do Exercise 1 from my Opening the Heart blog. Get quiet inside. Ask your heart to show you your blind spots. Explore your patterns, contractions, tensions. Write them down if you want to. What would the people in your life say they are? Does their answer match yours? If not, maybe we need to inquire deeper. Of course, it is much easier figuring out what other people’s challenges are than our own.

Resistance to Change = Unwillingness to Grow

I had an experience not too long ago when I felt an opening, completeness, a sense of bliss. It lasted for probably an hour. Then I began to close. I asked inside why I am closing when it feels so good to be open. The answer that came back was, “Too much Niko (my given name).” There you have it: the less of us i.e. identity there is, the more open and better we feel, there is no sense of lack! That is why I think it is very important to contemplate the nature of resistance and its effects. Nathaji and Rudi offer some profound insights about resistance that I have tried to paraphrase/summarize here in my own words. You can find more insights in Nathaji’s book “Depth over Time” and Rudi’s book “Spiritual Cannibalism.”

1. It is our own heart that tries to free us. Every challenging situation in our lives emerges from our own heart as part of the process of finding freedom. This can be a shocking discovery: we ourselves cause the tests of our lives, but how can it be any other way? When we say, “I want to open,” the grace of our own heart is that it will expose to us our own blind spots, our unconscious patterns, the reasons we have in ourselves to close which we have accumulated over many lifetimes. We have to expose those reasons, to burn them in the light of consciousness in order to be free of them.

2. Life will test us when we say we want to open. Rudi used to talk about the tests of life. What he meant was that when we open, life will test our conviction and capacity to stay open. We will encounter situations/people that will challenge our resolve to stay open, they will present to us endless reasons to close. The first sign of trouble is usually when we react in an unconscious way, i.e. we say something or we do something out of a contracted place.

3. The content of resistance is never relevant. There are millions of reasons to close: “I am right,” “I should not do this,” etc. The point is that the end result is always the same – we close our hearts. Another way of saying this is that we have the tendency to continually re-inforce and feed our ego.

4. The cause of resistance so often is our tendency to want to control life. Whenever we react to circumstances and conditions, we become tense because we want to control what is happening. Another way of saying this is that whenever we are unable to truly rest in the stillness of our center and accept something as it is, we tense up.

5. Resistance builds tension, which binds us and becomes our resonance. It is our resistance, our inability to accept life as it is, that produces tension. It is that tension that we act out from. We can experience this on a daily basis just by watching the news for two minutes. Of course, it is always easier to see other people’s egos than our own. That is why honest self-inquiry is very important to bring to light our tensions.

6. Resistance crystallizes our energy, limits the flow, encasing our Spirit. When our resistance and tensions merge into each other, our energy becomes stuck inside and squeezes the life force out of us, compressing our openness, energy, and consciousness. This is the density that encases Spirit, and which restricts our life.

We have to meet our resistance – if we are not feeling our resistance, we are not growing

The revelation of our resistance is a key step towards spiritual growth and expansion. When we consciously come up against our internal walls, our reluctance to change, it means we are doing our spiritual work and we can see ourselves more clearly. We have to face our fear of the dissolution of our own identity. Fear and doubt are key obstacles to spiritual growth. Some practices like the Sufis talk about the joyous offering of our identity to God. We must realize that we suffer because of our identity and try something different, i.e. begin to let go and trust that a higher truth will reveal itself.

It is important in our inner work not to take our resistance personally, it is not about us, it is about Divinity trying to express itself as us, through us. Nathaji explains eloquently,

When we realize that every challenge in our life emerges precisely to free the Divine within us, that knowledge changes everything. Whether it takes a day, a month, or a year, we deal with everything from this perspective and from a state of openness. We allow a contraction to burn up because we are detached from it being about us, or at least from the limited egoic ‘us’ that we identify as ourselves. When we are bigger than the contraction, its energy is in the flow and it is being processed … When we desire to know the God within, we are asking for no less than the annihilation of the part of us that doesn’t know it is Divine. So, in the process of profound transformation, we must experience both expansion and dissolution—the expansion of the Divinity within us, and the dissolution of the boundary of our limited self.

What is the way out? How do we dissolve our own resistance?

To borrow one of Einstein’s gems of wisdom, we cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it, i.e. the ego. The nature of the ego is to resist change. The ego is very powerful. Its power has had us trapped lifetime after lifetime. We must reach for a higher perspective.

For those of you who have read or are familiar with the great Indian epic the Bhagavad Gita, I think it is an allegory of our own inner battles depicted as the trials and the tribulations of Arjuna on a battlefield preparing to fight his relatives. Krishna (the Divine) suggests to Arjuna that his relatives are already dead. What a shocker! Our “relative” is our mind, we respect it, we want to spend time with it, we want to wine and dine it. The idea of killing the mind because it is already dead can create a tremendous confusion in our being. However, if we do a brutally honest self-inquiry, we might arrive at the same conclusion – the mind is already dead, in the sense that when we truthfully examine our stories, we realize that they are far removed from reality. Our stories have very little to do with reality, they are illusions/fantasies or fears/nightmares that keep us trapped in ego.

My experience has been that when I stop believing my own stories, I feel a sense of opening, a sense of freedom, a sense of soaring. We have to learn to stop feeding our minds with what the ego craves and re-direct our life force towards nourishing the heart. We have to learn to trust our heart and let go of our dependence on the mind. Our ego/mind is dead without its source, the heart.

Nondual ancient inner scientists illustrated this profound teaching, our way to freedom, also in a very direct way. In Ch. 18 of The Recognition Sutras, translated by Christopher Wallis, we are given the following meditation technique. Pre-discursive reality refers to the deep space within, which is free of concepts; it is a pulsation of the heart before it takes form in the shape of thoughts, etc. This exercise also asks us to let go of not just our identity, but also our sense of Self as the Knower. We let go in our own awareness where we experience complete freedom from our thoughts, stories, bodies, and separate identities. Wallis translates,

One whose mind is fixed on and entrusted to the Heart (through bringing attention to the fact of Awareness), by thinking of nothing in particular, stills the mind’s storytelling (which hinders the ability to abide in oneself), and through cultivating conscious contact with pre-discursive reality becomes intent on the perception that the one and only Knower is his own awareness, untainted by body identification and so on.

Exercise 2:
Just for one day, take the stance, make the commitment: "Just for today, I will stick my mind in my heart."

1. Find you heart center, stay there.
2. As your mind becomes active, don't try to suppress it, gently fall into the heart.
3. Let the mind do its thing and take the stance that the thoughts of the mind are useless garbage, don't pay attention to them, keep on falling back into the heart.
4. Thoughts such as, "I need to go to the store to buy milk" of course are OK, they help us function in the world. All other thoughts are not worth of our attention, you can even label them as “Junk.”
5. See what happens. Take notes about your experience if you feel inclined to do so.

How do we let go of resistance?

We have to work above the level of resistance to loosen its grip on us and digest it. There are multiple ways to generate enough lift so we can see our resistance (see #1 to #5 below). Then, we digest it (#6).

1. Make a conscious choice to open. We must use our innate intelligence (buddhi), to choose heart over and over again, until the ego just becomes background noise.
2. Nourish the wish to grow. Do the Wish to Grow exercise regularly to find a place in ourselves that will choose heart when the ego snaps back. Nathaji says, “We create an inner discipline so that when our resistance comes up, we fall back on the strength of and attachment to our wish, and we practice even when we do not want to.”
3. Use regularly the tension release to facilitate flow in the inner mechanism. Do the Tension Release exercise to shake off the tensions we accumulate during the day, flush out residue from our meditation practice, or to loosen/let go of a tension that we are struggling with.
4. Do selfless service. Selfless service frees us from our own self-absorption – we serve even when we don’t want to. Nathaji explains,

Our ego keeps us from Self-knowledge, and it is fear of losing ourselves that keeps the ego functioning. We live in a box, which defines our life in many ways. We get trapped in patterns, thinking, ‘This is what my life is. This is what I can or can’t do, and this is what I will or won’t do.’ If we wish to extend past these preconceptions, we must exert some effort to break free, because we all carry a resistance and an unwillingness to change. We must huff and puff and blow our own walls down, and not accept the smallness. One of the primary ways we can knock the walls down is by deciding to truly give of ourselves—and to do so when it’s wanted and needed and especially when we don’t want to give. But we do give, because it expands our boundaries. It really requires that we open our hearts more. Isn’t this what we say we want? We get past our limitations when we serve and surrender.

5. Develop the capacity to center ourselves. We must develop the capacity through disciplined spiritual practice to center ourselves so we can see when we begin to close from miles away. We center our awareness in the heart center, the central channel (the sushumna), or the navel chakra (two fingers below the navel).
6. We let go of resistance in the heart or consume its energy in the flow. From our center, we surrender everything that arises in the openness of the heart, or we consume the energy of the resistance in the flow (down the front and up the back).


Why Opening the Heart Is Fundamental in Kuṇḍalinī Practices

By Acharya Shambhu

The very first thing we emphasize with new students in our practice is the power of opening the heart. Opening our heart is the fundamental capacity we develop. It has wide reaching reverberations: 1) we begin to function in our daily life from a deeper place; 2) the heart transforms our own understanding of ourselves and the purpose of our life. This is why advanced meditation practices build on the foundation of the heart. This blog includes a few simple exercises to help us explore the heart.

Opening the heart is crucial in our spiritual development. Developing the capacity to first find our own heart and then nourish it, provides us with a foundation from which we can begin to function in our lives, both in our relationship with ourselves and with the world. A lot of authentic spiritual practices focus on the heart - Sufism, Christian mystics etc. It is important to understand why it is the case that the heart is a recurring theme and emphasized so much in so many practices.

One of Swami Rudrananda's (Rudi) most insightful and powerful statements was, "The reason the world is screwed up is that nobody opens their heart." We could examine this statement from another perspective: if people tend not to function from their hearts, what is it that we mostly function from, i.e. "the" reason the world is screwed up? We could re-interpret Rudi's statement: "The reason the world is screwed up is that everybody functions from their mind."

If we assume that these two statements are equivalent, we could collapse them into: "No heart = mind". The inverse of that is "Heart = no mind." The natural question these two shorter statements pose is: "Are the heart and mind mutually exclusive?"

But hold on a second! The second thing we tell people when they begin to explore this practice is that it is a non-dual practice. So, how do we reconcile that with the possibility that the heart and mind might be mutually exclusive, i.e. we are in an either/or situation, which is inherently dualistic! What a pickle! But, let’s slow down a bit and first explore what we mean by mind.

What is the mind?
In the cosmology of nondual philosophy, the mind is the instrument of the ego. In Sanskrit, the ego translates as "I maker," i.e. the creation of identity. This is "me," this is the "world," even "God" if I believe such a thing, is separate from me. In other words, the nature of the ego is dualistic understanding of life. This is the purpose of the ego, to conceal a higher level of understanding. How does the ego accomplish that? It uses a toolkit, called the mind.

The mind can be understood as the instrument of the ego - i.e. thought constructs, beliefs such as: "I can never get anything right, I am a loser," "Life is not fair, I am always the victim," "I can only be happy if I have a lot of money, relationships, etc.," and the script of the mind goes on and on. These thought constructs are very different from thoughts such as, "I need to make a right turn here to arrive at the store." Thoughts help us function in the world and that is a good thing, that is their primary purpose. The issue is the binding power of thought constructs that create limited stories which become the primary script from which we understand ourselves and life.

To make matters worse, emotions wrapped around thought constructs create a spaghetti bowl around thought constructs, further binding us to limiting beliefs. To be clear, emotions are a good thing, they, in part, make us human beings: we can feel, we have compassion for people, etc. Emotions only become an issue when we allow them to re-inforce our limiting thought constructs. For example, depression/sadness wrap around thought constructs of being a victim, making it harder for us to rise above the mind.

The problem with the ego is that it is the cause of our suffering. The ego has us wrapped around its little finger, and we don't even know it! The ego is very powerful, it has the capacity to completely conceal any possible higher perspective and experience of life. The ego is a tunnel with no lights. That is why the world is screwed up.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? What could that light be? Luckily for us, that light is called grace. It is that grace that brought us to inquire inside: "Is that what life is about? Is there more to life?" This is a pivotal shift in our life, were we begin to turn inside to find an answer, after unsuccessfully trying to find one in the manifest world. 


What is the heart?
In this practice, the way we find an answer inside is by learning to tune into our own heart. How do we do that? We use our breath and awareness.

Here is the first of three simple exercises that help us access our heart.

Exercise 1:

1. Close your eyes. Take a few regular breaths.
2. Listen to the breath, explore where it begins and where it ends. Notice the beginning and end of the inhalation. Notice the beginning and end of the exhalation. Keep your awareness on the cycle of the breath, simply listen. Do that for a few minutes.
3. Now, move your awareness to the middle of the chest, where the heart energy center (chakra) is. Keep your awareness there.
4. Allow the inhalation to open that center, feel the lightness.
5. As you exhale, relax deeply. Notice how we tend to have superficial exhalations, we tend to hold onto tension in our bodies. As you exhale, each time exhale deeper.
6. Notice that as you exhale and you let go deeper, the openness in the heart becomes bigger. Both the inhalation and exhalation create and expand the openness.
7. As you keep your awareness in the heart, whatever arises: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, sounds, smells etc, gently let them go into the heart. Do that for a few minutes.
8. As you open your eyes, keep your center in your heart, stay centered there.
9. Do this exercise during your sitting meditations and also in your daily life with your eyes open.

As we do this simple yet powerful exercise, over time we might have some valuable insights. By focusing on the heart, the mind seems to slow down, we become more quiet and still. Put differently, the more heart, the less mind. As we lose our awareness of our heart, we will likely experience the reverse, less heart means more mind. That is OK. The good news is that we are beginning to feel a new place in ourselves, an alternative to the mind. It does seem like an either/or equation, right?

The answer is yes, however with a "but." Yes, the heart and the mind seem to have a mutually exclusive relationship, but this is more so in the beginning of our practice. In the beginning, we learn over and over again to first find our heart. As we find it over and over again, using our awareness and breath, we nourish that opening. The time that we spend in the heart over time increases. The heart becomes more and more familiar. While that is happening, as we stay centered in the heart, it feels like thoughts, feelings, sensations come from somewhere else. There seems to be a feeling of, "This is my heart" and then, "There is my mind, there is everything else." That experience is an important first step in our spiritual development.

Heart versus Mind

In my own experience, being in the heart helps me understand the nature of the mind better. From the quiet of the heart I can have a clearer perspective on the mind. My life experience before learning to access the heart, as my teacher Swami Khecaranatha (Nathaji) would say, had a floor and a ceiling. The openness of the heart expands that band of experience, I can "see" more, understand better the contrast between the mind and the heart. For me, there seems to be this contrast.

Blog 1 Chart 1

It's an incredible contrast, isn't it? In my experience, as my band of experience expands with the heart, when I catch myself in my mind, I experience a sort of shock, the realization of the vast difference of experience between the heart and the mind. That shock helps me go back to the heart, it just feels so much better being in the heart! That realization happens in the intellect, which in nondual cosmology, sits above the ego and mind. The intellect does not refer to the sense of being intellectually smart, but a place in ourselves that has enough lift, enough perspective and enough discriminating awareness to make a choice from a place of clarity to open, even when the mind pulls us to close.

As my practice has deepened over the years, when the mind becomes active or takes over in a very forceful way, when a deep thought construct wrapped with powerful emotions takes over, I would follow Rudi's advice: "Take your mind and stick it in your heart." This exercise helps digest and melt deep patterns, in the heart. Another technique we use is creating a flow in our inner mechanism - on that teaching, I will do a separate blog post.

Blog 1 Chart 2

Evolution of the heart - intermediate perspective
Over time, as we function more and more from the heart, we begin to move away from dualistic experience of the seeming friction between the heart and mind. We begin to be mostly open while the mind continues to function in the background. Nathaji describes that as a radio station. We tune into the station of the Heart FM 108, while the mind is doing its thing on FM 88, but it does not affect us as much. Both the heart and mind function simultaneously but the mind does not bother us as much. We are so busy being in the heart, operating from a higher resonance, that the mind is just a minor annoyance. This is both a dualistic and non-dualistic understanding.

Exercise 2
During the day, stay centered in the heart. Engage people and situations by extending from the heart. Do it over and over again. You will begin to relate to people and situations from the openness of the heart. Listen to what people say from the heart, feel the real resonance of what they are saying versus what they are "actually" saying with their words. You begin to experience life from openness vs the superficiality and the drama of the mind. We begin to relate to people in a simple way, from openness. This exercise helps us break-down the sense of duality of "me" versus "them."

Evolution of the heart - advanced perspective
We started with the experience that the mind is the slayer of the soul, which is very true at the level of dualistic understanding. Next we saw that the heart and mind exist in our experience simultaneously as palpably different resonances and that we can choose to function from the higher resonance of the heart.

Exercise 3
Do Exercise 1 until you experience a sense of deep stillness. As we tune into the heart and as we let go of whatever arises in the heart, our deeper discriminating awareness begins to see thoughts as they begin to arise. Notice that there is a revving of energy, an impulse, before the thought takes form. As we stay in that level of awareness, we begin to have the insight that the initial impulse is simply the pulsation of the heart. It is only our ego that takes that impulse and molds it into form, i.e. thoughts and thought constructs, to reinforce our separation from our own heart.

According to nondual scripture, ultimately, wait for it, wait for it…….the mind is simply a vibration of the heart. In other words, the heart is the source of the mind. We can verify that statement for ourselves by doing Exercise 3. We have finally arrived at nondual understanding!

This is a shocking teaching when you consider it. However, it totally makes sense in the context of the highest understanding of nondual practices that consciousness is the source of everything. It is consciousness itself, that out of its own freedom, created the mind to conceal itself from itself as part of the cosmic play. Nondual practices have a more sophisticated description of what are called the Veils of Duality (of which the mind is an important part) that we will explore later.

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Conclusion - the heart is the pathway to liberation from the suffering caused by ego
Notice how we moved from form, i.e. thoughts as the mind, into feeling the openness of the heart, then the pulsation of the heart, and finally into awareness. It is that awareness or consciousness that we seek to find in our own heart, the consciousness which is our own real essence. This is why focusing on opening the heart is pivotal in our practice.

 Sky Shambhu quote