We hear this phrase, or versions of it, in Practice conversations all the time. Perhaps the facilitator or Guide might say…
You’re not beating yourself up, the voices are beating you up.
You’re not afraid. Ego is afraid. In fact, ego is fear.
There is no you! “I” is the illusion of a self separate from Life.
Outside of the context of Practice, these statements sound nonsensical. “Who are you, that’s not you,” is precisely the sort of opening gambit to a maddening conversation one might have with a hookah-smoking caterpillar along the byways of Wonderland. But in the Wonderland of Awareness, “That’s not you, that’s ego” has a very practical application to ending suffering.
Once we get over our conditioned reaction to that statement, which could be many things…
Relief: Whew! I am so glad that “I” was not mean to my mom.
Confusion: What do you mean? Those unkind words came out of my mouth!
Frustration: You don’t understand. I am afraid.
Indignation: I think I know who I am, thank you very much.
Denial: I don’t want to be anything other than who I am.
...we can begin to explore the teaching.
“That’s not you, that’s ego” opens up several lines of inquiry. We might ask:
What’s the ego? I thought ego was an illusion.
What’s the me that’s ego?
What’s the me that’s not ego?
Note the focus on “me.”
If we were philosophers, heading down this path of conjecture might be both interesting and fruitful. But as Zen Awareness Practitioners we’re trained not to “noodle.” Instead we inquire: What are we being asked to pay attention to?
“That’s not you, that’s ego” is indicating where attention is. We’re being informed that attention is on conditioned mind. “That’s not you, that’s ego” is an invitation to the most important movement in Awareness Practice: dis-identification. Dis-identification is moving from identification with conditioning to awareness of it.
Bringing awareness to conditioned mind allows us to comprehend its nature, its operating structure, and its components.
We see the truth of the opening line of the Dhammapada: Our life is shaped by the mind. We become what we think. It becomes increasingly clear how a sense of “me” emerges from a conversation in conditioned mind: I like puppies. I hate politics. You deserve to be unhappy. I’m worried about that presentation tomorrow. I can’t ask for what I want. You don’t get to tell me what to do.
We recognize that suffering is the result of identification. In Einstein’s words, identification produces a kind of optical delusion of consciousness through which a human being experiences oneself, one’s thoughts, one’s feelings as something separate from the rest. It dawns on us that our sense of dissatisfaction is actually accurate. When identified, we ARE sensing ourselves as less than all that is “us.”
With practice, we realize that identity is a process. The “me” that I habitually identify with is not “me.” It’s “ego-I.” When we comprehend “identification,” we’re free to explore the alternative— the experience of “not ego-I.”
Thou Art That
The fundamental issue with being the “me” that’s ego is that it’s reductive. It limits our experience of existence to a single process, and not a very joyful one at that. In the words of Jacob Needleman: The ego, our ordinary initiator of action, is an ephemeral construction, which in the unenlightened state of awareness represents a kind of blockage or impediment to the interplay of fundamental cosmic forces. We are built to receive all the energies of creation in our consciousness and through the mysterious activity of watchful silence, to allow them to gestate and unfold in the fullness of time.
“That’s not you, that’s ego” opens the door to the spiritual, to the discovery of a state of being described by another set of pronouns: “Thou art That.” That thou art, cannot be articulated, but recognition of the mystical often finds expression through poetry or nonsense verse.
Listening to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
The drops become
One with me.
Deep in the valley, a beauty hides:
Serene, peerless, incomparably sweet.
In the still shade of the bamboo thicket
It seems to sigh softly for a lover.
Living from “Thou art That” requires, in Osho’s words, a “transmutation of consciousness.” In the crucible of Practice, we strip away the “you” that’s ego and prepare to receive “all the energies of consciousness.” A mysterious alchemy of context occurs as we oscillate between the experience of separation (ego) and the experience of non-separation (not-ego). Instead of attending to a limiting process that ignores All, our context switches to an All from which “I” can be seen as a limiting process.
“Thou art That” may feel like the illusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but we glimpse it each time we do the two-handed recording exercise. The final movement of listening to what the Mentor said is a portal to the recognition and acceptance of the Buddha within.
A delightful and unexpected benefit of context switching – from “you” to “All” – is that we discover the authentic human incarnation, the one that laughs, cries, loves, grieves, feels pain and loss, grows old, gets sick and dies. This is the “you” the Guide or facilitator is pointing to when they say, “Take care of her. She’s a really good person,” or “He really needs someone on his side.” If you did a double take when you heard these statements, you’re having the right experience. There IS more than one “person” being referenced: the she or he that needs some compassion and support AND that which can offer compassion and support.
When we get to this point in practice, we begin to feel like Alice in Wonderland. For in this Wonderland of Awareness there is so much more than we expect to the “you that’s not ego.” A human being, it turns out, defies further definition. In typical Zen fool fashion, we are required to consign the parsing of personal pronouns to the realms of irrelevance and get on with the more interesting task of being alive.
Now the response to the Caterpillar’s cryptic question “Who are you?” is a mischievous Cheshire cat grin that embodies the practitioner’s awareness in the moment. Am I a cat without a grin or a grin without the cat? “I don’t know” would be the only accurate answer, and I would know what I meant by that.
Practice Tip: Applying the Teaching
Laurie has a hard time going to bed on time…
You’re tired. You need to relax. Just one more episode. You can sleep in tomorrow.
That’s not you, that’s ego.
I really want to watch what happens next. It won’t take that much more time! I will be in bed soon.
Again, not “you.” It’s ego-I.
Can’t believe I did it again. I really have no discipline.
Still not “you.” It’s ego-I.
Next time I’ll do better.
No, you won’t! You never keep your commitments.
Definitely not you. It’s self-hate!
I’m tired. I’m going to go to bed.
Ah, the authentic human incarnation?
Maybe it’s time to shut down the computer.
The still small voice?
Nope. Just one more episode.
Gotcha! That’s not you. That’s ego-I.
Ok. I’m going to process map how I’m talked into staying awake.
The authenticity that’s the awareness practitioner perhaps?
Well, I love you just the way you are, but if you want some help getting to bed on time, let’s work out how I can assist you with that.
How about the Mentor?