El Dharma Written Talks
Ego and The Fall From The Garden
Every culture has a mythology explaining the beginning of the world and the origins of humankind, the story of creation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, to study the history of consciousness, we need to go back to the creation myth that we’re all familiar with. It has been taught to us since childhood—the Adam and Eve story, the Garden of Eden. No one knows the origin of that story; it’s been with us forever. I love the mystery of that. You remember that the big transgression, the reason for being cast out of the garden was that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were allowed to eat of all the other trees in Eden, including the tree of life. However, they fell to temptation, and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a result of their transgression, they were thrown out of the garden. What is the symbolism of this ancient tale? The knowledge of good and evil is really the beginning of duality, the separation into basic categories of good and evil, yes and no, desirable and undesirable—the original sin. What is that really? It was the beginning of thought. The knowledge of good and evil was the beginning of thinking. Our thought process is founded in the separation of opposites. If we look at the myth that way, the transgression was the beginning of egoic life, because it is the ego self that thinks: I am and you are. We are different. Some of my experience is good and some of my experience is bad. Since the very beginning of time, we have predicated much of our lives on making the distinction between pleasant and unpleasant, yes and no, I want it and I don’t want it. That’s the original primary fault; it happens as a reflex. Every experience that comes to us is immediately judged to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and then all behavior follows from that. That’s the basic activity of the ego self, “EL YO, the “ME”, the aspect of our mind that is dedicated to separation and separate self. We live our lives from that point of view. The neuro-anatomists and neuroscientists now are saying that the ego functions, the functions of “EL YO”, the “ME”, are actually isolated to a very small group of cells in a particular area in the brain. Spiritual teachers have been saying forever that in the vastness of the mind, the ego self is simply a little blip. The fall from grace, the original sin, was the identification with thought, the “I”, the “ME”, making a distinction between good and evil, yes and no. And that was the beginning of all suffering. Listen to what the Lord says in the story and hear this now as the curse. To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you that you must not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you. Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field by the sweat of your brow. You will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.”
I remember reading that as a child and being horrified. It’s an amazing story. Humankind suffers throughout all of life because of the origin of thought. The arising of the distinction between good and evil, is the beginning of dualism. The fall from the garden is the fall out of paradise or out of non-dualism. We are committed to identification with the ego self, the “ME” that we all believe in. All of us, no matter how much we practice and how much we study, operate from that point of view. The ego self is the thinker, the discriminator, the one who makes judgments, in order for survival to happen. “EL YO” is the opinionator, the bearer of emotion, the creator of rage, hatred, lust, pleasure, and desire—all of it. The entire pantheon of emotion and passion that fills our lives, comes into the world through this identification with separation, that originates in the myth of Adam and Eve and their fall—the beginning of thought. They ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and all suffering has come from that: our dissatisfaction and the need to work to survive, to make a living, to raise children, to suffer the heartbreaks of love that we all know.
Yesterday I performed a marriage ceremony, and part of the ceremony was asking the bride and groom to realize, while looking into each other’s eyes, that their partner’s broken heart is the truly beautiful heart, and to say to each other, “I marry that heart.” We are all doomed to suffering in this mythology. And out of that, of course, has arisen guilt and the notion of penance and payment for original sin. Religion is built upon the premise that there is a need to change, somehow, to be better, to fix this terrible transgression of thought.
interesting to see Buddhism as a refinement of this mythology. The Buddha’s
first noble truth was the acknowledgement that life includes suffering.
That’s exactly the story of the fall from the Garden of Eden.
The second noble truth the Buddha taught is that the cause of suffering is the “ME” and its tendency to cling, to be attached, to consider itself aseparate entity occupying the body, to cling to opinions and judgments and the basic notion of separate self, itself. A very important refinement of the mythology of The Fall is the possibility of awakening; it’s possible to rediscover the purity of the Garden of Eden. That is the third noble truth and the core of the Buddha’s messages—the end of suffering. He came and said, “I teach suffering, which we all know, and the end of suffering.” And then, of course, the fourth noble truth he called the eight-fold path, which very simply, is a way of becoming liberated. Right thought is thinking that it’s possible to awaken. Right understanding is the understanding that life is suffering; everything is impermanent and the attachment to mythological self is the problem. Right action is cessation of killing. We must cease harming the social and physical environment which includes not stealing, refraining from sexual misbehavior, from intoxication, misuse of drugs—the harming of oneself. The path also includes right speech, using words wisely. Words are the vehicle of the separate self, and of dualism. As soon as we speak about something, there is separation—subject and object—the primary separation of dualism. Right speech is to refrain from harmful speech from gossip and painful rumors, to refrain from hurting other people with our speech. To tell the truth. Right livelihood means making your living in a way that doesn’t bring difficulties or harm to others, a way that promotes the general welfare. Right effort is important if we’re interested in reestablishing the original state. Wouldn’t awakening out of all suffering be heaven-on-earth? The Buddha spoke of it very directly. We must make effort to practice the training of our attention, with right concentration and mindfulness. The Buddha taught awakening from suffering. He was unequivocal about that, he was very straight-forward. He was a serious guy, and he was a man, not a God. He acknowledged the fall from the Garden of Eden by saying that it’s true, life is suffering. But he also taught a remedy, that there is a way to be free of suffering. Freedom from suffering requires learning to recognize and take responsibility for one’s actions, the activities of the “ME”, the thinker, the doer, the one who has the agenda of always doing things in order to get something. The “ME” is always carrying the past along; we identify with our stories. The “ME” is rooted in everything that comes before. The “ME” is constantly lurching into the future in order to create something or stop something from happening, but rarely ever rests in the zero point. And it’s in the zero point between the past and the future that heaven-on-earth is found. It’s in the now.
It’s very interesting that there are teachers appearing at this time who are teaching that liberation is available now. It’s even being called “the Now”. We must surrender into the now, release the past, release our private, potent, opinionated positions; let go into “the Now”. Discover what truly is. This is what the Buddha taught. His teachings say that, in order to find the truth of the separation that we’re suffering under, we must pay attention carefully to how our experience is happening, how we actually are living. In order to do that, we bring attention, in a very focused way, to the living body within—the body that breathes, the heart that beats, the senses that hear and taste. We must give attention to those phenomena in the moment, and with mindfulness, to the activities of the mind. We must be conscious to what is happening in this mind-body process. We cannot remain unconscious and have heaven-on-earth. Unconsciousness is the perpetuation of the hell of suffering. The first moment we have a genuine participation in “the Now”, the first moment that there’s an actual surrender into present time, we have a taste, a real experience of what it is to be free.
Many of the young spiritual teachers these days are incredibly inspiring and have spent many, many years following the Buddha’s path. So, think of Buddhism as the response to the story of Eden. Of course, first it’s important to recognize the truth of suffering. One must take responsibility for one’s own life: It is true that I function as an ego. It is true that I have selfish impulses. It is true that I’m ruled by emotion frequently. It is true that I’m lost in thought a good deal of the time. It is true that I suffer greatly from my opinions and my judgments, my dislikes, and my lusts. It is true. Each of us must acknowledge that truth. It isn’t just the thinking about it; we must feel it. That’s what meditation is about. Meditation cuts through the cascade of thoughts and feelings that distract us from the present moment. Thinking distracts us from the present moment, where life actually happens, the only time life happens and always has. It distracts us from the tree of life. We are all inheritors of both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We, who are the inheritors of the curse of the fall from the garden, must wake up and realize that it is literally true that we can re-establish heaven-on-earth.
life seriously, take awakening seriously. In our ordinary daily life,
every time we bring attention mindfully to this very moment and what
it is we feel in this moment, and the constant blah, blah, blah in the
mind—every time that occurs—we have moved in the direction
of becoming free. There is the possibility of rediscovering true self,
natural self. It is usually a slow, prodding process, and a process
that requires commitment, hard work, and dedication. There is no other
way that I know of. Rarely does someone awaken spontaneously. Most often,
it happens gradually, with learning to train attention into this “Now”,
the zero point, where there is no “you” story, there is
no “you and me”. There is only the totality of it all. Take
your place in the great vastness of life, true aliveness, the openness