Are "Ghosts" the Survival of the Ego?
Recently I had a conversation with my very good friend whom, unfortunately, I see only rarely since we both changed jobs. I worked closely with this fellow for four years, and from the very early days of our collaboration it was clear that we were following parallel spiritual paths. He is a voracious reader, and in imitation of the Gita I would say that he has taken the path of the scholar. I myself read more selectively, and would describe myself as one who follows the path of loving worship, turning to sages only for sufficient guidance to keep me from wandering off the path entirely.
The topic of fear came up in our discussion, and I expressed my view that the antidote to fear was trusting surrender to God’s will. The phrase “Thy will be done” has had great power for me in my efforts to avoid being controlled by fear. After all, if God is Love, and Love pervades the Universe – if the Universe is made of God-stuff which is Love – what can there be to fear? There is no need to be concerned with outcomes at all if all outcomes are the operation of Love. Love can choose better outcomes for us than we can ever choose for ourselves.
In particular, I mentioned that I did not fear death. This surprised my friend, who said he still was afraid of dying. This led to a discussion of the fate of the soul and personality after death, on which we also expressed disparate beliefs which on later reflection I found paradoxical. My friend, who said he was afraid of death, also could not accept the idea that the personality does not survive the death of the body as a separate entity. I, who professed no fear of death, took the view that if the personality does survive, it is only as a generalized awareness within the unified Oneness that is the Universal spirit, the spirit of Universal Love – in short, God. Since the apparent inconsistencies did not strike me until after we had again gone our separate ways, I didn’t have the opportunity to ask my friend why he finds death frightening, since he believes in the survival of the individual personality. I am sure it is not because he identifies the body as the self. As for me, my indifference to the loss of the personality along with the body may be attributable to my sense that Oneness is the true state of all souls now, and that physical death simply removes one barrier to full awareness of this truth.
There is a lot of popular interest in the afterlife these days, as evidenced by television shows (television being the medium as well as the mirror of our culture) dealing with the subject. I am thinking in particular of shows such as Medium and Ghost Whisperer, both of which I confess I follow ardently. In these shows, individual personalities linger on after the death of the body, for a variety of reasons. Generally the reasons have to do with some unfinished business of the individual who died. The departed spirit is hung up, like a floating log on a snag in a river, on some problem that was not resolved during life and now must be dealt with before the spirit can move on “into the light”. What is puzzling to me is why – aside from the scriptwriter’s need to concoct a story that will hold the public’s attention – these spirits should so often seem to be obsessed with negative feelings and desires. If the soul is the part of the individual that survives death, and the soul is the essence of Universal Love manifested in the body, I would expect them to act only in loving ways. So the basic premise of these shows (and the popular beliefs that they reflect) does not fit comfortably into my belief system.
Of course there are many people who don’t believe in “ghosts”. It does not trouble me very much that there is little or no scientific evidence for the existence of spirits separate from their bodies. I personally don’t believe that science explains very much that is important. Science is a good way of understanding the physical world, but not at all well adapted to the study of spirituality. So, on the subject of ghosts I have something of an open mind. However, I do have a thought about how “ghosts” might fit into my cosmology.
I believe that the soul, the animating energy of life that is part of the pattern of loving energy that underlies the Universe, is distinct from ego. I see ego as the natural outgrowth of the physical body and its sentient brain. Ego appeared once the brain was able to formulate ideas that did not have observable physical representations. This enabled the brain to develop self-awareness. Ego, the “I” that is separate from all other individuals, is the ultimate refinement of the animal’s instinct for survival. Ego puts itself above all others. As such the ego is the repository of all those negative energies that serve to separate individuals from each other and from Spirit – fear, hatred, envy, greed, and the like. Mind is very often the tool of the ego. The mind is also capable of noble thoughts, of course, and insofar as it embraces and expresses Love it is in harmony with the soul that is the true Self. However, ego is by its nature antagonistic to the soul as it is to other egos; it must emphasize separation – and its own superiority to any others – above all else as a means of self-preservation. Only the soul craves Oneness. Ego constantly tries to wrest control of the body and mind from the soul, in order to aggrandize itself and to put down others, and in most cases in the present state of humanity, it succeeds. Ego, not soul, then, is often the dominant energy pattern manifested in the body.
The soul survives the death of the physical body; is it impossible that this egoic energy pattern should also survive, at least temporarily? If that is the case, might not a “ghost” be the lingering energy pattern of the deceased’s personality, rather than a manifestation of the soul? The image is reminiscent of the faint glow on a cathode ray tube immediately after it is turned off, which shows a “ghost” of the last picture to be projected onto the screen. This could explain why personality “ghosts” appear to exhibit primarily negative energies. They are the continuation of the egoic energy pattern rather than of the loving energy of the soul. The death of the physical body, in this interpretation, liberates not one but two energy patterns: that of the soul and that of the ego. The soul was never separate from God and so might merge immediately into the energy of the Universe. The ego, having nowhere to seek refuge after the demise of the body, lingers and continues its self-centered behavior – perhaps intensified by the absence of the tempering influence of the soul. Ultimately the ego must “go into the light.” However, this is not passing into an eternal afterlife, but the final dissipation of the ego’s energy pattern into the entropy of the physical universe. Born of the physical body, ego cannot pass beyond the limitations of the physical. Only the soul survives, and it only as a pattern of awareness within the greater energy of Spirit.
This is, of course, pure speculation. But it may harmonize some widely-held beliefs. I welcome any comments.