In the West the concept of enlightenment always seems to go hand in hand with a little joke about being a Buddha on a lotus flower. Totally zenned out without a care in the world. No reactions, no needs, just love embodied. Buddha is like the ultimate chill guy. Unfortunately most of us will not likely achieve that state in this lifetime, nor are we meant to I think...I once heard someone say "spiritual people don't eat shrimp". Uh...what? There are all kinds of misconceptions about what "spiritual" people should and shouldn't be doing, feeling, thinking, etc...
It's easy to feel judgmental and jaded when we hear of a respected spiritual leader or mentor committing some sort of minor or major transgression (fill in the blank here with the thing you couldn't imagine someone spiritual doing) .
We think, "why would someone spiritual do that...maybe they're not so spiritual after all." Sure, they could be a slick snake-oil salesman: someone playing the role of a spiritual person who in actuality is more concerned with feeding their own egoic desire. But in many cases the person could just be like the rest of us; blown about occasionally by the whims of their ego at a given moment.
Aaron and I have learned that personality (or ego) development and spiritual (or soul/spirit) development are not necessarily mutually exclusive. When we share this with people this it makes intuitive sense to most (as it did when it was taught to us). However, facing the truth of that lesson can be a hard pill to swallow.
Wake Up Calls
We expect those whom we deem to be "spiritually evolved" to have moved past the whims of the ego, but in my experience this is very very difficult, and simply not the case.
We could say true spiritual wisdom is attributed to the amount of love, understanding and truth, someone is able to house in their consciousness. This means that the person can access higher values if they can step out of their individualized egoic point of view and see a bigger picture and their role in that picture. In actuality we all have that capability to varying degrees, some people's capability is just buried under slower thought vibrations than others.
Moreover just because we have this capability doesn't mean that we will always choose to work from that elevated place all the time. It's hard work, and our ego responses are often second nature and feed our immediate desire more quickly.
Light (or wisdom, clarity, truth, etc) must be recognized and roused, usually by someone else either directly (spiritual teacher) or indirectly (written or orated spiritual wisdom). We need someone to flip the light on (or turn up the dimmer switch), which compels us to "wake up". But some stubborn souls may choose to turn it back off and go back to sleep.
The Function of the Ego
The personality or ego exists as a mechanism for us to use to get through life as a human being, but does not comprise the totality of us as entities. This is what the phrase, "we are spiritual beings living a human existence" refers to.
In that sense we need the personality on one level because it allows us to get things done in the world. If everyone on the planet were egoless we wouldn't need an ego, but that's not the case. What better thing is their in life to teach the hard lessens of life than an ego, this is what is meant by "we are our own best teachers".
For those who are actively seeking to "be spiritual" it's very important to do the work of the personality and ego, which means recognizing the way your ego functions.
Personally I do this work by using systems like the Enneagram which help me to "name the beast" so to speak and understand my core personality motivations. Then when the impulses of my ego arise I can stop and say, "hey, I'm doing that thing again" and while I may still make the choice to do the thing, I'm at least conscious of its presence. A such, there's a moment of stillness before egoic reaction. This is the act of making the unconscious, conscious.
All egos are scared of death, and they function to prevent death (both literally and figuratively) in a multitude of clever ways.
Buddha (and every other spiritual master) was trying to teach the lessons of dis-identifying from the ego. Before you can even access the wisdom of your spiritual self there must be room for the light to shine through. If our ego is like a shadow we should work to be mindful of when it's blocking out the light. We must realize the shadow is not us, we are that which notices we're in the dark. Some people go through life and never turn the light on...and thats okay too, they just may spend more time bumping into the rest of us.
Your Inner 14 Year Old
Many who study psychology or work with people on personal issues have discovered that different aspects of the human psyche may be at varying levels of maturity within the same psychic structure.
This means your approach to work and money may be age appropriate, but your approach to relationships may be stuck as a dramatic 14 year old, when in actuality you're a 35 year old grown up. It is much the same way with spiritual understanding and wisdom. You may be psychologically quite integrated in a variety of areas, but lack a certain level of spiritual understanding or openness, or vice versa. Incidentally I've met very few, if any people, who have integrated all aspects of their spiritual and psychological selves, it's a work in progress for most people on the planet.
Some people seem born into this world with a vast store of psychological resources, and despite things that happen to them they may be able to integrate their experiences and maintain a relatively healthy psychological existence.
They may however deny the existence of the mysteries of life, unable to tap into a sense of something larger and thus feel a sense of emptiness, doubt or hopelessness about their own spiritual existence. Or conversely they may look to others to tell them what to believe spiritually without taking the time to explore the issues on their own. Afraid of exploring that aspect of the unknown.
Conversely some people come into this world with a seemingly ingrained spiritual or intuitive wisdom and at various points can radiate that outwards to others in profound and meaningful ways but may have some deep shortcomings in integrating psychological understanding or fostering self-reflection.
They may be reactive, angry, pensive, depressive, grandiose or selfish, but at moments reflect out an immense sense of light and wisdom that others wish were better tempered by a healthy ego structure. That light is the light of their spirit, and the other aspects parts of an unintegrated personality structure.
Recognizing that ones soul or spirit may be quite evolved but aspects of their personality not well integrated can depersonalize undesirable behavior that may seem contradictory or uncomfortable. But more importantly It allows human beings to be human.