The ego has been central to trekking the spiritual path for thousands of years. Look no further than two of the most revered spiritual texts ever written.
The Bhagavad Gitasuggests meditation to help control the mind, just a different word for the ego.
And chapter 10 of the Tao te Chingasks:
“Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?”
Bottom line: The ego is a big deal. What is the ego? It’s the voice in our head that rarely shuts up. It’s our inner critic, not only of us, but of others. The complainer. The bragger. The brooder. The worrier.
In terms of spiritual growth, the ego’s most harmful influence is that it dominates and drowns out our true, conscious selves — the consciousness, soul, spirit, Atman that is our true essence.
Why I’m writing about the ego yet again
I’ve written several times about the ego, so why am I going back to it again? Because so often I hear spiritually minded people voicing their frustrations with their egos. They say things like, “God, I just can’t get my head to shut up! My mind just races and I hate it!”
What this reaction does is identify the ego as an enemy. As something to be opposed. Something to fight against.
Don’t fight with your ego!
The central point of this piece is that the ego is not something to fight against. In fact, fighting with our ego only strengthens it. Fighting, and the drama that goes with it, is the fuel the ego needs to survive and thrive.
Let’s take a quick step back. It could be said that the entirety of the spiritual journey involves only two steps: 1. Becoming aware of the ego and seeing that it is not who we are; and 2. Chipping away, day after day, at that ego with the objective of making it less and less influential in our lives. That’s it.
In a perfect world, we eliminate it altogether so that all that’s left of us is that beautiful, conscious, aware presence. Hardly anybody makes it that far, though Eckhart Tolle has come close.
The bulk of our life’s work
That second step comprises most of our life’s work if we are serious about conscious awakening. Which is precisely why how we deal with our ego is so incredibly important.
So, if we don’t fight with the ego, what do we do? We, our conscious awareness, simply lean away from it and observe it. With no judgment. No “I hate my ego, it’s so annoying!”
Just leaning away and saying, “There it is…Okay.” When the ego rears up in the form of:
-An annoyed feeling from being stopped at a red light or waiting in line at the store.
-The feeling of fury that consumes you after your spouse levels a cheap shot at you.
-Or the feeling of disgust that overcomes you when your least favorite politician appears on your television screen…
In all of these situations, we simply do our best to relax, stay calm, lean away and watch the feeling that has arisen. Don’t jump in and tangle with the feeling. That’s akin to fighting with the ego. Just relax, lean away, watch and let it go.
Watch, then let go
That last paragraph sets out the work of our lives. Just watching, then letting the ego go.
It’s not easy, especially at first. But just as with tennis, piano and learning French, we get better at it the more we do it.
Meditation helps the most
It would be spiritual teaching malpractice not to mention a powerful tool that can help us immeasurably in our dealings with the ego: Meditation. Why does meditation help? Because it teaches us to sit in the seat of awareness and notice when our egos take over, in the form of thoughts.
What do we do when the egoic mind has whisked away our attention during a meditation session? We simply notice that that has happened while not getting mad or frustrated with ourselves. Then we slowly and compassionately return our attention to our breathing or other element we’ve chosen to focus on, like a mantra or a sound.
Meditation, in short, provides us with invaluable practice at non-judgmentally watching our egos and not fighting with them. This then carries over into our daily lives when we notice the ego rearing up.
To recap: Don’t fight with your ego. Do relax, lean away and watch it when it arises.
It’s hard. It takes patience and persistence to work through the frustrations the ego brings on us.
But if there’s anything you take away from this piece, I hope it’s that you realize just how valuable and consequential that work is.