Befriending the Ego
By Jo Leonard
It all started one fateful day when a nun, head of the drama department in the all girls' school I attended, told me I had a nice face. Her own face quickly flushed and her hands flew about in the air as if to bat away the words she had just spoken. "I shouldn't have said that," she stammered. "It may cause you to be vain."
Vanity. There it was, the cornerstone upon which I built, at least in part, my search for the Divine. In any new spiritual teaching I approached, I quickly sought out information on how to deal with my ego, the home of vanity. I was convinced that if I was vain, I would not know God. And I wanted to know God, I wanted it badly.
There's some biblical advice about cutting off your hand or plucking your eye out if they offend you. (I'm sure they were speaking metaphorically, weren't they?) Anyway, I never had the inclination to cut or poke at any of my body parts with the exception of my ego. I was willing to burn it at the stake, bore it out with a router, or smash it to smithereens with a sledgehammer—anything to escape its control and incessant needs. My ego separated me from the rest of life; it often made me needy and painfully unhappy.
I do not have my PhD in Ego Studies, if there is such a thing. I am a simple God-seeker. I can only share my knowledge of the ego based upon my own ego-vigilant experiences and a minimum amount of often contradictory book learning.
It has been written that the ego is innate and located (perhaps) in the mid-brain. It is said to define your sense of identity and personality. In a baby, it has been noted that there is no sense of anything apart from itself. As the child grows and discovers that it is not the only kid in the show, the competition for recognition and love also grows and the battle for center stage begins. (You might want to note that timidness also arises from the ego so there is no hiding behind the stage curtain thinking you have escaped your ego's clutches. Au contraire, mon petit chou.)
Here are some of the manifestations of the ego that I have observed throughout the years:
- It needs to be known, seen, and heard (great unhappiness ensues when it doesn't get what it wants)
- It appears to be the home of hurt feelings and dark holes
- It can make us feel pathetically small and needy at which point we make squeaky little sounds
- It can make us feel falsely puffed up and then we emanate noises like a rooster in a barnyard
- It is that which keeps us apart from others
- It prevents us from learning (how can someone who knows everything, learn anything?)
- It makes us fear loss (fear is such a crippler)
- It keeps us from being free, from being innocence and love
With all that bad stuff going on, isn't it time to eradicate the ego once and for all? Actually, eradication isn't exactly possible. Furthermore, in my sunset years, I've learned that the ego also has some positive characteristics and I'm learning to let it do its positive things. My ego often motivates me in my human state of consciousness to get up in the morning, brush my teeth, and put on clean clothes. It provides my embodied self with a sense of responsibility toward work and family life. It can fill me with aspirations and the discipline to obtain those dreams.
When my ego begins to sabotage me with self-doubt, tension, aggressiveness, self-righteousness, shame, hypocrisy, jealousy, suspicion, or greed, I no longer try to wrestle it into submission or slice it up with a sword I can barely lift. I remember and appreciate, not unlike an eye or a hand, that it is useful. I observe it and remind myself that it is not the essential me. I change from an ego-based existence to a soul-based one in the wink of an eye with a few simple techniques; techniques that all begin with the awareness that my ego has become unfriendly.
Awareness in and of itself is often the solution to any problem. You become aware, for example, that your ego has gotten hold of the steering wheel and it loosens its grip in the blazing light of that awareness. How do you become aware? Set an intention each morning: I intend to observe my ego this day. Do it deliberately for however many days it takes to form a spiritual habit of ego-watching. Who's doing the watching, you ask? It's that higher part of your self, your soul self to be precise.
If observation alone does not pour the cooling waters of Spirit on your inflamed ego, here are a few other techniques you might consider trying:
- Silently chant a spiritually charged word such as Aum or HU. (HU is pronounced like the man's name only drawn out: HUUUUUUUU. It is an ancient name for God. In fact, you can chant the more familiar word, God, to yourself if you like.)
- Place an image in your mind's eye—a beautiful rose, someone you love deeply, or a spiritual master. Look at that image inwardly until you are back on smooth waters and the ego is no longer screaming for attention.
To learn to use these techniques with ease, practice shifting your awareness from the mundane (outer life) to the sublime (inner life) several times each day in non-stressful times until you can do it with ease under any circumstance.
The ego can be a good friend, but it is definitely not a good friend when it is out of control and screaming to have its needs met. And it is definitely not who you are. As a faculty of the mind, the ego only knows its own contents, not the true self and its contents. You are no more your ego than you are your eye or your hand. You are soul without limits in what you can know and be. Live accordingly!