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Ego, a friend of mine likes to say, is the devil. She talks about ego the way fundamentalists talk about sin, and she blames it for all the qualities she dislikes in herself—envy, the burning need to get credit for every favor she does, and the fear that her boyfriend doesn’t love her as much as he loved his ex. But no matter how hard she fights it, with long hours of meditation or purifying diets, it stubbornly refuses to disappear. And she has begun to see that fighting the ego is like trying to outrun her own shadow—the more she tries to escape it, the more it sticks to her.
It’s a paradox yogis have been grappling with for eons: The ego, which loves any form of self-improvement, is especially eager to take on projects for getting rid of itself. It will earnestly set itself up to get bashed, and then pop up like a piece of half-toasted bread, as if to say, “Look at me, haven’t I practically disappeared?”
In fact, a really sophisticated ego is a master at disguising itself. It may show up as your feeling of injustice or as the smooth voice of yogic detachment telling you there’s no point in indulging a friend’s emotional neediness. The ego can even pretend it’s the inner witness and watch itself endlessly while smugly congratulating itself on having escaped its own traps.
All these tricks make it challenging to address what you may think is your ego problem. Moreover, from the ultimate point of view, the ego doesn’t actually exist. Buddhist and Vedantic teachers are fond of saying that the ego is like the blue of the sky, or the apparent puddle in the middle of a desert-dry highway. It’s an optical illusion, a simple mistake in the way we identify ourselves. That’s why fighting your ego is like boxing with your reflection in the mirror, or trying to rid yourself of something you don’t have. Now that neurobiologists seem to have reduced the sense of I-ness to a couple of brain chemicals, the ego looks more than ever to be a kind of involuntary mechanism, something beyond our personal control, just like the reflex that makes us go on breathing when we sleep.
But even though the ego may ultimately be illusory, in the world of our daily lives it performs important functions. The yogic texts define ego somewhat differently than Western psychology does, but they agree with Western psychologists that one of the ego’s tasks is to keep our boundaries as individuals. In Sanskrit, the word for ego is ahamkara, which means “the I maker.” Ego differentiates among the mass of sensations that come your way and tells you that a particular experience belongs to the energy bundle you call “me.” When a truck comes hurtling down the street, ego tells you that it’s “you” who should get out of the way. Ego also collects your experiences, like the time you stood up in fifth-grade assembly to sing a solo of “A Very Precious Love” and got booed. Then, the ego will compare a current moment to what happened in the past, so the next time you’re tempted to sing a love song in front of a bunch of 10-year-olds, something will tell you to forget it. This is ego’s most basic job.
Unfortunately, ego likes to extend its portfolio. Its memory function, for example, can grab on to bad experiences and turn them into a negative feedback loop—so painful memories get lodged inside you and become crippling blocks in your body and brain. That’s part of the downside of ego: the ego as “false identification.”
Fighting Your False Identity and Coping with Ego
Cindy, a student of mine who works in a brokerage house, has been reeling in the realm of false identification. Surrounded by highly competitive men and women with M.B.A.s from Stanford and Wharton, she feels as if she’s in a daily dogfight, and losing. Her colleagues steal her clients, take credit for her successes, and bad-mouth her to superiors. Every day she feels more discouraged and deflated. Since Cindy’s ego identifies itself as a yogi and a nice girl, it tells her that she’s not supposed to fight for anything so ephemeral as success.
But this is her career, after all. So she feels doubly angry with herself—angry because she’s failing at her job as well as angry because she resents the people who are doing well. To make it worse, she intuits that she has as bad an ego problem as her colleagues. Their egos are inflated and sharky, while hers is deflated and timid. (Even in her deflated state, though, she still feels morally superior to them, a sure sign that there’s some inflation going on!) The point is that all of them are being driven by identification with a false self. And Cindy, like the rest of us, would be a lot happier if she could get some distance from it.
This aspect of ego—in the Yoga Sutra, it is called asmita—is the one that gets a bad rap. Asmita is the little gremlin that grabs on to every thought, opinion, feeling, and action that swims into consciousness and identifies it as “me” and “mine.” Years ago, near Santa Cruz, California, a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang started a fight with a tourist that turned into a melee. Asked what had happened to trigger his wrath, the biker declared, “He touched my bike. Man, you touch my bike, you touch me.” This may seem like an extreme example of what the yogic texts call identifying the self with its limiting adjuncts, but it’s not so different from what we so-called rational people do.
You may not be totally identified with your bike or car, but you certainly identify with your thoughts and opinions and feelings, not to mention your job description and various social roles. Your ego may be invested in what you know, or in your politics, your social skills, your coolness. As long as that’s the case, you’re bound to rise and fall with the tides of the day, bounced around by who you think you are.
Ego Breakdown: Expanding Your Sense of Self
It is this tendency to identify with our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and the world that creates the problem of ego. If we could let thoughts and feelings pass through us, we wouldn’t get insulted, or nurse hurt feelings, or worry about whether we were smart enough or worthy enough. In short, we wouldn’t spend our time riding the emotional seesaw that’s the backdrop of most people’s days.
Recently I spent several days monitoring this pattern, and I was fascinated to see how much of my inner life is a ride on that seesaw. I’d wake up after an expansive dream and feel good about myself. I’d open my email and read a critical message and feel deflated. Then I’d get a great idea for a class I was preparing and feel inspired. While reading the news, I’d feel consumed with worry about the world situation and with guilt because I’m not doing enough to heal it. Then a student would tell me how much I’d helped her and I’d feel worthy. As long as my sense of being is identified with what the yogic texts call the limited self, or false self, I’m going to go up and down.
Years of spiritual practice and a habit of identifying with the witness have taken the fangs (so to speak) out of my ego, so that I can skate over ups and downs much more easily than I did when I was, say, 25. But in those moments that I identify myself as this limited person—the one with the freckles and the banged-up knee and the personal memories—I’m subject to the natural expansion and contraction of the ego, and to the uneasiness that naturally goes along with it.
One of the best antidotes to this tendency is to practice expanding our sense of self by including others in our personal territory. Many of the yogic and Buddhist attitudinal practices—such as wishing for other people’s happiness, or the powerful practice of tonglen, giving and receiving, in which you breathe in the pain of others and breathe back to them happiness and good fortune—are really techniques for expanding the circle of selfhood. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some friends and I sat together, visualizing the scenes of devastation we had seen on television, and then breathing in with the feeling that we were taking in the fear and discomfort, the hunger and despair of the people who had lost everything. On the exhalation, we would imagine light and warmth flowing from us to them.
The sense of trying to do something for an abstract group of “others” in the New Orleans Superdome gave way to a sense of shared consciousness, and we felt how deeply linked each human soul is to all others. This practice can melt—at least temporarily—the feeling of separateness from others. And this is the beginning of freedom from the isolation and fear that ego fosters.
Enlarging Your Ego: Revamp Your Inner Self
My guru, Swami Muktananda, used to say that our real ego problem is that our egos aren’t big enough. He said that we identify with our limited self when what we should really identify with is the pure awareness, power, and love that live at the heart of everything. A young actor once said to him, “I feel guilty because I always want to be special.” Muktananda replied, “You are special.” Then, as the actor smiled in pleasure, Muktananda added, “Everybody’s special. Everybody is God.”
That might seem like a big conceptual bite. But it makes more sense if you understand that when teachers like Muktananda talk about God, they don’t mean the god of the monotheistic religions, or any personal deity. Muktananda used the word God to signify the great field of awareness and joy that he experienced as the underpinning of everything. Moreover, saying that you are the vastness is also a way of saying that your personal self is not necessarily something that you should get caught up in. As far as he was concerned, there was little point in trying to fight the ego. Instead, he taught us to enlarge the way we identified it, to connect with the All instead of with the particular.
A truly healthy ego, in his terms, would be one that did its job of creating necessary boundaries and kept us functioning as individuals. But rather than seeing itself as bounded by the personality, or identifying with its thoughts and opinions, this ego would know the real secret—that the “me” who calls itself Jane or Charlie is just the tip of the iceberg of something loving and free that is living as “me.” All that is. Greater than the greatest. Higher than the highest. And, simultaneously, it would see that it is nothing at all. In other words, a healthy ego wouldn’t get caught up in attaching its identity to every day’s small gains and losses. It would know, like Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes.
Yet getting from here to there—from identifying yourself as Jane to identifying yourself as pure presence and love—is a tall order. So the yogic traditions offer a middle step—the practice of the ego as pure “I am.” This is not “I am somebody” or “I am tired” but a pure “I am” without any accompanying self-definition. The bridge between the limited ego and the expanded self is the recognition that behind everything we attach to our ego, is simple awareness.
The ego of pure “I am”-ness experiences existence and knows that it is having that experience. It knows that it lives and functions in our bodies, yet is free from the need to become anything. As we access that state, it’s possible to sense the deeper presence that breathes through the body and thinks through the mind. When we’re in touch with the pure “I am” ego, it isn’t hard to recognize that this same “I am” links us to all others, no matter how different they may seem in personality or politics or culture from ourselves.
For many, the awareness of “I am” is most easily glimpsed in quiet moments. Sometimes it pops out during Savasana (Corpse Pose), or meditation, or during a walk in the woods, a wordless experience of being that some teachers call Presence. Often, though, it’s so simple we take it for granted. The “I am” experience is natural. It’s our basic sense of aliveness, of being. The feeling of “I am” is the most basic you, the you that doesn’t change along with your body, your emotions, and your opinions. If you stay in touch with it, you should find that it naturally stabilizes you. You begin to feel present and very much at peace. You can cultivate this experience by practicing “I am” meditation.
Cindy, my brokerage house student with the deflated-ego problem, began doing this practice in the summer. As she got more comfortable with it, she found she could tap into the “I am” space at different times during the day. In the fall, her firm took a major beating when some of the executives were accused of insider trading. Cindy says that for the first time in her life, she wasn’t fazed by the panic that ran through the office. Instead, she found herself acting with a calm her rivals couldn’t muster. “There are days when my trades are magic,” she says. “I’m in a zone of total clarity. I can’t claim it’s an egoless state. It’s more that I’ve found the off button for my fear of doing the wrong thing. As ‘I’m Cindy,’ I can get perfectionistic and overcautious. As ‘I am,’ I feel something bigger that acts through me.”
When ego loosens its hold—even a little—the sense of freedom is exponential.