Spiritual Practice part E
Intro to the Ego.
Dear Reader. This chapter is about the ego, which includes that part of us that is busy with mental activity. There are some 2700 words in this chapter, and if we allow ourselves to read even half of it without pause,
this will be quite sufficient mental busy-ness to keep us in our ego,
no matter how quiet we might have been before we started reading.
And the whole purpose of this website is to help us transcend the world of ego.
So let us be attentive to this dynamic, and not get driven nor enticed into reading non stop,
no matter how compelling the need might seem to …
“know what comes next.” Let us be compassionate to ourselves,
and pause frequently, to rest and digest …
Best wishes from Mike.
E 1. Introduction to Ego.
E 2. Purpose of Ego
E 3. Allowing Ego to Step Down
E 4. How Ego Interferes with Healing
E 5. The Ego as a Problem
E 6. Letting Go of Ego
E 7. Not Me, Not Mine
E 8. The Ego and Selfishness
E 9. The Ego from Psychology.
E 10. The Ego and the Inner Child, from Shakti Gawain.
E 1. Introduction to the Ego
Letting go of the ego, and rising above and transcending the world of the ego, is given prominence in both Vedic and Buddhist philosophy.
The terms ātma and param ātma often occur in our Kirtans. This can mean our higher self. Param means higher or fully stablished. Our higher self is that part of us which experiences the spiritual Qualities of peace, clarity, good will, inspiration and many more.
So we could call our lower self the ego. The usual sense of self, mostly from thinking, especially opinions, judgement. And our sense of ownership of possessions, pursuits and relationships to people (including ourselves)
Unfortunately, the people, possessions and pursuits in our lives are not always satisfying, and sometimes can be quite disappointing or even depressing or frustrating. And the thoughts that go thru our minds are not always entirely happy. The underlying painful feelings can be quite disruptive to our peace and enjoyment.
Thus the ego, our normal sense of self, is not always happy. Quite the opposite at times. So suffering or dissatisfaction is commonplace for the ego, and the ego adapts to suffering, gets “used to it”, and even denies and conceals it. The ego will head towards harmful addictions and addictive behaviour, such as compulsive thinking, which only sabotages our healing. When pain is active, the ego reacts in rigid, irrational distress patterns, that are part of the problem and not the solution. When we are in our ego, all too often we find ourselves justifying our defilements and fuelling them. The pain is escalating …
Buddhism has an important principle called anatta = not me, not mine. When we apply this principle to the sense of self and who we really are, then the ego comes under question. We can reflect - is my ego really my True Nature? What happens when I identify with my ego, when I think that I am the thinker? Does this help me let go of unnecessary and unhelpful thought? Does it aggravate stinking thinking?
On the other hand, what happens when we consciously and purposefully let go of the ego, let go of that which belongs to ego? We can reflect - is ego stuff really me, and something to identify with and be attached to?
But what is the ego? The dictionary defines ego in terms of selfishness, self centeredness and sense of self, usually excessively so. Psychology has yet a different definition, when they analyse personality into the ego, the super ego and the id.
But what do I mean by ego? How do I define ego?
E 2. The Purpose of the Ego.
The ego is the norm. So it’s what we normally rely on in the social situation to assert ourselves, especially at work. We normally rely on our ego to communicate and contribute, and to provide leadership, especially in conversation.
More importantly, we usually need our ego to establish our position, absolutely essential for most jobs, especially in personal contact and influencing – ie for many jobs in Australia. At times, we may need to assert our view point or knowledge, defend our views and actions, push for the outcome we need, protect that which is important and might be at risk.
At times the social setting does not feel entirely safe and we are not entirely at ease, and sometimes it is definitely unsafe. Fear is expected to arise, and along with many other defilements, all bent on dragging us down into suffering. Then we will certainly rely on our ego.
Just running away, or being downtrodden, or marginalised, dispossessed or depressed will only make things worse. Sometimes we need to “fight back” - it’s the best we can do in an imperfect world.
So it is unhelpful to perceive the ego as something we need to dismantle or get rid of. It is certainly not something to fight against or try to destroy. If we try to fight our own ego, try to destroy it, we will only aggravate the conflict and disturb the peace.
The tactic in spiritual practice is to leave the ego alone and set it aside, when we are able to do this.
E 3. Allowing the Ego to Step Down
But when we are being audience, we can hear a performance or listen to someone speaking. If the speech is agreeable, then the audience has no need to contribute. In fact, common sense tells people that this is a prepared talk not conversation, and any “contributions” will only disrupt the meeting, and detract from the speech. The ego can take a rest, and this is actually quite healing.
If it’s a Dharma talk, we go one step further. For the purpose of the talk is not primarily to provide people with information that they need to somehow remember and fit into their existing knowledge. If the Dharma talk succeeds, then it will point to that which is beyond thought. To the process of releasing of pain and tension, to let the light of healing shine into the darkness, and to rise up to our full potential as enlightened human beings.
For the Dharma talk to succeed like this, it needs to be free from egoic barbs, that can poke the ego and push people’s buttons. This is a major reason why these Dharma talks are so time consuming to prepare. I need to write it in full beforehand, so I can have all the words carefully chosen. I also need to go thru them a second time and try to remove all such egoic barbs.
But my talks will never be perfect. Inevitably, there will be a few things remaining that poke and stimulate the ego. When this happens, the ego asserts that it needs to disagree with the Dharma speech and speaker, and thus put the person on the exit route. If we are not conscious of the process, yet another person will be pushed out of the group, and be unable to attend and benefit from these sessions.
So there is an art to listening to Dharma. If this is at all possible, try to neither agree nor disagree to what you hear. Remember, the speaker might make a mistake and utter the wrong words, or omit the right words.
Try to always look for that which is helpful to you, or might be helpful to you for your own healing, self care and self renewal. Some necessary adaption might be needed, and you can do these adaptions later, in your own privacy.
Remember that I have always been a solitary being : that is my temperament. For people with an outgoing temperament, some adaption is needed.
If a particular section of the talk is really for other people, for example more for men than women, then it can be set aside.
The Dharma talk is opportunity to set the ego aside, and let it have a rest, or go on holiday.
E 4. How the Ego Interferes with Healing.
Sometimes in social interaction we poke each other’s ego, often unintentionally. Usually we are trying to build friendship or business relations, trying to strengthen co-operation. When this happens, our ego is suddenly thrown into a difficult balancing act, where the urge to push back at the other person conflicts with the need to stay together in the relationship. To do this, the ego needs to suppress the hurtful feelings, and try to pretend everything is OK.
This is a damage control tactic, quite necessary at times in the hurly burly of life.
But it can easily aggravate the habit of suppressing hurtful feelings. So the ego needs to be set aside for the process of healing and release of pain to commence.
This is one reason why the ego, and its false thought driven self, is one of greatest obstacles to spiritual enlightenment.
It also is the root of conflict and all the defilements related to conflict, for defensiveness can easily deteriorate into offensiveness.
No matter how important the ego is in our efforts to deal with the outside world, it is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual enlightenment. All our carefully constructed defences actually prevent us from being free in the truest sense.
So Eckhart Tolle has much to say about the problems that the ego causes us : identifying with views, the need to be “right”, blaming or accusing others, drowning out beautiful silence with mental noise.
When we gain insight into the Buddhist principle of anatta or “no self”, then we can see the obstacles that the ego causes. The ego might be an important part of our life, but it is no more our True Nature than all our well formed views that seem so important to us.
E 5. The Ego as a Problem
So how else do I define the ego?
- Ego is about the need to be right, the need to agree or disagree, the need to assert oneself in the social situation. Or the need to control others. The need to be the center of attention..
- The ego anticipates conflict, prepares for it and therefore contributes to it. For the ego, the other person is always to blame, for the ego cannot take responsibility for its own actions.
- Ego is about mental busy-ness, clutter and chatter. Ego is the false sense of self created by compulsive thinking. The ego convinces us that we should “watch the TV” in our non work time, and screen dependence greatly strengthens the ego.
- Ego dwells on the past and worries about the future.
- The ego is our greatest obstacle to spiritual liberation. All our elaborately constructed defences actually prevent us from being truly free.
E 6. Letting Go of our Ego.
To enter the enlightened state, the ego needs to dissolve, to have a break and go on holiday. We need to stop trying to control, we need to let go. And this is the last thing the ego wants to do, or even can do. It fears that it might lose its ability to control.
To approach the enlightened state in daily life, we need to repeatedly let go of and stop energising mental activity, opinionation, fears. When this deteriorates into a battle against unnecessary thought, then we are actually moving away from freedom. The emphasis needs to be to let go of noise, not to fight it.
We need to open the doors and trust to have true friends, we need to tolerate and forgive. And we need the wisdom to know when to trust, tolerate, share and support. We need to remember we are mortal beings, with finite reserves of energy, stability, tolerance and forgiveness, and physical endurance.
The ego is not the enemy of the spiritual path, and there is no point in trying to fight it or destroy it.
E 7. Not Me, Not Mine.
Buddhism describes both mind and body as not me, not mine, as being “devoid of self”. And Buddhism does not refer to something else as being self.
This Buddhist doctrine of no self or anatta is easily misunderstood to mean that the self does not exist, in the ultimate or transcendental sense.
This would be like saying that the ego does not exist, and the ego wants to remain hidden. For as long as we ignore the ego, we ignore its antics of anticipating conflict and separation, preparing for conflict and separation and thus contributing to it.
Indeed, one of the important strategies in spiritual practice is to wake up to the antics of one’s own ego. For this reason, Buddhism refers to the one who is enlightened as “the Awakened One.”
To think that one can stay awake perpetually would be like thinking one could go without nightly sleep. So Buddhism refers to something called “vigilance,” where we repeatedly check our tendency to identify with the ego and its unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts. Each time we do so, we “wake up”. For this reason, one aspect of Buddhist meditation practice is to try to continue to meditate when drowsy. The urge to sleep can become quite compelling, and much stamina can be developed by not yielding to it.
This does not advocate sleep deprivation. There is no point in getting run down and tired. Good health is vital.
For vigilance to succeed, we need to train the mind to let go of unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts. In this, we -
- resolve to stay with the meditation object, and when our attention strays, to
- resolve to awaken to this as soon as possible and let go of the thought train, no matter how important it might seem to be.
This skill, the heart of Buddhist meditation, enables us to develop some objectivity to our own thoughts. No longer do we have to actually believe in every thought that goes thru our head. We can have some choice, to choose to encourage good thoughts, and choose to let go of bad thoughts that bring us pain.
This objectivity towards thoughts is then extended to attitudes, beliefs, values, habits. This helps us to grow towards a more positive outlook on life, allowing us to leave behind attitudes, beliefs, values, habits that we no longer need to keep.
The sense of self is usually strongest in relation to thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, values, habits. Indeed, this is usually the stuff of religion, including long treatises like this one. Lots of thought here!!
But my writing points to that which is beyond thought. So long as this stuff remains mere opinion, it cannot liberate us from suffering as I use the word.
So this principle of not me, not mine takes much practice to apply. The ego is quite seductive, with its well thought out and well presented views and opinions. The practise of vigilance is essentially recognising thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, values, habits as not me, not mine. That we have a choice.
So Eckhart Tolle has much to say about identifying with thoughts, energising them and giving them control. When we return to the Now, we are actually letting go of thought, for thought always takes us away from the reality of the Here and Now. For this reason, Eckhart entitles his first (and enormously successful) book “The Power of Now.”
On its back cover is a quote “... we need to leave our analytical mind and its false created self, the ego, behind. We then move rapidly to a significantly higher altitude where we breathe a lighter air. We become connected to the indestructible essence of our Being.”
So the Buddhist doctrine of no self is not something to believe in, to somehow prove you are a real Buddhist (whatever that might be).
It is a principle to help us let go of the unhelpful and unnecessary. Is this really me or mine? Do I really need to identify with it and energise it anymore?
E 8. The Ego and Selfishness.
The dictionary defines the word “ego” in terms of selfishness, self centredness and sense of self; usually excessively so. Where our upbringing as children was good, we were taught to be unselfish and this is a common theme in storey telling including storeys for adults in books and movies.
We are taught to be “considerate” of others, and this is essential for smooth and easy relations between people at work and with neighbours at home. We are taught to help others, and this is important for building friendship which is needed to soften the isolation of the modern self contained home and the crowds of the big cities.
So we are already familiar with the problems of too much ego. The spiritual practice of restoring the enlightened state involves taking this process to its fullest development.
E 9. The Ego from Psychology.
If you Google the word “ego”, you are likely to get a very different definition from mainstream Psychology. Psychology psycho-analyses the personality into three categories, based on the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud, a century ago.
- the “id” (or it) or the child, full of impulsive selfish desire, and often rebelling against (parental) authority,
- the “superego” or parent, that needs to restrain the impulsive id, and get society’s rules obeyed, especially related to sex and eating, and
- the “ego”, or adult.
If one person takes the role of the dominant superego, and the other person submits and remains in their id, then there is instruction and learning, and conflict is avoided.
But if the other person also responds from their superego, and refuses to submit, then communication and co-operation ceases.
If both parties act from their ego, then neither is seeking dominance, and communication and co-operation is possible.
Thus, according to psychology, the ego is the solution, for both parties can negotiate an agreement.
This model comes from studies of animal behaviour, ruled by the struggle to get food, sex, territory and dominance. The animal side of human nature is very deep, and the animal behaviourists can shed useful light onto our understanding.
E 10. The Inner Child from Shakti Gawain.
Shakti Gawain studied psychology in her teens in USA, then trained in spiritual practice in India, for several years, in the 1970’s. She adapts this mainstream model into a new form that I find very useful. I in turn have adapted her model into the following.
The inner child (not named the id) is that part of us that is creative, playful, intuitive, and magical. It is that part of us that knows the real emotional need, and also that part of us that hurts when we are exposed to harsh treatment from other people.
The adult or ego is that part of us that is intellectual. It is also cut off from the true emotional need, being caught up “in the head,” and divorced from the “heart.” It creates mental noise that drowns out the more subtle feelings, especially of hurt. It is dismissive and derisive of majic, and has much trouble in contacting wonder, creativity and delight. In men, it can be quite hardened.
The parent (not named the super ego) is that part of us that will protect the inner child, go to and stay with the little one when he or she is troubled by the fears of small children, supporting, and reassuring, until the pain has dissipated. Protecting the inner child from the tyranny of pain filled and pain driven thought, and disallowing such noise from the mind. Feeling the pain, and not thinking about it. Not being frightened by painful feelings. Being compassionate to our own pain.
Thus, in my model, the ego is part of the problem, and the inner child protective parent are part of the solution. It is a model I formed to suit my own experience.