The word ego has changed meaning for me over the years. I never really paid much attention to its deeper meaning in the past. If you check its dictionary definition you will realise that there are different interpretations.
One definition describes it as ‘a false part of our personality constructed in the mind’. Another definition states that ‘it is your idea or opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability’. In psychoanalysis, it is considered ‘the part of a person's mind that tries to match the hidden desires (= wishes) of the id (= part of the unconscious mind) with the demands of the real world. There are so many other definitions. All rather confusing I have to say, but the common factor is that nearly all the definitions have negative connotations.
Even though I assume it is derived from the Greek word which simply means ‘I’, and refers to the self, when we talk about the ego in general we do usually use it negatively. When we think someone is a bit self-centred and more concerned with his own well-being or character or promoting himself usually at someone else’s expense, we often say he or she has a big ego, or he or she is egoistical or he or she is all ego etc. This is obviously not a good trait and not one that anyone should be proud of, although of course egoistical people are obviously not aware of this and consider it a norm. it is not.
So what exactly is the ego in the more spiritual sense? What is it made of? What does it look like? Where is it? Is it in the head? Is that why we say someone is big-headed when they act selfishly?
I remember the SBS group being asked what the ego was. Even though we had just discussed it, it was still difficult to grasp and explain using the right words. It took some time and considerable group effort to come up with different answers.
- The self that is made from the mind. The mind will die; in the same way the self that is created from the mind is an illusion and is temporary.
-The ego is the part we want to ignore that is created by the mind.
-It’s a kind of programming that we use in our lives that we have to be careful of.
I noticed the Ego was always referred to as a destroyer, a destructive force, something that definitely inhibits one’s spiritual path. And I remember asking if ‘it is a baddie’ as it seemed to serve no constructive purpose.
One thing is for sure, this ‘baddie’ does exist and most people allow it to control them making it very difficult for them to see what is important in their short time on this planet and to live a serene life without stress and anger and illusions and destructive or reckless behaviour.
Our discussions brought on further questions. If we were all egoless then would we all be spiritual beings from birth since there would be nothing to inhibit us from seeing the light from the outset? And why were we given egos anyway, if they are such a hindrance?
But there are reasons for its existence: so we can learn to live with it, to learn to discipline ourselves, to control our actions and behaviour, to learn to interact ethically with society and to be giving and generous and grateful, not wanting anything in return for our actions. Maybe it would all be too easy if we did not have an ego that would test us and help us discover our own strengths.
Perhaps the biggest test or achievement which can help us chose the correct spiritual path is to be able to minimise our ego to the point that it can no longer interfere in our spiritual lives, so we can ultimately ignore it and concentrate on all the divine instincts which we should be practicing and applying; simplicity, honesty, gratitude, pure love and all the many other qualities that will help us develop as spiritual beings and help us finally find our real Self and to become one with God.
However, in our materialistic society where everything is connected to money, fame, success, glory, it is so easy for the ego to thrive and to push aside these divine instincts. This is felt very strongly in the Western world where the media bombards us daily with so many things that we consider so important that we will strive to get them even though it has been proven time and time again that this is not the path to happiness and definitely not the path to God – to have that perfect body, the stunning wardrobe of clothes, that beautiful house, that fancy car. People become nasty, depressed, unhappy, live in a fake world just to be able to have these things. We are made to believe that we will live for ever and when something happens – an illness let’s say – then we are shaken. We then realise the vanity of it all. And we also realise how temporary it all is. How can the ego help then? Unfortunately most people wake up when it is too late.
So yes, I have been pondering a lot about the ego. Is it all baddie? Does it not serve any useful purpose? How can we deal with it, live with it, use it, disregard it?
The other day, when I received the latest copy of the Yoga Life magazine, I noticed a short article on this very issue that I have been pondering on and I read it with interest. I must say it helped clarify and corroborate what we have already learnt. The article itself was named ‘I want to kill my ego’, which as the article says is something which any aspiring spiritual person would probably say and want. We feel this is the only way to reach the truth, to overcome the final hurdle that is stopping us from reaching the highest level, Atman. To kill the ego.
So does the author of the article consider the ego an enemy? Actually no. On the contrary, this is apparently a common misconception. ‘Those who see more clearly know the ego is a necessary step in the unfolding of the soul. It is an essential stage in the evolution of consciousness and all must experience it to its fullest’.
The article also goes on to explain that the ego is a fictitious centre and all experiences are thought-waves of the mind in relation to that ego. Ego itself is a kind of thought-wave within the mind and thought-waves create the illusion of ego through past , present and future life events. Apparently ego and the conditioned mind go together. But eventually when you attain enlightenment or you are moving towards it, the ego changes, it goes through different stages and eventually becomes Satwic, pure, harmonised. And once it becomes Satwic it is no longer an obstacle. It is no longer the enemy, but a friend.
So this is good news. It helps us understand the ego a little bit more. It seems to me that although the ego is always there, a part of us, in the ‘mind’, it can be transformed slowly but surely so that it can work with us and not against us. A necessary part of spirituality therefore is understanding this and accepting that the transformation is possible because as the article says ‘the ego is like a river flowing to meet the ocean of Cosmic consciousness and merge with it forever. At that point ego dissolves on its own accord, like a salt doll entering the sea’.
Another important point that we need to be aware of, however, is that in the period we live in now (where we are approximately 70% ego!) the ego has become so strong and cunning that it has almost made us dependent upon it, so we actually need it to survive. In the last thousand years of human existence it has learnt to work with the survival instinct in order to ensure its own survival. So we need to be able to separate the two. ‘We have to have enough ego not to stand in front of the bus.’ Thus, separation of the two is most definitely necessary so we can see which is which and how to react.
We can only do this with awareness of awareness. We need to know about the ego, what it is, so that every time something happens to us we are in the position to ask ‘who is talking’; we need to know if it is the ego or the soul. Slowly by understanding the ego we can get to know the difference.
So the ego is part of the path; we have to have it, realise it and then leave it behind. We have to have it and then lose it rather than not to have had it at all. The ego must come out and not be suppressed. Once we have everything, then we can move on to the next stage which is to be or to have nothing. And that is when we can say we are continuing on the right path.
However the ego is very cunning as once the ego is out it definitely does not want to go away so that is why we need awareness of awareness, an understanding of what is happening, so we can put the ego to sleep, make it dormant. But we also need a lot of strength, discipline, the use of regularity, repetition and rhythm in our lives and of course knowledge. It may take a long time to achieve, weeks, months, years even, it is not something that can be understood or applied so easily in the brutal and materialistic illusory world that we live in.
Our ultimate goal is to learn how to push it into the background permanently or if not permanently, then relentlessly, so that our true selves can eventually be revealed and so that we can reach spiritual levels which would otherwise be impossible to attain if the ego has its way.
Tasoula Charalambous SBS team 2019-