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How You Should Treat Your Ego

How You Should Treat Your Ego

I think I’m the most important person in the world, but nobody else thinks it’s about me, time doesn’t think it’s about me, space doesn’t think it’s about me, the planet doesn’t think it’s about me,” says Prof. Robert Thurman in our book, Be The Change. “It doesn’t take much to get the message that it’s actually not about me! But if somebody comes and steps on my toe or wants to take away my strawberries, then suddenly it’s all about me again!”

Everyone talks about the ego: ego trips, healthy ego, negative ego, big ego, get rid of your ego, even kill your ego. But what is the ego? Is there such a thing? Or is the ego just a version of our hyper-inflated need for security in a world of apparent threats?

Brian Jones, a Stanford trained neuroscientist and mindfulness trainer, and our partner in RevolutionaryMindfulness.com, says, “The ego is not ‘a thing’ like your ribs, your feet, or your prefrontal cortex. Rather, the ego is reflective of an underlying bio-chemical state of stress and insecurity in our perceived-as-threatening dog-eat-dog world. Biologically, the ego and our personality, thoughts and emotions are really run by the energy of our autonomic nervous system, which is either in a stressed, ego-centered, fearful state called the Sympathetic Response, or a secure, relaxed state called the Parasympathetic Response.”

The ego is the “me” bit that gives us a false sense of ourselves. This is not necessarily good or bad, except when selfishness dominates our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. A positive sense of self gives us confidence and purpose, but a more negative and self-centered ego makes us unconcerned with other people’s feelings; it thrives on the idea of me-first and impels us to cry out, “What about me? What about my feelings?”

The more power we have – as seen in politicians, the media, CEOs, movie stars, control freaks, or in those who always think of themselves first — the more the ego rules, making ‘me and my opinions’ the most important. There is no limit to the damage a powerful ego can cause, from the arrogant conviction that our own opinions are the only right ones and everyone should be made to agree, to wielding and abusing responsibility and authority at the expense of other people’s lives and freedoms.

But the ego can be equally as powerful in a negative form, seen in those who are always bringing attention to their woes, to poor me, or who think they are powerless and worthless, for this is just as self-centered. The purpose of the ego is to be in control, so it makes us believe we are the cleverest, best informed and most important as easily as it makes us feel unworthy, unlovable, and certainly not good enough to be happy. The ‘poor me’ ego is just as big as the ‘I’m so powerful’ ego.

“I think the main issue is the negative ego,” says Mingyur Rinpoche in Be The Change.  “If we do not understand other people’s feelings, their suffering or behavior, then what we perceive, what we are concerned with is only our own ego and image. If the ego becomes too strong then it causes a lot of other emotions, such as anxiety, loneliness, depression, anger, jealousy; if we feel insecure, then our ego becomes even bigger in order to protect us.”

Fostering the delusion that only ‘I’ is important, that me and mine must come before us and ours, we believe we are something, that this “I” is a solid, different, special and unique, separate from everything and everyone else. Such a misguided sense of self is the root cause of much distress, both in our own lives and in the world: wars are fought, families split, and friends forgotten in its name.

Can you believe that we spend our whole lives protecting, defending and believing this deluded sense of self, while we lose a life of meaning, joy, and caring about others? When we become aware of our essential unity and oneness with all beings then the ego, this imposter who thinks it is the boss, actually loses its job. It will, therefore, do whatever it has to in order to perpetuate its employment.

Hypothetically, all we need do is let go of the focus on “me,” of our sense of separateness, our need for distinction, the grasping and clinging to our story. But this is far easier said than done! In India, the ego is represented by a coconut, as this is the hardest nut to crack. Traditionally, the coconut is offered to the guru as a sign of the student’s willingness to surrender or let go of self-obsession. Such a symbolic gesture shows that the ego is considered to be a great obstacle on the spiritual path and an even greater impediment to developing true kindness and compassion, for it is a perfect servant but a terrible master.

Creating the illusion that we are the dust on the mirror, the ego ensures that we believe we could never be so beautiful as the radiant reflection beneath the surface. Yet how extraordinary to believe that we cannot be free when freedom is our true nature! We easily forget the difference between being powerful in the sense of being egotistic and controlling, and being powerful meaning full of loving kindness. True power is not corruptive or abusive; it transcends greed and serves for the benefit of all.

Meditation is essential to this understanding. “We can manage the ego response with mindfulness, meditation, and self-awareness that entrain the ‘rest response,’ the opposite of the ‘stress response’ of the ego’s push for its own agenda,” says Brian Jones. “The ego response is a primitive, reptilian brain caveman response to the world; largely the opposite of the heart-centered mindful response of compassion, empathy and insight. As Osho, the famous India teacher, says, ‘The size of the ego is in direct proportion to the distance your consciousness is away from your heart.’”

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Ed and Deb Shapiro

You can learn more in our book, Be The Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors Marianne Williamson, Jane Fonda, Ram Dass, Byron Katie and others. Our 3 meditation CD’s: Metta—Loving kindness and Forgiveness; Samadhi–Breath Awareness and Insight; and Yoga Nidra–Inner Conscious Relaxation, are available at: EdandDebShapiro.com

47 comments

+ add your own
1:43AM PST on Jan 29, 2014

ty

3:28AM PST on Dec 16, 2013

Getting to know oneself is the start of a wonderful life

1:53PM PST on Dec 7, 2013

Thanks

1:44PM PST on Dec 7, 2013

Very interesting article. I particularly liked the last sentence. It reminded me of something I read in a spiritual book, once, that said when you see the [religious] cross, what you are really seeing,if you take it apart, is the I [the ego} being crossed out.Ego, like most things, is not a bad thing. We need to have a certain amount of ego if we are ever to achieve anything in this life,you just need to keep it in check, and not let it rule you.

10:05PM PST on Dec 1, 2013

interesting

9:44AM PST on Nov 27, 2013

Thank you!

7:26AM PST on Nov 24, 2013

I wish I had no ego!

12:48PM PST on Nov 20, 2013

From what I've observed, ego is just a way to differentiate the person that is me from other people, which is probably not good or bad, it just is.

As far as 'negative' ego, my observation is that if one takes feelings such as loneliness, anger, etc, and realizes that this is something that others may be feeling right at this very moment, it takes away the isolation of the experience, perhaps even transforming it. Thanks.

4:56AM PST on Nov 19, 2013

Yes its really important not to have such an ego.

10:30PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

Like the saying goes, each of us is actually three different people---the way we see ourselves, the way others see us, and the way we really are. Our poor egos get bounced around among these three perspectives, inflated one moment, bruised the next, or perhaps permanently stuck in one mode. It's not easy to be the ego of a human being. So I don't see anything wrong with polishing that mirror every once in a while that we look into everyday---as long as we don't overdo it.

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