Sally Kempton

Doorways to the Infinite

Sophisticated Ego

“Its hopeless,” Susie says dramatically. “I spend three hours yesterday showing my uncle how to use his ipod. Then for the rest of the day I’m congratulating myself for taking the time, plus being such a good teacher. Then my uncle tells his wife that I got him all confused, and now I’m ready to kill him. And its all ego! I can’t ‘stand ‘ it!”

Ever since I’ve known her, Susie has been talking about ego the way fundamentalists talk about sin. Ego, she’ll say passionately is the primal enemy, the real Satan, the source of all the traits she dislikes about herself, qualities like envy, the burning need to get credit for any little favor she does for people, and the wish to be loved ‘personally ‘, just because she’s so incredibly special. Trying to stamp the footprints of ego out of her personality, she’s subjected herself to long hours of practice and selfless service, put herself into the hands of teachers who specialized in tough love, and gone through dozens of purifying diets. The worst, from my point of view, was her ‘holy style’ period, when she went around exuding such strained humility that her 12-year-old daughter begged her to act normal.  Susie still won’t pay a compliment without prefacing it by saying something like “I don’t want to inflate your ego, but….”

But this afternoon, Susie tells me, she’s decided that it’s no use. No matter how she fights it, her ego stubbornly refuses to disappear. Instead, it just keeps morphing into ever- new forms.

She’s finally realized that fighting the ego is like punching oobleck or trying to outrun your own shadow – the more you think you’ve escaped from it, the more it sticks to you.

It’s the paradox that yogis have been grappling with for eons: the ego ‘loves ‘ any form of self-improvement. The ego is always trying to get better at its game, and it looks on yoga and meditation as valuable adjuncts to its self-aggrandizing strategy. Ego particularly enjoys projects for getting rid of itself.  Ego will earnestly agree to set itself up to get bashed. Then it will pop up like a piece of half-toasted bread and present itself to you, as if saying, “Look at me,  haven’t I practically disappeared?”

In fact, a really sophisticated ego is a master at disguising itself as something else – as your feeling of injustice, for example, or as the smooth voice of yogic detachment that tells you there’s no point in indulging your girlfriend’s emotional neediness. Ego can even disguise itself as the inner Witness, and watch itself endlessly while smugly congratulating itself on having escaped its own traps.

The ultimate irony here is that ego doesn’t actually exist. Buddhist and Vedantic teachers are fond of saying that ego is like the blue of the sky, or the trick of the light that makes us see a puddle in the middle of a 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, as my Guru used to say, like trying to get rid of something you haven’t got). Now that neurobiologists seem to have reduced the sense of I-ness to a couple of brain chemicals, it looks more than ever as if ego were a kind of involuntary mechanism, something beyond our personal control, just like the heartbeat and the process that makes us go on breathing when we sleep.

But try telling this to Cindy, a young student of mine who works in a brokerage house. Surrounded by highly competitive young men and women with MBA’s from Wharton and Stanford, she feels as if she’s in a daily dogfight, and she’s 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, and 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. (Though even in her deflated state, she still feels morally superior to them, a sure sign that there’s more than a little inflation!) 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.

The yoga tradition speaks of ego at several different levels. At its most purely functional, ego is simply part of our  inner psychic apparatus, the ‘antahkarana ‘ – the mechanism that sorts our inner experience. Ego’s function is to keep our boundaries as individuals. In Sanskrit, the word for ego is ‘ahamkara’, which means ‘the I-maker.’ It’s ego’s job to differentiate among the mass of sensations that come your way, and tell you that a particular experience belongs to the energy-bundle you call ‘me.’ Ego identifies a feeling of hunger as ‘mine’, so that you know when to feed your body. 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 past experiences, like the time you stood up in 5th grade assembly to sing a solo of “A Very Precious Love,” and got booed. Then, for better or worse, ego will compare a present moment situation to what happened in the past, so that the next time you’re tempted to sing a love song in front of a bunch of ten year old heterosexual boys, something tells you to forget it.

This kind of thing is ego doing its most basic job. Unfortunately, ego likes to extend its portfolio. Its memory function, for example, can grab onto bad experiences and turn them into a negative feed-back loop, so that past wounds and painful memories get lodged in your cells and become crippling blocks in your body and brain. That’s part of the downside of the second aspect of ego, ego as False Identification.

This – in the ‘yogasutra ‘ its called ‘asmita ‘ – is the ego with the bad rap. Asmita is the little gremlin that grabs onto 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 old Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang started a fight with a tourist that turned into a melee. Asked what had happened to trigger his wrath, the Angel declared, “He touched my bike. Man, you touch my bike, you touch me.”   This may seem like an over-the-top example of what the yogic texts call ‘identifying the self with its limiting adjuncts’, but it’s not actually so different from what we so-called rational people do.  You may not be ‘totally ‘identified with your bike, or your car, but you certainly identify with your own thoughts and opinions and feelings, not to mention the your job description and your various social roles. Your ego may be invested in what you know, or in your politics, your social skills, your coolness, or, like Cindy, in your ability to perform in the daily office shoot-out. As long as that’s the case, you’re bound to go up and down with the tides of the day, literally bounced around by who you think you are.

It’s this tendency to identify with our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and the world that creates the problem of ego. If we were able to let thoughts and feelings pass through us, or if we could identify with our bodies purely functionally, we wouldn’t waste hours worrying about the shape of our thighs. We wouldn’t get insulted, or nurse our hurt feelings, or worry about whether or not we are smart enough or worthy enough or strong enough. In short, we wouldn’t spend our days riding the emotional seesaw that forms the backdrop of most people’s days.

I recently spent a couple of 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 letter and feel myself deflating. Then I’d get a great idea for a class I was preparing and think, “I’m so inspired.” I’d read the New York Times online and feel consumed with worry about the world situation, and with guilt because I’m not doing enough to heal it. Then a client would tell me how much I’d helped her and I’d feel “I guess I do contribute something to the world.” 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 the 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 left knee and the two younger brothers – I’m subject to the natural expansion and contraction of the balloon of ego, and to the uneasiness that naturally goes along with it.

One of the best antidotes to this tendency is to practice expanding my sense of self by including others in my personal territory. Many of the best yogic and Buddhist attitudinal practices – like wishing for others’ 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 would sit together, visualize the scenes of devastation we were seeing on TV, and then breathe 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’d imagine light and warmth flowing from us to them. Whether or not this practice affected the hurricane victims, it had a powerful effect on our own hearts. The sense of being isolated, protected, separate from the people huddled in the New Orleans Superdome would give way to a sense of shared consciousness, and we would feel how deeply linked each human soul is to all other souls. The practice can literally melt – at least temporarily – the contraction of feeling separate from others. And this is the beginning of freedom from the isolation and fear that ego fosters.

My Guru, Swami Muktananda, used to say that our real problem with ego is that it isn’t big enough.  He’d say that we identify with our apparent self, our small self – the self defined by our bodies and minds – when what we should really identify with is the pure Awareness, power and love that lives at the heart of everything. A young actor once said to him, “I feel guilty because I always want to be special.” Muktananda said, “You are special.” Then, as the actor smiled in pleasure, Muktananda added, “Everybody’s special. Everybody is God.”

That’s a big conceptual bite, of course. Having spent 30 years working with it, I’ve found that this teaching makes the most 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. He used the word God to signify Spirit itself, the Source, the Presence, Brahman, the Tao, 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 anything like what you think it is. As far as he was concerned, there was no point in trying to get rid of ego. Instead, he taught us to enlarge the way we identified it. In other words, to identify with the All instead of with the particular. A truly healthy ego, in his terms, would be one that comfortably did its job of creating necessary boundaries and keeping us functioning as individuals on the earth plane.  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 or Atmadev 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, nothing at all. In other words, that ego wouldn’t get caught up in attaching its identity to 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 traditions offer a middle step – the practice, and the experience of the ego as pure “I am” – not “I am somebody” or “I am tired” or “I am angry” – but a pure “I am” without the accompanying self-definition. The bridge between the limited ego and the expanded, world-identified I sense, is the recognition that behind everything we attach to our ego is a simple awareness.  The ego of pure “I amness” experiences existence and knows that it is having that experience. It knows that it lives and functions in our body, yet is free from the need become anything, to prove itself, to take on territory. As we access that state, it’s actually 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’s not difficult to recognize that this same “I am” links us to all others; no matter how different they are in personality or politics and culture from ourselves.

For most of us, the awareness of ‘I’ is most easily glimpsed in quiet moments. Sometimes it pops out during shavasana, 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 that 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 without conditions, 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, clear, and very much at peace.

There’s a meditation process that I often practice for touching into the ‘I am ‘. You begin by sitting quietly, focusing on the breath,  then beginning to think “I am” to yourself. Focus on the feeling state of ‘I am’, the experience of the words striking your consciousness. As your thoughts quiet down, ask yourself, “Who is this I?” Then wait. “Answers may come up. (It’s me! Or “Colin!”or “My ego.”) Let the answers go. You’re not looking for an answer; you’re looking for a feeling state – for an awareness of yourself as a wordless spaciousness – which you are without words, as the Zen teachers say. If your mind starts to provide answers, objections, distractions, come back to the I am process, and to the question.

Cindy, my student with the deflated ego problem, began doing this practice in the summer. As she got more practiced at it, she found that she could touch into the ‘I am’ space at different times during the day. Recently, 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 thru atmosphere of high-adrenaline panic that ran through the office. Instead, she found herself acting with a calm and clarity that her sharky rivals couldn’t muster at all. “There are days when my trades are magic,” she says. “I’m in a zone of total clarity. I can’t claim that its an ego-less state, its more that I’ve found the off-button for my fear of doing the wrong thing. As “I’m Cindy”, I can get perfectionist and over-cautious. 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.