It’s common to hear people on a spiritual path saying that you need to destroy or erase the ego. However, while you have a physical body, it’s necessary to have an ego just as much as you have a mind and intellect. Rather than focusing on eliminating the ego, your aim should be to balance it so it acts in harmony with all your other layers of life.
In terms of evolution, the non-local Absolute manifests the Jiva or individual soul. The individual soul brings with it the karma for this lifetime and creates the ego to help facilitate this. From the ego emerge the intellect, the mind, and your physical world as projections of your karmic tendencies. The karmic curse is that we have forgotten who we really are and instead, the ego creates all the stories, labels, and roles of who we think we are. Thus the ego knows us intimately and, if left to its own devices, becomes the director of our life story.
A Closer Look at the Ego
Up until the age of about two, the ego is fairly dormant. Then, all of a sudden the word “mine” is discovered. Even though this may be challenging for those around you, you enter the period when the ego plays an important role in your life. As you grow, the ego supports you in your education, career, starting a family, and generally establishing your life. The ego loves to organize things, but unfortunately, it also loves to control not only your life but also the world around you.
If not managed, this negative side of the ego manifests as arrogance, pride, vanity, judgements, and prejudices. In the more extreme cases, it emerges as the need to control, the lust for power, fanaticism, or an obsession with materialism. Unfortunately, many people forego a more spiritual approach to life and become stuck with these seductive qualities of the ego. This leads to one definition of ego as being Edging God Out!
Those of us who have begun to realize that there is more to life than materialism will sooner or later embark on a spiritual journey that will eventually take us “home.” However, this is a time when the ego can be most troublesome. The ego likes to be in charge to control, whereas your spiritual practices are to break you out of boundaries and live in freedom. When you first start your sadhana (spiritual practice), the ego doesn’t take much notice. It thinks, “It was that new diet last month and the exercise program the month before, this won’t last either.” However, as you continue and become regular with your meditation, yoga asana, etc., the ego starts to grow nervous.
The driving force within the ego is fear and, if you allow it, the ego will install fear into all areas of your life. Any greed, lust, intolerance, and anger are based in fear, and guess who’s behind it all? The ego. The ego knows all your weaknesses, your repressed desires, and your areas of denial, and it will use them against you, to knock you off your spiritual path.
Most of the doubts and worries you encounter are ego-based:
- “Am I doing it correctly?”
- “Am I on the right path?”
- “Does this teacher know what he/she is talking about?”
- Even simple thoughts like, “I don’t have enough time” or “When will the meditation be over” have been subtly slipped in by the ego
Now this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your common sense but, when these types of thoughts or doubts arise, ask yourself, “Is this my Higher Self or my ego talking?” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used to say, “When doubts arise, first doubt the doubter.” The doubter is usually the ego.
While your techniques themselves are effortless, as you progress on your path, it’s important to remain focused, vigilant, and disciplined in your approach to them. As long as you have a physical body, an ego will be with you. When the karma for this lifetime has been exhausted, the body ceases to exist and with it the ego. A new ego will be born with a new incarnation, again as a reflection of the karmic contract for that lifetime.
Even after Enlightenment, some trace of ego still remains. In the Vedas, this is called Lesha-Vidya or the “left over seeds of bad habits.” An enlightened teacher must be very aware of this so he/she doesn’t fall prey to spiritual pride and arrogance. In the early stages of Samadhi, the yogi may gain new and exciting qualities and yogic powers. If these are recognized as merely a part of the journey and treated with humility, he/she will progress to the higher levels of Samadhi. However, if they are used to control and manipulate, the ego takes over becoming like a “hungry ghost.” Such a yogi may gain temporary power and fame but won’t progress spiritually and will ultimately sow the seeds of his/her own downfall. This is why Vedanta tells us to, “Seek the company of those who seek enlightenment but run from those who claim to have found it.”
How to Manage the Ego
To manage the ego, then, you need to live your life consciously. Be aware of your choices and why you are making them. Be aware of the effects your choices have on others. There’s an Arab proverb which says:
The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers.
Before words get past the lips, the first gatekeeper asks, “Is this true?” That stops a lot of traffic immediately. But if the words get past the first gatekeeper, there is a second who asks, “Is it kind?” And for those words that qualify here too, the last gatekeeper asks, “Is it necessary?”
You may have heard the expression that someone has a “big ego.” Actually, it’s the opposite. People who stamp around with their chests puffed out have very small egos that are fighting for their lives, like a cornered wild animal. Love your ego, play with it, have fun with it, make it your friend and do not take it seriously. Seriousness is the ego playing the victim. Teach your ego humility through selfless service and compassion. When you love your ego, it will expand and cease to feel threatened. When the fear is removed, the ego will take its rightful place and become your biggest supporter on the path to enlightenment.