What exactly is the ego? The Eastern wisdom traditions assume that the ego is a mental construct that constantly need confirmation in order to feel whole and valuable. Most people identify with a little ego that strives for status, material goods, more money or other things to assert itself. Strong identification with material belongings, physical attributes, status, power, wealth, or lack thereof; or even a mental position – “I am right” – is the ego at work. Ego leads you away from the moment, looking for intended happiness in the future, but during this persistent hike, you may miss out on life itself. Can we free ourselves form the destructive forces in ego?
Facets of mr/ms/mrs Ego
Can you tell what kind of ego you have? Do all humans have it? Do we need it to survive and thrive in this world? Are we born with it and how does it evolve over time?
If one pays attention – be it at work, school, college, out shopping, at the movies, on vacation — one will easily catch glimpses of the ego in others. And, with practice and open-mindedness, it will be easy to recognize it in oneself. The ego covers the spectrum from that of the all-puffed up, glaringly loud ones to those who cower and cringe from the lack of self-esteem and lots of varying versions in between them.
In ordinary terms, ego is defined as “one’s image of oneself”, “inflated feeling of pride in your superiority to others” and “consciousness of your own identity”.
One will instantly recognize it in feuding parties, phrases like, “Let me show him who calls the shots”; “No one will ever get away with double crossing me that way again!” or “So they think I am not good enough for their company, let me teach them a thing or two.”. Then there are situations where one person “feels unworthy of another’s company because I am not pretty enough, not good enough”.
Digging into ego`s roots
Everyone comes into this world as infants with clean slates. This slate then gets written on by one’s nurturers – usually parents to begin with, then family, relatives, friends, peers, etc throughout one’s formative years. He or she is instilled with their values and principles, which have in turn been molded by their personal experiences – at the familial, cultural and societal levels. In turn, the value systems they hold, stem from beliefs and practices of their individual and collective, physical, thinking world.
In his book, “A New Earth”, Eckhart Tolle talks about how a child starts to identify themselves with their own names, then with who their parents are and then their toys i.e. “this is my mommy, my daddy, my teddy”. Young children often get defensive when another child plays with one of their toys, they get worked up and obsess about wanting to play with that very same toy.
As one grows up, the identification with toys is replaced by humans clinging or obsessing with how educated, wealthy, powerful, famous they are. Tolle refers to the ego as the “false self” – “false” because human beings perceive their worth or value primarily on the narrow basis of their physical, materialistic lives. This is no fault of the individual as that has been the way it was, throughout the centuries and continues to be, in the human, thinking and unconscious world. This suits the ego perfectly as it gets full control over the mind, to the exclusion of total consciousness, in which spirituality abounds.
Let’s delve into a few practical analogies to shed light on Eckhart’s teachings. So, e.g. Adam, who has been brought up by his drunken and abusive dad, perceives that his dysfunctional past has been the root cause of the majority of his life failings. Whenever he is unsuccessful at anything, he feels dejected and mentally regurgitates on the bad cards he has been dealt with, in his life.
His all-consuming ego stokes the fire that keeps his past circumstances, very much alive, albeit in his mind. Although there is nothing he can do about what is essentially history, little does he realize that his ego is happily sapping away his energy from tapping into the depth of his creative being. If only he was aware that the thinking mind is but only a fraction of his total consciousness.
Then there is Fred, who although faced with similar life challenges, does not delve into debilitating mind games of his past. Instead, he accepts his failure, directs his energy at capitalizing on the lessons learnt and seeks out possibilities, even from his fallen stance. He neither strongly identifies with his past nor his previous failures. He does not allow the time-locked ego distract him from what is at hand and what needs to be actioned.
What happens when one is freed from Ego`s hold?
In 2008, well-known US talk show host Oprah Winfrey hosted a global webcast seminar with Eckhart Tolle, for her book club selection and his book, “A New Earth”. They discussed the book at length, as well as answered questions from callers, the world over. In it, he made the thought provoking remark that if enlightenment was according to one’s material belongings, then the world would have reached enlightenment (many times over) with its deluge of shopping malls. One can sense that in fact, the world is far from being joy-filled in the truest sense; psychological suffering is far from being diminished.
Strong identification with material belongings, physical attributes, status, power, wealth, or lack thereof; or even a mental position – “I am right” – is the ego at work. One can strive towards a more comfortable lifestyle or state one’s viewpoint clearly but one need not latch on to them for dear life, wherein it takes over one’s being.
Whether it is a life challenge, an investigation, an experiment, or a questionnaire, if it is based on inaccurate evidence, the results will be flawed. Similarly, if one run their lives based on illusional ‘facts’, they would be operating at sub-standard levels, thus depriving themselves the opportunity of living the essence of who they are, and which life openly offers.
Eckhart invites all to learn to recognize the illusions that the ego often creates in order to be able to reduce the damage it is capable of creating. Just the act of recognizing it will lead to its eventual exposition and to the surface, the reality, miracle and depth of who we truly are (p 28). It is as simple as that.
Tolle, Eckhart (2005). A New Earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose. Penguin Group, New York.