Updated: Feb 10, 2020
Spotted on 4th Ave in Tucson at one of my very favorite establishments, Antigone Books: a bumper sticker sporting the phrase, "Your Ego Is Not Your Amigo." I bought it immediately, and now it graces the front of my fridge alongside hall-of-famers Amma, a perpetually unused recipe for chilled beet soup, and a magnet reminding me "Whatever you're doing, it's not as important as petting the cat!"
There it is, in it's rightful place among the Refrigerator Wisdom, reminding me to always keep an eye on that tricky bugger Buddhists call the ego. In the Western world, we have a bit of a skewed understanding of what ego means, as it is sometimes synonymous with self-confidence. For instance, if we encounter someone with an inflated self-image, we say he or she has a "big ego." Therefore, it doesn't always have a bad connotation; sometimes, it's even revered.
But beware. Your ego, or your sense of identity, is one slippery son of a gun.
But Natalie, you whine, an identity is important! How do I know who I am and where I stand in this world if I don't have a sense of self?
Your ego, or your "self" is not necessarily a bad thing, not in theory. But have you ever felt "locked in" to an identity, with little to no wiggle room? Have you ever felt limited by your idea of what you are or are not capable of? Do you constantly compare yourself to others, instilling a superficial sense of superiority while falling devastatingly short the rest of the time?
Welcome, my friend, to the Land of Ego.
These are all tricks of the ego. The moment you create a sense of "I," you have created an illusion. You've taken the dynamic, flowing, ever-changing process that comprises thought, feeling, and behavior and put a static label on it. And with this label comes a sense of separation from the world, and a rigid set of rules you must follow. In other words, your sense of self comes with a cost.
To quote Bhante G in Mindfulness in Plain English: "We pinch ourselves off from the rest of that process of eternal change which is the universe. And then we grieve over how lonely we feel."
One of the jerkiest maneuvers of your ego is that it creates a reality in which there is a someone who has all the things you don't. She's happy. She's rich. She's thin. She's successful. She doesn't say dumb things at weird times or have more than one glass of wine and get up and start dancing on the table at work functions. She's poised. She's confident. She's perfect.
She also doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop your ego from constantly comparing you to her.
The result is a pervading sense of something wrongness I've described in other posts. And once you start to catch on to the ego's dirty tricks, you start to see what a dick move this is.
Take, for instance, the following process as described by very favorite meditation book, I Don't Want to, I Don't Feel Like It: How Resistance Controls Your Life and What to Do About It by Cheri Huber and Ashwini Narayanan.
Ego says, there's something wrong with you. For instance, "I need to lose some weight."
After a while, you start to identify as someone who needs to lose weight. Does the slope feel slippery yet?
What about when it comes time to actually start to make the change, such as eating healthier and working out?
Hold up--that would require that we change our identity from someone who needs to lose weight to someone actively losing weight. This is threatening to the self because it challenges the idea that the ego is a static entity.
So it sabotages you. It says, "You've had a hard day. You deserve to skip just one workout."
Before you know it, you've failed at your goal and the self-hate pity party begins. And how do you self-medicate?
You guessed it, more guilt-and-cookies.
This, ladies and germs, is why we meditate. Because in the span of just one sit, you can observe yourself go through at least 20 or more vastly different identities. Try it—one second, your ego boasts, “I love this! I am, like, the best meditator ever.”
No more than a few seconds later, your ego says, “Is it over yet? I got shit to do. I am not cut out for meditation."
My friend and meditation teacher, Tucker likens meditation to turning on a flash light in a dark room where all these ego identities and their voices are hiding. Once you shine the light on the source of a voice, you see it for what it really is—just a voice, usually coming from a place of pain and fear that needs our love and compassion.
The funny thing is, we all have the same parade of voices marching though our minds all the time. Once you become aware of your own parade and which voices are loudest for you, you can start to notice how the voices create suffering in others and extend them the same love and compassion you do for the fearful voices in yourself.
For instance, you may know someone who constantly questions you and challenges your authority. But the truth is, he probably has a really loud anxiety voice that has a hard time trusting others. It becomes a lot easier to extend compassion to that person when you recognize he is suffering in a way you’ve recognized suffering in yourself.
Okay, so then we resist the ego. Not exactly. After all, that would be playing in to the identity of someone who is trying to resist the ego. But before you throw your hands up in the air and stomp away, you must accept that it's not supposed to be easy. If it were, then everyone would do it.
If it were, then we wouldn't need to practice.
Contrary to what you may believe, people who meditate aren't effortlessly sitting in the absence of ego. Nor are they experiencing a perpetual state of bliss. Rather, they're observing their ego pull out all the stops, over and over. They're becoming connoisseurs of their own neuroses, as Dan Harris puts it.
It's work. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Besides, what's a little work between friends?
Ready to get some clarity around your ego and other subconscious processes? Visit carpe-dream.com/work-with-me.