The Era of the Ego
For the past decade or so, there has been a steady increase on what we could call 'Ego-Talk.'
Once a concept exclusively reserved for conversations between psychiatrists and psychologists in smoked filled practice rooms and yearly conferences, the number of contemporary coaches, teachers, and practitioners of different modalities of alternative healing spreading 'Ego-Talk' advice mostly on social media has simply skyrocketed. 'Ego Talk' has entered the mainstream; and aside from the numerous self-help books one can find in any bookshop that comes to mind, this type of talk has also also found its way into daily random conversations. You hear it being dropped as casual small talk between peers during lunch break at the office; or, as is often the case, between friends after a Yoga class at the local studio.
Indeed, teachers of all styles of Yoga often drop the 'ego bomb' ––usually referred by its Sanskrit name 'Ahamkara'–– as a way to introduce a class or talk about the overarching theme of 'letting go.' Yet, we're sure we're not too far off when we suggest that rarely any of those teachers truly provide their students with enough background information on what the Ego is, what it stands for, what it is for, and how to 'transcend it' ––as is often freely advised in many of those classes and social media posts.
In this entry today, we dig up the roots of this most world-defining-element as illuminated by both the traditions of psychoanalysis and Yoga. The intention: to better understand this now (in)famous notion. The main role of the Ego is to aid in the construction of a coherent and stable worldview and a coherent and stable idea of 'who we are' but, in the process, it often takes hold of a lot more than just that.
Who Do I believe I am?
“The darkness in the outside world has vanished, but the darkness in our hearts remains virtually unchanged. Just like an iceberg, what we label the ego or consciousness is,
for the most part, sunk in darkness. And that estrangement sometimes
creates a deep contradiction or confusion within us.”
––Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
To put it simply, the ego is our own individual biographical sense ––our sense of I-ness, our I-consciousness. To put it even simpler: it is the story we tell ourselves (and others) of who we (think we) are and how we have evolved into this person of all possible persons to become. We can say, for simplicity's sake that every person has an Ego and a Self. The Ego part is our daily personality, the part of us that is shaped by such things as education, upbringing, life experience, etc. The Self part is our underlying essence, that part that endures life after life and remains unchanged, always there, witnessing each life's cyclical flow between growth and decay. The reason we have a sense of 'I-ness' superimposed onto our intrinsic essence is actually quite easy to understand when we think about it.
Most of what reaches our conscious 'I/eye' ––most of what we perceive through our senses–– is an oversimplification of a much broader and complex reality; a reality so vast in fact that, were we to try and make sense of it as an entirety, we'd be left simply overwhelme, our delicate inner software glitching from too much information hitting the Matrix. The Ego is a sort of inbuilt filter or censoring mechanism: it works as a censor of the conscious mind. As such, it kind of determines which information is suitable and can be relayed to our conscious perception (hence, allowed to help us make decisions and determine a given course of action) and which one is not. As is often noted in the yogic tradition, "to be conscious of the unconscious is very difficult" (Satyananda Saraswati, p. 71) and most of us go through life without ever noticing there is literally so much more than meets the 'I/eye.'
Yet, while working as a filtering mechanism or censor, the Ego fulfils a much needed purpose. By filtering a plethora of not so vital information, the Ego aids in providing coherence to our persona. It grants the kind of narrative thread necessary for the s/hero of an adventure ––aka, 'us' in our respective lives–– to go on learning and changing and gathering a variety of experiences without entirely losing our way.
To some extent, then, the Ego seems to be our everything and many do in fact mistake it with all there is in/to themselves. Yet, at the same time, it is actually nothing but a convenient cover, a veil, a facade, a convention, goalie, or mask sticked over our real 'faces' to hide something much deeper that most of us often fail to even notice is there. This is what we in Yoga call 'the Self'; and, although with an entirely different language, this is also what psychoanalysis calls 'the unconscious' as well.
What the tradition of Yoga argues, and what many contemporary psychologists have come to note too, is that we have mistaken a necessary limitation of our software ––a much needed mechanism to sort and filter how much information we actually consciously process–– with all there is to us and to the world around us, with REALITY all caps. It is as if, we were unknowingly inside a computer video game thinking this is the real deal, and connecting to our other playstation friends, while all along it is us that are the unbeknownst players of a much larger kind of game. And so, stuck to our Egos, we are simply unable to see (or think) beyond them.
This is how we have come to live in societies ––in fact, in an era–– where what we do, what we study, how much we earn, where we live, or what we possess have acquired more cultural value and visibility than what kind of person we are within, what kinds of feelings and thoughts are housed within us, what kinds of relationships we have managed to build and tend to, and what kinds of aspirations, longings, and dreams haunt us at night.
Life Done Beyond 'Me'
What the scriptures of Yoga tell us, then, is that 'individual consciousness' ––the consciousness that thinks of you as 'You' and me as 'Me'–– is mainly comprised of the Ego; and that it is because of this Ego that we differentiate and separate between a subject ('I') and an object ('you'). It is because of our ego, then, that we know and live in duality.
Yogis argue that as long as there is duality ('dvaita')––as long as we perceive the world as a series of (mis)encounters between our sense of 'I-ness' and something that is not the 'I'–– there cannot be union, there cannot be Yoga, there cannot be bliss or samadhi. And this is so because, as long as we remember who we think we are we'll be unable to get out of ourselves entirely. Getting out of ourselves is a prerequisite for enlightenment. Hence, when coaches, or healers, or Yoga teachers naively recommend others in a sixty-minute session to 'let go of their Ego' and relinquish attachment as a matter of just pure intention or willpower, they're not being true to how much more laborious and complex the actual process of transcending the Ego truly is. For, transcending the Ego requires not just the ability to observe and sit with things as they are to witness their true nature ––an ability most of us no longer have––, but also, the ability to stay focused and humble, the ability not to crave external praise and attention (something that reinforces one's sense of 'I-ness'), and the ability to imagine that things can (and do!) exist beyond the world we have collectively come to think so material and established.
The truth of the matter is that, as long as we identify who we are with our Ego we will not be able see the world as it really is, but only as we have come to think it is. "As you think so you become" goes the famous yogic phrase... The reasons why we think the world to be a certain way and not another have much to do with millennia of inherited and transmitted cultural convention, with upbringing, with historically defined social and individual behavioural rules and expectations, and with past life experiences. All of these events shape a certain sense of the world, a certain idea of how things are and how things work, as well as a sense of direction for our inner narrative and our 'I-ness.'
Now, despite its necessary nature, we often refer to the Ego as something negative in common parlance. We use it to refer to someone, for example, when we want to express a certain sense of self-importance, self-centeredness, pride, or selfishness. For an excessive attachment to the Ego ––an excessive self-identification of who we (think we) are with our sense of 'I-ness'–– can lead to excessive self-involvement, possessiveness, greed, vanity, even narcissism. It leads to an obsession with appearances, both in relation to our appearance and that of the world around us ('Maya').
Ironically, however, all of these are traits that our contemporary societies have progressively embedded into the 'capitalist mindset' or the mindset of 'success.' And so, at the level where big decisions are made and big bucks are spent, we find a lot of people that have excelled at the game of the Ego, at the expenses of silencing their Self.
I see this regularly on my Vedic Counseling one-on-one sessions. People that come to see me because a part of them knows something is out of whack but cannot, on their own, fill in the gaps of an important conversation that should be happening between the Ego and the Self. I help them with that, with building bridges, with paying attention to what they've been overlooking; and yet, at a certain level, most of my clients already knew what their Soul was really asking of them. The ironic bit is that, often, what our Souls long for, what our Souls truly need and want, does not fit into this organized and 'reasonable' way of doing and thinking of life that our Egos have come to devise. It's a lot more messy and inconvenient; it doesn't follow structured progressions and paths. It follows what it needs to grow, and not always what makes the most sense in an extremely rational world.
This is the reason why we in Yoga meditate: to purify the mind and let the voice of the Self surface from under the depths it has been pushed into, consciously or not. We meditate to weaken the strength of our Ego, by breaking down any existing prejudices and mental programmings preventing us from truly 'seeing' the world as free from conventions as possible. We meditate to really and truly know our-Selves. And that is what is required to transcend the Ego.