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Chapter 3  -  Rising Above the Ego

Steps toward overcoming some of the most troublesome aspects of the ego.

Excessive Preoccupation with "I"

The dysfunctional conditions of the ego all revolve around our reactions to situations, and involve excessive preoccupation with "I", "me" or "mine"... my thoughts... my wants... my opinions... my preferences... my regrets... my anger... my needs. Excessive reactions to situations revolving around "I", "me" or "mine" often create severe suffering for everyone involved and greatly limit one's ability to enjoy either the beauty of life or the wonders of one's True Nature.


When a person is absorbed in self, he has no time to build his character; but when he forgets himself, he collects all that is good and beautiful. This is the key to the whole of life, both to worldly success and to spiritual attainment.

Philosophy, Psychology and Mysticism, Hazrat Inayat Khan


Worry and anxiety are two of the most common dysfunctional conditions of the ego. In both such cases, the ego is simply filling the mind with incessant negative chatter. Such chatter can be gradually calmed by simply becoming aware of what the ego is reacting to, accepting the situation, and gently moving one's attention to something more beneficial.

Resisting and clinging are two more very common dysfunctions of the ego. Resistance and clinging are generally the result of one's expectations, and result in struggle and dissatisfaction. In these cases, the reaction of the ego is to refuse to accept what is. However, such a stubborn refusal strategy is unlikely to bring success, since nothing can change what has already happened. There is no point in resisting what is. The best that we can do is accept what is and, when the time is right, begin to plant some new seeds which will bring us a better harvest in the future. In every situation, planting seeds of love, harmony and beauty always bring the best harvest.

Fear of losing something is another common dysfunction of the ego, but it is simply a specific example of what happens when the reaction of the ego is to try to resist what is. Nothing in this world stays the same. Everything in this world is continually changing, and everything is continually being transformed from one thing into something else. Yet life never dies. Life is eternal, and life is continually changing from one form to another form. We cannot stop the changes, and when we try to resist the changes of this world, we only create suffering.


Don't grieve.
  Anything you lose
    comes round in another form.

Jalaluddin Rumi, Essential Rumi, tr Coleman Barks


There are many situations in life which we truly need to respond to, but none of the situations will be resolved by reactions of the ego which manifest as worry, anxiety, resistance,  clinging, struggle, impatience, anger or undue thoughts about "I", "me" or "mine". All such reactions only create more stress in one's life. When the ego has filled the mind with so much reactive chatter that one can neither enjoy the beauty of life nor sense the Divine Presence, then the ego has run astray, and needs to be corrected.


Imagine a rider sitting on a horse without reins in his hand, letting the horse go free wherever it likes. He risks his life at every moment. The happiness is his who rides on the horse and controls it and has the reins in his hand, and he is the master of his journey.

The Gathas, Hazrat Inayat Khan


In its most useful form, the "well trained" ego will pay careful attention and then, using calm non-reactive awareness of the present moment and relying upon the strength and guidance of Divine Presence, one will easily tend to the situation at hand in an expedient, patient and appropriate manner, resolving the existing difficulties and planting seeds for success in the future.

Old Baggage

Many of the most persistent and troublesome dysfunctions of the ego can be traced to baggage from the past, a cluttered collection of old memories which have accumulated in the form of mental baggage. Virtually all of us are dragging around a burdensome collection of heavy, old, outdated baggage which is an impediment to truly enjoying the present moment.

And, as if the burden of dragging this heavy old stuff around is not harmful enough, the pesky ego loves to react to situations by dragging out bits and pieces of that old baggage, snippets from the past, which it then replays over and over and over again, sabotaging all sorts of new opportunities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with memories, even bad memories. The problems only arise due to our ego's reaction to the old memories, and the ensuing drama which it then creates.

Most personal dilemmas occur due to the burden of dragging around our own heavy old collection of baggage, and the ego's wearisome process of  comparing every present opportunity with some old worn-out memories of what happened in the past. Such behavior is simply a reaction of the ego, and one can learn to substitute some new, more positive reaction.

Similarly, most interpersonal conflicts are really just what happens when one person's old baggage conflicts or clashes with another person's old baggage. Those conflicts can also be avoided by learning to substitute some new behavior in place of the ego's old reaction.

Sometimes we find ourselves confronted by a vague inner need to change the course of our life, and we begin to clean out our closets, or perhaps even remodel our house, when in fact what needs to be cleaned out and remodeled is the ego's old collection of rubbish. And, just as we tend to cling to our old accumulated things around the house, so too do we tend to cling to our heavy burden of mental baggage. The old junk is just weighting us down, we're drowning, and even as we drown we refuse to let go of that heavy pile of junk which is the cause of the problem!

A pivotal point in life, an opportunity for transformation, a moment of awakening, arises when one finally begins to see that the disruptive reactions of the ego, creating new dramas based on old rubbish, is choking off the flow of Divine Presence which one truly needs for happiness and success. At that point, one can begin to release the old unhealthy habitual mental reactions, and replace those old reactions with new reactions which help to open the heart to the wondrous flow of Divine Presence in the present moment.

The Sub-Conscious Mind

Habits arise automatically from the sub-conscious mind, which has been programmed by all that one has thought, heard or done. In order to change our habits, we must reprogram the sub-conscious mind to create new habits.

The sub-conscious mind is extraordinarily powerful, and can affect virtually every organ in the body, from glands to muscles. However, the sub-conscious mind is not at all concerned about what we might call reality. That is, the sub-conscious mind does not make any attempt to distinguish fact from fiction, it simply responds according to its programming.

Has it ever struck you that you have been programmed to be unhappy and so no matter what you do to become happy, you are bound to fail?... If you wish to be happy the first thing that you need is not effort or even good will or good desires, but a clear understanding of how exactly you have been programmed.

Anthony De Mello, The Way to Love, Doubleday, 1991, p19

Whenever we dwell upon troublesome thoughts such as fear of something, failure to accomplish something, or even the lack of something, we are in fact programming the sub-conscious mind to deliver those same dreadful results into our life.

Habits

Much of the ego's destructive behavior becomes embedded in sub-conscious habitual reactions and patterns which are scarcely even noticeable in the conscious mind. But when one begins to watch all of life with great awareness, such reactive patterns become obvious, and can then be brought out into the light of consciousness for examination and correction.


The greater part of most people's thinking is involuntary, automatic, and repetitive. It is no more than a kind of mental static and fulfills no real purpose. Strictly speaking, you don't think: Thinking happens to you... The voice in the head has a life of it's own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice; they are possessed by thought, by the mind. And since the mind is conditioned by the past, you are then forced to reenact the past again and again.

A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle


In general, habits are not often broken by denying them, but rather habits are best replaced by new behaviors which are in harmony with our highest ideals, and are in harmony with our True Nature, the Divine Presence. New habits which involve beneficent attributes such as generosity, compassion, harmony, beauty, tolerance and loving-kindness will always prove to be the best choice.

Benefits of a Strong Ego

A strong ego is only a problem when it is producing non-productive thoughts and managing life in a dysfunctional manner. That same strong ego, when properly directed toward bringing love, harmony and beauty into the world, is a precious gift and a wondrous blessing.

There are many great teachers who have, early in life, suffered from their destructive egos, and yet when they eventually discovered how to use that same powerful ego to bring love, harmony and beauty into the world, they rose quickly into the ranks of the highly respected and widely admired.

In fact, when the ego becomes directed toward of life of love, harmony and beauty, those who have a strong ego may find it very easy to rise into the highest of spiritual states, thanks to that strong ego's ability to enjoy bringing love, harmony and beauty into every situation.

Taking Charge of the Ego

In order to reclaim one's true potential in life, and tame the out of control ego, it is necessary to first become consciously aware of what the ego is doing and be able to say "Ahh, I see what that pesky ego is doing!". Then, when the ego, and the ego's reactive drama, are simply seen for the clutter and chatter that they are, and are no longer identified as "I" or "me" or "mine", then we can begin to methodically take control of the mind and deal with each situation as it arises, without undue reaction, drama or concern. When the mind is preoccupied with "I", "me" or "mine", life can be very difficult. However, with calm mindful awareness of the present moment, life is filled with a sense of ease and satisfaction.

When the ego has become overgrown and dominates the mind, it is all too easy to think of the ego as "me", and one is then led to believe that the worries of the ego are "my worries", the anxieties of the ego are "my anxieties". But that's not true. Those thoughts are not "you", they are merely the chatter of your housekeeper. The ego is merely a tool to help maintain the body. Take charge of the ego, tear down the walls and veils that make life difficult. Accept what is, look for opportunities, and move on.

 
You do not have to struggle to reach God,
but you do have to struggle to tear away
the self-created veil that hides him from you.

Paramahansa Yogananda


The truth is that you are an instrument of the Divine Presence, through which your True Nature wishes to flow into the world, bringing blessings, comfort and peace to all. Day by day, consciously strive to bring loving-kindness, patience, compassion and peaceful calm into every situation.

Patience

Impatience is a clear sign that the ego is refusing to accept the present moment and that we are not in harmony with the ease, forgiveness and loving-kindness of our own True Nature. Whenever impatience arises, take a deep breath, accept “what is”, allow (or even force) loving-kindness to emerge toward everyone involved, and then respond to the situation in a manner which is in harmony with your True Nature, the Divine Presence.


Anger

Anger is the ego's response when we lack suitable skills to deal with our own frustrated desires. In order to subdue the anger, we must first discover what the frustrated desire really is. That is, we need to find out specifically what frustrated desire has triggered the anger. Then, we must strive to understand that desire in a non-reactive manner, neither clinging to the desire, nor resisting the desire, but rather examining the desire to see if it is in harmony with our True Nature, and if so, how that desire could be more appropriately presented and fulfilled.

Putting the Ego in It's Proper Place

In order to allow the Divine Presence to flow through one's own daily life, the ego (the little self) must be lovingly put in its proper place as a servant, not as the master. That is, the ego makes an excellent and worthwhile servant, but it is a terrible master. Excessive focus upon  oneself is the cause of great suffering.


The point is not to deny our ego, but to extricate ourselves from our exclusive preoccupation with it.

One-Liners, by Ram Dass


In order to begin to get the ego under control, it is necessary, first of all, to realize that you actually do have an ego, and secondly to realize that your ego currently has some degree of dysfunction (unless of course you're already perfect). Dysfunctions of the ego restrict our ability to stay in the present moment, which in turn restricts our ability to embody our True Nature. And, without our True Nature as the guiding light of our daily life, life can seem empty and frustrating.

Initially, it may take hours or days before one realizes that the ego has been the cause of a problem. But regardless of when the realization occurs, give thanks for the gift of seeing what the ego has done, look at the matter with calm loving awareness (and perhaps even a sense of humor) noting how troublesome and inappropriate the ego can be, and realize that it is merely the ego (not "I", not "me") which is acting up. Then, with lovingly calm self-assurance, free of attachment to the clutter and confusion of the ego, simply resolve to become aware of, rectify, and let go of such undesirable ego activity more quickly each time it occurs.

To change your life,
     change your attitude.

Daily Contemplations, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche


The ego cannot continue to dominate one's life after the dysfunction of the ego becomes apparent and is watched without reaction, and with perhaps even a sense amusement (somewhat like a parent watching a small child play make-believe games). The key is the watching without reaction.

When you catch the ego beginning to habitually chatter or create undue reactive drama, just watch and listen, without judgment and without reaction. Simply examine the situation in the clear light of the present moment, accepting it all without including any of the clutter or drama, and then move on, as described in these three easy steps:

1) Calm the mind. Use techniques such as calm deep breathing and/or visualization of something peaceful or beautiful. (When the mind is in extreme turmoil, it may be useful to have a non-reactive friend, or a pre-recorded program, available to assist in the calming process.)

2) Accept what is. Look with calm living-kindness at exactly what is actually happening, accepting the present moment with no immediate reaction, no additional drama, no "poor me" story.

3) Move on. Choose what seems to be an appropriate course of action to deal with what is, a course of action which will serve to plant new seeds for the future. The best results will always be obtained when the course of action is in harmony with your True Nature, manifesting beneficent attributes such as generosity, compassion, harmony, beauty, tolerance and loving-kindness.


We must allow the ego, the little self, to help to protect and maintain our human body, but we must rise above any excessive preoccupation with its dysfunctional rambling, and allow the wondrous Divine Presence to be our guide.

The Head and the Heart

Another way to look at this wedding of body and soul, is to explore the union of the head and heart. Much the same as we need to allow the soul to guide and inspire the body, so too must we allow the heart to guide and inspire the head.

Reason, when you speak
   I cannot hear the Wise One.

Rumi, Whispers of the Beloved


The head is an excellent servant, but a very troublesome master. For a happy and satisfied life, the wisdom of the heart must be allowed to lead, and the reasoning of head must follow. The heart and the head are not adversaries, but rather they are two halves which, for the greatest success and enjoyment in life, simply need to be employed in the proper order…. first the heart, then the head.

The reasoning of the head, when empowered by the self-centered ego, enjoys trying to divide, analyze and separate things. In contrast, the wisdom of the heart, when empowered by True Nature, strives for unity, understanding and oneness embracing all of creation. The head is an organ of reason and logic, while the heart is the organ of inner knowing and deep understanding.

That is not to say that the head is intrinsically troublesome, but rather that the head is all too often allowed to run amok without worthwhile direction. In fact, the head has great cunning, resourcefulness and endurance, which are admirable attributes when put to use in service of a heart which is attuned to its True Nature.

When Divine Presence gives us a message, it arrives in an instant, full and complete. But then the head goes to work embellishing and modifying that precious flash of insight in whatever manner seems to best suit its own agenda. To follow the heart, we must learn to capture and preserve that initial flash of inspiration as it arrives, protecting it from further embellishment or interpretation by the head. 

Subtle degrees
of domination and servitude
are what we know as love

but love is different
it arrives complete
just there
like the moon in the window

Jalaluddin Rumi, The Rumi Collection

We need to fully engage both head and heart, and in doing so we engage both body and soul. Either one by itself is not enough. Without suitable direction and guidance from the heart, the head will inevitably become quite troublesome.

To develop both peace and satisfaction, we must find a harmonious balance between heart and head, with the heart providing the guiding inspiration and the head taking care of the worldly details.

 Here’s a little chart comparing some typical attributes of the attuned heart and the unguided head:

 Attuned Heart Unguided Head
The calm, peaceful temple of Divine Presence. Full of incessant worldly chatter about "me" and "mine".
Emphasizes synthesis and unity. Strives for analysis and separation.
Extends loving-kindness to all. Finds expression through self-concern.
Acceptance Intolerance
Unbounded understanding in all situations. Self-righteous misinterpretation.
Full of answers and inner  knowing. Full of questions and arguments.
Expresses love and generosity. Thrives on selfishness and possessiveness.
Is an instrument of Divine Presence. Strives for own personal accomplishments.
Delighted by the presence of "Other" Cares most about "I", "me" and "mine".


Contemplating these opposing qualities of heart and head may lead to questions such as: How can one distinguish between which impulses to follow, and which impulses to avoid? As starting point, one should follow the highest of moral values as have been given to mankind by the great teachers and prophets. But mere rules are not enough, we must also examine our own direct experience to see the results of what we have done. That which leads toward love, harmony and beauty deserves to be followed, while that which fails to lead to love, harmony and beauty deserves to be abandoned.

There is a Light which shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the Light that shines in our heart.

Chandogya Upanishad 3:13:7

When the following of one’s inner impulse leads to a direct experience of beneficent qualities such as unity, brotherhood, loving-kindness, understanding, compassion and generosity, then that impulse, and others like it, should be followed. But if following one’s impulse leads into afflictive thoughts and actions such as division, anger, laziness, worry, hatred, greed or selfishness, then that impulse, and others like it, should be abandoned.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Only the heart can truly understand and appreciate the beauty and wonder of the world. Follow the guidance of the heart, and allow Divine Presence to transform all of life from mundane drudgery into glorious splendor.

Calm Awareness of the Present Moment

The key to overcoming the annoyances and distractions of the ego is awareness, or mindfulness, which is the art of staying in the present moment. We need to live each moment with lovingly calm awareness of what is really happening in the present moment, otherwise the ego can all too easily run astray.

With calm awareness of one's thoughts, and calm awareness of one's current emotional state, one can shine the light of Divine Presence onto the ego, putting an end to all of what appeared to be darkness, confusion and despair.


O, friend! Nobody veils you, but yourself.
In your path there is no thorn or weed, but yourself.
You asked: shall I reach the Beloved or not?
Between you and the Beloved there is nobody, but yourself.


Awhadoddin Kermani

 


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Wishing you love, harmony and beauty,
    wahiduddin

Feb 10, 2010
updated May 30, 2013