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Ego – its support and obstacles towards Life

Ego is an invention of Life for animals to survive. In reptiles, it drives the survival compulsions of hunting, consuming, sleeping, and sex. All mammals share these life functions, yet their survival in the wild also relies on their social ties within their unit: wolves hunt in packs, lions hunt as a pride, and as a band, gorillas maintain access to food and water locations1. The mammalian needs for affection, social engagement, and touch all arise from our evolutionary-toned needs to survive as a group. We, humans, are also mammals and thus share their traits: we possess both a reptilian and mammalian components in our brain. The most genetically similar animal to the human is the chimpanzee, and while we share many social traits, we are quite different. Since the 6 million years since we shared a common ancestor, us humans have evolved by becoming full bi-pedals, migration, and most of all through cooking. Fire has allowed us to cook food, accessing more calories, and evolving a brain that is uniquely human. With our neo- cortexes. we forecast, communicate in language, and create stories of country, nationality, work, and money. We have built marvels such as computers, space telescopes, and robots now on Mars, and yet our constant expansion of consumption drives climate change, diminishes biodiversity, and proports economic division. Our actions, originating in our minds, have created dreams and nightmares. How we impact our planet and our humanity is a direct reflection of our own egos – we build wonders and create hell. The ego is a source of both self harm and self realization. With intention and discipline, the individual ego can become an agent of positive social change, a servant of Life.

Ego - transforming self harm into motivation

Shame, depression, anger, and guilt all require a story. They are not ‘primary’ emotions like sadness, loss, joy, and happiness. Anger, for example, requires the story that “something bad happened” or “things shouldn’t be this way”. Behind anger is often sadness or loss, powerful feelings that indicate that an essential need is not being met. When the sadness is deeply experienced, there is little space for anger, little space for stories or concepts.

Shame requires an audience to which the experiencer of the shame sets some social value. It also requires “a story” – some “agreed upon norm” that is somehow violated – e.g. “you took a piece of chocolate cake before the birthday candles were blown out, how dare you!”. Shame, therefore, requires both a group and a story. Its roots are our deep need to survive within our tribe – a trait honed over millions of years in the wilderness. In the wild, to be cast out from your tribe is to receive a death sentence. A child “learns” shame as a way to survive. Shame is deeply ingrained in our psyche. For better or worse, it is there.

Addiction is a response to shame, guilt, anger, and depression. In an age where consumption is driven by these “secondary” emotions, it is no wonder that people have “everyday” addictions to coffee, alcohol, and food through their mouths, media consumption of violence, death, and fear through their eyes and ears, and addiction to work and to culture through their minds. Ultimately, most of us have become thought addicts and the ego the biggest “drug dealer”. Addictions manifested in adulthood are based on “ego-forming” years of childhood when we create the concept of a self. The concept of selfhood is necessary for the child to survive amidst whatever environment it finds itself in. Ego is formed by the energy balances and imbalances of childhood. Unabated, ego can lead to “mind-less” repetitions of our “unseen” inner child in the form of our everyday addictions in our urges to hide from the primary emotions behind our anger, shame, guilt, and depression.

If we can learn to drop concepts and stories, then we learn to drop our everyday addictions. While anger and shame have the danger to keep us in addiction, feeling and experiencing the underlying emotions behind them can be powerful drivers towards personal and societal change. Mourning the loss of a loved one, deeply felt, is a powerful motivation to protect Life. Loneliness, deeply felt, is a powerful motivation to seek friendship and companionship. We feel to heal. Where there is a healthy aspiration to break free of our patterns, there is a real possibility for change. Deeply feeling our emotions create the impetus to transform our egos to into servants of Life.

Ego as a tool towards self realization

We honour our well-meaning aspirations with daily practice, and we take breaks and rest. We practice both self-discipline (Tapas) and surrender (Isvara Pranidhana). As I write these words, I intend to improve clarity within myself and you the reader, and I pause from this process to pet my community’s cat now enjoying his morning rest.

In my experience, there is no stopping the constant chatter of the mind. The best I can do is simply see that it is there, acknowledge and empathize with the emotions of the inner child, and move on towards my intention. I do my best to say ‘whatever’ when my mind gets out of hand – without an angry push nor a sarcastic pull – just ‘whatever’. I try not to “hate” my mind for all the noise it makes and practice accepting all the shadows that arise. The edges of the voices have become a little bit softer.

While there is a danger in “addiction to the solution”, we can honour well-meaning aspiration. Why else do we show up to yoga classes? We can honour the part of us that longs for expansion, a part of us that seeks to be free from suffering. And we can honour the part of us that just wants to rest, that just does not want to worry about the “crap of the world”. In short, we can move towards positive change AND we can “do nothing” and just enjoy our so called ‘vices’ when we need to.

Ego as an agent for positive social change

The metaphor of “riding the wave” can also be applied to how we engage with the outside world. We were born with a certain “energy trail”. Our traumas and lineage are as they are. We engage with the polarities of our lineage with our practice, and we simultaneously accept them as we are. Engagement coupled with acceptance is the motor of change. Ultimately, we need the will, a heart-felt desire to change the path. Yoga is a tool to surrender forward while also learning to see circumstances as they are and accepting them. Aspiring while avoiding the “bullshit of becoming”.

Somehow, we need to make our egos our own ‘disciple’ – agents with their own unique character who despite their chatter, are for our cause. When I think of the word ‘disciple’, I imagine these 12 guys 2’000 years ago in Roman-occupied Palestine who lived in hard times under a foreign empire. And then along comes this man who talks about the Light & Love in each of us, and that “’I’ am the way, the Truth, and the Light” – referring to the Knower and Seer in each of us. When I imagine how my own ego could be a servant of Life, I imagine a disciple who has been living on auto-pilot in a hard place, and then suddenly gets a glimpse of the Divine. They dropped what they were doing and followed a path. That’s how it’s done: you drop what you’re doing, and you decide to follow a path. Just drop it and go.

And while this narration may seem alluring, the words in themselves have the dangers of creating “self invented divine images” – the new story to which the ego can attach itself. Words and ego are both a double-edged sword: we can grasp them as if this were reality and ultimately suffer, or we can use them to get through a new gateway, and let them go as soon as we enter the new experience. The danger is that as soon as we grasp the new concept, it is simply added to the story in which we’ve enclosed ourselves. I think, therefore, that the “trick” is to keep letting go. Hold the word, let it go, and dive into what arises next.

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