Defanging the Ego

"It's hopeless," Susie says dramatically. "I spend three hours yesterday showing my uncle how to use his iPod. Then for the rest of the day I'm congratulating myself for taking the time, and for being such a good teacher. Then my uncle tells his wife that I got him all confused, and now I'm ready to kill him. And it's all ego! I can't stand it!"

Ever since I've known her, Susie has been talking about ego the way fundamentalists talk about sin. Ego, she'll say passionately, is the primal enemy, the real Satan, the source of all the traits she dislikes about herself—qualities like envy, and the burning need to get credit for any little favor she does for people, and the wish to be loved personally, just for herself. Trying to stamp the footprints of ego out of her personality, she's subjected herself to long hours of practice and selfless service, put herself into the hands of teachers who specialized in tough love, and gone through dozens of purifying diets. The worst, from my point of view, was her 'holy style' period, when she went around exuding such strained humility that her 12-year-old daughter begged her to act normal. Susie still won't pay a compliment without prefacing it by saying something like "I don't want to inflate your ego, but . . ."

But this afternoon, Susie tells me, she's decided that it's no use. No matter how she fights it, her ego stubbornly refuses to disappear. Instead, it just keeps morphing into ever-new forms.

She's finally realized that fighting the ego is like punching oobleck or trying to outrun your own shadow—the more you think you've escaped from it, the more it sticks to you.

It's the paradox that spiritual people have been grappling with for eons: the ego loves any form of self-improvement. The ego is always trying to get better at its game, and it looks on spiritual practices as valuable adjuncts to its self-aggrandizing strategy. Ego particularly enjoys projects for getting rid of itself. Ego will earnestly agree to set itself up to get bashed. Then it will pop up like a piece of half-toasted bread and present itself to you, as if saying, "Look at me, haven't I practically disappeared?"

In fact, a really sophisticated ego is a master at disguising itself as something else—as your feeling of injustice, for example, or as the smooth voice of yogic detachment that tells you there's no point in indulging your girlfriend's emotional neediness. Ego can even disguise itself as the inner Witness, and watch itself endlessly while smugly congratulating itself on having escaped its own traps.

The ultimate irony here is that ego doesn't actually exist. Buddhist and Vedantic teachers are fond of saying that ego is like the blue of the sky, or the trick of the light that makes us see a puddle in the middle of a dry highway. It's an optical illusion, a simple mistake in the way we identify ourselves. That's why fighting your ego is like boxing with your reflection in the mirror. (Or, as my Guru used to say, like trying to get rid of something you haven't got.) Now that neurobiologists seem to have reduced the sense of I-ness to a couple of brain chemicals, it looks more than ever as if ego were a kind of involuntary mechanism, something beyond our personal control, just like the heartbeat and the process that makes us go on breathing when we sleep.

But try telling this to Cindy, a young student of mine who works in a brokerage house. Surrounded by highly competitive young men and women with MBAs from Wharton and Stanford, she feels as if she's in a daily dogfight, and she's losing. Her colleagues steal her clients, take credit for her successes, and bad-mouth her to superiors. Every day she feels more discouraged and deflated. Since Cindy's ego identifies itself as a yogi and a nice girl, it tells her that she's not supposed to fight for anything so ephemeral as success. But this is her career, after all. So she feels doubly angry with herself—angry because she's failing at her job, and angry because she resents the people who are doing well. To make it worse, she intuits that she has as bad an ego problem as her colleagues. Their egos are inflated and sharky, while hers is deflated and timid. (Though even in her deflated state, she still feels morally superior to them, a sure sign that there's more than a little inflation!) The point is that all of them are being driven by identification with a false self. And Cindy, like the rest of us, would be a lot happier if she could get some distance from it.

The yoga tradition speaks of ego at several different levels. At its most purely functional, ego is simply part of our inner psychic apparatus, the antahkarana -- the mechanism that sorts our inner experience. Ego's function is to keep our boundaries as individuals. In Sanskrit, the word for ego is 'ahamkara', which means 'the I-maker.' It's ego's job to differentiate among the mass of sensations that come your way, and tell you that a particular experience belongs to the energy-bundle you call 'me.' Ego identifies a feeling of hunger as 'mine,' so that you know when to feed your body. When a truck comes hurtling down the street, ego tells you that it's 'you' who should get out of the way. Ego also collects your past experiences, like the time you stood up in 5th grade assembly to sing a solo of "A Very Precious Love," and got booed. Then, for better or worse, ego will compare a present moment situation to what happened in the past, so that the next time you're tempted to sing a love song in front of a bunch of 10-year-olds, something tells you to forget it.