(Stillness in the Storm Editor) Is the ego bad? Is it something we should be trying to get rid of? Before we answer those questions, perhaps we should be asking, what is the ego in the first place? The following article sheds some interesting insights into these questions as well as the practices that have been developed over the years on how to transcend the ego.
From an epistemological point of view, we ought to define the ego. One would think that, since there are so much cultural and spiritual practices related to overcoming the ego, we’d know exactly what it is with laser-like precision. But in my studies and research of trying to define what exactly the ego is, I have found lackluster definitions from these communities.
Part of the problem is that the ego isn’t something tangible. It’s not like defining a cup of coffee, where we can physically hold it, assess it’s attributes, and develop a precise method for identifying what it is, to such an extent, almost everyone can agree when they’re seeing a cup of coffee.
If one looks up ego on the internet, they’ll likely find three related yet distinct definitions.
- a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
- the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.
- a conscious thinking subject.
It seems all the proceeding are valid, but they don’t assert that the ego is negative, something to be avoided or transcended.
The definition implied by those who promote the notion of transcendence of the ego is close to the first one, a person’s sense of self-importance.
Based on the contextual usage of the word ego within the community seeking to transcend it, there seems to be the following working definition.
The ego is that part of us that is arrogant, that suffers, that is selfish, prideful, and anti-social. It’s constantly tempting us to do “bad things” and as such, if we “let the ego run the show” then we’ll create problems in our lives.
But this definition seems to be only a partial description of the ego, or at the very least, only focusing on its negative aspects.
From a general perspective, all things can be thought of as amoral or neutral. They are neither good or bad, in and of themselves—they can be felt, seen, or identified as good or bad depending on the context or situation at hand. Moreover, things can be used by conscious beings, what we call tools, to do other things in the world. In this respect, the ego is probably not good or bad implicitly, it is merely a tool that can be used wisely or not.
After studying this concept for over two decades, I define the ego as rotating states of consciousness that give us the power to do specific things in the world, things that would be impossible without creating a bounded and limited identity through which to take some action. Simply put, our ego is like wearing a uniform or playing a role in a movie—things we can only do one at a time. And the better we’re able to focus our consciousness, the better we can accomplish our goals and express our values.
Given this definition, gaining mastery of the self-appears to be the best course of action. The master tool of all tools is the self, the ever-changing states of consciousness we call experience that we use to navigate the world and universe. As such, things that enhance our focus, mastery, and mental discipline will make our sense of self-stronger, because we’re gaining more working knowledge about who we truly are. This is what I call the positive ego, the thing that is virtuous and optimizing about the self—making things better all the time. The positive ego requires work, practice, and discipline to develop, which improves our conscious mind’s ability to direct free will in a coherent and positive way. The more we improve the positive ego, the more all our goals and pursuits seem to form a complete and interconnected tapestry. This way, when we’re accomplishing one goal, we’re not hindering another.
The negative ego, on the other hand, seems to work against us in that it lacks discipline and undermines other goals. For example, if we want to be loving and supportive of our fellows—altruism— the impulse to be mean and spiteful towards those we don’t like works against the altruism goal. In this sense, practices that seek to “get the ego out of the way” so we can “let the spirit drive” are designed to limit the directing power of the negative ego so that the positive ego can be more influential.
Consider what happens when you do things in life. You embody different roles and identities. When you’re cleaning your house, you’re in the “cleaning ego state.” When you’re walking to the bathroom, you’re in the “bathroom walking ego-state.” When you’re in love, you’re in the “in love ego-state.” Within this framework of thinking, the ego is merely a state of being. The key attribute of the ego is that it allows us to do something specific. You can’t walk down the street and cook a meal at the same time, these two activities require different modes of consciousness. It seems human beings aren’t built to do multiple different things all at once, we evolved (or were created) with a system for organizing consciousness so it can focus. That technology is essentially the self and its companion, the sense of self, the ego.
In this sense, the ego is the thing that allows us to direct our attention within a bounded framework so that something can be accomplished. The ego, in a meta or archetypal sense, can be thought of as the engine makes all action possible, whether physical actions in the material world or metaphysical actions in consciousness. When the will acts, when volition fires forth to bring cause that generates effect, the ego is at work because we need to comprehend the self in some way to do things. This process seems to involve separating holistic aspects of consciousness using the interplay between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind.
Consider this, what if every experience, thought, feeling, sensation, impulse, desire, memory, and so on—you ever had—was constantly buzzing through your consciousness? Do you think it would be challenging to focus on doing specific tasks? I would argue, that without the ability to separate our consciousness, it would be impossible to do anything but just be.
The conscious mind lets us focus in the now, which is where free will has the greatest power to act. And the subconscious interacts with the conscious to draw from the unconscious, memories, programs, skills, and so on, which help us in the now to accomplish our goals. For example, the act of cooking a meal is a complex activity. We have to focus on specific tasks that accumulate across time, producing the end result of a meal. Without the ability to dissociate yourself from everything else, so you can focus, it would be extremely difficult to cut vegetables or sauté onions.
I think most people will agree that having the ability to concentrate on something is valuable. And if you do, then you’ll also probably agree that enhancing this ability to focus would arguably improve all other aspects of life.
This is where the study comes in.
In the following article, several studies are cited concluding that yoga and meditation actually made people’s ego bigger. They measured this by asking the participants of the study questions related to their sense of “self-enhancement”—how good they feel about what they are doing in the world and if it will be regarded by others as good.
It appears that after meditation and yoga, your sense of self-worth and capacity to do things improves. This doesn’t seem bad in my opinion. I would argue that knowing yourself so you can be more effective in your pursuits is a good thing. The summary of the study didn’t offer any insight into if yoga and meditation have an effect on the more negative definition of the ego described earlier. I would suggest that it would, if done properly because the negative ego feeds on lack of mental discipline, and mental discipline is itself the ability to focus and concentrate, avoiding distractions. Given that focus is essential to accomplish our goals, and the negative ego attempts to derail our focus across time, yoga and meditation appear to be ways to enhance the positive ego.
In conclusion, it seems that like many issues in life, we should gain a clear and supportable understanding of something so we don’t accidentally make things worse. It’s very easy to make a blanket statement that the ego is bad and we should find ways to limit it. But if we’re not careful in how we define the factors at play, we’ll cause ourselves confusion that manifests as cross purposing—we’ll fuel the negative ego.
I have observed that a great many people who lack mental discipline also attempt to get out of their head and stop using their mind, which they usually associate with the ego. But given what was outlined above, that the self and our sense of it is a primary tool for doing everything in life, this viewpoint is counter productive. Taking the time to carefully examine our beliefs, theories, and presuppositions are essential so we can move toward the things we value.
(Alanna Ketler) In an attempt to try and limit our ego from running the show and move closer to our spirit and connection to the divine, many of us are on a path towards enlightenment.
by Alanna Ketler, June 25th, 2018
This path generally includes a process of waking up to the reality around you, personal development books, plant medicine, yoga, and meditation can all be great tools along the way. We feel we are becoming wiser, more connected and sometimes even more evolved than those who are not on the same path as us.
A recently published study directly contradicts that approach and found that typical meditation and yoga practices can actually inflate your ego. Who knew?
We all know those spiritual types, that seem to have it all together, they are diligent in their daily practices and are the first to give you advice and explain what you are doing wrong and why you haven’t yet found peace within. Sure, these people generally have the best intentions, but the concept of being better, above or more enlightened than our fellow brothers and sisters on this planet is, believe it or not, pure ego! It is very easy to fall into this trap.
When I first “woke up” over a decade ago, I felt like I had so much information that no one else had yet awakened to, in this way I admittedly felt superior to many of my peers and put myself on a pedestal. This wasn’t an intentional action however, it’s just what happened.
Since, I have learned that the moment you think you have all the answers and have it all figured out is the exact moment that you need to take a step back and realize that in reality, you know nothing at all. What’s true to you may not be the truth for someone else. We are all on different paths, and different journeys, yes to the same place, but not a single one is better or superior to any other. No matter how off track others may appear to be.
The paper was published online in the journal Psychological Science, researchers noted that Buddhism’s teachings that a meditation practice helps overcome the ego conflicts with the US psychologist William James’s argument that the practice of any skill at all ignites a sense of self-enhancement. So, the practice of bettering yourself does exactly that — makes you feel better, better than you were, but in many cases better than those around you.
There has already been a lot of evidence in support of James’s theory, but a team from Mannheim, Germany decided to test it specifically including the practice of yoga and meditation.
93 yoga students were recruited and over the course of 15 weeks, researchers evaluated their sense of self-enhancement. A few measures were used to monitor this. First, they asked the participants how they felt they compared to the average yoga student in their class. Next, participants completed an inventory that assesses narcissistic tendencies by asking them to rate how deeply phrases such as “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done” related to them. Lastly, they administered a sort of self-esteem scale asking the subjects if they agreed with statements such as, “At the moment I have high self-esteem.”
An hour after their yoga practice the participants showed significantly higher self-enhancement than when they hadn’t done yoga within a 24 hour period.
Another study examined 162 people who practiced meditation, they were scouted through meditation groups on Facebook. These participants proved to have a similar impact on self-enhancement as those from the yoga study. Participants were asked to evaluate themselves in relation to statements like “In comparison to the average participant of the study, I am free from bias.” The results showed that the participants had a higher self-enhancement in the hour following the meditation practice than when they hadn’t meditated for a 24-hour period.
Participants level of well-being was also measured using two measures — the satisfaction with life measure and the eudemonic well-being measure, which assesses satisfaction with autonomy, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, environmental mastery and self-acceptance. They found that the level of well-being increased with self-enhancement, this suggests that self-enhancement correlated with an increased sense of well-being.
Authors of the study concluded that “Ego-quieting is a central element of yoga philosophy and Buddhism alike. That element, and its presumed implications require some serious quieting is often called upon to explain mind-body practices’ well-being benefits. In contrast, we observed that mind-body practices boost self-enhancement and this boost — in turn — elevates well-being.”
An alternate explanation for this study suggests that the participants may be in fact doing meditation and yoga all wrong. The participants were all based out of Germany and many academics have theorized that the Westernized practices of Buddhism fail to include an eye towards selflessness that would otherwise characterize the goals of these efforts.
Westernized versions of yoga and meditation marginalize the acts when compared to the more ‘pure’ forms, if you will.
Should you stop doing yoga and meditation or laugh at those who are committed to these practices? Absolutely not! This study serves as a powerful reminder that regardless of your practice or lack there-of, not one person is above anyone else, regardless of the activities they choose to do. Yoga and meditation can be great tools to assist us along our journey and find the clarity and insight that we may be needed, but just remember to always keep that ego in check. It is fine to have an ego — we all have one and I hate to break it to you, we can never get rid of it. But a good question to ask yourself is whether or not doing these practices makes you feel superior to others, and if so, why?
We are all on a path to self-discovery, and we are all just walking each other home. We all face challenges, and some of these practices can help us to handle ourselves differently in times of struggle, but in reality, we are all one anyways!
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