“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately… you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you.”
– Eckhart Tolle
All my life, I was taught that the human mind and its thinking abilities were what made our species great. I was told that this was what made it possible for us to become the dominant species on this planet. This sort of made sense at the time and so I went along with it. Still, in early adulthood, I couldn’t help noticing that for all our thinking abilities and in spite of all our cleverness, the world was in an unhappy state – myself included. Sure, it wasn’t all bad and even I had lots of ‘sunny days’. But it was pretty clear that all our thinking and cleverness was not necessarily making the world a happier place.
The norm seemed to be: unhappiness with the occasional bout of happiness thrown in here and there.
Then, when I started down the path of self-discovery, I was exposed to some new ideas that turned everything upside down for me. I was told that happiness was my normal state of being. Huh? This was news to me!
And that in order to be happy, all I ever needed to do was to stop doing the things I did that made me feel unhappy. Double ‘Huh?’.
AND that the only thing that was responsible for all the fear, anger, jealousy, depression and misery was right there inside of me… a part of my own mental make up. HUH!?
It turned out that the culprit was the rational thinking part of my mind – the part that some refer to as the ‘ego’ (Note: a meaning slightly different to the one given to this term by psychologists).
Although it is demonised at times, it could be argued that the ego is not something that is inherently bad. On the contrary, it is a valuable tool that we have access to in this lifetime. It is what helps us learn, remember and protect ourselves and is therefore essential for living an independent and fulfilling life.
The real problem with the ego seems to be that most people – myself included – don’t know enough about it or how to use it.
- As with any tool, it is only as good as the skill and the knowledge of the person using it.
- While it is well suited to some tasks, it is poorly suited to others (we have other faculties such as imagination, feelings and intuition that might be better suited to some tasks).
- And, as with ALL tools, it needs to be ‘laid down’ from time to time to give it and the user a respite.
When seen in this light, it becomes clear where so many of us go wrong so easily. Because we tend to rely on it so much from such an early age, most of us end up thinking that we ARE our ego minds (this is why it has also come to be known as the ‘false self’). So how would we ever use it as it is meant to be used – when we think that we are IT!?
The truth of the matter is that we are NOT our egos. We are a higher consciousness – what some would call ‘the authentic self’ (or spirit or soul). The easiest way to test out this idea is to sit quietly and direct your awareness inwards to what is going on within you. You will soon realise that there is a stream of thought that is going on inside… that is the ego mind hard at work. You might then wonder “If I am not these thoughts, who am I?” and the answer is that you are the consciousness that is observing these thoughts.
Welcome to the real you!
Understanding this distinction was a real light bulb moment for me. For near enough 40 years of my life, I went around thinking that I was this ego based personality – the product of my past, my conditioning, my beliefs, my attitudes and how I felt I needed to be.
I began to realise that I had been investing the majority of my time and energy in trying to appease this part of me. All the while, I had been neglecting my true and authentic self! Heck, I didn’t even know it existed, let alone realise that it was the ‘real’ me!!!
Equally startling was the realisation that so many of my life’s major decisions had been made based on what the ego wanted for me as opposed to what my authentic self wanted. Considering that the ego’s wants are often coloured by drama, painful memories, fears, prejudices and limiting beliefs, it is little wonder then that happiness and contentment felt so out of my reach at times.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways in which the ego works and why it can sometimes cause problems:
The ego is meant to help us remember helpful information, like how things work… like say maybe how doors and door knobs work (so we don’t have to keep re-learning how to use a door every time we need to open or close one). But instead of merely remembering these things, the ego will also bring up events from the past – things that we would ideally want to learn and move on from. Ego will say things like “So and so did this to you…” and “You messed up the last time you tried to do this…” and so on. You can appreciate that while it is helpful to remember certain types of information, re-living painful memories will often get in the way of our happiness in the present moment.
The ego is meant to keep us relatively safe and so will warn us of danger and do its best to keep us alive. Often though, the ego will learn to see everything and everyone as some sort of threat. It will often keep us in fear in order to ‘save’ us! Arguing, trying to control other people and always needing to be right are examples of some of the other ways in which the ego expresses this form of protectiveness.
The ego loves control and hates to give it up. It therefore does not like the unknown and sees it as a risk. So it will often freak out when we try to do something new. People say that ‘magic begins at the end of your comfort zone’ and that ‘magic is what is on the other side of fear’. Yet the magic begins not at the end of your comfort zone, but at the end of EGO’s comfort zone! And the fear too is felt by the ego.
The ego knows that we humans are social creatures and it wants for us to be liked and accepted… but then it tries so hard to make us ‘fit in’ and be liked, that we soon begin to lose our identity and our individuality – the very thing we are meant to express and contribute to the world. If we end up listening to the ego, we will not only lose our individuality, but more importantly, we lose our sovereignty and become slaves to the will of others.
The ego wants to learn as much as it can so that it can serve us better… but then it goes over the top and tries to rationalise, analyse and categorise everything and everyone!!! Incidentally, this is where false assumptions and stereotypes come from. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it will dismiss, deny and ridicule anything that it cannot understand.
But that’s not all. For most of us, our egos will often engage in complaining, judging, blaming, criticising and playing mind-games. It is the ego that subscribes to social pecking orders and plays the whole ‘I am better than you’ game. These unhelpful traits are not only directed at others – often, the ego will also direct this venom back at us in the form of feelings of unworthiness and inferiority.
Humanity was not meant to live and operate from the lower perspective of the ego. Yet, looking at my own life and the world around me, this seems to be very much what has been going on. It’s like we have been culturally programmed to operate at this lower level of consciousness.
When living life from the ego’s level of consciousness, our day to day lives will be dominated by thoughts of fear, anxiety, jealousy, competition, anger, feelings of dissatisfaction, feelings of superiority and inferiority, and ceaseless mental chatter.
This way of living is guaranteed to deny us the happiness we seek.
I won’t claim to have fully conquered my ego. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a result, I won’t say that I have all the answers. But I CAN tell you that adopting this new perspective has helped me become a happier and more peaceful person.
In terms of actual steps taken towards taming the ego, I can say that the following have helped me – whenever I applied them consistently:
1. Practising awareness – I do my best to remind myself that I am not my mind or its thoughts and to keep track of what the mind is saying and doing;
2. Training the ego – I do my best to stop myself when I realise that I am judging, blaming, criticising, being fearful etc. and guide my thoughts in a more loving, peaceful and optimistic direction;
3. Nurturing my connection to my authentic self – I do my best to stay calm and in a peaceful and loving state so I can project this out into the world and have it reflected back at me. I also do my best to pay more heed to what my feelings and intuition tell me and no longer make decisions based solely on logic. Last, but not least, I also do my best to use my imagination creatively in order to help me discover new possibilities and opportunities.
You will have noted that all of the above explanations start with the words “I do my best to.” I use these words to drive home the point that this is all that any of us can do.
Some days I seem to be better at it than on others, but I can honestly see a gradual improvement in my overall state of happiness as a result. And that is all the proof and incentive I need to keep going.