Understanding the ego has been challenging man since time began (for the man anyway). Understanding it is not easy. Philosophers and psychologists have tried to do that and have written about it. How do you understand something that identifies with you and is a part of you? We are hard wired to look externally in our life. All our senses are geared to detect external signals. Visual, sensory, auditory, all the signals come from the outside. Why would you then look for the ego inside? What can possibly exist inside that you already don’t know about?
In the centuries preceding modern science, religion has tried to explain ego through Satan and evil. Unable to explain the mind and the unbreakable hold of the ego, man has looked for external influences that dictate human behavior. Combined with an inability to understand things like weather, geology and various other acts of nature, it is easy to follow the school of thought that wants to put the entire blame on external factors. The journey has never been an inward one.
Think about this for a minute. Till not so long ago, we used to believe the earth to be at the center of the universe. With astronomical advances, we have come to learn the fallacy of this thought. We are in fact on a tiny planet revolving around not so big a star in not so great a galaxy. There are much bigger stars than our Sun out there, and bigger galaxies than our Milky Way. We are not in the center of the Universe at all. A little knowledge gained through telescopes has helped us realize the insignificance of our planet in the scheme of things. What we need now is a tool that will help us gain a little insight to understand our own insignificance in the scheme of things.
Wanting to understand the ego is not new to the human race. Many have tried before and failed. Success would have not been so elusive if it was not for the religious and political institutions wanting to retain control over the minds of the public. Philosophers who have contemplated the inner demon have had to suffer at the hands of such institutions to keep fear alive. That has not deterred philosophers of course and the inward exploration has continued through the changing times. Today, with cutting edge science, it is possible more than ever before to probe the human mind. Neuroscientists are trying to understand the kind of emotions and feelings that trigger certain parts of the brain. Yet little progress has been made to understand things like the placebo effect – that the mind can deliver through the body what it believes.
The duality we live in does not become any more clearer than when you try to understand the ego. There are two parts of you: the ego and the consciousness. Think of your consciousness as who you really are. This consciousness does not have a name and transcends anything that this life has to offer. The ego is the physical embodiment of this consciousness. It is the illusionary sense of self. The name, the personality, the characteristics, the emotions, the past, the experience… it all belongs to the ego.
The most important thing to understand about ego is that it is not external to you. It is integral to you and a part of you. In fact, if you can work with something really abstract, the “I or me” inside you is the consciousness and the interpreter is the ego. The formless part of you is the consciousness and the part of you that identifies with your body and your identity as you have established it in this life is your ego. It is born with your physical form and dies with it.
Your ego is born with a survival instinct. Its prime purpose is to stay alive but it cannot do this without you so it has to keep you alive. With you ego has a life and without you it does not. So it will do everything it can for self-preservation. But a fluctuation in that self-preservation and survival mode can change your personality. A weak ego and you end up with low self-esteem and a strong one will bring you arrogance. So an extreme in both situations creates an imbalance and directly impacts your state of existence.
Life comes in shades of grey and rarely in black and white. This changes from moment to moment and situation to situation. People who are otherwise calm and collected are capable of a spectacular display of arrogance given the right trigger. Anger and other emotions can creep up without warning and feed the ego to make it stronger.So ego is not something you can bring under control and keep it that way but something you have to keep in check all the time.
A peaceful harmony is possible but it requires awareness and effort. The ego is elusive as already mentioned, and it knows how to disguise itself really well. Friendship with your ego is like a perfect and happy marriage. Two partners that ride together for a while, sharing everything, knowing full well that their journey is together but their paths are separate. And that the partnership will one day come to an end. But like a good marriage, a peaceful partnership will not be made in heaven. It will be built through awareness, respect and sheer hard work.
The big question then is how to become friends with your ego and find the right balance that will let you co-exist in peace. That is the subject of the next blog.