Ever caught yourself trying to defend your words or protect your actions, despite them being clearly inappropriate or even downright wrong, but your egomind just won’t let you do it? No way will you admit you were off the mark! Sound familiar?
The ego is the “me-centered” part that gives us a strong sense of ourselves. This is neither good nor bad, unless self-obsession takes over and dominates our thoughts, feelings, and interactions. There is no limit to the damage a strong ego can do, from the arrogant conviction that its own opinions are the only right ones and everyone should be made to believe in them, to wielding and abusing power. A selfish ego is unconcerned with other people’s feelings, it thrives on the idea of me-first and impels us to cry out, “What about me? What about my feelings?”
Unable to think outside of either our failures and misery or our self-importance and pretentious pride can have a devastating affect on relationships. Every time we judge or find fault with someone we reinforce a sense of separateness and isolation, allowing the ego to create a gap between us. Judgment is the ego’s defense: by pointing out someone else’s weaknesses we think it makes us look right in comparison.
“If we don’t understand other people’s feelings, their suffering or behavior, then we are only concerned with our own ego and image,” says spiritual teacher Mingyur Rinpoche. “If the ego gets too strong, then it causes anxiety, depression, anger, jealousy, or insecurity. Then our ego becomes even bigger in order to protect us. We think that to defeat others is the only way to survive: ‘I have to be tough in order to reach my goals.’”
The ego’s nature is to stay in control, so it does all it can to keep us in the realm of “me-first-ness.” It makes a perfect servant but a terrible master. The ego can also be very subtle and a remarkably good shape shifter, having any number of disguises or appearing in many varied forms. For instance, it can make us believe we are the cleverest, the best informed and most important, as easily as it can make us feel unworthy, unlovable and definitely not good enough to be happy. Either a negative or a positive ego is as “egotistic” as the other, and equally as damaging.
Self-centeredness and selfishness—the hallmarks of the ego—affect not only our personal relationships but also our behavior in the world.
“I gave up acting so I could be real. Actors are inherently full of pretense, self-centeredness and narcissism and I wanted to be more authentic,” says actor Linus Roache. “Until I realized that it’s not just actors who are full of ego, everybody is! Everybody has their layers of pretenses and images of who they think they are. I finally saw that acting wasn’t the problem; rather it was my relationship to it that mattered. Without access to the inner dimensions of freedom, I can’t be either an actor or a fully authentic person.”
Without a practice of self-reflection and mindfulness we are subject to the ego’s every whim and have no way of putting a brake on its demands. When we practice meditation, on the other hand, we get the space to see ourselves more clearly, along with any resistance to qualities like kindness, selflessness and love. The more we meditate, the more the self-centered and egotistic aspects of our nature begin to release their grip and become less demanding while deeper altruistic qualities emerge. As the need to constantly engage in our own story loses its importance, so the ego soon becomes less of an issue, even redundant.
The ego can also make us think we are the dust on a mirror and could never be so beautiful as the radiant reflection beneath the surface. Yet how extraordinary to believe that we could never be so luminous when such resplendence is our true nature!