March 6, 2012

Ending Ego Enmity: Making the Ego an Ally.

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If there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now.   ~Douglas Adams

As ego dissolution is a primary aim of yoga and many meditation schools, a student recently asked me if the ego was a wholly negative construct.

Religious doctrines and spiritual philosophies throughout the ages have pointed a finger at the ego as agent for all human suffering.

Yet, Sigmund Freud determined the ego an intrinsic aspect of the personality. According to Freud, the ego provides awareness of other people’s needs and desires, therefore mitigating socially unacceptable behavior.

In Samkya, a branch of yogic philosophy, ego or ahamkara is the mechanism which differentiates us from others, yet tends toward deception and grasping; therefore, ahamkara requires transcendence for personal and universal truth to become apparent. 

Many philosophical approaches endeavor to deny the ego altogether. Does this produce dissolution in the end?

Even withdrawing from the world can strengthen an identification with righteousness, merely giving the ego an alternate hook to conclusively conceal accurate self-assessment. Is ego the enemy and is dissolution actually desirable?

In contending with the difficulty ego proposes, The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga lists an integrative approach: “the ego personality is an instrument for action in the world, while at the same time it is continually transcended through acts of conscious self-surrender.[1]


Schools of yogic philosophy are unanimous in their predication: the origin of humanity is divine and the ego stands as an obstacle to seeing the truth of oneself.

Yogic philosophy offers practices to reconnect us with that sense of divinity. Secular applications of yoga and meditation can serve to increase vitality and pacify stress, yet even with these, investigating the ego can still be avoided.

While yoga is a rich and extensive philosophy for self-actualization, the average, image-oriented American equates the whole of yoga with a collection of unusual, fitness-oriented postures.

In a society in which material wealth stands as the highest value, the basic needs and desires of Freud’s id can easily become inflated to the point that luxury is misinterpreted as need, hence justifying greed and absolving unchecked selfishness.

What if the ultimate function of the ego is to provide distinctive, exalted expressions of personality?


Comparative thinking can never be satisfied, for someone else will always have more or be more skilled, talented or attractive. As long as one is focused on what others are doing or having, the likelihood of discovering how one is exceptional becomes severely diminished. The ego, then, tilts into specious identification which produces conflict, limitation and discontent in one’s own life and the lives of others.

Martha Graham describes individual expression as “a quickening that is translated through you into action…It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”[2]  In this context ego is the basis for the artistry of the dancer, the eloquence of the chemist, and the kindness of the postal worker, and an appreciable distinction can be made between them.

Patanjali promises in Yoga Sutras, “Yoga [union] is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception,”[3] at which point the True Self, or svarupe, is revealed. 

When the practice of yoga postures and meditation are used to uplift and rebalance the ego, the divine origins of humanity are not only revealed, but also subsequently activated in the world.  Rather than denying the ego and the uniqueness it endows, an alliance can be struck. The unrejected, integrated ego guides the seeker into a “queer divine satisfaction”[4] that yields a brilliant expression no one else could deliver.


[1] Fuererstein, Georg, The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga; ego, p. 97

[2] De Mille, Agnes, quoting Graham in Martha:  The Life and Work of Martha Graham; p. 264

[3] Mukunda Stiles, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; I, 2, p. 2

[4] De Mille, Agnes, quoting Graham in Martha:  The Life and Work of Martha Graham; p. 264



Editor: Brianna Bemel

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