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August 12, 2020

Don’t Fight the Ego: Use it to Become all you’ve ever Wanted to Be.

Author’s Note: I encourage you to peruse the first article, The Ego Disorder. {Part 1}, before reading this one—Part 2.

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The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety.” ~ Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, 1956

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Many of us have attempted to rid ourselves of, or at least reduce, our egos.

Although some Eastern gurus and spiritual masters have claimed to have attained a “selfless state“, I have been studying the ego for over 35 years, and have never met an egoless individual. I have read about such egoless individuals and feel fairly certain that they exist, however as far as I know—they are extremely rare.

The work of ridding oneself of the ego can be likened to a snake eating its own tail.

What happens to many of us on the spiritual path is that the ego processes shift and we begin to define our identity as someone who is attempting to rid themselves of his or her ego. Speaking from my own experience, a pitfall of this endeavor can be the impartation of a certain smug sense of superiority or—worse yet—spiritual pride.

Yet, when we consider the ego as an evolutionary construct, and an adaptation that has developed over millions of years in the human brain to perpetuate the species and make sense of sensory input, it is easy to understand its tenacity.

As human beings, we have basic instinctual needs: these include the security instinct, the social instinct, and the sexual or reproductive instinct (thank you, Bill Wilson). In our society the work of the ego is essential for satisfying these fundamental human requirements.

The ego processes work to create a unique individual who has the capacity to take care of their basic instincts; without this it would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish this important work.

From this perspective, the work of the ego can be called a good thing.

The masks created by its processes for the purpose of our ongoing survival in our highly competitive, capitalist society allow us to provide for ourselves and those who depend on us. To quote Ray Dalio from his online series, Principles:

“To be good, something must operate consistent with the laws of reality and contribute to the evolution of the whole.”

It is only when the processes of the ego exceed their intended purpose, and dominate our minds and actions, that dis-ease and harm can arise.

Healing the Ego Disorder

Due to the density of population and other factors such as social media, television, and advertising, the ego processes are ramped up in the modern world. This has resulted in a condition that I call “ego-itis,“an inflammation of the ego, that seems to be epidemic in our society.

The symptoms of “ego-itis” include anxiety, narcissism, self-absorption, restlessness, intolerance, a tendency toward conflict and drama, and a baseline psychological fear—the dis-eases that result from exaggerated functions of the ego and its affects on our minds.

Although it may be tempting to blame and villainize the ego, it is helpful to understand that it is just doing its job.

I once complained to a friend about waking up to a mess left on the carpet by our new puppy. His reply to me was, “Well, what do you expect? That’s exactly what puppies do.” As such, the judging, comparing, competing, resenting, and latching onto shame and secrets are just what egos do.

Although the ego processes tend to create havoc and discomfort in their ramped up state, many of us feel tormented by the fear and thought patterns that arise from this source. When we actually listen to these voices and attempt to hear and understand what they are telling us, we can then detach and distance ourselves from the deleterious effects on our peace of mind.

We can raise our level of awareness and have choices in our response to life’s challenges rather than live a life of reactivity based on the ego’s agenda. Consider the following quote from an anonymous source:

“Awareness is the single most important thing that we can cultivate in ourselves and others to improve the world. Higher awareness increases our ability to make every decision in accordance with our deepest values (which I believe are universal values).”

If we listen to the basic message of the ego—what is it telling us?

Beyond all the thought processes that have been mentioned (comparing, competing, and criticizing) there is a deeper voice that carries a deeper message; this message is a fundamental driver of thought, feeling, and behavior and it is insidiously disruptive to an individual’s search for a peaceful, fulfilling, and functional life. It comes in many forms, but this voice has only one basic message—I am not enough; hence I need to stand out and make myself important.

Variations include thoughts and feelings such as; I am not okay just as I am; things are not okay just as they are; life is hopeless; or if only things were different then I could be okay and happy. All of these, and other dark, depressive thoughts, spring from the basic ego belief of not being enough. From this fundamental belief arises all sorts of people-pleasing behavior: over-spending, over-working, distractive escapist activities, and even self-destructive tendencies. Unhealthy relationships, abusive behavior, and victimization are tolerated when we buy into this basic message of the ego.

Apparently we cannot be rid of the ego, nor does it seem are we intended to. The process of self-definition is ongoing, mostly on an unconscious level. This being the case, we must learn to live with and work with it.

The key to this is awareness; we can become the witness, or the observer of the ego. We begin by listening to the voices, or thoughts, of the ego without judgement or resistance.

Since feelings are often the result of thoughts, discomfort can provide a useful cue that we may wish to observe our thinking and see if it is caused by one of the ego processes at work: comparison, competing, criticizing, or judgement.

Just as physical pain is a signal that some part of our body needs attention, so emotional and psychological pain can tell us to give attention to our thoughts. We can take ownership of these thoughts so that they do not take ownership of us.

Awareness enables us to get curious with our thought processes and gives us a choice to select a different line of perception.

Working With The Ego

If we think of the brain as a computer, the ego process might be seen as a program, or app, that runs with a specific purpose: to create and maintain our sense of self, and our individual identity. As such, our ego is nothing more than a tool, just as TurboTax is a tool to assist the preparation of taxes, Google is a tool to find things on the internet, and Mapquest is a tool to navigate our destinations—our ego is a tool to create a self.

The key to working with this tool—the ego—is intention. We can decide what sort of identity we wish to create and then utilize the tool of the ego processes in order to achieve this objective. The self-awareness, imagination, and creativity that humans possess are the attributes that enable us to harness the processes of the ego for transformation.

To begin with, we stop trying to fight with the ego. In the words of the Chinese sage, Sun Tzu:

‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Basic martial art instruction teaches one to utilize the momentum and force of the opponent to our own advantage in the fight. Although we are not physically fighting the ego, this basic principle applies. The processes of the ego have their own momentum and force that can be harnessed with intentionality.

Once we are clear about our goal, that is to say what sort of person we want to create, we can begin to employ the processes of the ego toward that end.

“By aligning our behavior to our identity, we make choices based on who we believe we are.” This quote from Nir Eyal’s recent book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, explains the transformative action of choosing our identity.

Behaviors are altered to support our belief regarding who we think we are.

Herein lies the magic behind the use of affirmations, as well as the amazing power of identifying oneself with a group such as Alcoholics Anonymous and labeling oneself as a recovering alcoholic. A recovering alcoholic does not drink, their behavior is aligned with their identity. This exact process takes place with someone who identifies themselves as a practicing Buddhist, as an athlete, a loser, or as a vegetarian.

Once the identification has been made and the individual adopts a self-image the processes of the ego works automatically to support it, and their behaviors align themselves with the identity that has been selected.

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