ego

The demonized ego

Rendering of Mt. Shasta, Northern California

Rendering of Mt. Shasta, Northern California

Misunderstanding ourselves

We make an all-too-human mistake when we believe our egos to be ourselves. This belief sells us short on the vastness of our true nature. The ego sees threats everywhere and insists on the "otherness" of everything in the world around us. This makes the universe seem a hostile and treacherous place.

"Stick with me," the ego tells us. "I am the only one who knows how to keep you safe." 

The ego is bluffing. It has no idea whether its actions are effective or not; it just needs to have us accept it as the alpha and the omega. It demands to exclusively rule the whole of our existence. It wants to be boss. If we accede to these demands, we are engulfed in misery and alienation. Ease and a sense of belonging leave us, and we become more and more alone, cut off from others.

Where, then, do we find relief from this trap? It is in the moment, in the now, in the presence of the unchanging Self (note large S). The creator places us in a position of neutrality from our fears. We finally get a rest!

This rest is deep and profound, and comes as a result of meditation, diligently pursued and actively engaged in.

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is wilfully to misunderstand them.” 
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Cali

Cali

Balance is elusive

Sunset, Rogue Valley, Oregon

Sunset, Rogue Valley, Oregon

Until it's not

Do you remember the first time you successfully rode a bicycle? One moment it seemed impossible, and you thought you could do nothing but fail. Suddenly there was a shift, and you were up and riding. Everything clicked, and it seemed as though you would never return to that state of "failure" again. What actually happened at that moment? Was the "you" that was failing really you, or was it only a part of the whole you, mistakenly trying to run the whole show? 

Our ego tries to convince us that it is all that we are. It claims ownership. It assigns blame. It sees any expansion of our resources as a threat to its own dominance. It parsed the bike riding experience as too hard, as impossible to achieve. Better give up and retreat, licking our wounds. Then our instinct kicks in, and we find an effortless, frictionless balance. We fearlessly move forward with confidence.

The ego is a busy little bee. There is seemingly no end to the machinations it will use to distract us from any task that threatens change or growth. Yet it will fold in any fight if we stand firm in our resolve.

When we learned to meditate, the ego had a little bit to say about it. Luckily we did not listen.

“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.” 
― Rumi, The Essential Rumi

Moonrise, Guru Purnima, Studio City, California

Moonrise, Guru Purnima, Studio City, California

Getting quiet enough

Wildflowers, Fryman Canyon, Los Angeles

Wildflowers, Fryman Canyon, Los Angeles

LIstening for the still small voice


My ego presents my consciousness with a dizzying sequence of thoughts. Sometimes it resembles a petulant child, tugging at my hand, demanding all of my attention to this crisis or that perceived insult. It makes endless commentaries on what I should do, how I should think, how have I failed. What does all this say about me? How can all of this be fixed, right now?

We don't try to quiet the mind. Unlike other techniques, the householder's Vedic meditation routine consists of sitting quietly and innocently repeating the mantra for twenty minutes, twice a day. That's it. My teacher was very easy, very accommodating, but on one point he was adamant; "This is not negotiable," he said, and I listened. "Get to the chair, twice a day. Sit down. Let the mantra come effortlessly. Whatever happens, happens for good."

This directive is simple, but the ego is persistent. A meditator is in danger of succumbing to a torrent of judgements, rationalizations and erroneous conclusions. Some of us may stray from the path. But if we observe objectively, meditation increases our sense of peace. It places us in a position of neutrality and removes us from the onslaught of chaos delivered by the ego. We return to the path.

I feel fortunate that I don't need to figure it all out. I just need to follow simple instructions, and slowly over time, observe my life getting better.

Getting started for some of us is tough. The ego has a lot to say about why we should not learn. 

"It's a racket. It's all about money."

"Do don't want to become brainwashed, do you?"

"I'm a tough customer. I'm nobody's fool."


Having introduced doubt, the ego has again tricked us into inaction. Some of us may actually never get started, and the ego's death-grip upon our consciousness remains intact.

We owe it to ourselves to break this cycle, and give ourselves the gift of meditation.

Emotional identification

The error of grandiosity

We all get our feelings hurt. We are not always treated with the respect we would prefer by someone in our life, or, depending on our level of grandiosity, by life itself. It's a common experience, and actually, a reassuring reminder that we are still alive and human.

The problem arises when we regard hurt feelings as something to be resolved, something to be guarded against, or a cause for retaliation. So-and-so disrespected me. What does this say about me? Should I engage further with that person until I wrest satisfaction from them emotionally? Should I take my interpretation of their current regard for me as gospel, or should I recognize my own past propensity for emotional distortion?

Our "filters" are not always clean. We all carry stress and emotional baggage that colors our perceptive abilities. This person who so offended us is battling their own demon, or could just be having a bad day. Either way, it serves no good purpose to react out of fear and ratchet up the level of tension. We in the meditation community have tools that non-meditators may not have access to.

We acknowledge that we are all imperfectly perfect, that God dwells in each of us, and that it behooves us to carry an extra large ration of human forgiveness for ourselves and others. This is called "adaptation energy," and we get it from a diligent meditation practice.

We go to a place where, for twenty minutes, twice a day, we lose our wave identification and become ocean again. From this vantage point, we can see the counter-productive error of being a wave in conflict with other waves, and we can relax, knowing we can contribute to others' sense of well-being from the point of view of the oceanic "Self."

Reasons not to learn meditation

The ego has no problem coming up with entries on this laundry list. We all know seekers who get caught in this loop. Hopefully, they find their way out eventually. We, as meditators or as teachers, can only wait patiently for them, remembering our own difficult path before we finally pursued our practice.

Succulent in a Venice rock garden

Succulent in a Venice rock garden

Talking vs. doing

Heads, Venice, California

Heads, Venice, California

Confusing the symbol for the object

Our egos try to convince us of the viability of some interesting notions. One such fanciful idea is that being a spectator is equivalent to being a participant. The entire pro sports industry depends on this suspension of reality. The popularity of action/adventure movies and the proliferation of pornography is testament to the modern world's addiction to symbolism. The substitution of political propaganda for "news" has wreaked havoc on representative democracy, which depends upon an informed citizenry to elect its leaders.

In the retail world this is called "bait-and-switch." We have been sold the cross the savior was executed on as a substitute for the savior himself. To some, the flag means more than the people that inhabit the country it stands for.

Thich Nhat Hanh quotes the Buddha: "A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon."*

Our over-reliance upon both written and spoken language can tie us up in knots of inaction and hesitation. We err on the side of caution even when the path forward is clear. We think we need time to work out the pros and cons of any situation, ignoring our finer intuition, allowing ourselves to be shamed into erroneous behavior. We ignore the facts of our senses and persist in the "idea" that seems most acceptable to our families, our peers, and our authority figures.

Meditation allows us a clear path through this confusing thicket. We settle down to our least excited state of consciousness. We do this regularly for twenty minutes, twice a day. As a result of regular and devoted practice, we slowly become more attuned to the fine level of feeling that leads us in the correct direction.

We bypass all the confusing symbols and begin to trust real experience.


*Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh.

f you know someone who would benefit from learning our meditative practice, we hold regular intro talks here in Studio City, CA. The next one is Wednesday evening at 7pm, free of charge. Click here to rsvp: 
http://bit.ly/1G4MzWx

Mallard, Venice canals, Los Angeles

Mallard, Venice canals, Los Angeles

Accidental openness

Bare locus branches, winter, Los Angeles

Bare locus branches, winter, Los Angeles

Call it a boon. Call it grace.

It only seems evident in retrospect. Before I found meditation, I only had the tools of self-will to power my life. Since I was only able to identify with my thoughts and feelings, I was acting only out of ego gratification. If my ego was displeased with any aspect of my life, I judged that situation to be untenable, unendurable. I was doomed to live a sad life, lonely, and angry with the universe and my fellow travelers in it.

But in spite of my warped world view, I made one or two decisions that turned out to be prescient and wise. Where was this guidance coming from? Certainly not from my ego. In spite of the negative bent of my view of the world and the culture I was born into, despite the prevalence of unhealthy examples around me, I made the choice to become vegetarian at around twenty years of age.

At age twenty five, I started practicing yoga. Los Angeles was not the overt marketplace of all things eastern that it later became, and I had to tape Richard Hittleman's yoga instruction programs off of KCET, a local PBS affiliate. I practiced alone, told no one, and managed to become more and more proficient. I later let the practice go, but I never forgot the asanas. When I resumed decades later, it all came back.

Then about ten years ago, I met the man who taught me to meditate. I knew that I did not know how to do it, and that he did. I paid him to teach me. Although it seemed like a large amount of money at that stage of my life, I know now that it was the bargain of a lifetime.

I don't feel like I made these choices. I feel these choices made me. No amount of money could dissuade me from continuing these habitual actions.

Where did I get the willingness to set aside my ego and take on these seemingly risky practices? The only answer that makes sense to me now is that I became open to a higher power's direction and ignored the pressures of the prevailing culture to conform.

In retrospect I can clearly see the guiding hand of a loving God.

This season, let's strive to not take our own emotional temperature too much. Let us look outward toward our fellows, put their happiness before our own. Let us be open to the joys of anonymous giving.

"Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life."

Francis Bernadone, (St. Francis) 1204, Italy.

Living inside the bubble

Pikeville, Tennessee.

Pikeville, Tennessee.

How to escape from your own ego

When we identify solely with our thoughts and feelings, we reduce the area of our sensory awareness to a very small space directly in front of our field of vision, and that's about it. We can't perceive the outside world very well because all of our energy is going into speculation. We make do with a very small sample size of incoming data, and then our overactive imaginations try valiantly to extrapolate the rest of our world from what we think may be happening. The ego likes this arrangement because it tries to keep us safe and to convince us that it IS us, and without it, we shall surely perish.

But are we the ego? The Vedic world view says no, that we are actually part of the one thing, nature itself, the entirety of the universe. How can we access the vastness of this cosmic identity?

The ego needs to be shown its rightful place as the servant and not the master. The ego's role as historian and not as fortune teller needs to be gently reinforced. We don't use force on the ego; we acknowledge its limited but useful role in our makeup, and expand our awareness to the outside world again. A surrender of this ego-identity needs to take place.

Some among us are blessed with almost instantaneous enlightenment, some have a "burning bush" spiritual experience, some take potentially dangerous psychotropic substances and never regain a semblance of sanity.

Or we can meditate. Slowly, safely, one twenty-minute period at a time, we can dip into the infinite field of pure consciousness, and a gradual transformation of bliss awareness can replace our once fearful and exhausting ego-centric outlook upon life.

No longer do we need to be concerned with managing well in a seemingly hostile universe. Our overworked ego can take a break, and we can live in our blissful nature at last.

Every step we take toward awareness expansion is rewarded by nature. We can become much more in harmony with people, plants, animals and other aspects of this all-encompassing One Thing that the Veda speaks of. It is certainly a journey worth taking.

Goal Trajectory

Falls Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee.

Falls Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee.

Intention and Evolution

When we operate from ego, often times we set up expectations within ourselves for events to follow a narrowly defined outcome. If this outcome is not met, we label it a disaster and call ourselves a failure. Our valiant ego resolves to exert even more control in the future. One or two more "failures" and the ego may come up with seemingly excellent reasons why things went so wrong. The self-talk and procedural assessments usually go something like this: "You failed because you are no good. Your creator made you in error, and you cannot, in fact, do anything right."

Now, we know that this self-talk cannot actually be factual. There are times in the past when things have gone very well for us. If the ego analyzes these events historically and accurately, it will observe that a sequence occurred. The mind was charmed by an inspiration, a heartfelt desire. The ego stepped in to help, but for the most part stayed out of the results. Goals were set, but not allowed to dictate all activity towards the end result. We allowed ourselves some "wiggle-room," and our goal may have modified and been refined as our journey continued.

This is the natural process of our creativity, and it is, in fact, what we were designed to do. We are charmed, we move forward, we make mistakes, we adjust, we learn, we continue. At no point do we need to engage in harsh judgement or indulge in self-flagellation. We set an intention and get to work (or play) and enjoy the process.

Meditation helps us in this endeavor by reminding us that we are more than our thoughts, feelings, and judgements. We are also the silent witness, free from programming and stress, not encumbered by fear or remorse, just relaxed and paying attention.

If you seek a meditation practice, you may wish to relax your ego's requirements and stay out of the results game until nature has been given a chance to do its work for you.

There are countless great practices that adherents swear by, but in my personal experience, none were more easy to learn or had more lasting results than Vedic Meditation. I have been able to stick to this path for more than ten years.

To quote from Herbert Spencer; “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”

Forward balance

Morning, North Rim Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Morning, North Rim Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

the wisdom of bike riding

Delaying action until one has determined the wisest choice of procedure makes sense in managing the practical aspects of one's life. A person only needs a few experiences of going off "half-cocked" and having a disastrous outcome to become cautious. This caution can have a tendency to overcorrect, and we can become stuck in a paralysis of indecision, afraid to move forward. Some people can squander their entire lifetimes in this static netherworld.

Think about riding a bicycle. We pedal forward, and our body adjusts to the momentum, and before we know it, we are riding, making millions of micro-adjustments unconsciously and enjoying the breeze. If we stay in the moment, we can take actions as they come, not over anticipating non-existent dangers. We can actually begin to get pleasure from the process of riding, rather than cowering in fear of bad outcomes. If I make a mistake and fall and skin my knee, I don't over-react by vowing never to ride again. I get up, dress my wound, and seek the delicious freedom of riding again.

This is how consciousness evolves. Forward movement is key in attaining balance. We want to be able to trust the data we receive from nature to make the right decision, so we meditate. Twice daily we sit for about twenty minutes and calm the endless negative chatter that distracts us. We don't judge the outcome of a given meditative experience; we just just move forward. About 15 minutes after meditating, we can observe how we are feeling. In my experience and in the experience of most of my students, we feel better, calmer, more able to trust the data we are given in the moment to carry on with our day.

Balance isn't something we consciously work at. It is a quality that we enter into as a result of continual surrender. We surrender the need to have control, for the small "s" self (ego) to be the judge, jury, and executioner. We identify instead with the larger "S" Self (nature or God) and are able to trust the finer level of feeling, or intuition.

When we fall off the bike or temporarily stop riding for one reason or another, we don't waste valuable time beating ourselves up or feeling guilty, we just get back to the bike, to meditation, to forward movement again.

My trusty Marin.

My trusty Marin.

Tyranny of the ego

bypassing the negative gauntlet

Our egos have great plans for us. Unfortunately, the ego's true function is as a historian: taking notes, discerning between poison and food, pleasure and pain, getting us through the day by managing the practical aspects of our lives. Our ego helps us realize that touching a hot stove might be a bad idea, that paying bills on time is good, that we need to get to work on time. All of these functions are useful.

But our ego is an entity. If it feels threatened, or knows that its sovereignty could be usurped, it overreaches. It bombards our thoughts with fearful messages, messages that tend to reinforce one idea: that we are nothing but this ego, and without it, we will cease to exist.

Creating this inner climate of fear, of inadequacy, serves the ego by making us dependent on it for validation. If that person doesn't like me, how can I go on? If I "fail" at a task, how can I continue to live, to walk the planet, to breathe the air? The ego makes it possible to consider suicide as an option, as a viable solution to whatever pain we might be going through. It will actually consider killing its host rather than cede control.

Meditation bypasses the ego. It serves to demonstrate to us that we are more than our story, more than our societal identity, more than these constantly shifting thoughts and feelings. The more we engage in a consistent meditative practice, the less dependent we are on this very small aspect of consciousness.

When we accept direction and ignore the loud demands of the ego, we have started down a path that feels more positive. It increases our capacity for happiness, our ease in performing day-to-day tasks, and makes our ego right-sized again, restoring balance.

When dealing with the ego, we need to avoid direct bullying, confrontation, and harsh tactics. Instead, we treat it with kindness, patience, and a certain bemused detachment. We keep it in the child's car seat, where it belongs, and never give it the car keys, no matter how big the tantrum it throws.

The black monkey, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh, India.

The black monkey, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh, India.