Ego—a familiar word with an apparently commonplace meaning—refers to the “me” I carry around in my mind, the sense I have of myself. In our everyday way of thinking about it, the ego is attached to feelings. An ego may feel safe and self-confident, or it may feel threatened, ill at ease, or even injured. An ego may be pressured by wants and desires, conflicted over awkward choices, or constricted by the demands and criticisms of others. In other words, although the ego strives for balance and pleasure, it’s not always a source of fun and delight.
Even among psychoanalysts, whose work gave popularity to the use of the English word “ego,” there is not wholehearted agreement about what the ego is. The term itself is borrowed directly from Latin. It means “I,” as in the short Latin sentence Ego sum, “I am.” It is a word that has acquired its modern meaning from Sigmund Freud, who used it to refer to the part of the mind that he believed was instrumental in working out solutions to internal conflicts—conflicts that result from attempting to manage instinctual drives and deal with moral and social constraints. But lately, debates have gone on in psychological circles about whether the ego actually exists. Its very nature is being questioned. And, of course, no one has ever seen an ego under a microscope for confirmation.
“That may be,” you are thinking, “but I’ve seen some hefty egos in my life and I don’t have any doubt at all about their existence.” That observation brings us to another meaning of the word. What we often mean when we use the word “ego” is the measure of self-importance we project in our relationships with others. An inflated ego is one that considerably overvalues its self-importance. The phrase also suggests an unhealthy disregard for the voice of conscience.
“Ego” is the measure of self-importance we project in our relationships with others.
Now given all these points of view, what sense does it make to talk about ego health? And how would we know a healthy ego if we met one? It’s a book-length subject, of course, but to get us on track, yoga has a number of interesting and challenging things to say about the matter.
In yoga, philosophy and psychology are inextricably mixed, and concepts drawn from one illuminate what is meant by the other. For example, a tenet of yoga philosophy is that every individual is imbued with consciousness, or awareness. Unlike some modern theorists, however, yogis do not believe that consciousness has sprung up spontaneously, a cosmic surprise brought about by evolution. Consciousness, they say, is eternal, self-existent, and lies at the core of the manifested universe. It is everywhere, has existed at all times, and in everything. The life of each plant, animal, and human being reflects a portion of it—yet consciousness does not depend upon any single manifestation for its existence.
Against this philosophical background of pure and self-existent consciousness a picture of the mind emerges. The mind is not itself conscious, but it is the instrument of consciousness. It enables an individual to interact with the outer world (via the senses) and serves as an instrument for self-reflection. One of the Sanskrit names for the mind is thus antah karana, “the inner instrument.” And at some ancient time the species possessing this unique, inner tool was given the English name “man,” a word which has its source in the Sanskrit verb man and means “to think or to reflect.”
The mind, in turn, has four functions: the intellect, which operates as an inner witness, a source of spiritual intelligence and moral guidance; the lower mind, which functions as the instrument of everyday thought and awareness; a retentive capacity or memory; and ego. The Sanskrit word for ego in this context is ahamkara. Interestingly, it is a compound of the Sanskrit pronoun “I” (aham) and the particlekara, which means “maker” or “causer.” The literal meaning of the word, then, is “that which makes or causes the I.”
Thus yoga presents us with two remarkable ideas, one philosophical and one psychological. First, the seers of yoga tell us that the awareness we perceive within us, and ascribe to the mind, is actually the reflection of a much more profound consciousness lying virtually unseen within. Then they add that the sense of personal identity we take for granted is not our most fundamental self. It is the product of a psychological process. The mind supplies us with a temporary identity—the ego or individual self—that acts as a psychological garment. But this garment conceals an even more profound and central identity—one that is possible for us to know: pure consciousness. The more imbalanced the ego, however, the more difficult it is to perceive consciousness as it is.
We can get a sense of the relative size of an ego by listening to the way in which we use four common words: I, me, my, and mine. These words certainly have a role to play in everyday thought and speech, but they are often laced with extra emphasis. “In my opinion…,” we pointedly remark to one another. When this happens, these innocent words are something more than a convenient way to refer to ourselves.
For example, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad a proud man named Gargya offers to instruct the wise king Ajatashatru about the pure Self (“I will tell you about Brahman”). The king is eager to hear such wisdom and accepts the offer. But despite many attempts, Gargya fails to satisfy the king, who explains that he is aware of Gargya’s definition of the self but has not found it complete. In the end, Gargya must admit that he does not know what he is talking about and submits to the king’s guidance. Having addressed the problem of Gargya’s pride and his incomplete knowledge, the king proceeds to teach Gargya.
The Chhandogya Upanishad tells a similar story. This time it concerns a certain Shvetaketu, the son of the wise Aruni, who developed an inflated ego while he was away studying. When he returns to his father he is described as “serious, one who considers himself well-read, and arrogant.”
His father, sensing a problem, asks Shvetaketu if he had ever inquired among his teachers for knowledge regarding the higher Self. Shvetaketu replies that his teachers had not taught him anything about that, and if they had known anything about it he believes they would have informed him. To his credit, Shvetaketu’s conceit vanishes quickly as he asks his father to tell him more about the Self. And once again, a teaching is initiated.
Even without a teacher’s help, there are steps we can take to restore some balance to our own ego. One way to turn the tables on a hyper-sized sense of identity is to refrain for a day from referring to ourselves in the first person. Referring to one’s self in the third person is a time-honored method for gaining perspective on the size of the ego. Each time you are about to use the words “I,” “me,” “my,” or “mine,” you can substitute your name—“Paul’s idea is…,” “Paul would like to…,” “Paul feels very strongly that...” Noting the frequency and intensity of the substitutions can be a powerful method for taking stock of your ego.
One way to turn the tables on a hyper-sized sense of identity is to refrain for a day from referring to ourselves in the first person.
But this technique can also backfire. When it’s prolonged, it is possible that it will suggest an abnormal arrogance. Referring to yourself by your name may give the impression that you are speaking from the “royal you” (that is, “the king wishes to speak”). It may also imply to others that you think you are doing something spiritual and they are not.
Another method for keeping track of the ego is more subtle: we can watch the ways in which we distort truth in order to protect our ego. Small exaggerations, overemphases that imply something untrue, withholding information, and outright lying all reveal attempts of the ego to smooth the way for itself. These strategies are self-justifying and feel secretive. They alert us to ego problems.
There is a delightful story in the Chhandogya Upanishad that illustrates the role of truth-telling in relation to the ego. Satyakama (“one desiring truth”) is a young boy who hopes to qualify for study of the scriptures. But he is doubtful about his paternity. And because he cannot be sure of his background, Satyakama is uncertain that he will be accepted by a teacher. So he turns to his mother for help. But she provides the startling information that she “conceived him while working in various households as a maid and does not know who his father is.” He brings this news to the teacher with whom he hopes to study, reporting it just as his mother has told him. “My mother conceived me while working in various households as a maid,” he says, “and she does not know who my father is.” The teacher replies, “A person without virtue would not be able to explain thus. Join me, my son. I will receive you as a pupil, for you have not deviated from the truth.”
Satyakama’s ego was remarkably resilient. More often human egos suffer from a fundamental weakness. That flaw, called asmita or “I-am-ness” in yoga, is the result of instinctively identifying with the world and our role in it, unmindful of the pure and self-existent consciousness that exists within. In the short run it’s easier for the ego to keep up appearances (the famous trio of name, fame, and gain come to mind) than to listen for instructions from “within.” And in everyday life when spiritual guidance does get through, the ego often acts like a busy telephone operator putting the message on hold for so long that it vanishes from lack of attention.
Even so, somewhere within ourselves we suspect that long fingernails and even longer résumés—the appearances we create for ourselves—are not the purpose of life. And the message yoga delivers is that it is possible to live in the world and yet gather strength and identity from a higher source. It’s a matter of where we place our priorities. When we can release even a small portion of the energy that is consumed in the gargantuan task of keeping up appearances, it becomes available for something much more productive within us.
What’s the method? The Bhagavad Gita, a remarkable collection of spiritual teachings, gives us a glimpse. It reminds us that the goal of spiritual life is to uncover the infinite consciousness that is concealed by the mind and ego. The ego is unlikely to be healthy, it says, unless it is disciplined. We need to disengage the ego from its tendency to identify with outward appearances by unveiling a more meaningful identity within. This can be done in meditation first, and then gradually extended to everyday life—or in some cases, the other way around.
Flexibility, modesty, cheerfulness, devotion, truthfulness, and unwillingness to harm others—these are signs of progress. But withdrawing from the actions that are ours to perform in the world is not on the list. “Engage fully in your actions. What can be gained from inaction or actions that are poorly performed?” is a good paraphrase of the Gita’s message. Simply pay close attention when the ego acts arrogantly, when it chafes against its responsibilities, or when it is struggling under the pressure of criticism and blame. These are signals that the ego needs to be aligned with a higher perspective.
“What perspective?” you ask. The cutting edge of the Gita’s vision is its injunction to act without personal attachment to the fruits of one’s actions. This amounts to living—from morning through night (yes, sleeping too)—with a desire to perform the actions that come before us for their own sake. It’s a way of saying that the fundamental flaw of the ego can be corrected through purposeful living. It doesn’t take miracles, just quiet awareness. When the ego works without expectations, false identities begin to drop away. That’s the promise.
Some fear that the goal of yoga is to annihilate the ego. They argue that the ego supplies an identity that should not be abandoned and that meditation threatens the very fabric of that self. Yogis are surprised by such thinking. To them, the ego is an instrument to be used for as long as it will take to reach an even more profound state of self-identity. They say that the path of yoga does not annihilate the ego, but fulfills it. In the words of Rumi, a famous Persian mystic:
"Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about."