When I was a teenager and young adult, I had no idea who I was. I had no idea what my talents were nor my weaknesses. I experienced both anxiety and depression. It was as if I was an undefined and somewhat chaotic container of mush. Yet through the process of life, of relating, reading, working, therapy, writing, meditation, yoga, and so much more, I changed. I learned to define myself. I grew to know myself. I developed skills and abilities, and self-knowledge. My path included both strengthening my ego and transcending it (to some degree).
We sometimes have the idea of the need to ‘get rid of our ego.’ This is especially true if we are on a growth path that involves meditation, yoga, or eastern philosophies like Buddhism.
Let’s suppose we are meditating, and we keep getting distracted. Maybe we were just in an argument with our partner. Perhaps there is stress at our workplace. Regardless, we cannot find that clear open place where we watch our thoughts come and go. Instead, we get caught. We find ourselves worrying or feeling angry. Obviously, we want to find a way to unhook from these thoughts and feelings.
To have a healthy spiritual life, we need to have a strong ego (or sense of I). The ego is a platform upon which we hold our sense of self. Our ego allows us to have a stable sense of an intact and separate self.
Think of yourself as a conglomeration of parts, ideas, qualities. And more. Some part of us has to hold all of this together, coordinate it, and change it from chaos to a symphony. This part is the ego. How well the ego does this has to do with how it has developed.
Our Ego Help Us With:
- Our ability to know ourselves
- Our ability to direct ourselves
- Our ability to have compassion for ourselves
- Our ability to have empathy for others
- Our ability to coordinate our different and often conflicting impulses and desires
- Our worldview
A Strong and Defined Enough Ego
Everybody has defenses or habit patterns because we needed them to survive as we developed and moved from less defined to more defined beings. For example, due to our vulnerability as babies, we cry when we are hungry or uncomfortable. But as adults, we need to have a bit more control over our instinctual reactions. Imagine if we didn’t. You’ve actually seen it. Take road rage. for example. That is somebody who cannot control their instinctual reactions. That person is caught in old habit patterns and could benefit from developing new skills and a more defined and less primitive ego.
Without a strong enough and defined ego, we are permeable. We may have low self-esteem or a mental illness. We may suffer from a variety of disorders. If our ego isn’t developed enough, our defenses and adaptations win.
Once we have a healthy enough ego, we also want to be able to see beyond it.
Letting Go of the Ego
According to Buddhist thought, the cause of suffering is identifying with our thoughts. We push and pull by aversions and preferences. We think those strategies are who we are, but they are not who we are. When we are merged with our strategy and habit patterns, life will knock us around until we detach and see beyond our preferences and aversions.
Buddhist thought and its tools like meditation help us ‘transcend the ego” or dissolve the ego’s structures.
What Does That Mean?
Contemplative practices can help us unhook from our adaptations and strategies. As we focus on breathing or awareness of the moment, we learn to witness our constructs. For example, while meditating, we notice our thoughts. We witness our feelings. This enables us to watch but not engage in these habitual patterns. Eventually, we find more freedom from these habit patterns within which we live.
What are some ways we can “unhook” from our egos?
- Practicing forgiveness. Forgiveness helps us get out of our own perspective and see from another’s perspective. It helps us release aspects of ourselves that felt damaged by another. Note: It is generally not healthy to forgive until we’ve allowed ourselves our full range of feelings around whatever happened to us.
- Practice saying, Thy Will Be Done, or Let Go and Let God. This allows us to remember we are not in control. It is like a breath of air coming into our psyche’s. It is not all up to us. The universe is big.
- Let go of ‘should.’ Should means we are telling ourselves that we have to be different than we are. Putting on a should is like putting on clothes that don’t fit. Get them off and trust that you can be your authentic self, even if you aren’t what you want to be yet. It is by being your authentic self that you allow yourself to grow. Should's slow that process down.
- Take time to tune into yourself. This could be through journaling (think Morning Pages), or just sitting in a chair, closing your eyes, and noticing how you feel.
- Find a sense of appreciation. Yes, your world may be chaotic. Yes, you may feel overwhelmed. Finding the part of you that feels appreciation can help pull you out of less productive habit patterns.
- Meditating. Notice your breathing and witness the thoughts going by. As you learn to not get on that ‘thought bus,’ you will also notice “I’m still here.” Look, more thoughts are going by and I’m still here and I’m still watching.
If you have a significant disorder or psychosis, you may find that building the ego is what you need. Or suppose you have overcompensated from earlier deficits by having an overly controlling ego that is not flexible enough. In that case, you can benefit from practices that help you transcend the ego.
In my case, and probably in many people’s situations, you can both build and transcend the ego simultaneously. As we practice both building and transcending the ego, we find that we move from a less defined person to someone with a structure capable of channeling more light and beauty.