If you participate in any kind of self-reflective practice such as yoga or meditation, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the ego: that little voice inside you that is the source of so much worry, anxiety, and suffering. While this voice will always be there, it is possible to quiet it so that it doesn’t have as much of an impact on your life. The first step in doing so is understanding exactly what the ego is and what it’s trying to teach you.
What is the ego?
See, the ego used to have an important job—getting us all hyped up and aware of our surroundings in case a saber-toothed tiger was lurking around the corner. These days we don’t run into dangers like that all that often. But the ego (industrious little thing that it is) needs to feel employed and important. It does this by inspiring fear, self-judgment, and judgment of others.
How the ego shows up in our lives.
Think about the source of any of your anxieties. I’m going to bet a lot of them have to do with future projections (i.e., “If I don’t get this raise, then…” or “What if I never meet someone…?” or, even, “What will I wear to the…?”). But here’s the secret, and this blew me away when I realized it: The future does not exist anywhere but in your mind.
All these future events your ego is worrying about? They don’t exist. I mean, maybe you won’t get that promotion. What happens then? Well, you’ll deal with it in the moment just like you’ve always dealt with any hardship. Projecting about it and worrying about it is a useless waste of your energy. When you find yourself projecting, ask yourself the following question: Can I do anything about this right now? If the answer is no, then stop worrying. Listen to your breath and allow it to bring you into the moment. Do something that brings you joy. If the answer is yes, then stop worrying and get busy.
The same thing applies to the past. The ego loves to keep us trapped there—rehashing old hurts, perceived mistakes, ancient regrets. What good do these obsessions do? Presumably, you’ve learned the lesson and you have or will apply it to future decisions. You did the best you could. Now move on.
Your ego thrives on separating you from the moment and from others who share in this moment with you. Here are three strategies that can help you free yourself from it:
1. Choose love.
In the words of Gabrielle Bernstein, a spiritual and motivational speaker, “Whenever you’re afraid, it’s proof that you’ve turned your back on love and chosen to have faith in the ego.” In her philosophy, love is the only emotion. Fear is an illusion. As soon as you have a fearful or anxious thought, tell yourself (again, from Gabrielle Bernstein), “Love did not create this thought, and so it is not real.”
Start telling yourself “If love did not create it, it is not real,” and see if it brings you a new perspective on your situation. It’s amazing how solutions suddenly occur to you once you’re no longer trapped in the fear/anxiety loop.
2. Never complain.
Negativity is the source from which self-disgust, self-hatred, and self-sabotage springs—and the ego loves it, this self-imposed separation. Challenge yourself to stop complaining for a week, and see what happens. Whenever you catch yourself getting negative, try to come back to gratitude and see how life opens up for you. If you need more motivation, start a complaining fund—every time you catch yourself complaining, drop a quarter (or a dollar or a $20, whatever keeps you in line) into a jar. The ego always wants to improve on the current moment. Don’t let it draw you down that path. Breathe. Find something beautiful.
3. When all else fails, be grateful.
It’s hard to be down and out while also feeling grateful. You may try the above suggestions and find that you begin to get angry. You start to feel like all this self-work and self-reflection is pointless and you should be able to feel and say and eat and think and watch what you like. This is totally normal. This is the ego defending itself. It’s throwing up any obstacle it can into your path. Its main goal, remember, is to maintain the separation.
This whole practice of dissolving ego is like one big detox. You know the headaches, cravings, and bad mood that can follow a night of indulging? That’s your liver detoxing. The anger and self-righteousness you begin to feel after starting this process is the same thing. And just like a hangover, all you can do is wait it out and make the best choices you can stomach.
When the anger strikes, grab a piece of paper and begin writing down all the things for which you are grateful. Start small and keep writing. Is the sun coming through the window? Or maybe it’s raining and you love the rain. Maybe your favorite show is on later. Maybe your socks match and that makes you happy. Just write it down. This is your one small step back toward your path.
Working on yourself in this way can be exhausting, so don’t feel like you’ve failed if you have a fearful or anxious thought. Striving for perfection is a trait of the ego too. So remember that each breath, each moment, each movement you make is your destination. Even as you begin, know you have already arrived.