We’ve been seeing a lot of ego-centered attitudes flying around Washington in the deficit battle, the confusing GOP presidential race, and in London with the Murdoch fiasco. Seems like the more power one has, the more the ego dominates: me and my opinions are more important than the needs of others. There is no limit to the damage a powerful ego can cause, from the arrogant conviction that our own opinions are only right ones and everyone should be made to agree, to wielding and abusing responsibility and authority at the expense of other people’s lives and freedoms.
The ego could be the least understood of all our human qualities. It’s the “me” bit that gives us our sense of ourselves. This is not necessarily good or bad, except when selfishness dominates our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. A positive sense of self gives us confidence and purpose, but a more negative and self-centered ego makes us unconcerned with other people’s feelings; it thrives on the idea of me-first and impels us to cry out, “What about me? What about my feelings?”
The purpose of the ego is to be in control and so it keeps us focused in the realm of me-ness. It makes us believe we are the cleverest, best informed and most important, as easily as it makes us feel unworthy, unlovable, and certainly not good enough to be happy. It is this misguided sense of self that is the root cause of so much distress, both in our own lives and in the world: wars are fought, families split, and friends forgotten due to this misunderstanding.
Fostering the delusion that only ‘I’ is important, that me and mine must come before us and ours, the ego makes us believe we are something, that this something is different, special and unique, and that we are separate from everything and everyone else. When we become aware of our essential unity and oneness with all beings then the ego becomes redundant and loses its job. It will, therefore, do whatever it has to in order to perpetuate its employment.
Creating the illusion that we are the dust on the mirror, the ego ensures that we believe we could never be so beautiful as the radiant reflection beneath the surface. Yet how extraordinary to believe that we cannot be free when freedom is our true nature!
Hypothetically, all we need to do is to let go of the focus on “me,” of our sense of separateness, our need for distinction, the grasping and clinging to our story. But this is far easier said than done! In India the ego is represented by a coconut as this is the hardest nut to crack. Traditionally, the coconut is offered to the guru or teacher as a sign of the student’s willingness to surrender his or her ego and let go of self-obsession. Such a symbolic gesture shows that the ego is considered to be a great obstacle on the spiritual path and an even greater impediment to developing true kindness and compassion.
As we evolve in consciousness we move from the animal-like state of preservation and survival to developing our own identity as a separate individual. In the process we become more self-centered. The next step is the development of the true individual—one who experiences no separation between self and other and awakens loving kindness. We always remind ourselves what the Dalai Lama said to us when we met with him: We are all equal here. The depth of this statement always connects us to our humility.
The need to reach the top of the mountain, to accomplish our desires and be successful, is the natural impulse to move toward experiencing greater happiness. The difficulty lies in believing that success means being all-powerful; we forget that there is a difference between being powerful in the sense of being egotistic and controlling, and being powerful meaning full of loving kindness and compassion. True power is not corruptive or abusive, as we are seeing in Washington and London; it transcends greed and serves for the benefit of all.
Meditation cultivates awareness so we are able to see the ego at play, how manipulative and self-serving it can be, and how it easily dominates our behavior. Such a reflective practice gives us the experience of no separation and reveals genuine compassion.