Secrets of Using the Ego as a Tool to Help Us Find Freedom

I recently watched a TV commercial that showed two teenage boys playing a game outdoors. One boy was very aggressive and beat the other.

In the next scene, the other boy went to the fridge and got two cans of Coke and set them on a table. When the aggressive boy opened his can, it sprayed Coke in his face.

The camera showed him drenched in Coke, and a word appeared on the screen: “KARMA.”

Nowadays, everyone understands karma, to the point where you can joke about it on TV without further explanation.

karma cartoon
No explanation needed. (Click to enlarge.)

Years ago, when we first began teaching classes on the chakras, we remarked to Swami Kriyananda that they were our most popular classes.

Swamiji talked about how in the 1950s, when he began lecturing, the chakras were such a foreign concept that there was no possibility of giving classes on them. The chakras are still misunderstood, but they’ve entered the popular consciousness.

On the spiritual path, we often talk of the need to surrender the ego. A problem is that the English word “ego” doesn’t help us understand what that means.

We talk about a person with a big ego, and we visualize someone strutting about self-importantly. But that’s only a small part of the picture.

When I started on the path, I loved the Sanskrti term atman. We hardly ever use it now, because it hasn’t entered the popular vocabulary. The atman is the part of us that is God. It’s commonly translated as “soul,” because it’s the presence of Spirit within us.

We use the word ego to distinguish the part of us that isn’t the atman – it’s “the other part,” not the divine side, you might say. But the line separating the two isn’t as clear-cut as it may sound. In fact, one of the reasons we humans can make spiritual progress at allis that we have an ego.

While I was out walking the other day, I saw a big dog – h he must have weighed 70 pounds, but it was obvious that he was a puppy. There was nothing in his size to indicate that he was a young dog, but he had that naïve, puppy-like enthusiasm in his eyes and behavior.

White german shepherd
Well, hello there! Dogs live for the moment. Humans have greater responsibility for what they experience. (Click to enlarge. Credit: Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia Commons.)

Now, some dogs remain puppies forever. Friends of ours have a small white dog that is just ridiculously enthusiastic all the time. It can’t seem to comprehend that not everything is worth getting excited over.

Our ego sets us apart from the animals in an important way. If you give an animal an electric shock, he’ll start doing whatever he can to avoid it. Animals have the capacity to understand pain and pleasure, but they can’t objectify it. They can’t remember their puppyhood and long to be a puppy again. And they can’t plan ahead to avoid pain and find greater happiness.

It takes a certain level of ego-awareness to be able to objectify our lives. “Aha! Now I understand why that painful event happened. Here’s what I can do about it.” The ego allows us to stand back from our experiences and learn from them.

With a healthy ego, we gain the ability to reflect on our lives. “Have I become wiser as I’ve grown older?” “When I’m born again, will I be as stupid as a child as I was in this life?” “Am I less frantic now because I’ve actually learned something, or only because I’m older?”

When I tried to get Swamiji to answer this question, he would only admit that we don’t change much in one life, and that our progress is very, very slow. This is why it’s extremely important to reflect on our experiences. We have to ask ourselves, over and over, “What lessons can learn from what I’m experiencing now? I want to be sure I understand the principles, so I won’t have to suffer again.”

When my nephew was six or seven, he took a laundry pen and marked up his best shirt. He had a pen, and he had a shirt, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My sister said, “what will happen now?”

He said, “Daddy will buy me another shirt.”

It wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear – “I can throw things away and it won’t matter.” She decided he would have to replace the shirt with his own money. She took him to the store with his piggy bank, and they found a shirt that cost about $13.

For my nephew, it was all a lark, until she opened his piggy bank and started dumping out coins and counting them. As she began shoving the coins in a pile for the cashier, he realized that his entire savings were going into a stupid shirt, and he began screaming and kicking and pounding the table. She calmly kept counting the money – imagine the scene, with a line of customers watching him yell about her emptying his piggy bank.

I asked my sister, “did he learn anything?”

She said, “well, now he proudly tells everyone that he bought the shirt with his own money.”

We work so hard to teach our children how to objectify their experiences and prepare for the future. And it’s exactly the same problem we have on the spiritual path. We want to learn our lessons deeply, so we don’t have to repeat them and suffer all over again.

What we’re trying to do is not so much overcome the ego, as work with it in a helpful way. On the one hand, without an ego we’d be nowhere. The ego is useful to us, because it helps learn.

On the other hand, we need to use the ego to get rid of ego-identifications. It’s confusing! How can we use the ego and get rid of it at the same time?

Yogananda gave us the answer, when he said that what we’re trying to do is become humble. In his recorded talks, we hear him refer to “my humble self.” Isn’t that an interesting way of putting it? We tend to think of humility as self-abnegation – we have mediaeval images of sackcloth and ashes, of suppressing what we are, rejecting it, hating it, and denigrating it. But Yogananda defined humility very simply as self-honesty.

A friend of mine does color consultations. She’s wonderful in her ability to look at men and women and choose the colors that will help them emotionally and spiritually. It’s not so much about beauty – it’s a healing art. It comes from the world of fashion, but she does it in a way that helps the person express their inner spirit.

Many of the women at Ananda who’ve gone to see her don’t quite have the knack of being a girl. We’ve spent too many lives in convents, or in male bodies. And lots of times, especially for women, there’s a fear of trying to put yourself forward. Or there’s a thought of just trying to disappear by being unattractive. It’s a subtle thing, but I’m sure most Ananda women can relate to what I’m saying.

My friend, the color consultant, said, “By making yourself unattractive, you don’t cease to exist – you’re still there, but you’re just walking around being an eyesore!”

Swamiji had an interesting perspective on dressing attractively. He said, “It’s not you who suffers, it’s the people who have to look at you.” He said, “it’s a service to others to dress attractively.”

He didn’t mean we should be vain or excessively preoccupied with how we look, but to consider the impact we have on others, and whether it’s uplifting or repelling.

Now, thank God, fashion has evolved from the horrible “black” period. For a long time, everything was black and brown, and it was so tiresome. In fashion now, there’s more light. But the point is that you can’t make yourself disappear.

A friend of mine tends to be fairly caustic in her advice. She was counseling someone who was sort of weak-willed and whiny. This girl was saying, “oh, I just want to lie down and die!” And my friend said, “it’s not that easy to lie down and die. After a while you get hungry and uncomfortable and cold.”

You can’t just get rid of yourself. It doesn’t serve you or anyone else. Trying to get rid of your ego by being afraid of it or cowering in self-abnegation is not the same as transcending it. True humility is simply looking at things as they are.

The problem is that the ego tries to confuse us. We’re going along happily and we suddenly find ourselves becoming self-preoccupied. And then we get confused.

Peering at the world from a thick fog of self-preoccupation, we can no longer see things as they are. We misunderstand other people’s motives. We can’t see that our words and actions are causing problems for others. And we see ourselves as so much more important than we are.

The ego in its negative aspect puts us out of touch with reality. But with a little honesty, we can use the ego to help us break out of the cloud and get in touch with reality.

We can ask, “What’s really true? What’s really happening?” We can watch how people respond to us. The energy that comes back to us can help us understand what’s real.

Helen Purcell, the director of our school, was lamenting how parents today create so many problems for their children. Either the parents love the child too much, or they’re trying to live through their children, and in either case they can’t see the child objectively. Sometimes a teacher can help the children more objectively than the parents can. And it’s the same with our ego-involvement.

Helen said that her general advice to the parents is, “the job of a parent is to be a cheerleader for the child. life gives our children enough hard knocks. Their parents don’t need to be the ones beating them up.”

Now, that doesn’t mean you should root for your children when they’re doing wrong. But there needs to be that sense of always being on the child’s side. And it’s the same with overcoming the ego.

I recall poignantly how difficult it was for my parents when I made unconventional choices as a young person. My parents spawned three intellectually impressive children, and not one of us finished college. Nor did we enter professions that our parents could boast about at the bridge table. It didn’t happen for them, and it took them a while to get used to it.

My father had a marvelous habit of looking for the good in everything. He told me rather proudly, “when people ask me about my three children, I tell them they’re doing what they feel to do.” It wasn’t much, but it was something positive.

He was trying to be honest with the reality of how his children had grown up, instead of letting his hurt ego plunge him into regrets that his children hadn’t done anything he could crow about.

The parent’s ego often blames the child. “Why didn’t you do something I can be proud of? Why didn’t you live up to my dreams?” True humility is to get yourself completely out of the picture and look at life just as it is.

If you continue that process, it can take you to God-realization. The highest truth is that you are one with Spirit, and it’s only your confusion that keeps you identified with the body, and calling yourself something you’re not.

If we keep trying to see things truthfully, objectively, we don’t have to worry about the ego.

It takes courage and inner strength. And we can develop that strength by learning to be a simple, humble, honest person – honest in the sense of accepting the world around us.

On one level, the spiritual path seems terribly difficult. But the path is actually very simple. It’s just remembering that I am one with the Spirit, and the same Divinity that lives in me lives in everyone and everything.

If we can be humble enough to see this truth, then everything else follows naturally. It’s not easy, but it really is quite simple.

That’s why Christ said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” In the Spirit we are little children, little enthusiastic white dogs. Not that God wants us to be puppies, but He wants us to be like children in our kindness, simplicity, and openness to life.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on March 28, 2004.)

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