I have been learning a lot about the ego in the past few years. I’ve learned that it is a false self that we begin to create as children to help us maneuver in the world as we experience it. It is a protection of sorts. What happens is that we come to believe this ego-self is our real self and it absolutely isn’t. I will tell you what I think our real self is, but first I will share with you a few things I know about the ago.
The ego seems to have a life of its own in the sense that it has power over us. It convinces us that it is right and real and we will often behave and think as though it were.
The ego tends to be defined by our environment. What our parents or other significant people tell us about ourselves is a large part of who we think we are. “You are lazy.” “You are a genius.” “You are stupid.” “You are gorgeous.” It isn’t that the messages we get are all bad, but they don’t really get to the center of who we are.
When you meet a self-centered person, you can be sure that they have a strong ego. We have associated the ego with people who think highly of themselves. But a person who thinks badly about themselves also has a strong ego. To have a strong ego means that a person strongly identifies with it. “I am lazy.” “I am a genius.” “I am stupid.” “I am gorgeous.”
When a person can take this kind of identification and wear it loosely, they certainly have an ego, as we all do, but not are not controlled by it. “I sometimes feel lazy.” “I sometimes come up with ingenious ideas.” I am capable of doing some really stupid things now and then.” “I can look pretty gorgeous if I put my mind to it.”
It is important to point out that it isn’t just parents and family that shape our egos. It is affected also by situation into which we are born, our dwelling place and neighborhood, our country, the state the world is in when we come into it. It is already known that the media is powerful in the way it affects the way little boys and girls see themselves and how they will behave toward others when they get older. If we perceive the world as hostile we are likely to form an ego that protects us in some way by depending on others or forming a self that is tough. If the world gives us attention for our beauty or our acting funny, we are likely to identify with beauty and humor as the real us. But the real us is much deeper than that.
Another thing that ego does, and is probably the most destructive, is that it separates us. People with a strong ego tend to feel different and alone, even if their façade says the opposite. When I think about this aspect of the ego, it feels almost like a conspiracy to me. It seems like separation is its goal. “Divide and conquer”, it seems to say. If the ego can get us to feel alone, misunderstood, fearful, it can get us to do all sorts of things that are harmful to ourselves or to others. It can get us to use harmful substances or accumulate worldly goods to water down our feelings of aloneness. It can get us to try to control others. It can cause us to use lies and deception to try to shape the world into liking us or honoring us. It can cause us to use violence against those who we think could harm us. To add to its deception, it can do all this and convince us that we are justified and we are right.
It all sounds pretty grim. For most of us, our ego self is pretty subdued and we can get through life fairly well acting out of ego self. But I can tell you from experience, the joy and peace that the ego-self offers is like the light of a flashlight with a weak battery compared to the sun-bright joy and peace that the true self offers.
I said above that I will tell you what I think the real self is. Now these are my own thoughts and words that I am using here reflecting my own personal experience. On the other hand, they reflect the words of many wise ones that have come across my path.
My true self is the observer of all that I have been talking about. When our true self is in operation, we can see the ego-self and what it is telling us to think and do. When I find myself getting angry when a person begins to argue with me, I can see that reaction in me and identify what it is doing. It is trying to convince me that I have to be right and that I am different than the person arguing with me. My real self knows that I simply am…not right or wrong…and that I am actually one with the person arguing with me. I take a breath and let the anger float away…or at least I try.
When I start imagining all sorts of bad things that might happen to me in the future, I can see that these thoughts are coming from the ego that wants me to feel fear. I take a breath and try to bring myself into the moment. If I am not in danger in the moment, then danger is only a figment of my over-active imagination.
I believe that my true self is “that of God” which Quakers talk about. They believe that in each and every person, there is a spark of God. If we cannot see it, either there is something terribly wrong with our vision or the light is buried under the ego. What we are probably seeing in the other is the fear, anger, and controlling characteristics of the ego. Jesus used the image of a light under a basket. “Let it shine,” he said. Imagine the basket as the ego and the light under it the true self.
There are wise teachers who have said that if you want to know God, get to know yourself. It doesn’t seem so strange when we remember that Jesus linked love of self with love of God when he gave us the commandment he said is the only important one. If our true self is a spark of God, or a part of God, then it makes sense.
I believe that God wants us to know and love our true selves. As we do, we will be able to free ourselves from the cockeyed thoughts and harmful behaviors driven by our egos. As we do, we will begin to have a confidence in knowing that we are doing what God intended for us to do. We will not longer need to judge or be defensive, for these are not characteristics of God.
I am outgrowing my ego. I think that this is what God wants of me. My ego is still there just as my body is still holding me onto this earth, but it rarely gets a hold on me without me catching it. But understand that I don’t take this for granted. I do a lot of things to help me stay alert. Jesus even said something about staying alert…I just can’t grab it right now.