A few years back when I was working at a yoga studio, one of my fellow yogis swept in, red faced and bursting with rage.
We stepped into the back room together where she disclosed that she had just discovered her boyfriend had been lying to her — and not just a little “I like your dress” lie. It was a big, bloated betrayal of trust that involved hiding evidence and months of deception.
She sobbed. She screamed (into a sound-smothering yoga bolster), she vowed to confront him the moment she got home.
Two days later she rolled in bright and chipper, like a sunny day without a cloud.
I asked her about said incident. “Oh yeah.” she shrugged. “I sat with it and realized that I’m not really angry. It’s just my ego that was wounded.”
So basically… a non-event.
Red flags. Sirens. Blaring ‘spiritual-bypass’ alarms.
What I wanted to say was — maybe that was your self respect talking, your self-worth screaming, your personal boundaries saying ‘Hell. No.’
But then again, our “self” respect is just ego too.
Which is where this Ego business gets tricky.
I’ve heard Ego described in spiritual circles as being our self-centeredness, our fear, our arrogance— basically any aspect of ourselves that we need to transcend in order to be fully awesome, connected and free.
Which, sure. These unsavory bits are part of the ego.
But it’s reductive to the point of missing the picture to say our ego is just an obstacle.
From a Buddhist perspective (and perhaps other Eastern philosophies) Ego is just the self-referential “me”—the way that I identify in the world, my thoughts, my feelings, my preferences — my ability to exist with some agency.
Or as the Beatles sang about “I, ME, MINE.”
Essentially, who I believe myself to be in the context of the world.
Which is where it gets a little muddy and warped, in my mind— and frankly, potentially harmful.
“I” wouldn’t even have an opinion on the subject if I didn’t have an Ego.
And for folks who already have trouble asserting themselves in the world, sharing their voice, standing up for their rights and taking up space from a place of “self” worth, all of this “dissolve the ego” business can be a golden ticket to spiritual self-aggression.
Your Ego is the “me” that spends all day thinking about how to get what “you” want.(Admittedly, this is not great.)
But it’s also the “me” that says “I” belong, “my” voice matters, and You know what you big liar, “I” deserve to be treated better than that.
The really heartbreaking thing about working so hard to dissolve aspects of ourselves (who is doing the work anyways? *ahem* Ego.) is that we never really give those bits of ourselves much of a chance to be witnessed as anything other than “bad.”
They get shoved under the covers, smothered by shame, and grow into starving, shadowy beasts.
Maybe they get bypassed for a time, but trust me— they do not just transcend.
So… rather than an internal ego-cage fight, what do we do about these bits of “self” that keep us feeling separate, selfish and scared?
Maybe they just need a little attention. A bit of tenderness.
A sense of humor when they arise.
There’s a classic Buddhist story where upon hearing that Mara —the Lord of Delusion— was approaching, the Buddha asked his attendants to set the table with his finest china and invited Mara in for tea.
He didn’t try to dissolve Mara. He didn’t try to overcome Mara. He just sat there with the personification of his own aggression and greed and had a lovely get-to-know-ya.
Pass the scones, won't you? You beautiful nasty thing.
Easier said than done, but really--better than the alternative.
Check your ego when necessary, but remember that ALL of “you” belongs here.
Spiritual “self”aggression is useless. This is how we stop the war.