Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ego vs. True Self

I have a huge ego. Seriously, I do. And it never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes it humors me; other times, it horrifies me. Once when my colleague challenged my decision-making for the umpteenth time, my ego erupted. “Let me tell you something,” I yelled, “You don’t stand in front of me. You don’t even stand next to me. You stand behind me.” As I stared him down, I couldn’t help but notice the hurt in his eyes. Whoa, I thought, did I really just say that?!? I felt terrible. If someone ever said that to me, I would be devastated and probably quit on the spot. So why did I lash out at him like that? It’s simple. My ego was threatened. And when that happens, not only do I hurt others, but also myself.  Because I know that’s not me, that’s not my true Self.

I consider myself a spiritual person. I practice yoga and meditation every day. I try to be thoughtful and kind towards others. But still, I struggle with my ego, which loves to assert itself.  In yoga, the ultimate goal is liberation. But how can we liberate ourselves when we continue to cling to our ego? In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we learn that the way to liberation is by stilling the mind and body through the Eight Limbs of Yoga. This path reveals our true Self, or “atman”, which is peace and loving-kindness. But when we allow our ego, or false identity to rule, we forget our true nature and suffer.

So is the point of yoga, or any spiritual practice, to lose our ego? I’m not sure that’s possible. But as I have gone deeper in my own practice, I notice that I’m much more mindful of my ego and how it operates. And that mindfulness helps me remember my true nature. So what is the difference between the ego and our true Self?  Well, try this little exercise…describe who you are. If you use words like mother, wife, vice-president, artist, writer, friend, that’s your ego talking. But if you write down words like honest, kind, loving, thoughtful, patient, open and engaging, you’re getting closer to understanding your real nature.

Our society places a lot of value on ego. We encourage competition, ambition and greed. Our titles, money, power and possessions all are defined by our ego. But the reality is, if you need something on the outside to make you happy and whole, you are bound to suffer. That’s because those things don’t last, and the ego will keep searching for something to satisfy it. Life becomes an endless loop of disappointment.

When I left my corporate job in television, my ego was lost. Who was I without a title, salary and staff to boss around?  I remember how good it felt when I got a promotion. I was somebody important. Of course, I can laugh at myself now because I know that was all just an illusion. My ego doesn’t define me.  Everything the ego relies on to feel “important” will one day be gone.  So ask yourself, if tomorrow, you lost everything you identify with, would you still know who you are?

I have struggled with this question for a long time. Who am I? This is the ultimate question we all try to answer. Through the practice of yoga and meditation, I realize that my true Self doesn’t change. The circumstances of my life will, but my true nature remains the same. We say in yoga “I AM”, which means we are eternal, everlasting peace. It’s only when I allow my ego to take over do I suffer. When I feel threatened, insecure or inadequate I have no peace of mind. I shift into defensive mode --- fortress goes up, armor goes on, and I charge into battle. The ego loves a good conflict. That’s how it survives, by separating itself from others.

That’s exactly what I did that day with my colleague. When he threatened my ego, I responded by labeling him the “enemy” and bashing him over the head with my cruel remarks. But if I had acted from my true Self, I would have calmly sat down with him and listened. He just wanted to be heard. Don’t we all? Even if I stuck to my decision in the end, I would have shown him kindness and respect… and kept my peace of mind.

So how can we connect more to our true Self, instead of our ego? Here our a few simple tips I have learned in my practice:

Have Good Intentions

Are you acting out of self-interest or the interest of others?  Ego is selfish; our true Self is selfless. Consider how your actions will impact others before acting on them. Will they benefit only you or will they benefit others, as well? When you act with good intentions, you stay true to your real nature and maintain your peace and happiness.

Take Five Breaths

The next time you feel a confrontation coming on with another person, take five. Seriously, five breaths. I used to give myself time-outs by going to another room, shutting the door, and just breathing. Something this simple is very powerful. It helps calm you down and reconnect to your true Self.

Observe the Mind

Next time you meditate, or just walk down the street, observe your thoughts. Notice how all your thoughts are about yourself? I could develop an entire reality series with the drama that goes on in my head…Is she mad at me? He doesn’t like me…I will never get another job…How will I survive? We are always thinking about ourselves, even when we think we’re not. That’s the ego. The more familiar you get with it, the less you will allow it to rule your life.

Tune in to Silence and Solitude

The best way to tune-in to your true Self is to spend time in silence and solitude. Meditate, contemplate, stare out the window, or go for a walk in nature. Consider it a mini-escape. Let go of the need to think, plan or do anything. By cultivating an inner calm, you will be able to tune into your inner voice.  And when you listen really closely, you will hear your Self, not your ego.
Have A Sense of Humor

Your ego takes itself very seriously. Your True Self does not. So lighten up, make fun of yourself sometimes, and don’t take all that drama in your head so seriously. When you realize your true Self, nothing can disturb your peace and equanimity because you understand what is real and what is not.


  1. Caroline, I opened one of my classes last week with a dharma talk about contentment (santosha) I read from Gurumayi's book Sadhana of the Heart. In it, she quotes her guru" Contentment destroys ego" She goes on to say that like courage, contentment is not a passive virtue but a practice of tapas..... "the struggle to maintain the poise of your heart". Santosha creates balance in our lives and keeps us disciplined in the understanding that we're all looking for the same thing...happiness, and that we're superior or inferior to no one.

  2. Is this Heidi? Thanks for the comment! Contentment is very much a part of shedding our egos. I think that deserves its own blog, don't you? Thanks for sharing :)

  3. is Heidi and Santosha definitely deserves it's own blog....maybe that should be my first "Guest Writer" article for "Yogini's Guide to Life"...My Iyengar teacher has just pointed out that I need to focus on stability on and off the mat. I've been observing that in my life and was going to write about it.

  4. That would be fabulous...please write something and I'll post it! xo