My friend and I have set out to establish a set of daily practices to work on our pride and ego. While we recognize the importance and strategic power of ego, we also each feel trapped by its ugliness, its constant re-birth even after years of trying to beat it down. We’ve been noticing lately how often the ego can sneak back up into a totalness of who we are without us even knowing. An unwanted guest in our beautiful house. Ego destroys any humility we’ve cultivated, wiping out extensive effort and sincere practice, again making ugly spaces in the parts of ourselves that we’d so recently renovated.
In our search for help, we come upon Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs talking of “being independent of the good opinion of others.” This just sounds awesome, a Facebook-worthy, “look how deep and awesome I am” quote. But upon reflection, we recognize we can’t achieve this. Living in this culture, with the context of our lives as we’ve created them, this just isn’t possible. So what is possible?
We consider other practices that have worked so well for us, like our food texting groups and accountability around money and spending and planning. My friend texts me: Let’s do a Humiliate our ego project. Step 1 clarity and daily meditation. Ego check in every two hours. A quick text. Self-perception, feelings, triggers, actions. The whole truth Lets literally track our egos and see what we discover.
I don’t even consider this idea. If I knew what my ego looked like enough to track it, I’d have already annihilated it.
I want an actual practice. Something to wake up and do, like brushing my teeth or exercising or five minutes of meditation, that I can commit to each day that will slowly and steadily work on demising my unchecked ego and allow me to regain control over this precious yet dangerous resource.
We search for answers in our holy texts. We explore mounds of research and volumes of words. All seemed to address the need but not the how. I don’t know anyone remaining on the planet who doesn’t understand the benefit of reducing ego but I also really don’t know anyone who has a clear understanding of how to work on it.
We did find a general consensus that not everyone has an unhealthy level of ego, and we did seem to land on a set of 5 “signs” that our egos need some attention:
Concern with approval of others
Fear of asking for help
The constant need for more
Lack of present moment awareness
The need to always be right
And last, Comparing yourself to others. This one might be the worst, a constant losing battle because there will always be somebody better and always be somebody worse that you are, both states keeping you in this space of suffering.
After both us of masterfully Acing this test with scores exceeding 100%, full of pride and arrogance for our high marks, we kept digging. We found endless troves of research on “managing your ego” like these 5 tips:
1. Make situations safer for everyone.
2. Manage your own tendencies to overreact.
3. Overcome the urge to be “right” every time.
4. Get over your sense of entitlement.
5. Stop complaining.
We immediate concluded these were not helpful at all. I would love to “overcome the urge to be ‘right’ every time”.. but how the hell do we do it? Everyone seems able to identify what to do, not how to do it.
After much debate, we part ways defeated and practice less. We each agree to mull it over and re-convene… praying for some divine intervention. I spend the rest of the day noticing the tentacles of my ego— realizing how intermingled they are in every aspect of my life. The awareness increased my desire to find a solution.
My day ends with a single thought I couldn’t shake:
“Wherever we get hung up in pain and confusion, there we’ll find the ego.”
I couldn’t fall asleep as thoughts of the uncountable times my ego tripped me up, blew things up and made a mess of so many experiences. I was quickly able to identify the pain and confusion associated with those moments. Almost entirely I found roots leading to the same core issues of wanting to be seen, validated, appreciated, noticed, loved.
I imagine this is an enormously common root. Knowing this, I began seeing when it was emerging.. before my pride and ego had a chance to destroy things. This gave me hope and a renewed courage to keep looking for a practice.
Ponlop Rinpoche taught me this:
“From a Buddhist point of view, the ego is something made up by the mind. It’s the sense of self — a flash of “I” or “me” that we believe in and cling to. It’s the basis of our feeling of self-importance. It’s a story, a myth of self that we keep telling ourselves.
That “self” is the center of our universe. No matter what we’re doing, our actions always come from and reflect back to our sense of self-consciousness. This ego-self we cling to is the source of most of our problems. Wherever we get hung up in pain and confusion, there we’ll find the ego.
The Buddha taught that the root cause of our suffering—ignorance—is what gives rise to this tendency to “cling.”
“What am I clinging to?” is the question you should ask yourself. We should look deeply at this process to see if anything is really there. According to the Buddha, we’re clinging to a myth. It is just a thought that says “I,” repeated so often that it creates an illusory self, like a hologram that we take to be solid. With every thought, every emotion, this “self” appears to be more and more real, when it’s actually just a fabrication of the mind. It’s an ancient habit, so ingrained in us that this very clinging becomes part of our identity, too. If we let go of this thought of “me,” we might feel that something familiar was missing—as though a close friend or a chronic pain had suddenly disappeared.”
I finally realized, our practice is so simple. It’s asking Rinpoche’s question every day, every time “I” or “me” shows up in my thinking and vocabulary.
What am I clinging to?
When my ego flares, I ask this question and the answers themselves are the antidote, the remedy, the club that beats that pride and ego back down into a manageable size again and again.
I know for sure, The ego will never die. I also know for sure, I can suffocate it again and again with this simple question.
What am I clinging to?
The answers never surprise me. They are what I’ve always known but seem to always forget in the heat of the moment. Hurt. Alone. Left out. not good enough. Invisible. I’m clinging to a desire to not feel these basic human emotions. Again and again.