Your ego, like wind, water, and fire, makes a good servant but a terrible master. Natural forces like wind, water, and fire provide essential tools when we can harness them. These forces generate heat, provide energy, enable efficient, faster travel, and promote technological advancement, as our servants. As our masters, they deliver disastrous floods, devastating storms, and destructive fires.
The ego plays a similar role in our lives. When we harness it, it can promote our health and safety, but when it masters us, it can engulf us into many unnecessary psychic storms. When we harness it through mindfulness and awareness, it is our servant. But when we succumb to the psychological manipulation of the ego, we get tossed by the winds of fear, paranoia, anger. These storms can also cause deep personal and social anxiety, which often leaves us feeling helpless and depressed.
We are meant to be happy, and our ego was meant to be a tool to promote one part of that happiness, our survival. Indeed, our happiness cannot exist without our survival, but it is also true that survival does not equate precisely to happiness. Sadly, many souls find themselves in circumstances where there are few real physical threats to their survival, yet they live in constant fear. Occasionally, when I ask people how they are doing, they respond with the answer, “surviving.” This response always saddens me. It is also a likely sign that they have made their ego the executor over their happiness.
The Ego and Mindfulness
The problem with the ego is that it is inherently unsatisfied with its intended role. It is persistently trying to gain access to psychological issues in addition to monitoring our physical survival. If we give it that access, our ego proceeds to elevate psychological issues into matters of eminent survival. If this is allowed, consciously or subconsciously, it results in the amplification of our fears beyond realistic proportions and damages proper perspective. Unfortunately, most of the time, this occurs subconsciously.
Mindfulness, at its core, involves identifying these fears, and the self-centered, egotistical tendencies that exaggerate them, as we deliver them to the attention of our conscious mind. Then we can learn to disarm them. When we learn how to do this, we can eventually learn to maintain a high level of mindfulness, much of the time. I believe this is the real purpose of meditation and prayer. At their most optimal, prayer and meditation are as much states of mind as they are practices. More than just things we do, meditation and prayer are attitudes of mindfulness in which we live.
Three effective techniques have been particularly helpful in teaching me to recognize my ego’s psychological misbehavior. The first one is somewhat deep and a little disorienting at first, but the other two are very practical. The first involves our overall awareness, but the second and third include our thoughts and feelings. But all three of these techniques play an essential role in overall mindfulness.
The first technique is to learn who we indeed are and who we are not. To understand who we are, it is sometimes helpful to determine who we are not. We are not our feelings, thoughts, our self-image, our career, or even our names. We are also not our children, parents, spouse, significant other, or lack of a significant other. These are all things outside of us, and that is not where our true identity originates. We are what is inside of us. We are the ones who are aware of all these things.
Your awareness, which can’t be seen, touched, or known, but without which, nothing else can be seen, touched or perceived, is what makes you unique and special. Awareness can also be referred to as our consciousness, soul, or our spirit.
Again, this may be initially confusing because we are so used to centering our identity in things external to us. But it is a very profound and simple truth that brings great wisdom when clearly understood. As we learn to step back from the things and people external to us, and pause and realize that we are the one who is aware of these things, we start to center in on what makes us unique. We also will start to put things into a proper perspective.
If what makes us unique, is our awareness, the time spent concerned about issues, external to us, like what other people think of us, or how good we look, or how smart or successful we are, dim in their importance. As we dwell more on our invisible intrinsic nature, the tendency to focus on deeper issues ensues.
Consequently, a central part of meditation is to connect down into this intrinsic nature as the center of our being. This connection brings great peace. It also provides us with a valuable and wise perspective, as we increasingly begin to see our reactions to the things outside of us more as an observer and less as a participant. We learn to watch ourselves from within ourselves.
The second technique is learning to recognize the precise nature of our fears. We all know when we are feeling fear. The trick to mindfulness, and emotional maturity, is the capacity to identify the source of our anxiety. Distinguishing between the nature of the threat, helps us isolate and then analyze our fears.
We need to be able to identify whether our fear is generated from psychological issues or the anxiety posed by an immediate dire predicament. We need to ask ourselves this simple question. Is there a direct threat to our well being at this time? The answer is usually no. If the answer is yes, we typically instinctively know what to do to escape such threats.
Most of the time, there is not a pressing danger. The psychological threats are the ones that just vaguely hover over us. The lack of immediacy and specificity allows them to haunt us without detection.
Finally, if our fears are merely psychological, here are some excellent ways to disarm them. First, tell someone else. We tend to be better at recognizing the irrational fears of others than we are at seeing through our own fears. Conversely, others are often better at identifying our irrational fears. Also, sometimes the very process of verbally sharing a concern enables us to see the unreasonableness of it.
Another technique is to ask yourself the question, what realistically would be the worst-case scenario if this fear came true? Usually, it is not as bad as the ego is making it out to be. Asking this question also allows us to see the improbability of the scenarios our ego inflates in our mind. For example, perhaps your son or daughter chooses not to study their math properly and risk failing a test. The solution is to find a way to encourage them to study more effectively or allow them to suffer the consequences of failing a test.
However, the temptation is to inflate the issue from merely the failure to study effectively for a particular test, into an issue of coming academic doom and our child’s ultimate failure in life, is an irrational scenario. This fear of ultimate failure is the product of an overactive ego. These are irrational fears that will not follow directly from the real problem at hand. We have all been affected by these types of exaggerated concerns. They can plague us and hinder our ability to thoughtfully deal with the real problem. The first step in disarming these fears is to expose them.
Finally, personal disturbances provide another gift to our mindfulness. This statement may sound counter-intuitive. I mean, how can mindfulness come from our disturbances? One of the essential ingredients of mindfulness is the acceptance of things we cannot control. When we are disturbed, it is often a sign that we are trying to control something we either can not or should not try to control. If we allow ourselves to be bothered by something that is not in our control, we can not be centered or mindful.
But the good news is, disturbances themselves, are clues that we are trying to control something we shouldn’t. Simply feeling disturbed is our sign that we have a problem that is usually our fault. These disturbances in our psyche are like rocks that we can use to cross a stream of frustration without getting wet. They are stepping stones to mindfulness. If we are disturbed by something, we need simply ask the question, is this something I can control? If it is in your control, then fix it; if it is not in your control, which is most often the case, let it go. By learning to let go and leave these matters in God’s capable hands, we can learn to rest.
It is not our ego’s place to fix something that is not in our control. Take traffic, for instance. Traffic has been one of my most significant challenges with mindfulness. The only aspect I have any control over regarding traffic, is how I drive my car. I have no control over what anyone else does, yet what they do or don’t do often affects me greatly. Regardless, the only way for me to remain mindful in traffic is to let go of my judgments about what others do or don’t do, or should or Shouldn’t do, and just drive as safely as possible—getting angry fixes nothing. By merely accepting the traffic, the way it is, without resistance, I can be mindful in the traffic, rather than anxious, nervous, and angry.
The ego properly controlled, encourages mindfulness. The above techniques are designed to help us recognize the signs of our ego’s overreach and help avoid the self-inflicted psychological storms that this imposes on our lives. By looking for our identity in our awareness, we can connect to the mystical reality that renders our existence unique, and meaningful in the first place. Learning to distinguish between immediate physical threats and exaggerated psychological threats, teaches us to better disarm unnecessary fears. And finally, accepting the things we can not change, without resisting them, allows us to be mindful in circumstances over which we have little control. These simple techniques, applied consistently over time, will transform our egos from masters into servants, and open the doors to greater personal mindfulness.