As a student of spirituality, I've read a lot throughout the years about the dangers of ego, how it destroys our lives and keeps us from being fulfilled spiritually. But I have to admit that none of it made much sense to me really, either as a concept, or as any kind of practical application that would improve my day-to-day life. One day, though, I realized that I had been thinking about it all wrong, that trying to rid myself of ego wasn't the way to go at all. In this post, I explain why.
Understanding the Body-Spirit Hybrid Mind
To begin with our discussion of ego, we must first understand that the human experience is actually two distinct consciousnesses coming together to create the hybrid consciousness we think of as ourselves. Within spiritual circles, whether we’re talking about religion or other sorts of spiritual growth disciplines, there seems to me to be a tendency to downplay (at best) or vilify (at worst) the body and its needs, and to elevate to primary importance the development of spirit. The problem with this is that the body itself has a strong and distinct consciousness that is just as important to our human experience as our immortal spiritual consciousness. We’re not here as spirits; we’re here as humans. As such, it’s critically important to listen to and honor the wisdom of our bodies.
The primary task of the body is to keep itself safe, to ensure the continued existence of itself and its tribe. The ego is what happens when our body is afraid for its or the tribe’s safety and wants the mind (which is partially directed by spirit) to take action to protect it.
All fear is, at its root, a fear of death. We feel this quite clearly when we stand at the edge of a tall cliff and look out. We feel an overwhelming urge to step back, to eliminate the danger of death. What’s more subtle, and therefore more difficult to recognize, is that another type of fear of death dictates nearly everything we do: fear of getting kicked out of the tribe. In tribal days, banishment from the tribe usually meant death. As a result, our bodies evolved sophisticated feedback systems to ensure our continued acceptance by the tribe. This is why loneliness is so powerfully painful: our bodies are shouting at us to get back out there and integrate with the tribe, so we don’t get left behind and die!
Men and women tend to deal with the issue of belongingness differently, but in all cases, we do what we think we must do to become and remain acceptable to others, to carve out and defend our importance to the tribe, to simply stay alive.
Our families are where our bodies first learn what is required for survival. What do we need to do to be fed? What behaviors bring punishment? What do we have to do to get love? We then continue learning from our friends and schoolteachers, our sports coaches and dance instructors, the mean girls and bullies, what is required for membership in and importance to the tribe. All of the many things we learn create the ego, the body-mind’s standard operating procedure for being important to the tribe, and therefore, ensuring its continued survival. The part of the ego we’re not consciously aware of we call the Shadow Self.
The Ego’s Job is Important
So, what we think of as the “ego” is simply our bodies’ way of trying to keep us safe. It’s hardwired survival instinct. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature. It doesn’t need to die or be conquered or ignored. The ego will never, ever be silenced as long as the body lives. It may find sneakier ways to communicate, but it will go on trying to get our attention like a toddler whose parent is talking on the phone.
The trick, then, is to do the opposite of what is generally encouraged and instead create an honored position on your personal advisory board for your ego. Your ego is your friend, your ally. You have to learn to work together. If you want to be a fully-conscious being moving toward enlightenment, you have no other choice.
The steps for turning your ego into your ally are simple (which is not the same as easy!):
Listen to what it’s telling you
Thank it for its input
Consider the advice
Make your decision
Act on your decision
Repeat Step 1
This process takes lots of practice. Here are some ideas that can help:
Fear does not make one weak, but rather courageous. Vulnerability and bravery are two sides of the same coin.
Survival is your body’s primary imperative. You cannot be a spiritual being having a human experience without your body.
The ideas your ego has about what actions are required to survive were learned a long time ago and may not be applicable anymore, leading you to unconsciously take actions that don’t fit the current situation. After you’ve brought this fear-reaction process into your conscious awareness, deciding that there may be a better action to take instead of what your gut reaction is telling you to do doesn’t mean you don’t love your body or don’t appreciate its alerting you to a potential problem.
Listen to and honor your fear, but don’t let it dominate the conversation or dictate your actions. If you decide to not do what the ego wants you to do, explain your reasoning to your ego, and understand that you will still feel resistance no matter how well you’ve explained it. Keep listening to your ego so you don’t miss anything important, but proceed with your plan despite the resistance you feel.
Here's what a conversation with your ego might look like:
EGO: Hey, you've put on a little weight. How about you quit shoving food into your fat face and go for a walk or something?
ME: Whoa, man... Hey. Where is this coming from? Yes, I've put on 10 pounds, but I still look perfectly acceptable, thankyouverymuch.
EGO: But you don't look as good as you did. You aren't getting the same attention from men that you used to, and that's bad.
ME: Oh, okay. So what you're saying is that you think my value to the tribe is slipping because I'm not as pretty as I was, and you're afraid of being less important to the tribe because maybe then they'll kick us out, stop taking care of us?
EGO: Bingo, sister.
ME: Well, let's look at this. Yes, it may be true that I'm not as pretty as I was, but let's think about that. Did anyone love me just because I was pretty?
EGO: Uh... Well... No. No, they didn't.
ME: Right. They didn't. I had value, for sure, but it was as an accessory, not as a person. And it didn't help me make friends and it certainly didn't help anyone love me.
EGO: Okay, I see you have a good point there.
ME: So maybe it's not a big deal that I'm a little less pretty than before. In fact, maybe it's actually better. Maybe it will be easier to make friends and be loved for who I am instead of desired for how I look.
EGO: I'm still afraid, though. I don't know anything about being valued for our personality and not our looks. I'm not convinced it'll work. And if it doesn't work, I'll die.
ME: I know, but listen. I still look pretty good, and I'm not going to let the weight gain get out of hand. As soon as my stress levels decrease a bit, the weight should come off automatically. But we're of an age now that we're going to have to get used to not looking quite so good and realize that we still have plenty of things to offer that are of value to the tribe. Just look at how well we're doing at work. The boss keeps saying what a good job we're doing. We don't have to worry about getting kicked out.
EGO: Well... okay. I guess.
ME: Hey, thanks for looking out, ego. I appreciate your always having my back.
Leveling Up – Toward Ego 2.0
To further enhance the body-spirit mind’s ego integration, I’ve found several things help:
Take care of your body’s health. Seriously. It’s simple, but powerful. Eat healthfully, sleep enough, drink enough water, exercise regularly, cool it with the intoxicants, and so on. Your body will be a lot less stressed out about trying to get your attention if you show you’re listening by doing healthy behaviors every day.
Give some thought to what “your tribe” looks like. Recognize that it may or may not be the same as the people you are around every day. Judge yourself by your own values and not the values of others, in as much as your values still keep your body safe from harm. Take action to seek out and surround yourself with people who share your values and to lessen time spent around those whose values are contradictory to yours.
Recognize that as much as your body is integral to your spirit’s human experience, your spirit will live on independent of the body and will have more incarnation experiences in the future. I love my body and try to take good care of her, and I’m also not afraid of moving on without her. Not being afraid of death gives a person a subtle but noticeable power, as people who aren’t afraid of death aren’t easily bullied. It’s especially noticeable in those who have conquered both their fear of death and their fear of pain.
Killing the ego is not only misguided, but impossible. Befriending the ego is the only way of dealing with the body’s survival fears that actually works to improve one’s life on a long-term basis. The process of turning ego into ally is simple and totally doable for everyone, but it does take a bit of dedication to listening to your body every day. It also takes recognizing that some of the ego’s default solutions to survival threats may be outdated and in need of conscious redirection. From there, taking great care of your health and conquering your fear of death are the next steps in turning the ego’s power into your power.