by Karina Guthrie (Published in Yoga Journal Australia October 2017).
Think of your house – the place you live – it contains you, you retreat there and inside its structure you change and grow. These things are healthy. Because you have a house you can move into the world and function there. If you never left your house, however, its structure would become unhealthy.
The ego is like this house. It contains us. It organizes our attention. It gives us an experience of our personality. It isn’t wrong to have an ego, just as it isn’t wrong to have a house, but each of these things should moor our experience, not restrict it. This is what allows us to both have an ego and move beyond it.
Ego is the part of us that mediates between our internal, instinctual drives and the social and ethical customs we abide by to live as part of a community. One of its primary responsibilities is to determine what, in our environment, we attend to and what we ignore. It chooses which of our impulses we express (those that support our self-image) and which we repress (those that do not). It protects the parts of us that feel vulnerable and employs strategies to ensure that our physical, mental and emotional needs are met while we grow and evolve. It has a tricky job. It needs to be strong enough to integrate the countless uplifting, challenging and contradictory experiences we have and, at the same time, maintain a level of internal stability that allows us to feel secure.
The Sanskrit word for ego – ahamkara – speaks to this. It means ‘I maker’ and refers to our internal story teller that paints the world with the colours of ‘I, me and my’. In navigating our human experience it’s an all-important compass, problematic only if we become confined by the thoughts, emotions and experiences it generates.
However, when it comes to our spiritual evolution it’s important to understand that while our ego is certainly a part of us, it’s not all that we are. To believe that it is, is to believe in an illusion, an illusion which yoga says is the foundational source of our suffering. It’s called ‘avidya’, which means ‘ignorance’ but not just any kind of ignorance; ignorance of our true nature. Avidya is our tendency to treat as ‘true’ the parts of our experience that change, while turning a blind eye to the parts of ourselves that are unchanging, eternal.
This seems abstract but we can play with the idea in a practical way. Day-to-day we treat our thoughts and emotions as if they were all we are. But consider this: the fact that we can witness our thoughts means there is an aspect of our awareness that exists beyond them. When we step into the place of ‘witness’ we tap into a deep and spacious aspect of our awareness that sees but doesn’t think and watches but doesn’t judge. It is pure, still and eternal.
Yoga says that if we can tap into this part of our self we will realise that we are not an isolated ego floating in space but rather a single drop of awareness in the vast ocean of energy and consciousness we call life. We will see that our ego is simply the vehicle through which universal consciousness expresses itself inside us as an individual.
We can touch this more universal part of our self by asking some simple questions. For example, when I breathe, how far into my body does that breath have to go before it stops being air and becomes a part of me? Where does my ear end and sound begin? Where does this writing end and your mind begin? As we ask these questions we begin to see that the boundaries the ego creates are arbitrary. The body cannot be separated from the world we live in, except in our imagination.
The Bhagavad Gita says when we are truly aligned with our highest potential we serve others without worrying about whether it benefits us. We surrender our actions to something greater than our own egoic concerns. It isn’t a seismic shift that gets us there. It’s a constant, gentle effort that helps us transcend the ego through purposeful living.
Ultimately, yoga’s lesson is that we can live in the world and at the same time draw nourishment from the part of us that is beyond the world. If we can direct even a small amount of the energy we use to maintain our self-image toward something bigger, we will be able to more fully nurture our potential. We will come to see our ego as a porous membrane through which we move each time we seek to travel between our individual human experience and our vast and boundless consciousness.
In addition to her work at The Practice, Karina is also the Managing Editor of Breathe Yoga and Wellness, a website dedicated to supporting yoga teachers in their ongoing journey as students.
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