The Unexplored Role of the Ego for Greater Spiritual Progress
The ego often has a notorious reputation along the spiritual journey. We are frequently led to believe that it is something we should try to destroy in order to come closer to our true Self.
As Acharya Shunya taught in an inspiring recent series of Vedic Spiritual Studies Program classes, however, there is an unexplored role that the ego plays, which ultimately leads to greater spiritual progress. The ego is a very essential actor in bringing us deeper Self-knowledge.
As we will see through this and the coming series of articles on the ego, it plays a central role on our spiritual journey. And while the ego can definitely lead us astray from our Self in a garden variety of ways, each with its own colors and flavors, it is this very same ego that can also be credited with bringing us back home to our deepest Self.
What is the Ego?
The literal term for the ego in Sanskrit is “ahamkāra.” When separated into its root words, we can understand how the ego is the kara, or “maker” of aham, or “I.” The ego is literally the “I maker.” As Acharya Shunya says, “the ego is nothing more than a singular ‘I’ thought at the core of our being.”
The ego is our container of thoughts, which travel with us from one body to another. They comprise the subtle body of thoughts, which remains with us forever, throughout all our myriad lifetimes, until the point when we are fortunate enough to achieve full liberation, or moksha, and no longer have the obligation to be in any kind of body.
The ego is responsible for creating separation and distinguishing an individual from the whole. In this sense, the ego serves the function of identification. It is the means by which we are able to know ourselves as separate beings from the rest of existence.
The Ego's Associations
The ego gets activated when our sense of “I” becomes fused with myriad associations. These include the most basic associations we are born with, such as our family, race and birth religion. We all have different psychological tendencies, personality traits, sun signs and unique body constitutions, and when we identify with those as defining ‘who we are,’ the ego gets strengthened.
The ego identifies itself with political groups, taking on labels like Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. It does the same with cultural labels, like “I am a feminist.”
An even more common phenomenon of ego identification is with our profession. How many times have we referred to ourselves or met others who introduced themselves by saying “I am an artist, entrepreneur, social worker, doctor, teacher,” etc.? Our values are common additional sources of ego identification (e.g. “I’m a righteous person”).
Along with “ahamkāra,” another word connected with the ego in Vedānta is mamakāra, which literally means the “mine” (mama) “maker” (kara). Mamakāra signifies all those people, places and things we consider to be “mine.” This includes our friends and enemies, our likes and dislikes, our mind (passing emotions, as well as ideas, beliefs and imaginations), and personal experiences, including past traumas and future, imaginary occurrences.
An example that Acharya Shunya gave to illustrate ahamkāra and mamakāra in action is that of a person who identifies with their profession as a carpenter.
This carpenter can say, “I love wood. I belong to a family of carpenters. I believe in rosewood. I believe in the carpentry association of Seattle and California. I believe in Democrats or Republicans, depending on who supports the carpentry association of America, depending on what logging policies they have, etc. And because I’m a carpenter, the knowledge of how to be a carpenter, the tools to be a carpenter, this shop of carpentry, the gurus of carpentry, the clients of carpentry, these are mine.”
The Ego’s Artificial Value Adds
Along with its various sources of association and identification with different forms of I-ness and mine-ness, the ego also tries to add artificial value to itself in different ways. One such value add comes in the form of its degrees. Acquiring a house, spouse and child(ren) are additional sources of value adding. The ego additionally tries to add value to itself by getting strokes and attention from external sources, such as social media, our family members, friends, teachers, etc.
If we are unsuccessful in adding this value to ourselves, the ego laments about how it doesn’t have a degree, a house, spouse, child, attention from others, and so on.
Advaita Vedānta declares our fundamental wholeness. The Self is complete in itself. And yet, when identified with ahamkāra (“I-ness”) and mamakāra (“mine-ness”), the ego becomes more attached to the external and can easily lose itself in a world of associations, people, property, fame, money and degrees that we feel will add to us, making us somehow feel more full.
Acharya Shunya shared an example of how people will say, “When I have a partner in my life, I feel better. Without one, I feel dead.” A similar phenomenon happens with jobs, property, fame, money, etc. There is a kind of emptiness that can be experienced when the ego is without external forms of value. We experience depression, smallness and unworthiness when we forget the inherent value of our true Self.
The Journey of Aham to Brahm (an)
In addition to “aham,” the ego in Vedānta is also known as chidabāsa, which means it is comprised of both the Truth (of Brahman, Supreme Reality), as well as a reflection of Truth. The reflected part of the ego remembers, deep down, that its essential nature is wholeness, peacefulness, bliss, intelligence, knowledge and wisdom.
The ego’s memory of its true nature is often first a hindrance. In time, this memory of its true spiritual nature is what eventually also leads the ego back home, to the source and substratum of all existence - to Brahman.
The Projected Self’s Misdirected Cravings for Its True Self
We can see how this deep memory manifests in a bank robber. On the surface, it may not seem like a bank robber would have any memory at all of their true nature as a supreme spiritual being. If the robber did remember, after all, then why steal in the first place? The robber is after money. That is obvious.
But when we scratch the surface to dig deeper into the robber’s motivation for robbery, we will see that the robber has stolen to have enough money to ultimately have peace. The robber’s real nature is peace. And the robber’s ego remembers this.
All the different examples of how our ego acts out (by lying, stealing, cheating, manipulating, overeating, gossiping, and even committing crimes like murder), are, in fact, actually ways that the ego expresses a very hidden craving to experience its essential nature.
We often lie to ensure our security. We break others down by gossiping to feel a sense of our own wholeness. We overeat to feel the satisfaction of fullness. We cheat and manipulate to remove power from others as a way to experience our own power (or in the case of cheating on a spouse, to feel physical and/or emotional bliss). We kill to ultimately experience a sense of the soul’s immortality.
The true Self is completely secure. It is whole, full, powerful and blissful. It is immortal. And the projected self craves its true Self, deep down. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all searching for our own Self, because the ego remembers who it really is on a profound and hidden level.
Moving from Darkness to Light
The same memory of wholeness eventually turns ordinary, ego-driven people into spiritual seekers. This usually happens when we have suffered enough from all the misdirected paths the inner memory of our real nature can take us on to attempt to experience our true Self.
These memories prompt us with the increasingly nagging feeling that, even as our ego chases outer wordly identifications, desperately builds up its sense of ownership in different and creative ways and suffers more and more as a result, our true wholeness is not actually going to be found outside.
We realize, sooner or later, that we will need to start to look inside to find what we are really seeking. The ego is what ultimately redirects us to learn from a qualified spiritual teacher about how to access and connect with our own source of real inner satisfaction, fulfillment, wholeness, peace and bliss.
The journey of aham (the individual “I”) to Brahm(an) (Supreme Reality), then, is really one of returning back home, to our true state of Being.
The ancient Upanishadic mantra we close our Vedic Spiritual Studies Program classes with beautifully expresses the ego’s journey:
Asato mā sadgamaya
May I journey from untruth (asat) to Truth (sat)
Tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
From darkness (tamas) to light (jyotir)
Mrytor mā amritamgamaya
And from identification with the body subject to death (mrytor) to identification with my immortal essence (amritam).
OM Shantih Shantih Shantih
OM Peace Peace Peace
The word “gamaya” means “to journey,” or “to go.” The one who makes the journey from untruth to truth, darkness to light, and from identification with the changing body to the immortal Self is none other than the ego.
From Wave to Ocean Consciousness
The ego’s journey can also be characterized by the metaphor of journeying from wave consciousness to ocean consciousness. When we are identified with ahamkāra and mamakāra, it’s as if we have identified with a single wave.
Our whole existence is then completely centered around our existence as a wave - we become happy when we crest, and sorrowful as we fall. We associate with the other waves around us as “our waves.” And try to add value to ourselves by becoming higher and higher waves in the ocean. Along the way, we forget that we are actually much bigger than a single wave.
Advaita Vedānta reminds us that we are actually the whole ocean (a metaphor of Brahman – Absolute Reality). We are one with pure existence, our true nature, as represented by the ocean. When we limit ourselves to certain restrictive belief systems, or a binding sense of me and mine, we have subscribed to wave consciousness.
The journey is to go from believing we are a single wave to understanding that we are actually the whole ocean.
Forgetting Our Small Selves
We are one with all of existence. The times in our human lives when we remember and experience this universal oneness are those peak moments in life when the ego is not present, when we forget our small selves.
This can happen when we see the sunrise and forget ourselves. It happens during orgasms. We also experience this whenever we spontaneously cry when seeing something beautiful, or when we cry for another’s pain and suffering.
The Power of the Present Moment
The ego has no existence in the here and now. We are able to live from a higher, expanded consciousness when we surrender to the present moment and live simply with what is coming to us naturally.
The ego is responsible for repeating our memories of the past, and for projecting imaginary future scenarios and associations, but when we bring it back to the present, it can take us on a journey home, to our true Self.
It only takes a moment.
The simple act of smelling a flower grounds us powerfully in the present moment, as does taking a deep breath, and taking a second to close our eyes, remember and connect with the infinite within us.
The Invitation to Soften the Ego
Sometimes on the spiritual path, we hear about people referring to “killing the ego.” It is important to note, however, that we cannot actually kill the ego.
This is because the ego is really nothing but our thoughts, which travel with us from one body to another (as the subtle body of thoughts always remains with us, throughout our lifetimes).
We also should not judge our ego.
The invitation, instead, is to soften it.
Practical ways we are invited to soften the ego include:
1. Observing the ego
Anything we observe stops having power over us by the power of objectivity. We are not what we can observe.
By offering a compassionate witness consciousness (sākshi chaitanyam) to our tendency to associate, add artificial value to ourselves and become identified with our preferences for people, places and situations in our lives, we lessen the power of our own egos.
One of the best ways to observe the ego is through the practice of meditation. When we practice the Vedāntic Ātmabodha Meditation Acharya Shunya teaches, we have the opportunity to simply witness the body, the breath and the mind with all its associations, likes, dislikes, memories, projections, emotions, etc.
This helps us separate ourselves from associating as strongly with our ego. Doing so strengthens our identification with the witness itself - the seer, our true Self.
3. Calming activities
Soothing activities like taking a walk in nature and listening to tranquil music help the ego to fall from superficial to deeper levels of awareness. The Self can only be discovered when we go deep.
This process of looking within for that immortal part of ourselves is something that is greatly assisted by quieting our surroundings and creating an environment conducive for spiritual growth.
4. Exposing our ego to spiritual wisdom
The voice of our true Self greatly increases when we listen to Shāstra (teachings from the ancient spiritual texts recorded by the ancient Rishis, or seers, from their observations of the natural world, as well as our inner world).
The ego starts to crumble away the more it is exposed to the Truth. Satyam eva jayate is a beautiful expression of how only the Truth (Satyam) has real existence (jayate).
What Happens When the Ego Softens?
In The Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna reveals how the same ego can be either a friend or an enemy of our true Self. As the enemy of the true Self, the ego leads us to suffering. As a friend of the true Self, the ego can lead us to liberation from all forms of bondage. When the ego softens, it becomes our friend. We can recognize it, see through it and train the ego to lead us back home.
From continually associating with ahamkāra (“I-ness”) and mamakāra (“mine-ness”), we find the we. And from the we, we find God. When the sense of the individual “I” completely dissolves, the resulting knowledge that arises is called Jñāna Yoga - the knowledge of Self.
Because we will still have an ego for as long as we are in our bodies, what happens when greater Self knowledge awakens in us is that we will ultimately awaken to a healthy ego. The healthy ego is one that knows that even though we are all individuals, we are inherently connected with the all (like a wave that knows it’s actually the ocean).
We bring our real Self and our projected self into alignment. The deeper sense of connection with all of existence stemming from this alignment naturally softens the ego and leads us more and more to the kind of freedom that comes from knowing who we really are – Brahman, the Supreme Reality.
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Ananta Ripa Ajmera is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as Director of Program Development at Vedika Global. She is author of "The Ayurveda Way," a collection of 108 practices for body, mind and soul that she learned from Acharya Shunya.