For a long time I’ve misconstrued the problem of ego. Like most people, I’ve often heard someone has an “ego problem” or people would be better off if they would keep their ego “in check.” Many spiritual adherents even espouse “killing” the ego.
But, recently a good friend explained to me why we shouldn’t try to kill or even fight our ego. First of all, it’s not possible. Ego isn’t an object, like a faulty component of an appliance to be disassembled or discarded. Ego is merely a set of habits, an expression of our experience and a reaction to “what’s happening” right now.
More importantly though, rather than fighting our ego, we should show our ego the same compassion we should be showing other people. To understand the appropriate compassion required, we can follow Thích Nhất Hạnh’s advice about how to deal with anger – we can visualize holding our ego’s hand like a little brother.
In other words, the problem is not having an ego, but how we express ourselves via our ego. More often than not, people express themselves from an ego based in arrogance, fear, or even self-loathing. The appropriate expression, of course, is from a genuine state of humility and compassion.
Our problems with ego actually arise when we cling to an inappropriate variation of our ego to the point that it becomes a Personality. Persona, the Latin word for “mask”, is that layer of ego we apply on top of our true, underlying Self. To live and behave appropriately, within any given moment, we must apply the appropriate Persona. We then must “hang that mask up on the wall” and apply the next Persona which is appropriate for the next moment.
We get into trouble when we cling to one Persona and use it inappropriately. When we experience stubborn people acting inappropriately, we are witnessing an example of an ego problem, someone clinging to a Persona which is wrong for a particular moment.
Being our “true selves” or “ego-less” or “in the present” are all variations of the same thing – expressing the Universal Self through a Persona which is appropriate for that moment.
Now, some people may find all of this complicated and stressful; visualizing the selection, application, and discarding of all these different masks, trying to figure out how to “act” moment-by-moment. And, described that way, it does sound exhausting.
But, I’m not suggesting anything that crazy or contrived. Simply put, when operating our daily lives, we simply need to be a friend, partner, teacher, student, child, parent; whichever Persona is appropriate, moving from expression-to-expression as needed and as appropriate for that point in time.
We should try to remain free of mental clutter, simplistically confident, pure-minded, without “baggage,” receptive, present without distraction, so we can react appropriately to whatever comes our way. We must avoid clinging to some inappropriate mask and dragging it along where it doesn’t belong. It’s what people mean when they tell you to stop putting on an act and just be your Self.
When we practice this successfully, ego is no problem. We can dispense with the delusion that ego is something separate which must be controlled or extinguished (which will never happen.) Ego is then manageable and likened unto a little brother who merely requires our care and guidance, instead of an out-of-control monster who must be slain.