Every action, thought, problem, relationship, and feeling is affected by our concept of “self.” Many talk about ego, but do we really know what it is? Do we know how to rise above our own egos? Do we know how to “detach” or why it might be important to be able to separate from our concept of self? For some people, the concept of detachment is impossible and the need for separation seems ridiculous. How could we possibly be without an ego, even if only for a moment? Ego defines who we are. What would we be without ego or self? We wouldn’t even be human. What’s so bad about trying to satisfy the ego since it encompasses the essence of humanity? Can we even consider defining ourselves without the use of the word “I?”
Ego is the reason we care what other people think. It is the reason we care if we are successful. The ego cares about winning arguments, being right, being respected and the ego craves acceptance, admiration and love. The ego is confident, ambitious, and may crave money, power and control. The ego has pride and it protects its own image. The ego defends itself when it is being attacked. It is the ego that would rather be unemployed than to take a job that is a career demotion. The ego seeks agreement and it often compels us to be around people who mimic our beliefs and opinions. Frequently, the ego looks for projections of itself in other people rather than being strong enough to face diversity and disagreement.
The ego is also insecure and driven by fear. Fear is one of the primary reasons that the ego does what it does. Without the fear of failure, loss of security or being alone, our egos wouldn’t care so much about many of the problems in our lives. The corruption of ego and need to exaggerate the importance of the ego at the expense of others brought about the genocide of World War II. Protecting the ego is equivalent to protecting a person’s self-image. Egos lead people to believe that others who are different are inferior. Egos make people think that they need to put others down to feel better about themselves. An ego-dominated person is more likely to hate than love. Egos bring about self-hatred as well. If the importance of the ego could be subordinated, a person would never commit suicide.
The ego needs to rationalize mistakes or hide insecurities. The ego needs to justify actions and decisions to others. The ego needs approval. If we were stronger than our egos, we would be comfortable with our past failures and lapses in judgment without having to prove to others that our actions were warranted.
It is extremely difficult to subordinate the ego so that we do not feel the need to rationalize our behavior to others. If we do not defend ourselves, we feel that we are subtly implying that we agree with perceptions about us that we know are untrue. For example, a previous business associate spent two years looking for a job without success. She was extremely qualified and had managed her career successfully. Yet, the downturn in the economy had forced many companies to eliminate senior management positions and every job received about 600 resumes. If a candidate’s experience did not match the job requirements perfectly, the candidate would be rejected. This business associate explained, “While I was struggling to find a job, others would assume that there was something wrong with me. They implied that I was lazy or unwilling to compromise. They couldn’t understand what I was going through because they were employed, so they made snap judgments that were extremely inaccurate. I spent an inordinate amount of time rationalizing my predicament to my friends. Instead of feeling better by being around people who I thought cared about me, I felt that I had to constantly explain every decision and action. The entire experience was emotionally draining and incredibly unfair.” This business associate was protecting her ego when it was under attack. If she had said nothing, she would have been perpetuating false images about herself and she may have eventually believed that the criticisms were true (because sometimes, we are also trying to convince ourselves).
Subordinating the ego does not mean that we do not defend ourselves; it simply means that we do not let other people’s opinions make us believe something that we know is untrue. If we are strong and have inner peace and confidence, our egos are not “bruised” when other people’s criticisms conflict with our own perceptions of reality. Insults have no power over our emotions; we may disagree with the criticisms but we do not get angry with the person who said them. In other words, we still protect our self-image, but we do not become emotionally involved with the outcome. If others choose not to believe our view of reality, we simply don’t care.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the ego is what defines us; it is the part of us that experiences the external world through the senses; the ego organizes the thought processes rationally, and governs our actions. The ego is driven by our instinctual desires and adapts according to the conscience, or feels guilt and remorse according to preconceived standards for morality. Spiritually, we are conceived as energy but it is the ego upon which experience is superimposed, and upon which our actions and mental states are recognized. A person without an ego just isn’t a person. Ego is the “I” that we use to define our personal reality.
We often hear statements such as “your ego is getting in the way,” or “it is his ego that is causing all his problems,” or “he has a big ego.” These statements can seem absurd. How could the ego not get in the way? How can someone accuse the ego for problems? What does it mean to have a big ego?
Ego is merely our sense of self. When we are focused on ourselves, we are not focused on others or the environment that exists outside of ourselves. We can exaggerate the importance of our ego by refusing to pay attention to the forces that may be more important than our concept of self. For example, compassion surfaces only when our ego boundaries are dissolved.
Yet, we need to be realistic. Our concept of self is how we measure our experiences and feelings. We are human beings and even if our true reality is spiritual, it is difficult to detach ourselves from our perceived reality – but not impossible.
Ego attachment creates desire; we desire anything that pleases the ego. Detachment frees us from desires that can imprison us; detachment is a release from negative outcomes or feelings that might not please the ego. Yet, how would we accomplish detachment even if we wanted to? How do we extinguish our concept of self? Innately, the ego or “self-identity” believes that it is discrete and unique. Correspondingly, the ego assumes that it needs its individuality to survive.
Perhaps this conundrum is not about relinquishing self but by putting our egos in their proper perspective. Reality may be what we perceive happens to us or our egos, but if there were a way of seeing ourselves as part of a greater whole or as an entity that is not separate from the energy of the universe, then the concept of self is just part of something more powerful. The self would not exist alone and thus, would not desire things that pleased the ego in its isolation.
Instead of thinking about “I,” we may think about “us.” Then the desires are not just for the ego, but for our relationships with others as well. We may want to win an argument to please the ego, but we do not want to cause discomfort for the other parties involved in the discussion. We think about everyone’s egos instead of just our own. The ego might want to be right but this is accompanied with an understanding that other people’s egos also want to be right. The only way that we can consider the feelings of others is by detaching ourselves from our personal desires and by understanding the needs and goals of other people’s desires.
It is easier to attach to the desires of our egos than it is to detach. We know what we want and what makes us feel good, but it is harder to know what other people want. In order to detach, we must be able to develop empathy. We need to be able to place ourselves in other people’s shoes instantaneously. When we disagree with someone or make a judgment about someone, we need to immediately feel what the other person is feeling. We have to be able to see both sides at once. The only way to do this is by being able to separate ourselves from our personal egos at a moment’s notice, which requires the ability to detach from the concept of a discrete and individualized “self.” Our needs must be defined in relation to other people’s needs. If we care about the relationships we have with others, then the needs of the relationship take precedence over individual needs.
Detachment is a form of surrender because the ego is no longer devoted to achieving a specified result. Surrender allows us to flow with the forces of the universe rather than deciding that a predetermined outcome must be accomplished in a certain way. If we can detach our egos, we can let go of our control over the outcome.
Why would we want to accomplish this? We know the old saying that if we don’t take care of ourselves, no one else will. If we are constantly looking out for the interests of others, don’t our own interests get lost? The key is that our interests do not exist independently; they exist only in relation to others. We cannot desire love without having others involved. We cannot be successful without others’ cooperation. As part of society, we just do not exist alone. Our happiness can be determined by us but it is affected by everyone who comes into contact with us. Unhappy people usually blame others or external events. Sadness is usually based on a focus on what we do not have. If our negative attributes exist in relation to others or external factors, then our positive ones do as well. If we focus on the “we,” then our interests are automatically included.
In The Way, Michael Berg tells the story of two men who are in a fishing boat. One of the men starts drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat and the other man starts screaming at him to stop. The first man tells his friend not to worry because the hole is only under his seat. Michael Berg says, “each of us is intimately involved with the fortunes of all of us…our positive deeds allow others to act in ways that would not have been possible had we not acted. And likewise, when we move toward the negative side of selfishness and self-interest, the world tilts toward negativity…Our positive and negative actions, no matter how small, influence the spiritual state of the world.”
Detachment allows us to be free from the unilateral demands of “self.” It allows us to see “self” in relation to others. Instead of thinking, “I have to win this argument and be right,” the thought changes to “we need to come to a resolution that makes both people better off.” Detachment requires that we love others as we love ourselves.
Melinda Ribner (author of New Age Judaism, Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World) says, “Love asks us to transcend our ego and sense of separateness and self-importance, to become giving and expanded rather than selfish and limited. Kabbalah teaches that the main challenge we have in life is to transform the desire to receive for ourselves into the desire to share with others. This challenge confronts us daily in all our interactions with others. Am I going to open my heart and let the natural flow of love come through me or will I block it with self-absorbed concerns or fears? How do we become more giving and less selfish? First we recognize that we are all interconnected…when we give to another person, we are in essence giving to ourselves. This is a most important concept. When we give, we are expanding our sense of self…By giving to others, we essentially give to ourselves…when we give to someone they become a part of us. We have a stake in their well-being. The more we give, the greater we become. Our lives are greater than our own. Our lives include many others as well. We have to realize that by giving we do not become less but more. On a physical level, it would appear that when we give, we have less. Sometimes we are afraid that we will be diminished by giving. We are afraid that we will be taken advantage of, exploited or controlled…However, on the spiritual level, we actual increase what we have and become greater.”
Even when a person is alone, there is still a “we.” If we believe that we are part of universal energy (or God), then we can always be connected to a more powerful energy force. The concept of self merges into the power of the universe. Even though we were created in God’s image, God does not have an ego.
Instead of asking, “what does God want from me?” we should ask what God wants from humanity as a whole. If God is a “parent” who has billions of children, wouldn’t He want everyone to care about others the same as they care about themselves? Wouldn’t He want us to feel that every other person in this world was part of our family? In a family, the siblings care about each other primarily because they are related. One sister might not like the other sister, but she might say, “I will still help her because she is family.” What if we viewed every person on this planet as family? Could we see the ego as a part of a greater whole?
Melinda Ribner, further says, “If we truly want to come close to God we must let go of our egos and physical attachments and trust our inner voices even when they don’t make sense…truly great people can easily surrender their egos to God…Just as a seed has to rot before it becomes a plant, so similarly, we have to suspend limiting ideas of self in order to allow something greater to come through us… It is only through self-nullification, through surrender, that a person may experience the oneness of God.”
It is easier to attach to the ego because it is all we know in this reality. When we look in the mirror, we see our physical selves. We do not see the transcendent spirit that can connect with everything else (or take any form). Since this energy is based on faith, we may tend to discount its ability to become one with all other energy. Detachment from the ego is liberating. We become less invested in particular outcomes. Problems don’t seem so serious and joy is easier to obtain. Separating oneself from self is powerful. The needs of the ego don’t predominate one’s feelings or actions at the expense of the needs of every other person on this planet. The needs of humanity, society, and our relationships with others take precedence over individual needs.
Maybe the quote “I exist, therefore I am” should be changed to the phrase, “We exist, therefore we are.” If we see our existence in terms of our relations to others, then everyone is better off. Instead of having one person caring about his or her individual needs, there could be two or more people caring about each other’s needs. There is power in numbers. The word “we” is always stronger than “I.”