Sophisticated Ego

My guru, Swami Muktananda, used to say that our real ego problem is that our egos aren’t big enough. He said that we identify with our limited self when what we should really identify with is the pure awareness, power, and love that live at the heart of everything. A young actor once said to him, “I feel guilty because I always want to be special.” Muktananda replied, “You are special.” Then, as the actor smiled in pleasure, Muktananda added, “Everybody’s special. Everybody is God.”

That might seem like a big conceptual bite. But it makes more sense if you understand that when teachers like Muktananda talk about God, they don’t mean the god of the monotheistic religions, or any personal deity. Muktananda used the word God to signify the great field of awareness and joy that he experienced as the underpinning of everything. Moreover, saying that you are the vastness is also a way of saying that your personal self is not necessarily something that you should get caught up in. As far as he was concerned, there was little point in trying to fight the ego. Instead, he taught us to enlarge the way we identified it, to connect with the All instead of with the particular.

A truly healthy ego, in his terms, would be one that did its job of creating necessary boundaries and kept us functioning as individuals. But rather than seeing itself as bounded by the personality, or identifying with its thoughts and opinions, this ego would know the real secret—that the “me” who calls itself Jane or Charlie is just the tip of the iceberg of something loving and free that is living as “me.” All that is. Greater than the greatest. Higher than the highest. And, simultaneously, it would see that it is nothing at all. In other words, a healthy ego wouldn’t get caught up in attaching its identity to every day’s small gains and losses. It would know, like Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes.

Yet getting from here to there—from identifying yourself as Jane to identifying yourself as pure presence and love—is a tall order. So the yogic traditions offer a middle step—the practice of the ego as pure “I am.” This is not “I am somebody” or “I am tired” but a pure “I am” without any accompanying self-definition. The bridge between the limited ego and the expanded self is the recognition that behind everything we attach to our ego, is simple awareness.

The ego of pure “I am”-ness experiences existence and knows that it is having that experience. It knows that it lives and functions in our bodies, yet is free from the need to become anything. As we access that state, it’s possible to sense the deeper presence that breathes through the body and thinks through the mind. When we’re in touch with the pure “I am” ego, it isn’t hard to recognize that this same “I am” links us to all others, no matter how different they may seem in personality or politics or culture from ourselves. …

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