So if you practice yoga (or participate in any kind of self-reflective practice), then you're probably familiar with the concept of the ego. Now, we're not talking the Freudian definition of ego—a mediator of sorts between the id (base desires) and the superego (idealistic desires). What we’re talking about here is that little voice inside you that is the source of so much worry, anxiety and suffering. The ego is what keeps you locked away in your own little world, separated from the present moment.
See, the ego used to have an important job—getting us all hyped up and aware of our surroundings in case a saber-toothed tiger was lurking around the corner. These days we don’t run into dangers like that all that often. But the ego (industrious little thing that it is) needs to feel employed and important. It does this by inspiring fear, self-judgment and judgment of others.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Think about the source of any of your anxieties. I’m going to bet a lot of them have to do with future projections (i.e. “if I don’t get this raise, then…” or “what if I never meet someone…” or, even, “what will I wear to the…”). But here’s the secret, and this blew me away when I realized it: the future does not exist anywhere but in your mind.
All these future events you’re worrying about? They don’t exist. I mean, maybe you won’t get that promotion. What happens then? Well, you’ll deal with it in the moment just like you’ve always dealt with any hardship. Projecting about it and worrying about it is a useless waste of your energy. When you find yourself projecting ask yourself the following question: can I do anything about this right now? If the answer is no, then stop worrying. Listen to your breath and allow it to bring you into the moment. Do something that brings you joy. If the answer is yes, then stop worrying (and get busy).
The same thing applies to the past. The ego loves to keep us trapped there—rehashing old hurts, perceived mistakes, ancient regrets. What good do these obsessions do? Presumably, you’ve learned the lesson and you have (or will) apply it to future decisions. Hey, you did the best you could. Now move on.
So, how do we free ourselves? Man, it ain’t easy, that’s for sure. (Yeah…that bit about it being easy in the title? Not really true. The concepts themselves are easy, sure. But enacting them? That’s another story). The moment you think you have it figured out, you’re suddenly anxious again, projecting forward or back, building fear upon fear until the present moment is so far gone that you have no idea what you did that day, aside from getting worked up about your bank balance or the state of your relationships (or lack thereof). The ego thrives on separating you from the moment and from others who share in this moment with you.
In the end, all I can tell you is what has helped me. I’m definitely not free from worry or anxiety, but at least now I have to tools to identify it and move on. Let me tell you, that in itself is the greatest gift—the freedom that comes from realizing that we are not our thoughts. So here we go:
1. Choose Love
Yeah, I know how that sounds, but give it a chance. In the words of Gabrielle Bernstein, a fabulous spiritual and motivational speaker, “Whenever you're afraid, it's proof that you've turned your back on love and chosen to have faith in the ego.” See, in her philosophy, love is the only emotion. Fear is an illusion. I know, it’s heady stuff, but what helped me most was this: as soon as you have a fearful or anxious thought, tell yourself (again, from Gabrielle Berstein), “love did not create this thought, and so it is not real.”
Even if you can’t quite get on board the love train, don’t worry about it. Just start telling yourself “if love did not create it, it is not real.” Trust me on this. You’ll have a whole new perspective on your situation. It’s amazing how solutions suddenly occur to you once you’re no longer trapped in the fear/anxiety loop.
2. Never Complain
Complaining keeps us locked in negativity, right? I mean, think about it. Who wants to hang out with someone who complains all the time? No one. So why complain even to yourself? This is the source from which self-disgust, self-hatred, and self-sabotage springs—and the ego loves it, this self-imposed separation.
Julie Hoyle, another wise woman and spiritual teacher, said the following:
If we are able to maintain this practice [of not complaining] the results are profound. When we complain, what we are doing is telling a story to ourselves in our minds and then verbally telling others about our personal response to what is taking place in our lives. The story centers on how an event affects 'me.' In an instant, we are able to see that we have bought into the validity of our thoughts and opinions and we want to broadcast them.
Again, a little heady. But if you don’t get it, don’t worry. This is all you have to know: just stop complaining. Try it for a week, see what happens. See how your life opens up for you. If you need more motivation, start a complaining fund—every time you catch yourself complaining, drop a quarter (or a dollar or a twenty, whatever keeps you in line) into a jar. The ego always wants to improve on the current moment. Don’t let it draw you down that path. Breathe. Find something beautiful. Focus.
3. If All Else Fails, Just Be Grateful
It’s hard to be down and out while also feeling grateful. You may try the above suggestions and find that you begin to get angry. You start to feel like all this self work and self-reflection is pointless and you should be able to feel and say and eat and think and watch what you like. This is totally normal. This is the ego defending itself. It’s throwing up any obstacle it can into your path. It’s main goal, remember, is to maintain the separation.
This whole practice of dissolving ego is like one big detox. You know how crappy you feel after a night out spent wallowing in happy indulgence? The headaches, the cravings, the low mood? Yeah, that’s your liver detoxing and ridding itself of the alcohol/sugar/bad fats/what-have-you. The anger and self-righteousness you begin to feel after starting this process is the same thing. And just like a hangover, all you can do is wait it out and make the best choices you can stomach.
So when the anger strikes, just let go of all the self-improvement stuff for a while. Do this instead: make a list. Just grab a piece of paper and begin writing down all the things for which you are grateful. I don’t care if you can only think of one thing and that one thing is that you had eggs for breakfast and they were pretty good. Fine, be grateful for those eggs, but be really grateful. And then keep going. Keep writing. Is the sun coming through the window? Or maybe it’s raining and you love the rain. Maybe your favorite show is on later. Maybe your socks match and that makes you happy. Hey, I don’t care. Just be grateful. Write it down. This is your one small step back toward your path.
Working on yourself in this way can be exhausting, I know. But don’t think you have to do it all at once; don’t feel like you’ve failed if you have a fearful or anxious thought. That striving for perfection? What do you think that is? Yep. Ego. The ego wants a destination and it wants to get there. Right now. The work you’re doing here is a journey and it’s a journey taken in very small, manageable steps. Let each step be a destination of its own, if that’s what drives you. Each breath, each moment, each movement you make is your destination. Even as you begin, know you have already arrived.
image via D Sharon Pruitt
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