One of the most talked about ‘goals’ of a yoga practice is overcoming the ego, but if we’re not sure what the ego is to begin with, it’s difficult to work out what we are actually trying to overcome…
Ego is necessary - over-attachment to it isn't
The word ego is derived from ancient Greek, meaning ‘I’, in the sense that you might say “I am going to the shops”. Freud popularised the word ‘ego’ when he referred to it as the conscious mind (thoughts) or the awareness that we are a being with an identity, living whatever way of life we happen to be living right now. This in itself doesn’t seem like a problem, does it? If we’re going to live in the modern world, have a job, a family, friends and aspirations, then having some amount of ego is absolutely necessary.
The limitations of the ego
In fact, it's not the ego itself that's the problem, it's our over-identification with, and attachment to, the story that comes with it.
It’s not the ego that's the problem, it's our over-identification with, and attachment to, the story that comes with it.
The thing about the ego is that it is limited, and if we reside only in our ego conscious state of being, then we limit ourselves too. This is absolutely fine if it is all you want from life: a job, a relationship, money, material possessions, a night out at the weekend and a good cup of coffee the morning after. And there's nothing 'wrong’ with a life lived in this way, on the ‘grossest’ and most obvious level.
The problem arises when the ego gets unhappy – it either becomes dissatisfied with the appearance of the body, the possessions we have, the relationship we are in, or the thoughts that incessantly run through the mind. If we’ve been identifying purely with the ego and our story for our whole lives, then when the ego gets unhappy, we become unhappy too and we create an unhappy life story for ourselves. Indeed, the problem arises when we think we are only the grossest outer level of ourselves.
I am not this hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lies within ~ Rumi
The ego in Indian philosophy
Prakriti and Purusha
In the Samkhya Indian school of philosophy – linked to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – the universe is seen as being divided up into two aspects: Prakriti and Purusha, or ‘manifest’ and ‘unmanifest’.
In this philosophy, Prakriti is seen as ‘creation’ or ‘matter’ and there are 25 ways Prakriti comes into being, most notably the mind, the senses, the body, the elements and the material world. Purusha is often known as the ‘divine essence’, the energy that is unmanifest and cannot be seen even with the smallest telescope.
Ahamkara - the sense of 'I'
One of the obstacles on the path of yoga is said to be Ahamkara (meaning ego or a sense of ‘I-ness’) and over-identifying with this ‘I-ness’ to the point that we become very affected by the experiences and thoughts that this ‘I’ has.
We might understand the word ‘yoga’ as meaning ‘unity’ - in fact, the actual word 'yoga' is translated from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’, meaning ‘to join’, ‘connect’ or ‘bring together’, as in the physical joining of horses to a chariot.
Perhaps more useful way of understanding the actual process and practice of yoga, however, is ‘separation’ or ‘disentanglement’; separating from the over-identification with the ego (‘I’-ness’). In other words, understanding that we're not just the mind or body, and our thoughts (Prakriti) are almost always not true. We are so much more than this...
We're not just the mind or body, and our thoughts are almost always not true; we are so much more than this...
Getting entangled in the story
The Yoga Sutras state that when we experience Avidya (ignorance) we often believe or become tangled up in all the thoughts we experience in the mind. We confuse our true self – the most pure essence – with the ego and we get pushed and pulled around by the storms of the mind, also known as ‘Maya’.
If we say someone has a ‘big ego’ or is ‘full of themselves’ this essentially means that they identify a little too closely with their story, their body and their grossest level of being. To have a ‘big ego’ does not necessarily mean to be overly confident and abrasive, it can refer to the over-attachment to ‘I, Me, My’ and a tendency to get caught up in Storm 'Maya' more often.
Taming the ego
So, now we know a little more about this ‘ego’ we’re working with, how do we overcome it?
We practise the art of ‘disentanglement’ and become the witness to all of this. Watching thoughts as they come and go is simple in theory, but extremely difficult to perfect. It’s one of the most transformational things we can do in order to disentangle the mind and separate from over-identification with the grossest level of being.
Witnessing the thoughts - a practice
- Carve out ten minutes of your day to sit in a quiet space and either lower your gaze or close your eyes to prevent the rest of Prakriti (the material world) from distracting you.
- Begin by observing your breath, the length and depth of the inhale and the exhale.
- Inevitably, even after a couple of breaths, the mind will begin to wander off and think about other ‘more important’ things - allow this to happen. If the aim is to calm the mind and separate from unnecessary thoughts, it’s useful to know what thoughts are actually running around our minds in the first place.
- Watch the thought as it enters your mind but (here’s the difficult part) do not become emotionally involved with it.
Watch the thought as it enters your mind but (here’s the difficult part) do not become emotionally involved with it.
- We can think of this a little like watching a train as it passes by a platform: As your mind chatters away, acknowledge the train of thought as it arrives, but do not get on the train, let it pass by and then come back to paying attention to your breath.
- Practise this for 10 minutes and you’ll begin to become aware of exactly which thoughts are disturbing you and causing difficulty. You’ll also probably realise that half of them are: a) not real and don’t need to be worried about; b) situations out of our control, or c) in the past or the future and do not exist yet. And if your mind does insist on creating an imaginary future inside your mind, you might as well make it a good one!
If you'd like to put these principles into practice, follow our programme 'The Eight Limbs of Yoga'.