Time to get your ego working for you
My yoga teacher was telling me to transcend my ego.
If it’s one thing I’ve learnt in life it’s not to listen to self-righteous hipsters with beards and tatts, and especially in cosmic coloured tights.
(Seriously, what’s wrong with trackky-daks? Do you really need to have everything sticking out like downward dog’s balls?)
But this is one of those new-agey delusions. It’s what happens when you listen to some Hollywood actor talk about the Dalai Lama and think that you then understand the nuances of Buddhism.
And part of the problem is that ego is a bit of a slippery context. The western version was given its dictionary definition by Sigmund Freud, in his conceptualisation of the mind’s tendencies.
The Tibetan Buddhist wouldn’t be using the word ego. They’d have their own definition, which as some point someone has translated as ‘ego’.
And that probably was as close as we could get with our language. But you’ve got to wonder what they actually meant.
And then in popular culture it’s been completely bastardised. “He’s got a massive ego”, means that “he’s vain”. Pretty sure neither Freud or the Buddhists intended it to mean that.
But here we are.
So when I think about ego (at the risk of introducing an entirely new definition), I think about it as the mental image we construct about ourselves.
Humans are unique in that we are not mentally confined to the moment. Birds live in the moment. The eat when they’re hungry. They mate when their instincts tell them to mate. They start building nests when that instinct kicks in.
Birds don’t make plans. And that’s why you don’t see bird calendars.
Humans on the other hand have invented something that allows us to make plans – we have a mental image of ourselves.
So someone might ask, “what are you doing tomorrow at lunch time, Jon?”
To answer that question, I check in with the mental construct I have about myself. Doing that, I see that I am someone who eats lunch about 12.30, normally, but who had a conversation with his wife earlier this morning, and now has plans to go shopping.
This Jon, the Jon of the past, the Jon of tomorrow, is someone I can ‘see’. I can detach from him and watch what he does.
With complex self-awareness, I can even start inquiring into what drives him. What makes Jon happy? What makes Jon sad? Why does Jon eat his steak before his chips?
This image of Jon is rich and vivid. It’s sewn together from all of my life experiences. And it allows me to navigate time.
Where should I be now? I look to the construct and remember the plans he made to meet with the marketing team.
What I am doing next Thursday. I look to the construct and know that every Thursday Jon goes to soccer.
Where will I be in 5 years? I look to the construct and see the plans he has to move into a bigger and better home.
My construct allows me to navigate time.
This is a massive species-level advantage. We’re not trapped in the moment like everything else. We straddle time.
It’s right up there with opposable thumbs for explaining the complete domination of homo sapiens.
However, there’s a massive trap here.
It comes if I believe that the construct is me.
We need to realise that the construct is just a story. It’s a story we’re telling ourselves.
And ultimately, it’s going to be flawed.
It’s going to be flawed, because we don’t know what the hell is going on. We have a very narrow perspective on our lives, intimate as it is.
And our stories go massively wrong all the time. Think about the body-builder who thinks that he’s ‘tiny’. Think about the anorexic who thinks she’s fat. Think about the person who believes that everyone who loves them will hurt them in the end.
We are not great story tellers.
So the first step in breaking out of the cage is recognising that this is going on. Recognise that there is a story that you are telling about yourself, and recognise that a good chunk of that story is going to be wrong.
The second step is then taking control of the story. You can start reprogramming it.
“I’m crap with money” can be replaced with “money comes really easily to me.”
“I always have to do everything alone” can be replaced with “I always find myself surrounded with awesome people.”
“Everything I touch turns to shit” can be replaced with “I’m a flipping rock star.”
And then, well, this is where it gets interesting. Then we can start living that story. And the world starts responding to that story.
And what was once just a story has now become your reality.
This is where the real power lies.
And so that’s what I think about ego. To me, ego is the story we tell about ourselves. It evolved as an instinct to help us navigate time.
However, it can also be used to fundamentally change our reality, in powerful and profound ways.
So don’t tell me to flipping transcend my ego.
It’s the most powerful tool in my kit.