What are the main expressions of ego?
Swami Niranjanananda: There are four ego expressions. The ego is connected and subject to the meanderings of avidya, abhinivesha, maya and asmita. Avidya means ignorance, and one of the actions of the ego is to suppress knowledge. With knowledge suppressed, jnana, wisdom, does not manifest; rather, ajnana, or absence of knowledge, becomes the state of life. People who are arrogant and egoistic have closed the doors of their learning. They are not willing to open these doors to understand or appreciate any other reality beyond their conditioned perception.
Avidya influences the ego behaviour and ego perception. There is no light or luminosity in the state of avidya, everything is obscure. The ego is guided by and identifies with maya, illusion. The ego is influenced by abhinivesha, insecurity and fear of losing the hold on oneself, the fear of letting go, of dying. The ego is guided by and is responsible for asmita, the knowledge that ‘I exist’, ‘I am’. The ego manifests in order to guard this knowledge of ‘I am’. If someone utters a few nasty words, one’s sense of identity is hurt. The conflicts that take place, whether in the context of family, society or the world, are credited to asmita.
The expressions of ego exist as inherent parts of the ego principle. They have no hold or power when one is connected with the source, but become a powerful force when one connects with the world, with the sense objects, with prakriti.
Are there different types of ego?
Swami Niranjanananda: Ego is only personal identity. It is an assertive state of life in relation to the existence of the body; it is related to one’s social behaviour and mentality. Enlightened beings like Saint Augustine in Christianity or Ramana Maharshi and Buddha in India have egos, but not the arrogant ego. Their ego is the humble ego, which only keeps them connected to their body. In normal situations, due to success and failure, people’s ego becomes different. It matures and grows big quickly.
What are some of the methods for dealing with the ego?
Swami Niranjanananda: The expression of the ego takes place in the mind, and to fight with the ego is like fighting an elephant. It only ends up being hurt. It is said that one should kill the ego, but that is not possible as long as one exists in this body and is drawn to sense enjoyment. It is the ego that ties one down to karma. A person has tied himself down and wants to be free. First he must free himself of the ego-eccentricities and then he will be free of suffering, troubles and delusion, maya.
The ego is like a dog’s tail, which can never be straightened. The only way out is to cut it off in one sweep. The sword that can quieten the ego is humility. Once an aspirant adopts humility in his life the ego will become quiet, and he will save himself from big trouble. He will not be able to save himself by practising meditation. Through meditation he can become the witness of the ego, see its nature and cause, but he cannot modify it.
To modify the ego, it is necessary to adopt humility. If a person is being abused, he need not accept the abuse. Lord Buddha said to the man who abused him, “I am returning your gift to you.” One can retreat gracefully and the mind will remain peaceful, without being affected. If one enters a fight to prove one’s might, there will be hurt and pain. However, one needs to know when to advance and when to retreat; and an aspirant should have that much discriminative power.
How can the ego be quietened?
Swami Niranjanananda: The ego can be quietened with humility. Humility is not a weakness, but a powerful force. Only a force that is stronger than the ego can quieten it. Humility is a power that can free one of the results of the karmas committed due to the ego. Ego is a negative force, and therefore the counterforce has to be positive and of greater strength. That force or quality is humility. The ego raises the head; in humility one bends the head.
How can one learn to act without ego?
Swami Niranjanananda: Karma yoga means performing action with meditative awareness. Even when one is involved in activities to sustain and nurture the personality, mind and emotions, those activities have to be observed. One has to see whether the actions are ego centred or done without ego. Ninety-nine point nine percent of actions are ego centred. This kind of action is known as sakaama karma, actions performed with a purpose or desire which has been guided by the ego principle. Being without ego means leaving aside the idea that ‘I am performing’, ‘I am achieving’, ‘I am doing’.
Initially, in order to experience action without ego, a person has to use intellectual ability to analyse the situations and experiences that he is having. Eventually, he tries to stabilize himself at one point, which is not guided by the ego. In karma yoga it is not the surface reaction that is important but the subtle reaction that has to be observed. By observing the subtle reactions, it may become possible to convert the ego centred actions into an expression of one’s being where there is no ego. It is said in Yoga Vasishtha (4:33:70):
Ahankaara anusandhaanavarjanaadeva raaghava;
Paurushena prayatnaachcha teeryate bhavasaagarah.
By investigating the nature of ahamkara and forsaking gross selfishness, one crosses over the ocean of the world through one’s own efforts.
Being without ego implies that one has to be simple, sincere and desireless. To cultivate egolessness, these three important qualities are essential: sincerity in commitment, goal and direction, simplicity in thought and action, and a state of desirelessness.
Published in Conversations on the Science of Yoga – Karma Yoga Book 5, Expressions of the Mind