When spiritual ideas are transferred to another culture, they get distorted.
To grow as a spiritual being, you need to let go of your ego.
You’ve heard it so many times that you don’t question it anymore.
You may not know how to put it into practice yet. But erasing the ego seems to be an obvious step forward.
In the mainstream talk about mindfulness and spirituality, the ego is usually pictured as something bad or at least — redundant. You’re told that as long as you’re controlled by your ego, you can’t surrender to the natural flow of life.
Abandoning the ego seems necessary to attain the bliss of equanimity and mindfulness that you’re after.
But when it comes to letting go of your ego in the real world — what does it actually mean? How does this translate into your actions and choices?
And should it really be your number one priority?
In the world where numerous traditions blend together, spiritual growth can be a tricky endeavour. If you don’t have a teacher, you’re often bound to be your own guide. You do your best to assemble the scattered pieces of spiritual knowledge into one coherent picture.
But with such a complex endeavour, there’s a high chance that something gets distorted along the way.
What if I told you that letting go of ego isn’t something you should really pursue?
What Is Ego And Why We Think It’s Useless
To put it short: ego is who you tell yourself you are.
In this article, I will use the above as our operational definition of “ego” or “self.” This simple definition is coherent with both Western psychology and Buddhist teachings.
A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud identified ego to be the “mediator” between our unconscious, “animal” impulses and the demands of society. Modern psychology still draws on his work today:
“A more modern conception that is certainly related to Freud’s is to consider the ego as the self-consciousness system. The self-consciousness system is the narrating portion of human consciousness that reflects on one’s thoughts, feelings and actions and inhibits or legitimizes them to one’s self and to others. In this sense, ego is very similar to what is meant by the term identity (…).” — Gregg Henriques, PhD
Buddhist scholars agree that the ego is a mental construct we need to navigate the world. While in the Buddhist context you may more often run into the phrase “the sense of separate self,” its core meaning is very similar to the Western concept of ego.
The Buddhist tradition recognizes the psychological importance of the ego. But as Buddhist teachings about the “illusion of separate self” migrated to the West, the “illusion” part became more pronounced than the usefulness of ego.
The result is that many Westerners who explore Buddhist ideas today get the impression that they should eradicate their ego. It only seems logical once you grasp that it’s illusory. On top of that, we often judge the ego as “bad,” because we associate it with selfishness and arrogance.
That’s how I used to think about it. When I discovered mindfulness, I went on a quest to “let go of my ego.” To me, this meant ignoring my desires and “surrendering” to what life presented me with.
Even when I found myself with toxic people or in abusive situations, I abode by my quest. I was convinced that “just letting it all be” was the right thing to do.
This attitude caused me to harm myself in many ways — from burning out at work to engaging in the wrong intimate relationships. After a few years of religiously following the doctrine of “ego abandonment,” I started suspecting that something was wrong with it.
The doctrine that I constructed from the scattered pieces of spiritual knowledge clearly wasn’t working for me. I needed to dig deeper. I started with one fundamental question:
Did the Buddha really advise to disregard the ego?
What Happens When Ego Tries To Eradicate Itself
When ancient ideas get transferred to another culture, they often lose their context. Because they are detached from their roots and planted on foreign ground, the fruits they bear are often deformed.
The concept of selflessness, useful in navigating spiritual path within the Buddhist culture, may bring very different results when planted in a contemporary Western mind.
One reason this is so is the self-hatred which is so common in Western culture. Buddhist abbot Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out:
“The Dalai Lama isn’t the only Asian Buddhist teacher surprised at the amount of self-hatred found in the West. Unfortunately, a lot of people with toxic super-egos have embraced the teaching on egolessness as the Buddha’s stamp of approval on the hatred they feel toward themselves.”
When you interpret self-hatred — or even just unhealthily low self-esteem — as a sign of egolessness, you experience spiritual bypass. The term was coined by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He used it to describe a more general “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Spiritual bypass happens when you try to erase your ego before you make it functional. This usually leads to reinforcing your psychological issues, instead of resolving them.
Consider this story Jack Kornfield tells in his book A Path With Heart. He describes an encounter with a woman who claimed she experienced a deep sense of selflessness in her spiritual practice.
“As she walked, I pointed out a heaviness in her walk and a contracted quality of her body. Soon she could see it too. As she explored her experience, it turned out not to be emptiness at all, but numbness and deadness. As we talked, it became clear that her body and feelings had been shut down for years. Her self-esteem was low, and she felt herself incapable of doing worthwhile things in the world. She confused this inner feeling with the profound teachings of insubstantiality.”
Aware of the trap of spiritual bypassing, many Buddhist teachers don’t encourage students to begin their spiritual path with the eradication of ego. More often, they talk about working on a more skilful concept of self — “reclaiming your true nature” — in the first place.
Instead of abandoning your ego, you’ll be wiser to develop it into more healthy, skilful forms first. But what does it mean in practice?
Why You Should Make Friends With Your Ego
“Neither Buddhism nor psychotherapy seeks to eradicate the ego. To do so would render us either helpless or psychotic. We need our egos to navigate the world, to regulate our instincts, to exercise our executive function, and to mediate the conflicting demands of self and other.” — Mark Epstein
Buddhism views a healthy ego as necessary to interact with the world in skilful ways. This includes enduring a meditative practice.
Jack Kornfield stresses that “a strong and healthy sense of self is needed to withstand the meditative process of dissolution and come to a deep realization of emptiness.”
If your ego is wounded with afflictions such as self-belittlement, you need to reclaim a balanced sense of self in the first place. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, a healthy ego is necessary to have an “honest sense of how to learn from your past mistakes for the sake of greater happiness in the future.”
Because here’s the thing: the Buddha advised to use the pursuit of happiness as the most trustworthy compass in life. However, what we need to understand is that Buddhism doesn’t see happiness as a zero-sum game.
The notion of benefiting at the cost of someone else only makes sense if you see happiness as dependent on external pleasures. When you learn to create happiness inside of yourself, the whole paradigm shifts.
Suddenly, your own happiness naturally adds to the happiness of other people. It becomes a team sport instead of a competition.
In the Buddhist paradigm, the pursuit of happiness isn’t just about you. It’s about the collective amount of happiness you can bring into the world.
From this perspective, you need a healthy ego not just for your own sake. You need to “upgrade” your identity so that it’s more helpful to you and the rest of the world.
This way, your natural pursuit to be happy becomes the only compass you need. It motivates you to update your sense of self into more skilful forms. Inevitably, it also leads to letting go of your ego — but that comes as an end result, not the starting point of the process.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu expressed it this way:
“Only on the highest levels of practice, where even the most skillful concepts of self get in the way of the ultimate happiness, did the Buddha advocate totally abandoning them.”
5 Practical Tips To Skilfully Evolve Your Ego
“You must be somebody before you can be nobody” — Jack Engler
After looking at the original Buddhist ideas, it seems that all that “selflessness buzz” misses the point.
Letting go of ego is an effect of following a spiritual path, rather than a step you should take.
I experienced this to be true on my path. As I tried to erase my ego in unhealthy situations, I allowed others to walk all over me. I gave people consent to make fun of me, abuse and offend me. I thought that by doing so, I was practising selflessness.
Turned out this was my way of bypassing the real issue I had to deal with: my lifelong low self-esteem.
Eventually, I understood that I needed to resolve that issue before I could experience selflessness. As I started working on it, I learned a few lessons that can be helpful in working with your ego, too.
1. Create a strong sense of self, or your environment will do it for you.
The people you encounter shape your attitudes and behaviours. If you have a well-defined personality, you can, to some extent, mitigate their influences and remain “your own person.” But when you’re vulnerable or confused about who you are — watch out with whom you spend your time. Chances are that others’ views of you may become more convincing than your own.
2. Practice focus.
Without the basic ability to focus, it’s hard to determine what kind of problems you have with your ego. It takes deliberate attention over a period of time to identify your areas of struggle. If you want to learn how to observe your internal world, learn the basics of mindfulness meditation.
3. Commit to one spiritual practice.
It’s okay to try different things here and there for a while. But many teachers emphasize this: after a period of exploration, it’s important that you commit to one spiritual path. Because a lot of people walked this path before you and described it, you’ll have a coherent roadmap for your practice.
4. Seek a teacher.
I still haven’t found a spiritual guide, but I’m looking for one. Meanwhile, I find it helpful to connect with people who are also active spiritual seekers. Sharing my own experiences and hearing their insights can be a great help. Even if you don’t have an “official” teacher, it’s still valuable to learn from fellow practitioners.
5. Balance discipline and compassion towards yourself.
The way you treat yourself is vital in developing a healthy ego. On one hand, spiritual growth is a pursuit of self-improvement, on the other — a practice of accepting yourself the way you are. To provide for both sides of the equation, you need, respectively, discipline and compassion.
To start with, try to accept your ego as it is right now. From that place of acceptance, it will be easier to discipline yourself and cultivate a practice that allows you to expand your sense of self.
Your Ego Will Lead You To Liberation
You just learned a lot about the Buddhist concept of egolessness and cultivating a healthy sense of self. Hopefully, you understand the role of the ego better now.
But how can you act upon this new understanding?
First of all, remember that there’s nothing wrong with having an ego. On the contrary, it’s a necessary part of any person’s psyche.
Further, there’s a big difference between selfish behaviour and having a healthy sense of self. According to the Buddha, the latter helps you reach for authentic happiness.
Trying to forcefully erase your ego altogether won’t lead you to happiness. Building a healthy one instead is where you should start.
A healthy ego will show you that happiness isn’t a zero-sum game. Your happiness doesn’t happen at the cost of another.
Instead, the authentic happiness you source from within will naturally add to others’ sense of wellbeing — alongside your own.
As your sense of self becomes more established, it helps you see which behaviours and attitudes are useful for this authentic happiness. This will allow you to access inner wisdom that you’ve always had within you.
Over time, your more skilful concepts of self help you attain higher and higher levels of happiness.
Then, one day, when the ego is the only thing standing in your way to experiencing ever greater bliss… it may just naturally let go of you.