Some people have panic attacks, asthma attacks, an attack of hay fever, even terrifyingly, heart attacks. All people have ego attacks. It’s the human condition, it’s unavoidable. Sometimes life seems like one perpetual Ego Attack.
These other ‘attacks’ tend to have a start and a finish. We are all subject to ego attacks and, arguably, they go on forever, perhaps intermittently and sometimes continuously. It’s hard to tell the difference, and it’s probably when we think we’re most free of them, that we’re suffering most. Maybe, sometimes, ignorance is bliss – that is if you want to stay stuck in the mire.
The truth of this came home to me recently. I was observing some other egos quivering and pulsating in quite an unattractive manner (the image I have is of internal organs throbbing). I even got caught in their crossfire, and then, suddenly, I saw my own, provoked by something on the side – just when I thought it was a little bit more manageable and even on the mend.
The slippery ego, it gets you when you’re not looking. Looking back on it now, I can see that it was coming on, creeping over me, lurking, like when you’re getting ill and you don’t notice the symptoms until you can’t ignore them any longer. That little catch in the throat becomes a full-blown sore throat and a hacking cough.
Every time my ego rears its head I try and sit on it or ride out the storm. It’s a first impulse, to curb the ebullient ego, but sometimes I think it’s better to give in, to go with the flow. If you can’t fight him, join him, just for the moment. The ego is quite a controller, he likes to run the show. But his moment will pass.
The indomitable ego – every time you try and shoot him down, he gets up and walks away again, intact. He is irrepressible, like the Incredible Hulk.
Sometimes I like to think of the ego as a ‘he’ – that makes me (my ego) feel better, it gives me a surge of strength. But other times I am quite sure the ego is a ‘she’ and, I shrink back, the word that comes to mind is ‘shrew’.
In the middle of an ego attack, you feel it deepest in your gut, but it also corrodes your heart and agitates your mind. It has an all over body-mind-heart effect. When you get stirred up by the ego, you can really let it engulf you, you feel sucked into a churning vortex with no bottom, kind of like a dream where you’re falling and you never hit the ground.
And every time you think it’s gone quiet, it gets agitated again. The rational part of you knows this is ridiculous, but that has no effect.
The feeling of ‘I am’ is irrepressible.
While we need our ego to function in the world, unchecked it connects us with our lower urges, our hopes for material satisfactions and our insecurities. Yet stirring up the ego to let it not win, is the only way.
‘Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring.
Thus the aim of spiritual practice is not to develop a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, such practice should teach him to let himself be challenged: assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered – that is to say it should enable him to dare to let go his ego: his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.’
from The Way of Transformation by Karlfried Graf Von Durckhe
In order to let go the ego, you have to be with the ego through all its pulsations and tortuous writhings. Accepting it isn’t easy, there is a brutal honesty in acknowledging these feelings of the grasping and bruised ego, which takes a lot of strength. Sitting there in the moment with those feelings which really you would rather suppress and ignore, isn’t pleasant, it isn’t easy, especially when there are contradictions and conflicts within, the giving up of something in the hope of something other.
‘It is not easy to understand that the purpose of spiritual training is to help the human being to control, to diminish the ego…The taming of the ego is a painful process. It is a crucifixion. One does not lose anything, or get rid of anything. “You cannot become anything else but what you already are,” said Carl Jung. We just learn to control our lower self and it becomes our servant, not our master. The master is the Real Us, our soul, and the real wisdom is in the soul.’ (Irina Tweedie, introduction to The Serpent and the Lover by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee)
The ego is the trickster. He has a kind of blatant and sometimes latent guile. He is not subtle, though he can seem to be subdued or even absent. It’s then he will attack.
The ego can be a great teacher, but only if you realise you can’t fully trust him which leads to an uneasy relationship or truce. You can learn a lot but it’s never comfortable.
The ego is the shadow. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale where the ego becomes the leader and the self the follower. This can happen if we give too much of our power over and become unconsciously enslaved to the ego.
Analysis cannot soothe the ego. Sometimes you can see beyond the ego’s moment, but when you’re in it, even with that double vision, if his grip is intense, it can be hell.
Is it possible to befriend the ego? Or is that a dangerous notion?
Can you stroke his ruffled feathers, can you use compassion to comb through the tangled responses, can you realise how petty and meaningless the provocations are? Even if the ego were satisfied, the outcome would be temporal and of no lasting benefit.
Ego has the will to survive, he is Darwinian, and he operates competitively towards ‘survival of the fittest’. Ego is most provoked when his capacity to survive and to be on top is threatened. He feels most safe when others suffer.
And yet it is possible to feel great tenderness for the ego, for my ego and for yours.
The Good Ego
The ego may be a doorway or a gate to something other, as the ego is connected to a deeper sense of wholeness in the self. I believe this because I have experienced it. Perhaps ironically, the ego’s own resistances can protect and connect us to a deeper sense of Self.
‘When ego is aligned with the objects of the world, there is a veil of attachments which blocks the realization of the Self. When ego is aligned with the Self, that same ego is a tremendous source of determination for realization of that Self.’
– Swami Jnaneshvara