I feel incredibly fortunate to have three teachers with whom I study every week. A former Buddhist monk and psychotherapist who I’ve known for almost a decade; a renowned Tantrik scholar and author; and a yoga teacher with forty-five years of teaching experience, whose own teacher was Desikachar (son of Krishnamacharya, the ‘godfather’ of modern yoga. It was quite the serendipitous event to find that I had moved to a house just three minutes’ walk from hers!) In my recent sessions with each of them, there have been common threads of discussion about the ego.
Ego, in western psychology, is a part of the psyche and something we require to function in the world – a kind of interface. Eastern spiritual philosophies define it somewhat differently: in yoga, the word for ego is ahamkara – literally ‘I-maker’ – and it describes the labels that we put on ourselves. Any phrase that begins with the words ‘I am’, is a statement of ego. This collection of titles and definitions limits us; firstly by placing us within narrow confines; and secondly by creating great suffering through identification with, and attachment to, them. They are mental constructs which don’t allow for life’s constant change if we believe in them – it’s as though we take a snapshot and freeze ourselves in time, rather than experiencing the flow of life as it is, in all its vibrancy and possibility. These labels are not necessary for us to function in the world, and they frequently cause pain.
Let me give you an example. The conventional way to explain one aspect of what I do for a living is for me to say ‘I am a sound engineer’. That’s fine, it works well enough for normal surface level conversation and tells the person I’m talking to something about my life. But if I actually believe that I ‘am’ a sound engineer, that mental image of myself limits me and puts me in a box in my own head. It’s not really who I am, it’s just what I do for money, honey. Worse, what happens at times like these? Right now, with the world on hold and no gigs on the horizon, ‘am I’ still a sound engineer? If my sense of self is so tightly bound up in that image, how am I going to do anything but suffer, when I’m not able to do that thing by which I’ve defined myself?
If, instead, I experience myself as someone whose skills include mixing sound for bands, it’s much less painful when I’m unable to do that. Crucially, dropping the label (at least in my own head), doesn’t affect those skills one bit – I still have all that knowledge and experience, it just means that I’m not identified with them. I can still play the game and use that ‘I am’ language in normal conversation, but there’s infinitely greater inner freedom – and less suffering – when I don’t actually believe in that mental construction of myself. These ego-labels are like clothing on the invisible man – just outfits, parts I play, not actually me.
I can teach yoga, without ‘being’ a yoga teacher. I can devotedly share my life with someone to whom I made sacred vows, without ‘being’ a wife – and I can see him as he is, as another human, ever-evolving, ever-changing, without limiting him in my head by defining him as ‘being’ my husband. We’re so much more than that – we all are – but we get caught in seeing only the façade. What happens if we drop it, and go beyond that?
I can do something that I haven’t done before without it being ‘not like me’, or ‘out of character’, if I don’t fix an image of myself in my head, inert and frozen and devoid of energy and potential.
It’s so simple; it’s we who are complicated, we who complicate matters. Life is ever-shifting, ever-flowing, ever-moving. These ‘I am’ statements might be a useful convention, but when believed, they are a veil of illusion which can only ever move us further away from life.