This week, we completed Samkhya Yoga, the second chapter of the Gita. As we summed up what we had learned, we recounted the necessary qualities to attain peace. One of them is to relinquish the possessiveness that comes from one’s ego. It had never really occurred to me before this that the ego is the root cause of all our troubles.
I have always thought of the ego as a sense of pride, of doership, of claiming superiority or accomplishment. I know that the ego can be hurt or deflated and that too much ego leads to a superiority complex and thinking poorly of others. It was clear to me that the ego is a dangerous thing, to be closely watched so it doesn’t run rampant and ride roughshod over the feelings of others. Humility, it seemed to me, was the antidote, knowing our limitations and seeing the potential in others.
This week’s reading showed me a much more insidious and dangerous aspect of the ego, one I had never really considered. The ego causes us to claim not only what we accomplish as ours, but it also causes us to claim the people in our lives, husband, children, friends, as ours. This feeling of me and mine in turn leads to a sense of ownership that can become a stranglehold on those we supposedly love and cause them and ourselves great misery.
My ego for example preens over the fact that I have a Ph.D. and that I have a tenured position at a university. “You did it, it tells me. You overcame all those odds and survived. Not only that, you achieved your childhood dream of becoming a professor despite all the curve balls life threw at you. You are one special woman!”
How is this harmful? Isn’t it all true? Isn’t this kind of self-esteem beneficial to keep one going and to succeed? To a certain extent, we need to believe in ourselves, true. But when that ego begins to tell me that because I have made it against all odds, then everyone should be able to, and that those who don’t are simply weak and failures, we have a problem.
My ego tells me that I am a good mother, that I raised a young boy alone and that he turned out well. Does this give me license to condemn single mothers who due to circumstances beyond their control, such as poverty or lack of education or lack of support, watch helplessly as their children join gangs or become criminals despite all their hard work?
When my son does well in pursuing a difficult profession, my ego expands, stroked by the compliments of friends and neighbors who express their admiration. “You did this,” it whispers proudly. “You got him through those tough teenage years, you supported his dreams, you sacrificed for his sake.” Does this give me the right to condemn him if he fails along the way or chooses a less recognized occupation? Does it give me the right to cut him out of my life or treat him with contempt because he didn’t live up to my expectations?
When my husband is on stage, and the crowd gives him a standing ovation, my ego prances peacock-like on its own inner stage, claiming the credit for being a supportive wife, for inspiring him to keep performing, for pushing him to never give up. Does this give me the right to treat him like dirt when things don’t go so well, when the gigs dry up, when he doesn’ t meet with the success I feel he deserves?
In this day and age, when the ego feeds on how many likes we get for our facebook posts, it’s very hard to keep focused on the idea that who we are is not how we look, what we own, or how much money, fame or prestige we earn. Instead, the Gita reminds us, we need to relinquish the ego altogether, neither prancing and preening when life puffs us up with success, nor suffering and wallowing when deflated by disappointment.
Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons