Is it good or bad to have a big ego?

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As a Buddhist teacher and someone with a lifelong interest in spirituality, I have attended my share of, well, interesting gatherings. From months-long meditation retreats where the vast and profound dharma is practiced, to sweaty evenings of devotional chanting, to workshops on using Sacred Geometry to attract love, to cocktail parties where sage is burned to prevent hangovers, to business meetings about marketing spirituality…I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a lot of what we in the west do to connect with our inner lives.

One concept that seems to come up in every setting is that of “ego.” At meditation retreats, we’re taught that clinging to ego prevents liberation from suffering. Devotional chanting is said to dissolve ego. Ego stands between us and love, causes health problems, and if only we could get past our egos in business, we could sell the crap out of whatever we want. (BTW, I’ve been in more than one business meeting where “let go of your ego” was used to mean, “I think what you just said is stupid and I don’t want to do it.” But I digress.)

Ego, then, is very powerful indeed.

What is it??

As a meditation teacher, I have heard many questions and ideas about ego. As a meditation student, I have my own share of questions and ideas. However, what I notice in both my students and myself is that we wield the notion of ego as a weapon of shame and unworthiness.

If we didn’t have such a big ego, our feelings wouldn’t be hurt by rejection.

We wouldn’t crumble in despair when our plans don’t work out.

We wouldn’t wish to be treated thoughtfully, as important beings who matter; in fact, whether or not we mattered to anyone wouldn’t matter at all if we didn’t have an ego.

When we are yelled at, we would not yell back, we could live without love, and when someone dies, we might suffer, but only reasonably and for a short time.

The truth is, I don’t quite know what ego means. Great sages and adepts have written profound texts and offered powerful practices on the topic and I urge you to explore them. I just know it doesn’t mean anything about you being too full of yourself and undeserving of care. When we use “ego” as a way of making ourselves or others feel bad, a red flag should go up.

Rather than a reminder of our un-deservingness, we could see our ego as that part of ourselves that is most deeply wounded and confused. Ego arises, perhaps, from doubt in our basic goodness rather than misplaced certainty in it.

When we are convinced of our worthiness, there is nothing to prove. When we can rest in our true nature, there is no unrest. When we know that all beings are similarly good at the core, we construct our lives to invite rather than defend.

In this sense, ego is evidence of our fragility. Rather than trying to root it out to become good boys and girls who have no desires or preferences, we could hold it in the cradle of loving kindness. Rather than a reason to abandon ourselves, it could be cause to care even more deeply about ourselves and this precious experience of being alive.

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8 Comments

  1. nicole { 01.31.14 at 10:28 am }

    Thank you Susan. Such a wonderfully written talk about ego! I often see my “ego” as something bad, selfish…sigh, if only I could attain “ego-lessness”… however I have learned in studying the Dharma (we have the same teacher) that the key is in loving kindness to oneself– and that includes the ego– for some reason we as humans are made this way…

    • susan { 01.31.14 at 11:11 am }

      Beautifully said.

  2. James Borton { 02.03.14 at 5:24 pm }

    What an inspiring message. I am also very interested in engaging you on my blog, http://www.allheartmatters.com. Thank you. James

    • susan { 02.03.14 at 5:31 pm }

      Thank you, James!

  3. Hems { 02.11.14 at 9:47 pm }

    I like your point about being self content and at home with ourselves.

    Thanks!

  4. Saadat Ali Bangash { 04.17.14 at 2:24 am }

    It is good to see these inspiring words. I hope we do not lose knowledge like this in this day and age.

    we can learn from kids as to how not to have ego. One example is even when we ignore them, they still seek our attention without taking it personally.

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