The wisdom of shrinking ego has been in my periphery for months. As I’ve seen inflated egos derail some of our most brilliant community-building and flatten some of our most brilliant people, over these months, I’ve needed to ask: “how can I keep my ego in its lane?”
Then, this week happened. As 45 fires officials as quickly as the White House printer allows, and his porcelain fragility sends our constitutional system into a rapid downward spiral, I think that we should have this conversation today. And when I say today, I mean, right now.
Lately, my study of ego starts and stops with Abdi Assadi’s book, Shadows on the Path. I’m re-reading it for the third time. The first half of the book focuses on ego traps on the path of spiritual awakening. He cites examples from his own life and his observations as a bodyworker about the ways we inadvertently soothe our egos’ cravings in the name of spirituality, and almost every time, bear terrible outcomes.
Clearly, egos are no joke. (I’m sure this is a quote from the Buddha.) I’ve tried to put this idea into context — within worlds of identity politics, of social media, of hustle economies — worlds of which I am a part, too. At times, I’ve fallen into these traps myself.
Social media is chalk full of “ego traps.” On the regular, these ego traps are disguised as a form of “self care” or “speaking our truths.” These traps revolve around a growing trend of clinching reactivity; an impulse likely powered by a deep need for safety, validation and/or connection. Yet, because some of our choices are fueled with only ourselves in view, we miss the whole scene that surrounds us. The problem often is that we can’t discern whether we’re investing energy into ego or into our healing.
Some examples may help distill this problem. It’s like when we say we’re gonna sign off of social media because we’re overwhelmed and an hour later, we post a photo of ourselves in a bed we’ve barely been in. Or when we drag someone on the internet for days to “speak our truth,” which escalates into a social media fight, when an understanding could have been found in a direct, offline conversation. Or when we go out of our way to write an 800-word critique of someone’s Facebook post, complete with personal barbs, without a single word on what we agreed with in the post, or offer of an alternative idea to advance the conversation, or provide an affirmative model of what someone needs to do in the future.
These examples are illustrative of patterns not exclusive, but unique to, social media. They allow us to mistake a lot of performance as “care,” to confuse tons of consumption as “healing,” and for our virtually connected communities to place high cultural currency on tearing things down, and much less currency on building things or people up. We’re hurting — many of us living in near-permanent trauma-response — and our egos trick us into putting a lot more hurt out there.
As a result, our egos can become well-developed muscles — especially in social justice circles — against daily assaults on our psyches. We know that our sense of self can support our feelings of worth, meaning, and liberation by reclaiming and resisting systemic forces in virtual space. But, when we’re not careful, we indulge in delusion — convincing ourselves that we are taking care when we’re just spreading out pain to others non-consensually. These pattern perpetuate themselves when we let our egos take the wheel and we act in ways that are over-compensatory or misdirected. The outcome is that feeding our ego’s desires leave too many of us bare and unsatisfied, and leave the emotional landscape around us a total wasteland.
So, how can we stay vigilant about ego-takeover? First and foremost, we have to know what our egos are, how powerful they are, and the ways in which spirituality can either feed or starve our egos. Read up on Abdi Assadi or another favorite of mine, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa.
Ego-work, to some, may feel like the work of the privileged. For those of us who endure the brutal end of systemic harm, a system that asks us to exist in smallness most of the time, we may believe that shrinking our egos will make us disappear. I believe that ego-work promotes the opposite meaning: it allows us to embody and model a safer world. It allows us to put down ego as a razor-sharp defense among those we love and with whom we’re building, and it helps us disarm ego when weaponized against us and other real vulnerable folk. Egos can help us detect danger and find needs, but egos can also get in the way of knowing ourselves/world, creating trust, and taking necessary risks. Ego can live here — but it can’t take up every room in our proverbial house.
Another touch point for me is to ask: “does this [decision] serve?” The question puts things in a certain perspective — what serves the greater constellation of purpose? Service, in this context, doesn’t mean that “I” isn’t a factor, it just means that I need to be honest about the whole situation. I need to consider whom I’ll impact, what my true motivations are, and what my loved ones’ reflection of things might be, especially when I might be trippin’.
The key to these questions is that they offer an opportunity to look beyond oneself, and line up our well-being with the moral fabric that binds all of us together. The danger of ego is that it gives us a false sense of separateness; it inflates a belief that liberation means self-preservation and self-care when we need collective preservation and whole-care.
In practice, this means the bigger the choice, the slower I go. The more consequential the decision, the more important mirroring from loved ones is for me. The more petty I want to be, the more I need to “sit down, be humble.”
This position of service is a starting point and I’m often surprised by the outcome. I may need to not respond or to start a conversation. I may need to do something anonymously or to just take the “L.” I may need to step into the background and to lift someone else up. We’re learning everyday.
Thing is, if you’re all about the Ego Life, you deprive yourself of deep understanding. The reality is that we’re not the only ones who have to live with our reflections — everyone else bears the entirety of our image too. We all need to be more responsible if we’re gonna survive these times because we can see — at the highest levels of American government — what happens when we become indiscernible from our egos.
Ultimately, we’re served to keep our egos small so that our consciousness can grow.
Stay beautiful out there.