Putting Ego in its Place

A few weeks ago, we went to the beach in Santa Cruz for four days of vacation. The sun was shining and warm and we didn’t do much and it was heavenly.

In truth, I was actually a little worried about taking the time off. I seem to have developed a story that it’s hard for me to sit still. I tell myself that I am naturally antsy and energetic and happiest when I am busy, like a field dog, delighted while herding but skittish and distracted the rest of the time.

Of course, this story is sheer hogwash.  It is one part Protestant work ethic, one part a persistent idea that Doing is in itself an act of virtue, and one part the idea that scarcity reigns. Like a bad scientist I have collected evidence to support the theory.  Mix these delusions with some liberal-privileged-upbringing guilt, top them with an earnest and heartfelt desire to save-the-world and relieve-all-suffering, and you have a basic blueprint for my Ego.

Let’s call him Ego-Dave.

My ego is the part of me that gets stuff done.  He’s the one that executes plans, keeps track of details, sends lots of emails, and generally holds it all together.  He thrives on tasks, and he is an extremely capable entity.  

As a result folks ask Ego-Dave to do all kinds of things.  This makes him feel important and real, and encourages him to want to run everything, particularly Me.

The problem is that Dave the Ego is not really Me: he is in fact a construct, a piece of software, or a figment of divine imagination.  As Tolle and Muhammed and others have wisely noted, the ego is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  

So how do I put my Ego in his place?  

This is a delicate bit of business, as I certainly don’t want to destroy him. After all I need him to take care of things. He is very useful!

I also don’t want to disable him artificially. I used to do that with intoxicants, giving my ego involuntary and occasionally violent vacations, with a hangover as a bonus round of sitting around inert and really slacking off. As a strategy this worked, but as a practice it turned out to be damaging and unsustainable.

The trick is to keep my Ego on as a willing, able and enthusiastic helper, while also keeping him firmly in his place. This means giving him a specific and delineated role: a job with parameters and boundaries.  I need to fence him in.

For example, I have tried hiring him on as a Contractor.  He’s the one who executes plans, and fits all the pieces together. He is the boots on the ground guy, who’s not afraid to get dirty or work hard and late.  

This turned out to be a bust, and the trouble is in the title. If the real Me is a timeless boundless awareness that is embodied in this world, then the Contractor is the one who contracts, or shrinks the world to make it manageable.

The Contractor must adhere to linear time.  Indeed he may even create it: if time is an illusory construct then calendars, dates, alarm clocks are his tools. He creates duties and obligations and agreements.  He does logistics, and collaborates with others to manifest intention into matter, and brings things into existence through attention. There is a magical quality to the Contractor archetype, but from a modern sensibility it seems more technological.

The problem is that Ego-Dave the Contractor is always jockeying for control. He wants to be the Boss! Ego-Dave has a huge ego!! He is convinced that he should make the decisions on all the contracts, but he never wants to say no. It’s like the more he does, the more he wants to do! He oversteps his duties.

He’s the one who loves to answer the question “How are you?” with a hearty grinning “Busy!!!”  He’s the one who earnestly believes his entire value as an entity is based on how many things he can do at once. I have tried that archtetype too:  The Juggler.

Ego-Dave the juggler masterfully keeps everything in the air with a touch here, a touch there, tossing and multitasking through life.  

The juggler likes to think that he isn’t working that hard (after all, it’s FUN!), and he’s a big show-off too.  He loves the attention of others, and he adores praise and applause.  

The trouble with Ego-Dave the Juggler is that he always wants to add another ball.  He wants to be the best juggler ever: the one who can keep the entire universe in the air.

When I let the juggler run the show, things get out of control in a hurry.  He pretends to be easy breezy, but he hates dropping a ball, and the fear of letting them all go at once is agonizing.

The juggler archetype was a great improvement from Atlas though.  

Not so long ago, before I even realized that my Ego was a story, I used to see myself as that primordial Titan who held the universe on his shoulders. Atlas is incredibly strong and powerful, and ripped and sexy in a bodybuilder kind of way.  He takes so much pride in his ability to hold it all.  

It was a huge relief when I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to hold everything all the time: that it wasn’t all my fault.

The big problem is that fundamentally my Ego is a workaholic.  He never wants to stop, and when he gets excited about something, watch out, because he is going deep.  He gets very focused, and he gets off on the adrenaline and the excitement and the pressure.  

Which all leads back to my latest Ego-Dave story that I am a field dog and my purpose is to run around and chase stuff and tend the herd.  Of course, this story has a lot in common with the other archetypes, in the common theme of busyness and taking care of others.

Thankfully, I am getting better and better at seeing through the stories of my Ego, and yet still sometimes I fall in so deep that I think it’s all really true.  I believe that I am in the movie, rather than watching it. And this movie is all action all the time, like one of those dreams where you never stop running from some mysterious threat.

When I am lost like this, I am no longer a spirit having a human existence, or a boundless awareness peering out from a human form.  Instead I am a Contractor, a Juggler, an Atlas, or a Field Dog, and I experience fear and sadness and overwhelm.

When I fail to put Ego in his place, then I am indeed his humble servant, and I find that to be very challenging.

Thank goodness for vacation.  When we went to the beach and lounged around the pool and played games it was absolutely delicious.  Once I got a refreshing taste of it, I wanted to sit still forever. I saw right through my Ego-story, and remembered again how good it feels to be free.

Seeking out this space is the reason I meditate.  When I sit and follow my breath, I drink in the experience of boundless awareness.  It is fleeting to be sure, but even a sip of that spacious expanse is a tremendous blessing.  

Meditation is a way of seeing through the stories of the Ego.  By making space for the “real me”, the part of me that is full of wonder and amusement and gratitude to simply sit still and breathe, I am setting boundaries for my Ego-stories.

What an irony:  by letting go of thoughts and stories, I actually create a container for my ego.  By sitting still and doing nothing, I establish parameters for my Ego-archetypes. By rebooting my computer I remind the Ego that he is indeed simply a useful piece of software, and not my operating system.  

What a relief to be back in charge!  Take that Ego-Dave, You’re not the boss of Me!!!

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