One of the things that I love about rock climbing, is that I can hold all other things constant and fight the good fight. There are a number of “good fights” in life, but I’m learning that the primary one is the struggle between my True Self and my Ego. When I’m on the wall – indoors or out, it’s just me trying to interact with an inanimate puzzle. I can forget about everything else in my life and practice working through my fears, my perceptions, my emotions. If you win that fight, you set yourself up with a personal power, a resilience, a method of renewing your enthusiasm to help you in any other endeavor you choose.
A number of years ago, I was in a bad relationship (by all accounts). Once I was finally free from the toxicity and living on my own, it surprised me to realize that I no longer had anything or anyone on which to blame my unhappiness. Only me. I was the sole determiner of my actions. The choices that I made every day were mine alone, just like I find when I’m on the rock wall. That was the first time I experienced holding all other things equal. Strip away all the other stimulation in your life and get down to the bare you that’s left. It’s a glimpse into the center of your being that’s dizzying and intimidating. Because then you realize the responsibility you have for your own life. It’s not the job, the one who mistreated you, the one who doesn’t love you back, the traffic, the broken metro, the boss who doesn’t get it, the customers or clients who don’t get it, the blow-hard co-worker, the illness, the too many things to do – joyful or dreary, or any other part of your external circumstances. It’s you. How you perceive, process, and react to the world around you. It’s the recognition that in everything, you have choices. If you’re ever stuck, you have the power and ability to make the choices that will get you unstuck.
Life is one big Choose Your Own Adventure book. Only, if I were to re-write my favorite childhood book series, I would also add choices like this: What do you do?
1) Get angry and yell at the other person on the phone, go to page 76. If you get angry, breathe and tell your Ego this isn’t a direct challenge to your existence, then return to the phone and deal with the problem objectively, go to page 89.
2) If you tell yourself you can’t do it, because you’re scared of failure, go to page 101. If you breathe, ask your Ego what it’s afraid of, begin to assess the risks objectively and make a plan to tackle them, go to page 350.
3) If you interrupt your painful line of inquiry to check Facebook, go to page 2. If you get off the Internet and go outside and take a walk, go to page 147.
We don’t talk much in society about our relationship to our Ego. I’ve learned and am still learning how the key to living the life you want means being able to discern what is true from what your Ego filter is telling you is true.
In the Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers, Argno Ilgner writes “For most of us, when it comes to meeting challenges, our own worst enemy is ourselves. Our self-image and our self-worth are far too wrapped up in achievements. Ego controls much of our behavior. We constantly act out of fear and avoidance, rather than the love of the challenge or [the thing itself - in his case, climbing]. Our mental habits raise unnecessary barriers and often, unconsciously drain the vitality from our performances.” Ilgner’s work is strongly influenced by Carlos Castenada (The Teachings of Don Juan) and Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior). Castenada’s book details his apprenticeship with don Juan Matus, who breaks Castenda’s old habits of thoughts and perception, and frees him from his Ego. Ilgner writes, “The Ego’s games are so plentiful and powerful that don Juan calls the Ego the ‘1000-headed dragon.’ I find this to be a very helpful image.” Yes, when we’re up against our own Egos, we’re up against a powerful force.
The naive me used to believe that the Ego was merely an attribute belonging to puffed-up blow-hards. (You mean I have an Ego? Shocking!). My Ego went on for years happily protecting myself from all the pain, hurt and nasties of the world. The more I learned about the Ego, the more I knew that my Ego and I needed to sit down and have a talk. Once the ruse was up, and I had become aware of its existence, my Ego could no longer secretly protect me without my interference, my questioning. Its habits had been keeping me from realizing my full potential.
By many accounts, the Ego is essentially a built-in filter that serves to help you interact with the world around you. It’s not inherently evil, just often misguided in its efforts to protect you from pain, hurt and other nasties. What you cannot do, however, is get pissy with your Ego. To address it judgmentally is to threaten it, and since the Ego’s main goal is self-preservation, it will rear its thousand ugly heads. So don’t poke it in the eye. This is where self-compassion comes in, and it is vitally, vitally important. Ask a horse handler (ever see the Horse Whisperer or the documentary on the horse trainer, Buck?). The best way to handle a large beast is with compassion, respect and objectivity.
So when I say that we all need to “Fight the Good Fight,” it’s not truly a fight. It’s more like facing off in a martial arts contest with your ego. The goal is to disarm without injuring. If you can do that with yourself, you can then do it with others.
Maybe the metaphor you use to develop a relationship with your Ego will be different from the thousand-headed dragon. I joke that my astrological sign is a Taurus, I was born in the year of the Ox, and I’m the youngest child, so often times I feel like a bull in a china shop. Maybe this is why I happen to love dragons and large beasts, so the dragon metaphor works for me. By contrast, in this Huffington Post article, Embracing Ego, Rabbi Alan Lurie describes the Ego as a frightened child. If you haven’t already experienced how a frightened or angry child can take you down, listen to this NPR story on deconstructing the tantrum. Sounds like a thousand-headed dragon to me. At any rate, I believe the techniques are similar to handling both Ego metaphors – compassion must be at the center of your efforts.
There are many techniques, tips and tricks to managing a good relationship with your Ego. You will have to be a seeker of yourself to find the ones that work for you. I will note that the first step is to develop an awareness about it. Become an observer of your life, your emotions, your actions. Ask questions. Why did that make you angry? Why are you scared? Why are you procrastinating? Is it because you’re scared? Sit down and have a good talk with your Ego every now and again. It may act like a petulant child and not want to let you in on its secrets, so you will have to be persistent. Take it out for a walk, out to the gym and exercise it. Don’t neglect it.
If you need an Ego conversation starter, the Rabbi Lurie has this recommendation:
Dear friend, I value you and honor your role in my life. Without you I would not be safe from physical danger, and I rely on you to help identify these threats. But I also know that there are areas of life that you are not equipped to understand — matters of love, faith, courage and purpose. I promise not to run off and take unnecessary risks, but I ask that you learn to trust and collaborate with the other aspects of our being. I may make mistakes, but I promise to learn from them. Is that agreeable?
- Huffington Post: Embracing Ego
- Urban Monk: The Confusion About Ego
- Urban Monk: What Your Ego Is and How to Stop It From Obscuring Your Inner Peace and Unconditional Love
- Deoxy.org: Ego – The False Center
- Worldwide Labyrinth Locator: http://labyrinthlocator.com/