Sleeping with your Ego

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Yours truly finds the phenomenon called the ego enchanting. Like many of you one finds it fascinating when a television guru speaks about dismissing the ego in his discourse. Then, he loses his own cool when asked this inconvenient question: have you gone beyond your own ego? He must be a superman who can resist competitive flattery by million disciples. Many of us seek a fast track to enlightenment, as though it is something out there. It is amusing to see how the ego grasps even those highly conscious spiritual seekers. I marvel at our struggle to cultivate humility that serves as a costume to dress up naked ambition. On the surface, the egos of people appear to be different. But deep down we share the same nature of the ego. Think of underground water and the many ways to reach it: well, tube well, hand pump, bore well or just a natural fountain. The ego comes out on the surface in many ways. Ego is our deep sleep state. It is a manifestation of our primary ignorance. We all are born ignorant and continue to be so until we are not. One form of ignorance is to get too identified with our bodily changes or our frequent mood swings. Some people cannot laugh fully because their egos are stuck in their uneven teeth. Other are stuck in anger. Our egoic problems can be dental as well mental.

The ego is defined in the spiritual literature as ahamkara—the shifting shape (akara) of aham (the one Self). The ego is nothing but shifting appearances of one reality like changing shape of shadows depending on the shape of the object that obstructs a ray of light. The core of the ego is the same for everyone, only appearances differ. In a certain man, the ego may show up as a glaring mop of false hair piled on top of a bald head. In another woman, it may present itself like a subdued seed of vanity that will blossom in time as she grows in the spotlight of fame and fortune! The only way to enjoy the ego and its shifting shapes is to remain an impartial and vigilant spectator of its many incarnations. You can simply be an unattached witness: the immature ego like a green mango ripens into a golden yellow fruit that mellows and slowly falls off the tree of life. A good way to bust the ego is to ask the question: what does my life want from me rather than what do I want from life? Reflection rather than reaction is the key!

The CEO of the company was a true devotee of his ego. He would take time off to get his ego massaged by his subordinates five times a day! He took pride in his rather acute sense of humour. It was expected that those who reported to him had to hold their stomachs and roll over in uncontrolled fits of laughter whenever he spoke his one-liners—even when his sick jokes failed to ignite like damp fire-crackers. His resume said that he ate corporate strategy for breakfast and information technology for lunch. Furthermore, he claimed that he could intimidate any competition into submission and was like a pit bull when it came to negotiating with his customers. The only weakness, he owned up, was that he had a wife selection problem! He was already into his third marriage and was a father of several children. Finally, the CEO claimed that his unquenchable lust for success was matched only by his love for frequent flying.

Like the CEO, many professionals go to sleep with their egos without ever realising that they are doing so. The ego is an adorable thing if you are awakened to the many tricks it plays. Yet, more often than not, it can play havoc with you if you allow it to sleep inside you. You can decode the real nature of the ego by being alert and vigilant. Here are the three shapes that the ego assumes for all of us:

The Arc of Ambition

An ambitious ego comes with a high maintenance cost. It requires constant refuelling. In a certain US university that boasts of several Nobel laureates one asked a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry: ‘Sir, after Nobel what?’ The doyen of chemistry replied with studied humility, “I hope that the University administration will now give me my own parking slot as is the custom with other Nobel laureates.” Rest assured, the arc of ambition extends even beyond Nobel prize. Like a game of snakes and ladders, the arc of ambition can slide down just as it can climb up. An ambition of having a holiday in Hawaii can scale down to howling around in your pyjamas in Powai, that is the large range that the ego arc can cover.

The Curve of Competition

The competitive ego sees everything through the lens of contrast. This ego survives on a constant stream of comparison with others in the world out there:

Looks like she has got some extra cushion on the seat of her chair… Is my bottom not eligible for that comfort even though I work as many extra hours? …Oh, I can see from the corner of my eye that the passenger sitting next to me on the plane has a lettuce with his meal, how about my lettuce?…I will not rest until I drive past his upright nose with a bigger car? … What does he think of himself, haven’t I scored 0.3% more marks than him in graduation? …I will not take a shower until he buys me a better washing machine…so the ego’s story goes on inside our heads.

The delirious data entry operator pops out of his boss’s cabin with the news of his promotion. On the way out he meets his rival and colleague. The colleague announces that he too has got his well-deserved promotion. The data guy flies into a rage and mutters under his breath: in this company even cats and dogs get promoted!

The Faculty of Fault Finding

The ego thrives on finding faults of others. It would seem that the fault finding ego finds great strength in identifying weakness in someone else. The born fault finder trains his muscles in the gymnasium of backbiting! Show him Julia Roberts’ profile or Preity Zinta’s face and he will show you how deep dimples spoil the beauty of a face! The fault finding faculty of the ego comes a full circle when reality starts to bite.

This CEO of our story had once employed a professional detective Agency to figure out whether the woman he was dating had any significant character flaw. The Agency carried out a thorough investigation and submitted a comprehensive Report after fifteen days. The report of the private investigator ended with this concluding statement:

In brief, our investigating Agency could not find any major fault of the lady in question but for this: she is rumoured to be engaged with a CEO of questionable character and dubious distinction!

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