Have you heard of James Arthur Ray? He’s one of the experts featured on “The Secret,” the film (and later book) released several years back that brought the Law of Attraction into the popular mainstream—and generated love-hate debates about it. Ray is currently serving—and appealing—a two-year imprisonment for the negligent deaths of 3 participants in a retreat he led in Sedona in 2009. This tragedy fueled even more criticism of the Law of Attraction and how dangerously irresponsible it is for anyone to advocate it.
Unless I missed those discussions, it seems that no one talked about where Ray really went wrong, which ultimately had nothing to do with the Law of Attraction. He said that the ego unfairly gets a bad reputation. While every teacher of spirituality and consciousness advocates not following the lead of our ego, he encouraged us to listen to our ego and let it kick us into action. He was very proud of the fact that he was known as “the action guy” in the personal development arena.
In the Sedona tragedy, he was reportedly acting as if he was God in some of the rituals he led–not in a good way. It sounded like his ego really got the better of his judgment, including ignoring the complaints of the 3 victims who were getting physically sick from the intense heat of the sweat lodge, in addition to extended physical exertion without proper health and safety precautions and safeguards.
Ego = False Self
Regardless of what your specific spiritual orientation may be, you’ve probably heard that ego is not our true self. Instead, it’s a fear-based part of our personality developed since a young age out of a defensive need to protect ourselves from harm. It lacks sophistication in deciphering between real threats and situations that stretch us out of our comfort but are ultimately not harmful. Ego’s sole mission is to keep us safe and to avoid discomfort at all costs.
Ego manifests itself in different ways. Most of us readily recognize ego as inflated self-perceptions, such as the arrogance of someone who thinks s/he’s the big cheese, and no one is as amazing as s/he is. Arrogance is just a mask for hiding deep insecurities. Ego also tries to protect us by getting us to avoid taking risks. However, its warnings often come across as negative self-judgments, including ones that deflate our enthusiasm, criticize our performance, challenge our aptitude, and scare us into retreating and playing small.
No matter how you recognize ego, the same truth applies: It isn’t the real you, and it doesn’t serve your highest good to let it run your life.
Unless you happen to agree with Ray about ego, there’s pretty much universal agreement about the above statement. Beyond not letting ego run our lives, what do we do about it? That’s where I see differences in opinion. At the risk of over-simplifying things, the opinions fall into these 3 camps:
1. Ego is a villain to be suppressed, if not destroyed.
2. Since ego is a false, developed identity, we can just ignore it.
3. Acknowledge this part of us, false notwithstanding, but we don’t listen to its counsel.
To me, #1 is automatically out, as that’d be waging war against ourselves. No inner peace could come from that. As for #2, while it seems to make sense to not pay attention to something that’s false, ignoring something doesn’t automatically make it go away. Since ego warnings are often accompanied by fear of imminent threat to our safety, ignoring ego means shoving down fear, which only festers underneath the surface. I’ve learned that, if I face fear head on without judgment, its power over me dissipates—unless, of course, the fear is associated with real threat, not just ego’s clumsy tactic to get me to back off from heading into unfamiliar experiences.
That’s why #3 is my ego-management strategy of choice, if you will. In fact, just the other day, a friend of mine reminded me of the effectiveness of this strategy. I was facing a situation with some unpleasant new developments. The latter quickly induced escalating fear within me about one possible scenario and how to proceed overall (ego’s job). At the same time, however, I knew that I could shift my focus to the inner resources I could tap to see other potential scenarios and do well in that situation.
I reached out to several trusted friends to ask for prayer support. One of them promptly wrote back with an affirmative prayer, helping me hold my intention to focus on my inner strength and power. She included a note of seeing me thanking my ego for doing its job in trying to protect me. That made me smile and gave me relief. I didn’t have to expend energy in fighting my ego and making it wrong. I just needed to recognize what it was trying to do, however clumsily and inappropriately, before redirecting all my energy to grounding myself in my truth.
Ego isn’t the real us. However, instead of fighting it, we just need to remember its reason for having been constructed in our human experience, i.e., to keep us safe. Beyond that, it’s always, always our conscious choice not to let ego run our lives.
Now, over to you, what’s your understanding of ego? How do you manage it in your life? Would love for you to share your opinions below in the comment box.
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