Paramhansa Yogananda defined the ego as the soul identified with a particular lifetime, body, and personality. When the body dies, the ego remains, carrying with it long-term memories, tendencies, attitudes, and habits from the past as it draws us to reincarnate lifetime after lifetime. Meditation and other spiritual practices help us overcome this egoic hypnosis. But before we are ready to leave the ego behind, the ego needs much refining. The question, then, is how do we do that?
Swami Kriyananda gave a marvelous definition of the ego as “a bundle of self-definitions.” Through many lifetimes the ego’s tendencies evolve: from dull and brutish, to clever but self-interested, to altruistic and self-sacrificing, and, finally, to saintly. Only then are we ready to drop the ego altogether in the realization that we are eternal beings of light. A vital first step in this process is to let go of negative self-definitions.
Negative reactions separate us from God.
There are two ways we can look at ourselves. There are our actions, on the one hand, and our thoughts and emotional reactions on the other. We can control our actions to a certain extent, but it’s much more difficult to control our negative thoughts and emotional reactions. However, we can learn to do this by catching the negative reaction before it becomes strongly engrained in the mind.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that if we start to become mentally critical of someone or to speak in a negative way about another person, we should immediately start speaking ill of ourselves. Doing that begins to reverse the pattern of thought that looks at the world outside of ourselves and deems it inadequate: “This doesn’t measure up to what I want.” “This isn’t good enough.” “That isn’t how I’d do it.” All such thoughts separate us from God because God is just as much in the other person or situation as in us.
A dear friend of ours gave us a wonderful bit of advice on this issue. She said that if she ever starts speaking critically of someone, she will always at least end her statement by saying, “Just like me.” This is an excellent solution, because it takes us off the pedestal. Instead of saying, “I don’t have that problem. I’m without flaws,” we are saying, “How can I be better than anybody else?”
“God is doing this through me.”
When somebody once addressed Christ by saying, “Good Master,” Christ replied, “Why call you me good? The only one that is good is our father who is in heaven.” Any virtue that we have, anything about us that people admire, is God expressing through us. It’s not we in our limited humanity.
Whenever Swami Kriyananda did something remarkable, people might say, “Oh, Swami, what a wonderful lecture,” or “What a wonderful book.” Always he would respond by saying, “God is the Doer.” That understanding was the secret of how he was able to accomplish so much in his life: He always acted with the awareness that God was the Doer.
Kriyananda once told the humorous story of the time he was working on a new book and someone praised him for his writing. The next day, when he returned to the book, he thought, “I’d better work very hard at this, because I don’t want to let my public down.” As soon as he had that thought he could think of nothing more to write, because he was in his ego and there was no divine flow. He then laughed at himself and said, “I’m not doing this. God is doing this through me.” Always try to catch such reactions before they become an engrained pattern.
You can change today if you make up your mind not to express negative thoughts towards any person or situation in your life. Instead of saying, “This isn’t the way I like it,” simply say, “Let God take care of it.” When you do that, you discover that the situation usually resolves itself.
“We’ll do it better next time.”
The words we use are extremely important. Language is how we articulate our perceptions, but it affects those very perceptions in turn. Just as the words you use to describe someone become the way you view him, so also do the words you use to describe yourself become your self-image. One of the easiest and most powerful ways to refine your bundle of self-definitions is to make sure to use positive not negative words. Try to have a positive acceptance of your accomplishments. This leads to having positive expectations and, therefore, courage when undertaking something new or challenging.
Train your mind to use positive words. It is not that hard. If the habit of negativity is deep, it may take some time and effort but, if you are watchful, you can catch yourself and substitute positive terminology for negative. Cease to see yourself as “a failure,” and instead become “determined to succeed.” See all others, too, through a positive lens. Our words, you see, are self-fulfilling.
Swami Kriyananda once told us, after we had received a critical letter from someone, “You are doing the best you can for who you are.” This has long been our fallback position: If we don’t feel we have succeeded, we don’t say we “can’t do it,” but rather, “We’re doing the best we can for who we are. We’ll do it better the next time.”
Little steps lead to great accomplishments. Positive egoic definitions lead finally to the only true self-definition: “I am one with God.”
Do spiritual practices in the right spirit.
Usually we can prevent ourselves from doing something negative, but it’s also possible to do a good thing with the wrong motivation. What you’re doing may be impressive in the eyes of others, but if you’re doing it to get praise or recognition, it’s tainted by ego.
A man who was adept at the more esoteric yoga postures once visited Anandamayi Ma, the great woman saint of India who is mentioned in Autobiography of a Yogi, and offered to demonstrate them for her. However, while he was showing her some very difficult postures, she was looking off into space. She responded in this way because he wasn’t doing the postures with the right spirit. He was doing them with the thought, “Look at me and how impressive I am.”
If you’re not doing your spiritual techniques with the spirit, “Lord, I am offering this to You in devotion with all the sincerity of my heart,” then you are not doing them in the right way.
Always be sincere with God. There’s no prototype of what it looks like to be spiritual. What a particular person is doing may look totally bizarre, yet that person might be very close to God. Forget the form and focus on the spirit of what you are doing. The right spirit is simply to love God.
Radha was one of Krishna’s greatest devotees. Once Krishna asked her, “Do you practice yoga and meditation?” She replied, “Oh, I would, Lord, but I think of you with such love that I can’t stop long enough to be able to practice these things.” The spirit behind the techniques is what keeps our sadhana fresh and expansive. Without that, our sadhana very quickly becomes uninspired and dry. Having met devotees from all over the world, it often seems that the ones who please God most are those humble souls who are not overly concerned with their own spiritual stature.
Give God first place in your heart.
There was a time during the life of Jesus Christ when the Pharisees were determined to trick him into getting in trouble with the powers in Rome. One day they approached Jesus and said, “The publicans say we should pay a tribute to Rome; what say you?” With brilliance, insight, and without any rancor, Jesus said, “Hand me a coin.” He held up the coin and asked, “Whose picture is this?” The Pharisees answered, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but render unto God what is God’s.” In other words, pay the world its due. Abide by it laws. But always give God first place in your heart.
The goal of the spiritual path is to shift our self-definition from the ego to the soul. The soul is our true nature and is aware of its unity with God. But our soul nature is usually hidden from us by the ego.
The closer we grow, through our love of God, toward a consciousness of unity with Him, the less we are bound by the limitations of this world. The closer we grow to the light, the more we live only in the spirit of God, and the more we see that we are all one.