Egoism and Yoga: Do We Really Need to Eliminate The Self?

You don’t have to be a yogi to understand the trouble egoism can cause. Ego, the individual self, tends to seek attention and see itself as separate from others.

In a recent post, I described the ways ignorance shows up and creates obstacles to enlightenment. One of these ways—perhaps the most significant—is misunderstanding who we are. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains this problem as taking the non-self as self.

Put another way, believing all there is to life is our own individual existence—the small self—can lead to a life of competition, separation, despair, and disconnection.

One reason egoism and the concept of self can get confusing is translations of teachings on the topic use the term “self” in two ways. There is the ego self (the small one) and the true Self (with a capital S).

Egoism refers to the small self, more specifically the ways in which our ego lives in opposition to others, to the higher Self, and to the goal of yoga. This happens when we lose sight of the fact that while the ego is part of us, it’s not who we are.

Ego Isn’t Bad, But It’s Often Troubled

So, let’s clear up one thing about ego. It’s not bad. We don’t need to get rid of it. It’s not even possible to life without it. We’re unique manifestations of the divine, and that means we all get a distinctive ego. But when we believe ego is all we are, spiritual, emotional, and even mental problems arise.

Embrace who you are and enjoy it, but never lose sight of your connection to something greater. We’re created uniquely but not separately. Missing that subtle point is the source of misery and suffering.

Being unique does not mean being disconnected.

So why this case of mistaken identity? Our bodies and minds change as we age. Our experiences affect our lives in the world. We may be rich or poor, accomplished or simple, surrounded by loved ones or alone. None of this is our true self.

Swami Satchidinanda says “the self will always be falsely represented by the ego until our ignorance is removed.”

The True Self is Unchanging and Free of Egoism

As we’ve also seen in the Yoga Sutras, only the unchanging is true. Can you sense a “you” that’s separate from your body and mind? The true Self is you without your pain, without your story, and without your drama. And it’s you without your success, your possessions, or your relationships. Your true Self simply is.

Resisting pain is a form of egoism. Why, we think, should I be in pain?  It’s interesting, though, that the more we resist pain, the more troublesome it becomes.

Clinging to pleasurable experiences is also a form of egoism.

When we have a more neutral perspective and can enjoy life without attachment to what we want or aversion to what we want to avoid, we move closer to enlightenment. When we can experience pain without judgment or unnecessary suffering—when we can accept it but not identify with it—we also move closer to enlightenment.

Egoism Drives the Struggle to Exist

The ego struggles to exist. Even the thought of not existing terrifies most of us, causing a great deal of suffering. So we do whatever it takes to be seen and heard—to ensure we exist.

Sometimes we go too far. We may do questionable things to get ahead or go to extremes to appear younger. We compare ourselves to others and compete to have more, look better, or have more status, as if these efforts can validate our existence.

Ultimately, we fear death, the end of ego. This fear can be so paralyzing that we waste many years in misery and suffering.

Fear is the Opposite of Love

Next time you’re focused on someone or something other than you, notice what happens. Are you happier? What happens when you’re involved in a group project without thinking about who gets credit for what? If you’re like me, your ego gets smaller in a good way. But—and this is key—your being expands!

What if we all spent less time regretting the past or anticipating the future? What if we were present more? We might find our egos getting smaller while our connection and our capacity for union grows.

For yogis seeking tools for conquering egoism, Patanjali suggests meditation. The practice takes us out of our heads, to a place where we can live with less egoism and fewer attachments. It keeps us present.

This is the doorway to enlightenment.

Would you like to explore more yoga topics in depth—perhaps with a group of yoga friends? Get your copy of Yoga Circles, A Guide to Creating Community off the Mat. You’ll find lots of topics and activities for living the yoga lifestyle and enjoying time with like-minded yogis! Click here to order!

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