We will deal with the subject of the ego at some length, for it is so important to understand, even intellectually, how much the ego stunts one's experience of existence and oneself. People seem to expect that loss of ego results in lethargy and laziness. But in fact, egolessness can lead to exactly the opposite: ceaseless and tireless energy and activity. One becomes super efficient in every action and work undertaken. Reduction of ego leads to spontaneous, intense and continuous action which is most appropriate for the given situation.
The very essence of karma yoga is unselfishness; egoless or selfless work, or at least as much as one is able. Actually, until one lives in a state of meditation, there must always be an element of selfishness in one's actions. When the sense of ego is lost, even for a short period of time, then one is automatically in a state of higher awareness. Until this point, however, you must only do your best to practise karma yoga - nothing more. Try to do your work and make decisions to suit the situations as they arise and as they really are. Act in the way that is best for the given circumstances, instead of working and acting only to suit your personal motives and desires. This helps to reduce the power of the ego. All other forms of yoga help to reduce the hold, the grip of the ego, whether bhakti yoga, raja yoga, kriya yoga or whatever. They all aim at reducing the total and overwhelming identification with the individual mind and body, even if it is only for a short period of time. These short periods of intensified awareness and lessened ego states can carry over into everyday life. The purpose of karma yoga is to bring about a reduction of ego or even egoless states continuously throughout the whole day and night.
We have to be very careful with words otherwise confusion will arise. There must always be an ego in operation. It is an indispensable part of the mind-body complex. It is that part of each individual which coordinates the physical and mental functions of the human organism. Without the ego, the mind-body would become totally chaotic. Each organ and function within the organism would go its own way. The ego is absolutely necessary for synchronized functioning and harmony within the mind and body as a whole. The ego in itself is not bad; it is overidentification of the individual with the ego that causes all the problems.
When we say that one must reduce the ego, we mean the influence that the ego has on the external expression or internal attitude of an individual as a whole must be reduced. That is, one should allow the ego to perform its duties of maintaining order within the human organism, yet at the same time, the actions and expressions of the individual in the world should be as selfless as possible. One's actions should not be done for selfish reasons but because the entire situation, surroundings, of which the mind and body are a part, warrants it. The best way to illustrate this point more clearly is by giving an analogy. Consider the heart of the human body. It is composed of many different cells each of which performs a definite and fixed function. In a sense, each cell of the heart has an independent existence in its own right. Let us say they have an ego. What would happen if each cell began to function independently and not for the overall good of the heart? What would happen if each cell refused to do its duty? The results would be disastrous. The heart would no longer be able to function as a whole and coordinated unit. The heart would reduce in efficiency or even break down completely. And in fact this is exactly what does happen in the case of cancer. The individual cells go their own way. The organ, in this analogy the heart, made up of multitudinous cells, ceases to act as an integrated whole. The cells obey, in a sense, their own egos, and no longer dedicate or sacrifice their duties to the best possible operation and advantage of the organ of which they are a part. Now let us enlarge the analogy a little. Instead of an individual cell, consider an individual human being. Each human has an ego so that the mental-physical organism maintains an identity, a reasonably fixed pattern and shape. This ego is similar to the coercive ego force within each cell, which holds and moulds the different atoms and molecules together, so that the cells keep an individual identity, while simultaneously being a part of the heart. Ideally each human should sacrifice for the good of the overall whole, in the same way that the cell sacrifices itself for the overall advantage and harmony of the whole organism. When man expresses himself in the outside world, the aim is to act in the way that is most conducive to harmony in the inner world and the world around, of which each of us is a contributing part. When a cell acts in a selfish manner, disorder occurs in the organ and disease results. When humans act egotistically, then they produce disorder in the world and within themselves. Each ego-centred act contributes to a disease called world cancer. This contribution may be small from an individual point of view, but the sum total of numerous individual selfish actions is disharmony on a world scale.
There is another factor. By not acting for the overall good of the heart or any other organ, the cancerous cell brings about its own downfall. Its ego-centred action results in failure and eventual destruction of the organ and in turn disintegration of the cell's own material existence. It is the same with humans. All self-centred acts tend to bring about destruction of the individual, physically and mentally. By acting in accordance with the need, the dictates of the whole, the individual treads on the path to higher awareness. Moreover, every selfless and harmonious act also helps other people to tread the same path, even if they don't know it consciously. The more selfless you become the more you and others will gain in an overall and individual sense. This is a paradox, but nevertheless a great truth.
The previous analogy is perhaps a little crude, but it does clearly illustrate the desirability of egoless actions and the undesirability of ego-centred acts.
How does a person know the best actions to suit any given situation? This can only be achieved gradually through practising yoga and increasing your awareness. At first it is difficult, in fact impossible. But eventually it becomes easier and easier, and one spontaneously makes perfect, egoless actions. At first when you try to perform karma yoga, merely aim to practise to the best of your ability. The most appropriate action and decision for a situation requires an awareness of all the factors involved. It needs detachment, understanding and desirelessness. Most people have so many preferences, personal desires, and mental problems that they can only see a limited portion of any situation. The mental apparatus, because of lack of harmony, causes inadequate and unsuitable responses. Thus the actions of most people are rarely appropriate for the given circumstances. You may have seen such obvious cases for yourself, especially perhaps when you were a disinterested onlooker of other people. Because of lack of direct involvement, it is possible to take a more comprehensive and balanced view of the problem at hand. The people involved have been ruled by their own greed, passions, status, etc., intent on obtaining as much out of the situation as possible for themselves. The result was that the final actions and decisions were not the best that could have been made. As a spectator you could see very clearly how ego-centred the actions were. On the other hand egoless action is that which brings the best possible results in a particular situation; it is perfectly suitable for the factors involved. But this is the spontaneous byproduct of meditation and for the present most people must just do their best to act without the ego.
It is worth pointing out, however, that even perfect actions with awareness, can still cause harm to other people or the surroundings. This is not the criterion of selfish action. Even great saints, who epitomize total egolessness, sometimes cause harm to others. But they have not done this for egotistical motives. This is the difference. They have either performed an act while in meditation that was the best that could be made and some people were hurt as a byproduct; or they have deliberately hurt another person, without the slightest ego motive, but for the good of the other person, perhaps to wake them up to higher experiences or to remove mental blocks. Actually, physical destruction is part of life; it is continually happening around us. The lion hunts the herd of zebra - no ego is involved. The zebra that is caught is merely the one that was not quick enough to escape. The lion must eat and a zebra has to provide the food. This is an example of a perfect, egoless action. The lion looks at the herd of zebra and chooses the zebra that is most vulnerable. The lion sees the situation as it is and then acts accordingly. The action is not clouded by dislike for one particular zebra, or by hatred of zebra as a whole. The act is made because the circumstances demand it. Take another example. Our body is continually throwing out dead cells. This is absolutely necessary for the health of the body. The best possible action is made to bring about maintenance and health of the body. A cell is not thrown out because there is enmity between it and the human ego, or because the cell is not as pretty as the neighbouring cell. The cell is discarded because it becomes superfluous. The cell is sacrificed because it is necessary in view of the overall consideration of the body. In a sense, it is perfect egoless activity. So it is with human actions; they become perfect if there is no personal, ego-centred motive involved. Some harm may be done, but the actions themselves will be warranted by the situation.
Thus, perfect egoless actions occur while in states of meditation, done spontaneously for the advantage of the whole, and not for limited personal gain. However, this is the ideal and one must at present only do one's best. In fact, it is difficult to consciously reduce egotistical action, for most people are completely habituated and enveloped with the feeling of individuality.
The influence of the ego therefore must predominate. Practise all types of yoga, including karma yoga and try to be aware throughout the entire day. In time the power of the ego will automatically drop away. You will spontaneously begin to perform selfless acts, because of your experience and knowledge of the deeper aspects of existence and one's relationship with other people.
We have perhaps laboured the subject of the ego, but we have done so because it is essential to steadily reduce its power and influence in one's life. It is the ego that taints and diminishes your experience of life, that keeps a person blind to the things around and within and prevents the ascent into higher awareness. The whole point of karma yoga is to reduce and eventually eliminate the conditioned ego drives and actions.
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