This is an article I wrote for the TAT Foundation located here for its September Forum.

Often our minds are looked upon as a maladaptive entity which we must get rid of.  This notion runs particularly rampant in some spiritual circles but just as equally rears its head in many different facets of society.  At the heart of our minds is the notion that ego must be gotten rid of because the belief is it is the source of all our troubles.  Ego seems to get a bad rap and sometimes its well-deserved, but at other times the bad rap does not fit at all.  As I hope to demonstrate ego and in turn mind is neither good nor bad, but before I do that, let’s try and get an idea of what I mean by the term ego.

The way I define ego is as the identification with the self – it’s the formation and maintenance of an identity.  Therefore, the question of whether your mind is a friend or foe in the search for self-definition should consider the role of ego – and that is what I would like to focus upon in this article.

An identity and therefore ego’s functions can be both unconscious and conscious and includes emotions and bodily sensations.  Therefore ego, is not solely the domain of thoughts and beliefs.  It would be prudent to note that definitions of ego can vary greatly in the literature – for example Jung used a different definition.  I think it is useful to have a definition irrespective of what the definition is, as it can provide a grounding point when someone is attempting to work with ego and in turn mind. Let’s look at the distinction between unconscious and conscious identification by first looking at the latter.

What we are conscious of is more readily identified as belonging to ego.  For instance, if I believe I am a good uncle to my nephews and nieces then a good argument can be made that’s the province of ego, since it’s an identification with the role of an uncle.  In truth, each of us is consciously identified with ego in a myriad of ways through the day.  I can identify as a therapist, a son, an uncle, a cook, a writer, a brother, a diabetic, a gamer just to name a few.  Each of these is a role which is played and if we easily float between roles without over attachment then these types of identifications are not problematic.  It’s worth noting that when people are rigid in the roles, they play that’s when ego becomes problematic and in turn the mind becomes a foe.

Many people don’t associate the unconscious as identifying with self, but it does occur there as well. For example, when someone has been traumatized it is a common occurrence for a person to be hypervigilant and constantly be on the lookout for threats.  When this becomes ingrained enough it begins to operate under the threshold of consciousness.  It is still part of mind, and it affects our behaviors, often in destructive ways.  We may not even be conscious that some trauma has occurred yet nearly all aspects of identity as influenced by the trauma.

A way to decipher if an unconscious process is occurring is if there is a mismatch between what we intend for ourselves and what transpires.  For instance, if someone desires a good relationship but keeps getting involved in bad relationships then its likely that the unconscious is at play.  Here we can make a case that mind is a foe and is interfering with our sense of identity in a manner which is destructive.

But that is not the whole story, if we become masterful with working the conscious and the unconscious then mind can become a wonderful friend which helps us progress towards the goal of self-definition. An example might be when we decide to sleep on a decision and wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning with the answer – the dream realm has found the solution.  Sometimes we stress and fret over a problem, then decide to take a break and go for a walk.  Its not uncommon to find the solution at these times. In these instances, it’s the getting your mind of the problem that does the trick.  We could also consider altered states of consciousness, like hypnosis, meditation, dreams, and the hypnogogic state as providing solutions when our conscious minds do not. At these times your mind and all its wonders seem to be like your best friend.

It seems that at times our minds can be either a foe or a friend.  If that holds water for the reader then we might play with the initial question a little and ask, how do I leverage my mind to be a friend?  The answer is complex and is beyond the scope of this article, but there are a few tips that come in handy.

If someone is having difficulty on the search for self-definition and are experiencing anxiety, frustration etc., the task at hand is to get into a calm and composed state.  Literally relax – things will work much better in this state.  Though it can be the initial impetus for an inquiry into the nature of self, you do not need to suffer for the search.  What is required is discipline and persistence and these attributes work much better when we are calm and composed.

By the way, think of a time when you felt most like yourself. I am referring to the contents of mind/ego here.  Usually when we feel most like ourselves, characteristics such as calmness, composure and being grounded are at the fore.  Its often when creativity and wisdom seem to flow.  Hence, the job at hand is to continually use this same state of being to propel ourselves forward.

Most people make important decisions when they are stressed with mediocre results at best.  It seems that being stressed is a default operating mode for mind for many people. The mind becomes the enemy because it is a mind that is stressed and that has negative neurological and physiological consequences for us which are then expressed in unwanted ways. In case its still not clear, learn to take a chill pill multiple times a day.  This doesn’t mean doing nothing, it just means doing things in a relaxed manner.   That is the single best thing to do when trying to master mind and turn it into your friend.

Ego or mind has three main ways it can get us into trouble.  In no special order, these are

  1. How controlling we are.
  2. How judgmental we are.
  3. How special we take ourselves to be.

There are many ways our minds can turn out to be foes, but I think the three outlined above take the lion’s share of adding to our woes.

When it comes to control, our minds are notorious for always wanting to be in control.  While there definitely are times when we want to be in control, these are not as frequent as we would like to believe.  What can help turn mind into our friends is learning when to let go and when not to.  Most of the time we should be looking to let go of control.  The figures I sometimes use are as in nine times out of ten or even ninety-nine times out of a hundred.  Being overly controlling in our lives hinders our capacity to be at peace with ourselves.  The world has a way of showing us repeatedly that we are far less in control than we would like to think we are.  So act accordingly and the world will tend to be easier to navigate often in surprising ways.

Most people have a penchant for being judgmental either of themselves or others but mostly a combination of both.  When we are judgmental, we are particularly prone to negativity bias.  If we, do it often enough, we literally are training our minds to be negative.  Guess where that ends up?

Another way that often gets in the way of searching for self, is the perception that somehow, we are special.  Many people looking for enlightenment, truth-realization, awakening etc. have an unconscious belief that they are special in some way.  Sometimes it might be that being on the search is perceived to be special itself.  This perception gets in the way simply because its disproportionality inflates our sense of self ergo – ego.  The reality is we are no more special than a pebble, we can argue that we are different to a pebble and yes, we are, but it doesn’t make us more special that a pebble.

This same specialness can apply to others.  For instance, we might look at a particular spiritual teacher or guru as special – after all they are enlightened right?  When someone does that it takes away the responsibility for the search for self-definition and places it onto someone else.  People hang on a guru’s words or behaviors as if they special and will help them get self-realized.  Most of the time they are just trying to use spirituality to bypass their own troubles with themselves and the world.

I sometimes call these three qualities the three faces of ego, but that is only so that it helps to remember the qualities.  Ego or/and mind has many faces, some of which are helpful to our search for self-definition and some that are not.  Its our task to find the faces aspects of mind which are helpful and to let go of the ones which are not.  Naturally that’s easier said than done.

Original article appeared in Tat Forum Sept 1 2021