When I was in my late 30’s I managed a restaurant. I tried to be strict about enforcing company policy. Armored with a strong sense of justice and convinced of my own moral high ground, I felt it was my job to hold people accountable not just for breaking rules at work, but for behavior I deemed low brow and for lifestyle choices I judged as dangerous or self destructive.
It wasn’t until the day I received the annual anonymous employee reviews in my inbox, that I had any idea my approach was being received as less than constructive. After a day spent reading and re-reading the thick stack of reviews, I spent another day venting, arguing, and crying about how I had been characterized. Eventually I ran out of energy to complain and found myself with nothing to say, because, if I was really honest with myself, the refrain in the reviews had been too consistent to argue with. The reflection had humbled me to my core.
Luckily, I had a consistent meditation practice, so when the difficult emotions came up around the things I didn’t want to accept about myself, I was able to be with them instead of trying to manage them away. I was able to see through my discomfort to the truth being reflected to me by my colleagues at work. The experience changed both how I saw myself and how I chose to show up to work and life. The reviews were an opportunity to grow, and I took it.
A Little Ego Death Never Hurt Anyone
What I had experienced was a little ego death. The ego is designed to help us. Its superpower is discernment. As such, it's a fundamental part of the human experience. When we are identified with our ego, discernment turns to judgement. Judgements are the way the ego protects itself from change. Sometimes the eye of judgement is projected outward at others, sometimes it’s projected inward at ourselves. Regardless of its focus, judgement distances us from things as they are and sets up barriers to authentic connection and understanding.
If we don’t know any better, when our ego structure gets threatened with information that forces the structure to change and rearrange, the ego gets scared because this amounts to a death for it. We lean into our judgements to feel safe and in control. But we are not our egos. The ego is a tool for discernment, for delineation, emergent comprehension and cosmic coherence. The ego can die over and over because all of who we are is eternal.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
The process of letting the ego dissolve enough that new information gets through to our conscious awareness is like an expansion. Then we take the new information back to home base, back to the point before the expansion to integrate the new information. This is like a contraction, but we never truly go back to the same place. We remain a little more expanded, a little more open. Over time, we become acclimated to our deeper self. Instead of orienting to the world through our rigid ego, we orient from our true self and remain open to inviting in more and more of what we can not see.
We Have a Choice
We can choose to use our ego to create and elaborate judgements that make us more rigid, or we can use the ego’s discernment ability to comprehend more of our world and our place in it. In the second option, it is through the ego that we gain deeper and deeper levels of self understanding. If the ego is just the tip of the iceberg of all of who we are, then any expansion of the ego begins to include previously unconscious material. It’s the ego that gives the 'all' meaning and internal integrity. Part of what spiritual traditions like yoga teach us is how to safely and methodically allow the ego to expand.
The Way Out of Judgement
The way out of judgement is not to find new and better judgements. The way out is to let go of judgement altogether, to let go of who we think we are, to expand, take in more information and to allow it to change us.
This becomes a way of life, where we remain open to little ego deaths. We recognize the discomfort, the fear and the temper tantrums that come with expansion, and we keep our eye on the prize, on what lies just beyond the fear. More of our true selves.
The experience of being reviewed by my peers more than anything gave me my first experience of ego death and of consciously letting it die in order to grow. It’s a process that has grown ever easier, to the point where now I leave the door wide open for these experiences.
Every day I set an intention to live life with curiosity and openness. This translates to a very intentional relationship to my ego. My hope is that it’s a relationship that continually makes room for more of who I am and that continually leads me into greater degrees of inner flexibility. Because of this practice I am more and more able to choose expansion and to flow with life as it is.