How can we overcome our ego?
Transcription (edited) by- Vrindasundari Devi Dasi
Question- How can we overcome our ego? We all know that we have the ego, but how do we go about overcoming it?
- Process of bhakti is not about giving up ego, but rather giving up false ego.
- Rather than worrying about giving up false ego, we as devotees should focus more on developing our true ego i.e. re-strengthening our connection with Krishna.
- Rather than thinking more about “I am servant”, we should focus more on “How wonderful is my Lord”.
- We should also identify occasions when our false ego manifests e.g. when we are proud of our abilities, when we have disagreements with someone.
- On such occasions we should bring our focus on Krsna e.g. we should think that our abilities are gift of Krsna, in disagreements we should chose that behavior which is pleasing to Krsna.
Answer (long)- I am also struggling. I have a huge ego. I cannot give an authoritative answer from any realization of my own, but based on what I have heard from guru, sadhu, and shastra, I can speak a few things.
Our process of bhakti is not about giving up ego. It is about giving up false ego. False ego means for the soul to misidentify with the body. But at a deeper level, we have to consider what is the effect of that misidentification. Bodily misidentification makes us think that actually I am a material creature and material things will give me happiness. Largely our bodily misidentification gives us a prthaka bhava, a sense of existence independent of God. That is the primary problem. When we have true ego—true ego means we understand that I am a soul, and as a soul, I am a part of Krsna, then we truly become happy. Yamunacharya in the Stotra Ratna says that:
bhavantam evānucaran nirantaraḥ
Stotra Ratna (43)
By serving You constantly, one is freed from all material desires and is completely pacified. When shall I engage as Your permanent eternal servant and always feel joyful to have such a perfect master?
Ever since I have fixed my mind on you, my Lord, my mind has become peaceful (prashanta). Does that mean I’m going to live a life which is passive forever? No. My aspiration is kadaham -“when will I accept that I am your eternal servant?” Pure eternal servant (Aikantika) and— praharṣayiṣyāmi sa-natha- jīvitam —I will delight in the fact that I am Sa-natha- jīvitam – that now I am no longer anatha (having no master), but I have the supreme, the best natha (master)—Jagannath. He is our eternal protector, eternal Lord, eternal guide, and greatest well-wisher. When will I delight in the fact that I have such a wonderful master?
Let us try to understand this verse with the help of an analogy.
Consider an orphan child who is homeless and wandering from one orphanage to another. Sometimes there are some proposals for adoption but nothing works out. The family that wants to adopt didn’t turn out to be good, but finally that child comes to a family which is very loving, very caring, and showers the child with affection and helps that child by giving all facility for the child to grow into a wonderful human being. Then that child will be grateful. “What kind of life I was living earlier, this family has adopted me and gave me so much”. That would be the joy of that child. Sa-natha- jīvitam. Or for that matter, somebody has been repeatedly unemployed. On occasion that person would get a job, but the bosses were very exploitive and finally one gets a kind boss who pays well and also is concerned about the growth and the security of the employee. Employee would feel “Oh, this is a good job. I am grateful. I’ve got a good boss. Like that, Krishna is not just our natha, or our boss, He’s also our father. We have been trying out various things to be secure and happy in life but when we come to Krishna, then we get true happiness, true security.
Rather than worrying too much about giving up false ego, as devotees we focus on cultivating the true ego. Cultivating the true ego means, re-strengthening our connection with Krsna and reminding ourselves that, “Krsna is such a wonderful Lord and I’m so fortunate to be connected with Him.” Of course, our relationship with Him is of service. But if we focus too much on “I am a servant, I am a servant, I am a servant,” and since the word “servant” has jarring grating tone to it, this may create some resentment within us. Certainly, we do have to change the disposition from that of an independent enjoyer to a servant of the Lord, but that doesn’t have to be necessarily done in a way which causes excessive friction in our consciousness. We can focus on the fact that we have got such a wonderful Lord, He is there to take care of us and we are in His shelter. Bhaktivinoda Thakur also says in a song: parama-ānande nāci pada-guna gāiyā (I will dance in great ecstacy and will sing the glories of the lotus feet of the Lord which have given me shelter).
As devotees, if we focus more on the point that “I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful Lord,” and we cultivate development of the true ego i.e. we feel we cannot live without a sense of honor or self-worth. We all need a sense of belonging, acceptance, being valued, being valuable, and self-worth. If such feeling comes independent of Krsna, that is false ego, and that causes illusion and bondage. Rather than trying to say “no” to the false ego, we focus on saying “yes” to the true ego. That means, we focus on remembering how glorious Krsna is, how fortunate we are to have a connection with Him, and then we cherish the ways in which we can develop our connection with Him. For example, if we have something (e.g. talent, resources, wealth, position etc.) by which we can do some services with the focus on developing our relationship with Krsna, we can develop our true ego. Our focus should not be on trying to prove to the world how great I am because that will develop our false ego. This is a matter of subtle but significantly different motivation. Just as a materialistic person wants everyone to know how great I am, a devotee wants the world to know how great Krsna is. Just as a materialistic person may do a lot of activities, a devotee also does same activities but with a different motivation.
When we are trying to develop our true ego, we can also identify occasions when our false ego manifests. For example, when we have some talent and we are able to do something very well, that is the time we may become proud thinking – “I am doing this so well.” In such situations, we can do few things. We should try to remind ourselves that this talent is not mine, it comes from Krsna, and He can take it away at any moment. Arjuna was such a formidable archer, but at one particular time towards the end of his manifest pastimes, he could not even defeat some cowherds who came to plunder Krsna’s queens. We should think that if Arjuna’s, the world’s foremost archer, abilities can be taken away by Krsna, my abilities can also be taken away by Him. My abilities are gifts given by Krsna. They are entrusted to me by Him and I should be using them in His service. By such remembrance we can avoid the pride coming from our abilities. Also our pride may come up when somebody disagrees with us. In a disagreement few possibilities are there (i) we are right and the other person is wrong, (ii) we are wrong and the other person is right, (iii) both of us have some right and some wrong. The egoistic response in all such situations would be to try to taunt or crush the other person. In such situation rather than thinking “this person is wrong and I am right”, we can focus on “how would Krsna want me to behave in this situation? My goal is not to prove that I am right, my goal is to please Krsna and develop my relationship with Him.” Such thought will protect us from responding egoistically. We can think that my relationship with other person is only temporary but my relationship with Krsna is eternal. If I let my response be determined only by the way this person is behaving, then I’ll lose the opportunity to develop my eternal relationship with Krsna.”
One example on how to choose a proper response when having disagreement. Consider a cloth shop with an employee showing clothes to the customers and there is an owner who is watching the employee from the counter. At times some customers may be very demanding to this employee. They may say, “I want to see this cloth, I want to see this sari, and that sari etc.” but in the end may not purchase any one of those. The employee can get irritated but the employee knows that, “my boss is watching and my salary does not come from this customer, but my boss pays the salary. Although this customer is irritable, but if I behave cordially, then my boss will be pleased and my boss’s pleasure is what is most important for me. I’ll try to please this customer as far as possible, but if I can’t, my boss will be pleased with my conduct and I will be secure.” Similarly, in situations of disagreement, the person with whom we are interacting, that person is like the customer, and Krsna is our boss, Krsna is right in our heart and He’s constantly observing what we do. If we are driven by the ego, our response will be determined by- “Just as this person is being irritable so I will show this person how wrong he or she is.” But if we are connected with Krsna then we will think- “What will please Krsna in this situation?” Not having the false ego does not mean we let other people trample us, that we let them do whatever they want. No. We have to do what is best for the service of Krsna. Sometimes we may have to speak strongly, assertively. However, that can also be done in a mood of humility, in a mood of service to Krsna.
Basically, in situations that make us irritated, proud, blast at others, shout at others, etc., we can try to come up with mature Krsna-conscious responses seeing these situations as opportunities for developing our true ego, and not for defeating or crushing our false ego. When we have that positive motivation then the process of bhakti becomes joyful. It doesn’t become a process of beating ourselves down, but raising ourselves up so that we can connect with Krsna. In this way, gradually, by keeping Krsna in the center, in the process of purification—although there is some level of pain when false ego is crushed, there is also a great level of joy as our true ego develops— we can get greater shelter and security which will last for us eternally.