Kryptonite for Ego

The other night after the Conscious Leadership: Business and Values gathering, Viral and I were discussing the ego. “The ego is like a bottle neck for wisdom,” remarked Viral. I would add love, compassion, presence, joy, kindness, gratitude, and enlightenment to the end of Viral’s statement.

Most of us have heard or believe that getting rid of our ego is an essential step towards awakening, service, bliss, and unconditional love. Yet, as Adyashanti says, “the ego is a shape shifter.” Like an air bubble in a Ziploc bag full of dishwashing liquid, the ego slips past any attempt to squash it, sometimes breaking into multiple smaller versions of itself.

What I have found most frustrating is that even when I see through the illusion of disconnectedness and try to serve selflessly, the ego sneaks on board and takes over the whole ship. Thanks to ServiceSpace, however, I have stumbled upon what might be called the kryptonite for the ego: humility.

The one thing the ego cannot tolerate is humility. The ego wants to be seen, acknowledged, and praised as someone special. When we are humble, we become invisible, don’t take credit, and pass praise onto others. Someone once told me that humility is not bowing down to others; it is recognizing that we are all at the same level. Huang Po’s saying comes to mind: “You are no greater for being a Buddha and no less for being a human being.”

Yet even with the best of intentions to be humble, I find myself falling back into the slippery bubble of egoic consciousness. One could argue that this blog post reeks of a sneaky ego. Luckily, the wisdom traditions have given us ways to mine the kryptonite of humility. Almost all religions teach compassion, gratitude, and sympathetic joy.

compassion quotation

Compassion places us at the same level of others who are suffering. As the Latin roots of the word reveal, we “suffer with” others when we are compassionate. Unlike pity and sympathy, compassion does not place us above others as more whole, healthy, or righteous. A compassionate heart sees the divinity in all sentient beings, especially those who are suffering. Mother Teresa said, “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus. I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene. I must wash him and tend to him.”

Gratitude keeps us humble because it passes credit and praise onto others. When we thank others or God, we see and feel the interconnectedness of all life. The ego hates interconnectedness because nothing is better than anything else if we are all connected. Being grateful also centers us in the present moment. The feeling of gratitude can only exist in the present. To even say, “I will thank you tomorrow” doesn’t sit well in the heart. Or to remind someone that you already thanked them in the past doesn’t feel like gratitude. The ego is allergic to the present moment, so the more grateful we are, the less we tend to fall into egoic consciousness.

Finally, sympathetic joy, like compassion, levels the playing field and invites humility to play. Envy, on the other hand, builds a walled fortress where the ego can thrive. I learned this lesson the hard way in my spiritual practice. Whenever someone would talk about being awakened or enlightened, I would immediately look up to them or look down upon them. It wasn’t until I was able to feel sympathetic joy for all beings in their path towards awakening that I was able to sit in a meditation hall with humility. I think this is what the Buddha was trying to express when he said, “How marvelous! I and all sentient beings have simultaneously realized enlightenment.”

Of course, I’ve made this far more complicated than it needs to be. Everything can be summed up in the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (I like to add, “because they are you.”).

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