The Fourth Sutra: Identifying With Ego

How do you see yourself? Are you a human being having a spiritual experience … or pure spirit playing at being human? One way to regard the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali’s 2,000-year-old compilation of aphorisms about yoga, is as a travel guide for the yogic journey. In Sutras 1:2 and 1:3, Patanjali tells us that the essence and purpose of yoga is to calm the turbulence of the mind so that we can see our true nature. Sutra 1:4, Vritti svarupyam itaratra, reminds us that when the mind isn’t still, we are identifying with the mind waves or ego. 

True nature, explains Swami Jnaneshvara in his commentary on Sutra 1:4, is like molten gold. As soon this pure, formless substance comes into contact with a thought or impression, it takes on that shape. Though it may look like a particular ornament, it is still gold. Ego is the unique shape that each of us has crafted over the years.

While most of us have been conditioned to view ego as being prideful or puffed up, ego is neutral according to yoga. Ego is simply a sense of “self” or personality, the thoughts and reactions of a mind shaped by experiences, preferences, habits, and fantasies. As humans, we share this phenomenon, and yet, ironically, ego-identification creates boundaries that keep us separate from each other as well as from recognizing the pure gold of our own true nature.

Habits and patterns have become so deeply etched that we can no longer determine where they originated—a particular event, family dynamics, peer pressure, cultural mores, media bias, etc. Over time, we equate this ego-self with our very existence, a case of mistaken identity that even Sherlock Holmes would have a hard time untangling. When the ego identity is threatened, we react unconsciously to protect it, creating more separation as a result.

So how do we banish ego? The answer is, we don’t. As the saying goes, “It takes one to know one.” We need the ego to get beyond the ego, to undertake the mental training that Patanjali outlines in the sutras. As we learn to recognize the mental patterns and defenses that Patanjali describes, we become more comfortable in the role of seer or witness. We gain perspective that allows us to detach from the ego self, to step back from thoughts and habits that hinder us. We might even learn to laugh at the ego’s wily ways.

We can do this on the mat too. Ego is not just the aspect of self that feels smug over a “perfect” Headstand or Downward-Facing Dog. Ego is also the aspect that fears falling out of Headstand, and the part that yearns to stretch deeply because it feels good. Ego is the part that measures other students’ Headstands or compares today’s Down Dog with yesterday’s, when the hamstrings seemed more elastic. Ego is the part checking the clock, thinking about the next asana, the last one, or anything at all.

In true nature, however, all internal chatter ceases. The experience may last only an instant but seems boundless and whole. The moment you judge it or hope to recapture it, ego returns. You are having a spiritual experience … and a human one. So is the student with the perfect Headstand, and the one sobbing softly in Savasana. However space may separate us, spirit unites.

How has ego-mind helped and hindered your yogic journey?

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