Distinguishing the Ego from the Higher Mind

yoga meditation mind
Photo by Melissa Holyfield

How well do you know your own mind? Yoga traditions teach that mind has four parts or functions, but the part we know best—or think we know best—is ahamkara, the ego mind. One of the aims of yoga is to spend more time in buddhi, often referred to as higher mind. But how do we distinguish between the two?

As meditators can confirm, trying to grasp the mind is like trying to catch a slippery fish with your bare hands. As long as there is movement—i.e., thought, judgment, emotion—the ego is in play and higher mind is tantalizingly out of reach. We’re often told that we need to cut off the ego, like Ganesha’s head. Not only is this unlikely, it’s not fully advisable. A more practical approach is to learn to recognize the ego—come to know your own mind.

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Consider the Sanskrit roots of ahamkara: Aham means “self” and kara (from kri) means “doing” or “acting.” Thus, ahamkara/ego is the self that is doing or the personality associated with this individual body. We often find this personality trying to assert itself during meditation. Mindfulness meditation offers a helpful technique for developing perspective, by noticing mental fluctuations or patterns—i.e., planning, remembering, daydreaming—as we let them pass by without attachment. When we practice this form of detached observation we are in buddhi mind.

Outside of meditation, ahamkara/ego can fool us, and the danger is to define ourselves based on the ego identity, which is separate from the rest of the world. Personal boundaries are healthy … until they become walls that disconnect us from others. Under times of stress, threat or discomfort, ahamkara/ego can become sneaky and insistent about hardening the boundaries, hiding behind walls of outrage, insult or blame.

Since the ego regularly plays hide-and-seek, we can turn the tables and have a little fun at the ego’s expense. Try a pop personality test (the short quizzes that show up on Facebook or web portals like Yahoo! and MSN) like “Which Classic Cereal Are You?” or “What’s Your Quirky Spirit Animal?” You don’t have to take these seriously, but these quizzes do offer a snapshot of the ego, allowing you to see yourself with distance, objectivity or even humor. “Oh, yeah, busted!” you might say as you hit the Like button and share the results. (A toucan? Really?)

The objectivity and lightness we find taking pop personality quizzes is similar to the gentle discernment we seek in yoga practices—being able to say, that’s how I am, and yet, I am not that. The true you—higher self—doesn’t recognize separation. When you are coming from buddhi mind, the place of witnessing, you see that ahamkara/ego is only a pattern or series of habitual though processes. Armed with this awareness, you can more easily cut through the obstacles or illusions you encounter during meditation and other yoga practices … and in life. This is the lesson that the tale of Ganesha teaches.

Do you recognize a pattern of thoughts or resistance when you sit on a meditation cushion or take to your asana mat? Do you see parallels between these patterns and the ego’s off-the-mat behavior? In this mind game, keep your eyes on the what your buddhi mind already understands: ahamkara is the ego-you, not the true-you. The ego is just the details—not the person.

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The ultimate meaning of yoga is realizing oneness that is already there. When you feel uneasy in a situation, ask yourself if this is ahamkara being protective: Am I emphasizing my separateness? Or am I able to see all perspectives of this situation at once, from the perspective of buddhi mind?

Let’s play some more: If you were an asana, which would it be? And why?

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