Our ego is one of the most intimidating and inscrutable realities we face in our lives. Countless philosophers, spiritualists, seekers, and armchair prognosticators have tried to define its parameters and its meaning to our existence. We even have wonderful teachers-like my friends at Gita Sutras-attempting to actualize and excavate the nature of our ego for our most positive spiritual benefit.
Some would also rather do away with the whole idea of the ego altogether, but according to the teachings of the bhakti-yoga tradition, that is not possible. The Bhagavad-gita and countless other wisdom teachings of the bhakti tradition teach us that we are eternally individual spirit souls, currently going through a materialistic bodily experience. We always have an ego, or existence as a unique, individual being, but what we have to watch out for is our “false ego.”
One of my teachers has explained the concept like this: We have two dogs in our heart. One is our actual ego, our reality as spirit soul, and one is the false ego, or our false identification with our temporary material body. Both dogs are barking to get our attention, and whichever one we pay attention to the most, or feed the most, becomes dominant in our consciousness. Or, as the Cherokee proverb says:
There is a battle of two wolves inside us all.
One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority, and ego.
The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.
The wolf that wins? The one you feed.
Our false ego disguises itself as our best friend, when it is actually our greatest adversary in our spiritual journey. It is the voice in our consciousness which makes us think we must be the center of the universe, the repose of all prestige, and when we don't get these accolades we react with all the violence of our envious, prideful, and greedy outbursts, ruining our relationships, communities, and hopes in our own search for the Divine.
At its essence, the false ego creates for us suffering, and according to the wisdom of the bhakti tradition, that is completely antithetical to our natural sense of being. As spirit souls, our substance is made of eternality (sat), knowledge (cit), and bliss (ananda), which is also the very same substance as God. Perhaps the greatest form of ananda we can experience is our direct loving relationship with God through His grace and mercy. How we gain access to this is defined by our practical understanding of our own ego-nature.
As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita:
If you become conscious of Me, you will pass over all the obstacles of conditioned life by My grace. If, however, you do not work in such consciousness but act through false ego, not hearing Me, you will be lost.
Vedic scholar Bhurijana Dasa also explains the concept of the false ego very clearly in Surrender Unto Me, his commentary on the Gita:
The false ego...which is like a reflection of our true consciousness within matter, is the covering over the soul first supplied by material nature and is the juncture between our spiritual identity and our material existence. Any ego-identity in which we imagine ourselves the central figure is acceptable to our perverse consciousness.
Thus the soul, constitutionally Krsna's eternal servant-full of bliss, knowledge, and eternity-becomes attracted to the material atmosphere and conditioned by it. He is then strictly controlled by the modes of material nature and experiences the self as if it were made of temporary matter.
The juncture between our false ego and real ego is the juncture between how selfish and selfless we are in our everyday lives, both materially and spiritually. One way to see this is in relation to how we react to people's suffering. When someone suffers, do we feed the dog of our false ego by taking pleasure at their suffering, especially if it is relation to some competitive aspect of our lives, like our career, or do we feed the dog of our true ego by taking their suffering into our own heart, and feeling it as if we were the one suffering. Do we respond with compassion or contempt? Do we step on them further or do we do what we humbly can to uplift them?
Gaining access to our real sense of ego means doing all we can to develop our selfless spiritual character. This is actually our natural self, yet to be selfless in this dog-eat-dog world seems so unnatural, because we choose to absorb ourselves in the schemes of our false ego. This is why spiritual life is such a serious endeavor. We must have an everyday practice, whether it is the chanting of God's names, reading of holy scriptures, and service to our community and the less-fortunate, to help us excavate what is most dear and intimate to us, our real spiritual self.