March 31

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The function of ego

What ego is, how ego develops and what happens when ego gets in the way

The yogic word 'asmita' means “(the sense of) I-am”. It is the focusing or limiting of the vast expanse of consciousness into something narrower and more specific. It is the faculty of focus, compartmentalisation, and categorisation.

Yoga emphasises the idea that you must be adept at two things: directing your attention on one specific thing like a laser beam, and also allowing your attention to disperse into the great expanse of infinite abstract forms. Yoga provides training protocols that assist in this endeavour.

Additionally, yoga prescribes a path forward to an ultimate state of super-consciousness by developing these two modes of mind. Separately at the beginning, and then finally allowing them to merge into one new state of being that supersedes the previous paradigm of binary alternation.

What ego means to us

The main function of ego is to allow us to live our lives without sensory overload. It is the neurological and psychological function of our brains that receives and regulates the experience of reality, emotions and how they relate to one another. Ego uses its different processes to keep these experiences and functions separate and categorised. In this sense, the ego is necessary and extremely helpful – it helps us navigate the world in way that we can understand and enjoy.

Why ego is important: can ego be a good thing?

Without a limiter like this, we would perceive an overwhelming amount of content. It’s fairly well known that when we walk down the street, we are generally not perceiving a great deal of what is happening in front of us. There is an enormous amount of information to process including sight, sound, smell, taste, feel, information, people, animals, physical buildings, reactive emotions, conscious thoughts – the list is endless.

The conscious brain is not able to perceive and understand this vast amount of data simultaneously, and so the ego comes to our rescue and funnels it down into packages we can comprehend. Different people have different levels of capacity to process information, and so the ego is unique to the individual. As we walk down a street, the scenes in our mind are being filled in by memory and assumptions – we are never perceiving the totality of what is happening around us.

Why ego is a problem, what ego wants and what happens when ego takes over

It’s important to note that the ego as described above is very effective at what it does. It only has one function: to maintain boundaries between objects. I am me and you are you. If left unchecked, it will continue to limit, it will specialise and focus more and more. That is its job. It’s a tool that we use in order to have experiences with other people and objects. As a brief aside, it is worth pondering: who is it that uses the tool we are calling ego?

Ego is not a sentient creature – it has no personal motivations where its actions are concerned. It is biologically hard wired to want the best for us and help us survive. The downside to letting the ego takeover is that you never allow yourself to question your perceptions, the true state of reality or be curious about what your ego is filtering out. This can be how ego destroys you and why ego hurts. The sacrifice of intense focus is the loss of many other stimuli.

The neuroscience and biological function of ego

Modern neuroscience has identified two main modes of operation in the human brain, and these correspond to Indian notions of consciousness as well. The two modes identified are:

Task positive network

The Task-positive network is responsible for attention-demanding tasks that require specific focus.

Default mode network,

The default mode network is active when the mind is wandering, dreaming, accessing memory, or planning.

Rather than time-share or just flipping between the two modes of operation, the ultimate state is simultaneously task focused and completely abstract. It is a state of task-positive specific attention where, somewhat paradoxically, the target is the wide expanse of abstract forms. In other words, the ultimate goal is be able to be focussed on a task while still being aware of and making use of stimuli, thoughts, emotions and ideas that you would ordinarily deafen during your focussed state.

Rather than merely becoming expert at switching between dual states of focus and abstract thought, we want to build a mind that is beyond dualism altogether, with instant access to anything, no matter whether it is specific or abstract. This is called non-dual awareness.

Adam W. Hanley, Yoshio Nakamura and Eric L. Garland stated in their study on states of consciousness occurring within and beyond the context of meditation, “Ordinary human experience is structured by the duality of subject-object distinctions. However, multiple philosophical and mystical traditions (e.g., Advaita Vedanta, Mahamudra, Dzogchen, Kabbalah, Sufism, Gnosticism, etc.) point to the possibility that this dichotomy may be transcended in special states of non-dual awareness.”

Flow state and applying the concept of thought duality in modern lives

There’s a modern idea that bounces around called the flow state, and this refers to the same idea. When there is a source of abstract ideas, concepts, and intangible forms, co-existing with real-world task-positive and physical actions, it feels incredible. It is sometimes referred to as laya yoga, or absorption. Rather than occupying a polarised position, such as being an unproductive day-dreamer, or being fixated and mechanical, we can flow the best of both worlds together is a way that is unmistakably effective and exciting.

It might already be clear to you that in our culture at the moment there is a very strong bias in the direction of task-positive activity. We have become a productivity-centric society, where being able to complete tasks with great efficiency is lauded, while the wandering of the imagination is not.

The impacts of modern life on the ego

How do we correct this? It can be a challenge. The ego is by definition a one-trick pony. It runs in one direction to the exclusion of interfering ideas. Its duty is to narrow our focus, it is a boundary-maker, it will present sharp resistance to anything from outside the task-at-hand.

One extra complication is present. As stated, our culture has largely forgotten about the value of and need for abstract wandering through concepts and forms in a way that is devoid of specificity and attachment to goals. This has meant that the primary mentality in our collective awareness is task-oriented and narrow focus – our ego. We spend all our time with the ego and end up thinking that we are the ego. The ego is mistakenly associated with all of the good things we as individuals, and our species, has ever created. We find ourselves seeing it as the ascendant aspect of mind.

The filtering component of the brain that reduces the scope of attention, has been appointed king. The complementary function, the queen, has become devalued and invisible.

Ego never plays alone

Ego alone did not create all of these things, of course. Human endeavour is a product of varying degrees of abstract inspiration in partnership with task-positive activity. But specific and tangible things are easy to see and easy to study. Perhaps it was bound to happen this way, our physical senses are a reflection of limitation – we see only a small spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation and we hear a very small portion of the sound that is around us.

Perhaps some level of ignorance of the ineffable is unavoidable, at least for a while. Reality can often be too great and expansive to be communicated, experienced or described in words. While achieving duality of thought and control of the ego is an ambition to be pursued, we should not demonise the ego or forget that there are a myriad of other neurological, psychological, emotional and sensory processes at play that also contribute to the comprehensive You. Ego is but one function that we can get to know and achieve control over on our journey to a higher state of consciousness.

Over time, we have forgotten that something else is out there to be experienced, that there are directly perceptible causes of the effects that we perceive with the senses. We can remember again. We can learn to see more of the world around us and know ourselves better.

How ego affects us and what we need to do to stay in control

Once we become aware of the mental limitations and functions of the ego, most of us become curious about how to begin the process of gaining control and achieving non-dual thought. The steps in theory are simple:

  • Become aware of the two alternate modes of mental operation- task-positive networks and default mode networks
  • Become aware of the potential to blend them together in a super-conscious state
  • Learn the techniques and remember to apply them

The techniques are many and varied, and they can be summarised as a suite of tools that first disrupt the ego momentarily, and then actively cultivate rich abstract conceptual imaginative activity. Activity akin to building and vivifying a garden of aspiration, moods, excitement, forms, geometric analogy, proto-linguistic poetry, musical metaphor, memories, and interesting visual constructions. As strange as it sounds, this is the way to optimise your consciousness. The ego must see the rationality of this. It must agree, on rational terms, to release some of its stranglehold on our time so that it can enjoy a more diverse stream of incoming ideas. The ego is receptive to the idea that by loosing some control, it will gain a higher level.

The more the techniques are practiced, the greater the yield. Initially it may seem like starting an old car on a winter’s day, but soon enough there is an exciting acceleration. It may also be unpleasant, if the canvas of your mind has accumulated negative beliefs and habits, but these can be replaced easily enough with a little effort. When this process is honed, five minutes can be enough to elevate your mood and capacity for productive and joyous actions in the world.

Overcome distractions and maintain focus

Easy right? Almost. The tricky thing is to remember to apply the techniques. We often find ourselves inspired during a flow state, or a state of greater understanding and perspective at various times. Outside of yoga it happens all the time, experiences will break us out of the spell of mechanical living and we will have the sense of being lifted up into the state where we see how things make sense, and how we ought to proceed with this expanded awareness.

And then, later, it is gone. Our everyday situations have demanded our task-positive attention to the extent that we have forgotten the other side again. Back into the patterns and boundaries of the faculty of limitation. Society rewards us for operating efficiently within defined parameters, and it both subtly and bluntly dissuades us from breaching them.

How to stay with yourself

We can remember nonetheless, and this may mean going against the momentum of popular culture. We must be persistent and pragmatic. If we know that we will inevitably forget, we must adopt a strategy to reduce the time between occurrences of remembering. We must collect triggers in the form of affirmations, trinkets, and reminders. We must cultivate communities of people who are similarly keen. We must schedule time in our week for regular practice. It has to become an active and conscious pursuit – just like anything else we focus our attention on.

Unlearning the idea that you think and exist at a set pace

There is one more thing to note: our biology and the physical world features the notion of gradation. That is, the sun moves across the sky gradually, plants grow gradually, we train our muscles to become strong gradually, buckets of water fill gradually, and so forth.

The developing brain of the child is also familiar and comfortable with gradation – the child grows, learns and develops at a set pace and is limited in their thinking by this process until they have become fully formed. It is natural that many people may never deviate from this mode of thinking and expectation.

Adult brains have the potential to be different. Not only do brains function on electricity, which moves at a rate approaching the speed of light, but they are set up as an interconnected array with a single controller. Just like a computer, the brain can be flashed with information in one single operation. You don’t have to move gradually in the direction of one state of mind towards another. You might think you do, and you might have that experience due to the belief that everything happens gradually, such as - that good things must be earned, that habits are hard to break, and that your mood is dependent on factors outside of your control. But that is not how it has to work.

When a sudden thing happens in your life, be it a positive or negatively received shock or event -there is an instantaneous change to your whole state of mind. There is no gradual and slow movement towards feeling happy when you win the lottery. You feel happy instantly.

Why we cling to the concept of gradual change

The ego prefers the idea of gradation because it gives it a sense of control. Everything is in its place and movement occurs gradually according to tangible rules - but this is not how consciousness fundamentally works. There is a preponderance of anxiety in the world because as a culture we act as though the ego is in charge and makes everything work, but deep down we know it doesn’t. We intrinsically know that good ideas come from somewhere strange and non-linear. We know that if the ego were the truly in charge we would be in a lot of trouble.

The sooner we realise that abstract consciousness, that which is not limited by tasks and time-frames, is always there ready to divulge secrets and good ideas to us to run with, the sooner we can take a deep breath and let the ego assume its rightful place as a partner, not a ruler.

High CPU usage – How to rewire your brain for peak performance

You can instantly feel however you want, any time you want. You can flash your brain computer with any program desired. The main thing you need to be able to do this is simply to be told that you can! It is a prevalent assumption that everything takes time, and that good things come to those who wait. But it’s a belief, and we know plenty of people who have disproven that idea.

Just a little bit of practice is needed, consistently, to wrestle the bonds of the ego and make available new vistas. To cultivate a garden of positive visualisations, moods, and ideas. Make inroads to the basic understanding that relaxation and day-dreaming is a necessary investment and will facilitate realisation of what you want more effectively than trying to orchestrate every step in a mechanical fashion.

We need a balanced alternation between task-positive network and the default mode network. Most people who operate at a high mental capacity have either consciously or unconsciously learned to access more sensory inputs than those who allow their ego to direct attention, thoughts and feelings. In this case – more is more.

Who makes use of the ego as a tool?

At the start of this article I asked: who is it that uses the tool we are calling ego?

It is the over-arching You. The You that is represented by the word 'turiya' - the special state that supervises the ordinary states of acting, imagining, and sleeping. It is the origination of your personality, the awareness that is the most familiar thing to you. It is the feeling that you have always had, the feeling of Self that has always been there.

When you remember being a little kid, it is there, when you anticipate being an elderly person, it is there. When you are asleep it is there. It is the ever-present You and it is the source of all experience. You are That.


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