Mastery over the Ego

By Desmond Yeoh SC


The above diagram depicts how we typically react to external events. We can illustrate this with a hypothetical case:- David had been waiting for a taxi for a while. When he eventually managed to flag down a taxi, a lady appeared out of nowhere and rushed into the taxi before him. This is an example of an external event or stimuli.

Trekking pathDavid could interpret the event in a number of ways, but the most likely thoughts that will arise are those that he frequently entertains. This is how habit forms. The more frequent a trekking path is used, the wider and more defined it becomes. If David thinks that the lady did not see him and was not aware that he was waiting for a taxi, the resulting emotions may not be strong. He may just feel a little disappointed that he has to wait for another taxi. However, if he sees the lady as rude and inconsiderate, and that she intentionally stole the taxi from him, he may become angry. The anger will reinforce the angry thoughts which in turn further fans the fire of his emotion. David may then react in a regrettable manner due to his explosive anger. All this can happen in mere seconds and is very difficult to control.

David really has very little control over his thoughts or interpretation of the external event. What he thinks may not reflect the truth of the situation, but to him, whatever he thinks is very real. His likely thoughts will depend on his conditioning or habitual tendencies. These spontaneous and automatic thought patterns arise from our past conditioning which may go as far back as when we were babies or toddlers.

When we first learn a new racquet sport, we will need to think about numerous factors such as our swing, the movements of our wrist and how we face our racquet when we hit the ball. After playing the game a number of times, all these factors become automatic. Our sub-conscious mind does the work for us. Our habitual thinking patterns work the same way. If we have the habitual tendency to get angry, we will interpret external events in way that drives us crazy. This is what the ego is. The ego is the conditioning and habitual tendencies that determine how we think, feel and react to external events. The ego is so strong that you often hear others say “I don’t know what got into me’” or “I just couldn’t help myself” or “I know how I think does not make sense but…” and so on.

ExclusionThe last box in the above diagram also represents our behaviour. A woman who was frequently excluded from a group of friends during her childhood, may develop a conditioning that she does not belong in any group. As an adult, she may avoid group gatherings or hang back in social gatherings. She unconsciously makes the effort to proof to herself that she does not belong.

A person who was deeply hurt in the past due to a betrayal may have a deep mistrust of the world and frequently think that others are out to cheat him even when they are really trying to help him. A person with such conditioning will always harbour doubt and will find it difficult to establish close relationships.

A child who lost a parent at a young age may have a fear of abandonment which may cause him to interpret even little acts by his partner as a sign that his partner intends to leave him. As such, he is easily angered by any act, however small, done by his partner which he sees as signs that his partner is about to leave him.

A child of very demanding and critical parents may grow up to be a perfectionist and workaholic. He will think of himself as a failure even when he is actually very successful. He is blind to his own success but sees every small set back is a clear proof that he is a failure.

Our ego is the sum total of our past conditioning. In a way, our past conditioning can also be seen as our Karma as they determine how we interpret and react to external events. So, to change our Karma and gain mastery over the ego, we need to be mindful of our past conditioning; which can be deciphered by observing our thoughts.  We want to be mindful of every thought that goes through our mind in order to understand the underlying conditioning that breeds those thoughts.

We can also try to figure out the past conditioning that binds us in chains by observing the types of external events that stimulate strong emotions within us. A perfectionist can become very deeply hurt by a small criticism even though ten other people just praised him. Every criticism will spoil his day. A person who observes that he has problem with criticisms should look into himself to see if he has the perfectionist conditioning.

Trying to make sense of our past conditioning is extremely difficult but once we can identify them, we can start to calmly analyse and eventually let go of them.  Just identifying and acknowledging the conditioning may be enough to loosen its hold on us.


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