The simple way to keep your ego in check through observation

Like many tremendously powerful exercises, this one is deceptively simple. However, if I could only recommend one beginner’s exercise for self improvement and setting one on the spiritual path… Well, that would be impossible. But if I had a top ten then this exercise would be on it – perhaps even in the top five. It’s so simple that anyone can apply it into their lives straight away – the only conceivable difficulties are in remembering to apply it – in which case you may need to set some form of reminder for the first few days, if you’re prone to forgetfulness – and being tempted to doubt its effectiveness. If you fall into the latter camp, all I can suggest is to please try it diligently for a couple of days – that’s all the convincing you’ll need.

The exercise

As you go about your day, all you need to do is become aware every time you spot your ego reacting to a situation, and observe what is happening without judging it. When your ego worries in response to some seemingly bad news, observe it. When your ego judges someone else’s appearance, observe it. When the ego gets angry at someone else’s silly opinion and wants to tell them all the reasons they’re wrong, observe it. When your ego wants to take control of all your future goals and figure out exactly how to accomplish them, instead of trusting in the wisdom of infinite intelligence – observe it and surrender the problem to the universe.

Note that sometimes there may not appear to have been any trigger to cause the ego to flare up. You simply may have followed a random train of thought that led you into having a fully-blown argument in your head, or you may have unwillingly indulged in fear, or self-aggrandisement or whatever.

Here is a brief list of some of the observations you may make:

“My ego is worrying because it feels that it is unsafe.”

“My ego is trying to make itself special because it feels inadequate.”

“My ego is trying to convince someone else that they’re wrong and it’s right, in order to feel in control, because it feels like it does not have sufficient control over its own life.”

“My ego is judging someone else as ugly, in order to feel superior, because it feels unloved.”

Again, don’t judge the ego’s reaction, just observe what is happening – judging is one of the major functions of the ego, so if you allow yourself to judge your ego, you’ve actually allowed the ego to slip back into your mind through the back door. Devilish cunning sometimes, these egos!

If the above observations sound too judgemental to you, or if you’re not yet familiar enough with the ego’s motivations to know exactly what is happening, then just become aware that the ego is reacting, without going into any further detail. In any case, don’t even tell it to stop – you’ll find that most of the time, just by becoming aware that you’re engaged in an unproductive mental pattern, the thoughts will stop by themselves.

What effects can you expect?

The first effect you may notice is an acute awareness of just how much your ego tends to judge, criticise, argue, complain and worry. As you begin to detach from its shenanigans, you may feel some resentment – as though you were babysitting a troublesome child around the clock. Again, try not to react to it or judge it – simply observe. As you continue your nonjudgmental observation, you will become more and more aware of the pure existence – the “I AM”ness that exists beyond the ego. You will no longer identify so strongly with the ego, but will see it for what it is – an artificial construction of the mind that exists independently of our true infinite nature.

As you begin to progress in this habit of detaching from the ego and living in a state of awareness and being, you may also find that you’ll become more aware of your thoughts in general, and not waste mental energy giving attention to things you don’t wish to attract into your life. Naturally, this has tremendous benefits of its own – benefits that will become very quickly obvious if you’re able to keep your mental slate clean for a reasonable period of time – say, a week or two. Learning to let go of all fear and developing the habit of trusting in the providence of the universe will help to create a powerful, positive state of expectancy, which is much more in line with your ultimate happiness and success than the ego’s state of fear and limitation.

In addition, becoming more aware of your thoughts also enables you to live more deeply in the present moment, as becoming aware of our thoughts naturally tends to make us aware that much of what passes through our minds is simply needless mental chatter. The process for quietening the mind is very similar and closely linked to the ego observation process – when you become aware of thoughts that don’t serve you in any way, simply observe them without judging. The more aware you become of them, the more they will tend to stop.

Why does it work so effectively?

For the very simple reason that what we give our attention to grows. Although it may seem like this exercise is actually giving attention to the ego by taking note of its judgements, what we’re really doing is moving into the space of “being” – that place where there are no judgements; where criticisms and complaints are not required and the all-encompassing sufficiency of existence reigns supreme. By differentiating ourselves from that part of us that judges and complains – the ego – we’re stepping into our true selves, witnessing the ego and differentiating ourselves from it. And by doing this, we’re giving energy to our true state of being.

And again, we don’t want to judge our ego’s reaction, but the more we observe it ceaselessly complaining, judging, arguing and attempting to assert its superiority, the more we realise just how incompatible it is with that tranquil state of being. We realise the state of being is perfectly sufficient, and all that an unrestrained ego can do is add clamour and discord on top of it.

The amazing simple mindfulness hack that actually works

As well as being tremendously beneficial to our mental health, mindfulness is also one of the most powerful spiritual practices we can take up. In addition to improving mood and clarity of thought, mindfulness can also raise our vibration and lead to ego death and profound spiritual enlightenment. The classic book on the spiritual aspect of mindfulness is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. At the beginning of the book, Tolle describes his own experience of “waking up”, as though from a deep sleep, and finding that the world was vivid, exciting and deeply joyful – as though he was looking at everything for the first time.

The only trouble is, for many people it’s much easier in theory than in practice. Attempting to make this a habit can be quite a frustrating experience when we realise how full of thoughts our heads really are. Minimising multitasking and distractions and making a persistent effort to fully absorb ourselves in whatever activity we are engaged in is a first step towards cultivating the habit. But the modern world is full of distractions, and many of us find that our brains simply refuse to concentrate, no matter how hard we try. So here’s an incredibly simple technique that can get you started on this wonderful habit immediately, with minimal effort.

The technique

Before I get to the fun part, I need to discuss willingness, because nothing else will work without it. We need to be willing to put aside our endless stream of thoughts about the past and future when they arise. This is a big part of the battle, because being absorbed in our thoughts can be tremendously satisfying, in a way – why else would we do it? Making the commitment to switch our thoughts off even when we want to continue can be difficult at first, especially if we are prone to deep feelings of regret, remorse or sadness about the past. We need to have a conscious willingness to stop such trains of thought as they arise, or they will simply continue and we will quickly become absorbed in them. If we are absorbed in the past, we can simply choose to make peace with it and put it aside. On the other hand, if we are anxious or excited about the future we can make a decision to trust in a higher power and then put the thoughts aside until we can set aside an appropriate moment to make whatever plans we need to make. In other words, leave the past alone and let our thoughts about the future be limited to specific times when we are engaged in formal planning.

Unfortunately, nature abhors a vacuum and so when we attempt to silence the mind, most people find they can only manage a few moments before their thoughts return and they lose all sense of the present moment. The way to overcome this in the beginning is to use our thoughts to make us fully aware of the present, rather than trying to stop them altogether.

You can do this by describing everything that you’re seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling while you’re out and about. If you’re walking through a park you could simply say “green and red leaves, green grass with patches of yellow and a few fallen leaves. Birds tweeting, a gentle breeze on my face, the faint smell of pine.” You can freely repeat yourself, and describe in as little or as much detail as you like, provided you don’t get too absorbed in the details and lose your sense of presence. On the other hand, it’s good to pay a little extra attention compared to what you might normally, or you could find yourself mindlessly rattling off the names of things without truly absorbing yourself in their presence.

If you feel anxious that you might forget about something important that pops into your mind, you can carry around a reporter’s notebook to take down anything you feel is important. However, please don’t be tempted to use your phone for this purpose. An important part of the process of developing full awareness is weaning ourselves off distracting technology. You don’t have to throw your phone away, but don’t needlessly give yourself an extra reason to play with it.

You can also use this when you’re around the house, or engaged in any activity where your mind would normally wander. If you’re cooking, you can describe the kitchen bench, and the colour, texture and smell of whatever ingredients you’re chopping up. If you’re doing the washing, describe the feel of the fabric and the colours and patterns of your clothes. The more you remember to practise this technique, the more your mind will revert to it instead of wandering into endless streams of thoughts.

Remember, this is a stepping stone to full mindfulness. It’s the easiest way to unlearn the habit of letting your mind wander aimlessly through the past and into the future. The more you practice it, the more you’ll find yourself naturally tuning in to and observing the present moment, and the easier it will be to develop those periods of full awareness in between thoughts. Of course, the ultimate goal is to let go of the mental commentary altogether and simply be aware of your surroundings without the use of words. But you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to achieve this when you use this intermediary step. Everything in life works so much better when we go with the flow instead of fighting against it. So use the power of your mind as a tool to promote awareness, instead of creating resistance by ordering it to shut up.

Just 5 minutes a day to stop judging others – the simple exercise

Before I dive into my simple five minute technique to banish judgment from your mind, let’s take a brief moment to get clear on why you would want to do this. I assume most readers would consider this task to be self-evidently worthwhile, however it’s helpful to be specific about the benefits in order to foster motivation and persistence. It can be easy to fall away from a practice when you’re not clear on precisely why you’re doing it in the first place – so let’s get that straight right from the beginning! The three chief benefits of banishing judgment are:

1. It helps to develop intuitive abilities

Humans naturally have the ability to sense and perceive energy, in many of its different forms. We all have experience with this in one form or another, although for most people it manifests in subtle and unconscious ways, such as a vague sense of unease – a “gut feeling”; or a “hunch” that we should take a particular course of action.

Everyone is capable of taking these abilities to the next level and gaining a more profound, consciously intuitive understanding of the world. However, the first step to developing this is to work on silencing the ego mind, since the ego mind is inclined to judge and rationalise. When the ego-mind is in control, subtle energetic clues tend to get drowned out.

For example, if you’re attempting to intuitively discern how a person is feeling, the ego-mind will attempt to analyse external clues like facial expression and the tone of a person’s conversation. These often give useful clues, but they can also be highly misleading, as most people have learnt to “put on their best face” and hide their true feelings in order to peaceably get along in the world. If the ego-mind has already formed a firm judgment, for example “this person is smiling, therefore he must be happy”, then the ability to tune in and feel the other person’s energy is lost, or severely hampered.

But a person with finally tuned intuitive skills is able to see through this by simply picking up on the other person’s energy and directly feeling what they are feeling. By staying neutral and free from the ego’s judgments, the seasoned intuitive can tune in to anything – be it a business proposal, a potential relationship, a self-development course or whatever. The intuitive can then feel its energy and determine whether it resonates with them. This gives us a far more profound understanding than can ever be obtained by the ego-mind’s attempts to rationally muddle through all the details.

2. It helps to raise your vibration

Judgments are dense energy – they are low vibrational. This means it’s much harder to ascend to higher levels of consciousness when your mind is accustomed to constant judging of other people or circumstances. The judgmental ego-mind is always comparing others against some indeterminate, arbitrary standard and deciding whether or not the person measures up. To the non-judgmental person, all souls are satisfactory – including one’s own soul. The unkind or irrational behaviours of others do not perturb the soul who has transcended judgment, for he sees the beauty of the eternal formless behind the unkindness, and the machinations of another soul’s ego have no power to disrupt his peace as long as no judgment is made of them.

So many of us have heads full of judgment as we face the world. We’ve been indulging the peanut gallery between our ears for so long that it feels it needs to offer an opinion on everyone it meets. Thus we get subjected to a constant stream of comments like “Wow, he looks unfortunate”, “Gee, she really needs to go on a diet”, “That guy looks like he’s got a high opinion of himself”, “Boy, no idea what she was thinking with that outfit”, “That guy’s obviously rich, I bet he’s less honest than I am”, and so on.

But the soul that has transcended judgment can look anyone straight in the eyes and see nothing but another perfect, beautiful soul arising from the same eternal source as himself. The soul that has mastered this practice of non-judgment has raised their consciousness into the realm of 500+ on the Hawkins scale of consciousness, or “love and above”. Here there is no room for judgment of others, but only love for one’s self and all mankind.

Raising your vibration is the most tangible gauge of spiritual progress. So when we talk about raising your vibration, we’re really talking about the most important work we can do for ourselves on this planet.

3. It makes you less reactive

The ego-mind is forever seeking the path of comfort and least resistance, and so whenever circumstances arise to spoil this pipe-dream of comfort and ease, the ego judges them as unsatisfactory, and suffering arises as the result of this judgment.

A soul whose ego reigns supreme will see every inconvenience as an attack on its own comfort and react accordingly. Whether it’s missing the train, being held up in traffic – even for a few brief moments, machines that don’t work or having to queue to use an ATM, the reactive, judging mind sees it all as intolerable. Souls who repeatedly indulge this sense that all inconvenience is unacceptable usually end up developing a sense of persecution or even accursedness – which, of course, brings with it more inconvenience and bad luck.

By learning to avoid judgments of other people, we eventually learn to avoid judging circumstances as well. While the ego-mind resents a few extra moments of boredom waiting in traffic, the soul without judgment realises that this is an inevitable part of the human experience, and that it only becomes burdensome when the mind labels it as such. The unjudging soul trusts that he will arrive at his destination on time regardless of any disruptions – or if he does not, it does not matter. The people he is meeting will forgive him – and if they do not, it does not matter. The shop he is heading to will still be open – if it is not, it does not matter. All is well regardless of what external circumstances might appear to indicate.

By ceasing to judge external circumstances, we cease to react to them. By ceasing to react to them, they cease to have any control over us. The man who does not judge always gets what he wants, because he always wants what he gets. Not only is this shift in perspective massively profound in its own right, but a nonreactive soul also tends to attract more favourable circumstances due to its optimistic, nonplussed mindset.

The exercise

I’ll first share with you the original exercise, which is taken from Stuart Wilde’s book on intuition, then my own 21st century twist on it.

Stuart recommends finding a public place with a steady stream of pedestrian traffic through it – so perhaps a busy city street, a park, or a shopping centre. While being as subtle as you can, observe the faces of the people that come towards you. As you do this, your task is simply to take a good look at the faces of the people that pass, and have no opinion on them. As soon as you hear your mind begin to offer an opinion, you simply silence it. If you choose, you can thank your ego for its opinion but advise it that it is not required – or you can simply ignore it. Be careful not to become angry with yourself if a judgment pops into your head – simply remain calm, clear your mind of the thought and wait for the next person. Judging yourself for having a judgment is, of course, simply another form of judgment – and a sneaky way that the ego tries to creep back into your mind through the back door. The ego has no place in this exercise.

You can smile at the people coming by if you care to, but remember that the purpose of the exercise is to avoid all judgment – so even positive or neutral judgments should be avoided. Judging that a person is very old, for example, is not really a negative judgment per se, but it’s still the result of the ego feeling the need to “size up” everyone it comes across. Positive judgments need to be avoided also – judging that someone is beautiful is equally hampering to the exercise as judging that they are ugly.

Don’t be tempted to think that this exercise is too simple to be effective. All you’re really doing is establishing the habit of not reacting when you see a face. With a bit of practise this will spill over from the exercise into your daily life and become second nature. The only ways you can really go wrong with this exercise are to fail to pay proper attention to each person’s face, or to overthink matters. You do want to get a good, thorough look at the person (while maintaining subtlety of course – don’t go cutting eyeholes in a newspaper or anything), and flitting carelessly between one face and another will not establish the habit as strongly as if you pay full attention to each face. On the other hand, don’t be tempted to wonder if you’re doing it correctly or if there’s some special knack you haven’t quite grasped yet. We’re simply paying full attention to each person’s face and then not reacting to it – that’s it. If you’re doing that, you’re doing the exercise correctly. It will take some time and patience to become good at it, but you’re on the right track.

The 21st century update

Stuart Wilde recommends performing the above exercise for 20 – 30 minutes whenever convenient to do so. However, many of us would find it difficult to dedicate that kind of time to such a seemingly airy activity. My preferred variation is simply to dedicate 5 – 10 minutes a day looking through a stream of headshots on the internet. This can be done with any stream of photos, but it works best if there is a good cross-section of both genders, different races, different ages and different levels of physical attractiveness. As a man, I would not pick a stream full of exclusively attractive women, for example. Nor should you pick a stream where you’re likely to see any sort of scanty clothing – as that’s not the purpose of the exercise and it will only distract you.

A photorealistic image of a man
This person truly does not exist. I know, right?

I personally recommend This Person Does not Exist – it’s a stream of photorealistic computer-generated faces with a good cross section. And yes, they really are computer generated – although if I hadn’t told you, most of them could pass for real photos. The site’s actual purpose is simply to show off the technology – it’s not designed with this exercise in mind, but it works extremely well regardless. You have to be prepared to deal with some grotesque image errors, but by and large the results are amazing.

Dedicate just five minutes a day to flicking through the images and not reacting to them, and within a couple of weeks you’ll be amazed how the habit carries over into the real world. Just be careful not to do your practise in public, unless you want people to think you’re on a really weird version of Tinder.

A warrior only acts or responds; a fool reacts

It’s barely an exaggeration to say that I used to be one of the most reactive people in the world. I recall with partial amusement and partial horror an incident that occurred one Sunday morning while I was driving through a busy city road. A taxi had stopped in the middle of one of the lanes in order to wait for some passengers outside a hotel. I couldn’t change lanes because of the traffic, so I had no option but to wait – delaying my oh-so-important Sunday by – oh god knows, potentially a full thirty seconds. A minute even! Naturally this was unacceptable to my ego-mind, which decided it might be a constructive course of action to lean on the car horn and toot at the taxi in the hopes that it would forget about its passengers and move out of the way. Amazingly, it didn’t – so in order to save face, my ego continued leaning on the horn until it ran out of air, emitting a high-pitched squeal and then falling silent.

My entire life was one reaction after another – whether it was to late trains, irritating people, machinery not working, or even something as simple as brushing my hair against a low hanging tree branch and disrupting my hairstyle. Of course, my frustration and occasional tantrums served no purpose, and only created extra suffering for me. What I ought to have done was learn to practise complete surrender to everything that came my way.

When I began to incorporate this kind of surrender into my life, late trains became opportunities to focus on work for a few extra minutes, since being confined in a train station was a good opportunity to work without distraction or temptation to move around. Irritating people became potentially serendipitous encounters, which might lead to the forming of some important business or personal relationship, whether with the irritator himself or an acquaintance of his. Faulty machinery became an opportunity to reconsider my approach to a task, and determine if there was a better way to move forward – or perhaps whether I should abandon the task altogether. And even good ol’ brushes against tree branches? Well, lacking any obvious advantages, they simply became another good way to hone my surrender skills.

I’m not going to tell you that every single irritation that comes my way now has profound meaning. Sometimes an irritating person at the bus stop is simply that – they don’t always introduce me to multimillionaire uncles who want to go into partnership with me. Sometimes when my train is cancelled, I don’t meet my future wife on the next one. Sometimes when friends cancel plans at the last minute, I actually end up spending the night bored and alone instead of discovering the alchemical formula for turning ash into gold.

But there’s no doubt that synchronicities increase in proportion to the extent that we surrender and accept the things that come our way. And if there’s nothing to be gained from the inconvenience, sometimes the cancelled train will magically reinstate itself. The machinery will spontaneously unbreak itself. The irritating stranger will get called away by someone even more irritating than themselves.  Approach life with the assumption that all inconveniences are either “meant to be” or they will mysteriously dissolve, and watch how often your assumption comes true – it won’t always happen, but very often it will.

And on the purely natural level, it’s nice to not make a complete fool of yourself every time a taxi blocks your way.

 

N.B. The title of this post is a reference to Dan Millman’s classic spiritual novel, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.