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.
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.