One of the most valuable realizations from my mindfulness studies has been about the voice in my head.
Everyone has this voice; our minds churn and chatter constantly.
But what I’ve learned is that the voice in my head isn’t me. It’s what author Eckhart Tolle calls ego.
Stacey Castor, Ph.D.—a life coach and educator who has years of experience as a psychologist—said when she works with clients, she often tries to get them to identify this voice.
"One of the tools is just to get people to recognize this incessant chatter in the brain," she said. "The second thing I get them to realize is how fickle that voice is. It will take any side of any argument. It can turn on a dime ... and it’s mostly very negative and attempts to create this me-against-them mentality."
Tolle discusses ego in his bestselling books "The Power of Now" and "A New Earth," and he isn’t talking about Sigmund Freud’s definition of the word, which many people probably remember from Psychology 101.
Tolle recognized his ego when he was on the verge of suicide.
He thought he just couldn’t live with himself anymore.
But then he thought: "If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the 'I' and the 'self' that 'I' cannot live with. Maybe, I thought, only one of them is real."
From a psychology standpoint, ego is a personality structure, Castor said.
But Tolle identifies ego as that fickle, pessimistic—and frankly totally insane—voice that we all have in our heads.
"I encourage people to start with places like when you’re driving in the car," Castor said. "What are your thoughts? Are you replaying old arguments? Are you replaying that driver who just cut you off 10 times so you can tell the story to the person when you arrive? Are you creating anxiety over something that hasn’t happened yet?"
Yes, yes and yes.
"What ego wants is drama," Castor said. "It wants to live in the past. It wants attention. It wants division … It takes everything personally. Its favorite thing to do is complain."
And it’s so omnipresent that it would be easy to go through life thinking that ego equals self. But I want to be my best self. I want to contribute positively to the world. And ego gets in the way of that.
So what is there to do?
This is where mindfulness/meditation comes in.
Step one: Recognize it.
As Castor said, start to notice your thoughts. It might be easiest when you’re alone in the car or lying in bed at night.
Even though I’ve started to try to recognize the voice, it still takes over easily.
For example, I frequent a business where I usually make small talk with the male cashier. This past Sunday, he asked me if I was cooking for Easter. And when I said I didn’t really like to cook, he made a comment about how I was a woman, so I might know something about cooking.
I immediately thought, "What a sexist, ignorant comment." And I got in the car and told my friend, "You won’t believe what this guy just said."
My friend said, "And you’re letting it bother you."
Even though my friend was essentially pointing out that my ego had taken control, I still didn’t recognize it initially. Instead, my reaction was somewhat defensive—another favorite egoic (a term used by Tolle) response.
"I’m not letting it bother me," I said. "I’m just talking about it."
That’s when I realized he was right. And what I was really saying by feeling so personally offended by that was: "He’s wrong and I’m right. He’s sexist and I’m not."
But that’s all ego.
That man was just making small talk and repeating what he grew up learning. My ego made me judge that and feel offended by it.
But all it did was take up five minutes of ranting time in the car. It didn’t change him. Instead, it took up my energy and spread negativity.
Castor said that with practice it gets easier and easier to recognize ego. I will have to keep practicing.
Step two: Take deep breaths.
That’s it. Take a deep breath or three, and focus your attention on your body and on the beautiful miracle of inhaling and exhaling. Really feel it and appreciate it.
"The moment you take a deep breath and get in the present moment, you distance yourself from ego," Castor said. "It really can't exist in the present moment, so the goal is to stay present."
Step three: Remind yourself you are not your thoughts (and that the ego is sneaky).
Castor said to tell yourself: "This is a voice in my head. It’s not me. I’m the quiet, centered, soulful place inside. [This voice] is programming. This is everything everybody has ever said to me."
Step four: Find reminders/inspirations/actions that work for you when your ego takes over.
One of Castor’s clients prints out memes and quotes to read as reminders. And Castor and I both find that reading reminders helps us, too.
Shortly after I read "A New Earth" for the first time, I carried it around with me. Just looking at the cover of it and thinking about its contents were enough to jerk me out of my egoic mind.
There are endless mindfulness/meditation practices that can also serve as reminders and ways to retrain your thought process.
Click here for some ideas on how meditation might help.
Some people may find distance from ego during prayer.
An old friend of mine told me a long time ago—before I would have recognized this as a potential mindfulness practice—that when he was stressed, he imagined himself sitting high above the earth and looking down.
It helped him step outside his own mind. It helped him put things in perspective.
It reminded him that most problems are relatively small, although the ego would have you believe they are huge.
What would happen if we freed our minds of egoic thoughts and replaced them with productive, positive ones?
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.