"We could perceive the absence of ego at a single glance. But we would not accept such a simple truth. In other words, we have to learn in order to unlearn. The whole process if that of undoing the ego."
-Chogyam Trungpa, from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
Ego asserts itself in subtle and various ways. Ego is persistent and cunning. One must always be wary of ego asserting itself. Ego, once it has fulfilled its basic function of providing a secure foundation on which one bases one's confidence, should be negated. This negation of ego requires vigilant awareness and tenacious training. Because ego, left to its own devices, will assert itself, over and over again. Without proper moral education, an individual is at the mercy of his or her ego. Ego is clever and powerful. Ego is the root of distasteful behavior, and of course, the root of much, much worse. Utter altruism, Christ-like sacrifice of self, Buddha-like cosmic consciousness — in a word, egolessness — is the goal.
Yet, one would be wrong to say, "Oh, yes, I have no ego" or "I am always egoless" because the self-asserting nature of ego is a part of human nature. Of course, one can train, one can practice the negation of the over-assertion of ego, one can doggedly avoid instances of the ego's over-assertion. Nevertheless, the assertion of ego itself is natural. The ego is this very tendency of the self to assert itself. The ego is that which asserts itself for the purposes of survival and dominance. The ego desires superiority.
Let us look at an example. A man and his attractive date walk into a crowded party. At this moment, the man's ego wants to demonstrate its position among the other egos in the room. The ego itself wants to demonstrate some form of superiority. This instinct, if unchecked, may lead the man to approach the host of the party in order to say hello. But perhaps the man is not even friends with the host, perhaps the man, in fact, has no real relationship with the host at all, and moreover, no genuine need to approach the host at that given moment. Let us assume the host is engaged in conversation with another guest, and in essence, the man intrudes upon this conversation, again, so that he, the man, might demonstrate his importance amongst the group. Generally the result is a form of awkwardness, a sense of something forced, the sense of something not quite right. This is the overreaching ego. One need not engage with another person without purpose. For example, if the man had brought a bottle of wine and simply desired to deliver this bottle of wine to the host, this necessity would provide a more natural occasion for their greeting one another. But, here too, the ego could very well have asserted itself. One must observe very carefully. What was the man's intention when he purchased the bottle of wine? There are only two options: a. Generosity. He said to himself, "I will bring my host a bottle of wine to show my gratitude." or b. Ego-assertion. He said to himself at the moment of purchase, "I will bring wine and this will make me look good and this will give me occasion to approach my much esteemed host in order to present him with a gift." (Or c. A mixture of a and b, a scenario that is little better that b itself.) Our task is vigilance. We must observe our motivations and intentions with the utmost scrutiny. In any act at all, one can look and see if the ego is over-asserting itself, or, if in fact, said act is rooted in a positive intention, such as generosity. Each and every human gesture is subject to this crucial examination.
Even as I write, I am ever wary of ego asserting itself. "Have I written this sentence to sound smart, to show off, to impress someone so that they think more of me?" or "Have I written this sentence with the express purpose of simply sharing my thought, with the goal (if ever so slim) of successful self-expression which may lead to some form of edification or enlightenment (or perhaps merely simple pleasure) in my reader?" Every sentence, every spoken word, every human gesture ultimately bends in the precarious winds of our original intentions. One way or another, a gesture has its root. (Often, sadly, a kind of mindless ignorance.) No gesture is free from such ruthless scrutiny. Tenacious watchfulness is our duty.
These examples, the man at the party, or the writer at his writing desk, are merely two examples culled from the whole spectrum of human gestures, the plethora of human activities. We would do well to observe our intentions in every moment, particularly, in more serious situations, when of course, such self-awareness grows increasingly difficult. I am thinking of situations involving sex and money. Ego can assert itself in the final moment of seduction, after a series of beautiful, mutually-pursued kisses, ego can rear its ugly, monstrous head, and turn something wonderful into a crime. Ego can also assert itself in even the most philanthropic of moments. One must ask oneself the question: Why am I handing this homeless man a dollar? Why am I donating ten thousand dollars to this foundation? Why is this money passing from one hand to another? We would do well to know the answers to these questions.
Ego is a sophisticated enemy. It has grown stronger and more clever over the thousands of years of its evolution. But the inner light, the personal conscience, the moral compass within, is stronger and more clever yet — so long as it stays awake.