The ego-consciousness controls our viewpoint, how we respond to events and circumstances, and our relations with others. This is such an inherent and automatic framework of action, that we many times do not even notice or appreciate that it is there. When egoism becomes extreme, we can ‘see’ it, but when it hides under forms of selflessness, altruism, philanthropy or self-giving, we tend to believe that we have overcome the ego. Yet the ego remains in all these forms and until we appreciate that and address that fact, we remain locked within the framework of the ego. And until we shift outside that frame, we cannot truly observe, and control the action of the ego-consciousness.
There is a way of seeing known as ‘ubuntu’ which stems from Africa. It recognises that ‘I am because we are’, a basic recognition of the oneness of all of us, without separation of ego. We can appreciate, if we reflect deeply, that none of us is independent of the rest of the creation. Without the sun, life on earth would not exist. Without plants and trees, which are symbiotic with us, as they create the oxygen we breathe, and we create the carbon dioxide which they breathe, we could not live. We are born through the union of two people and we live in a social setting depending for everything in our lives on the actions of others, just as they depend on us.
In the West there is a feeling that an individual is free and independent and there is the myth of the ‘self-made man’. If we examine closely, however, we see that this is an assertion of the ego that has no basis in fact. We exist within the society, utilize the infrastructure of the society and are socialized into the patterns of that society.
For the practitioner of yoga who seeks to shift the standpoint outside the ego-framework to the divine standpoint, it is an important requirement to recognise the all-pervading existence and influence of the ego consciousness and to work assiduously to shift the perception to one that appreciates that the ego is an artificial construct, that the self-awareness of this nexus of individuality is part of the machinery of Nature, and that a truer viewpoint about our existence can only come about when we rise beyond the individuality of the ego-personality.
Just as we believed that the sun rotated around the earth, we believe the world moves around our needs, wants, desires and powers of action. Eventually, we are able to shift our intellectual understanding to the concept that in fact, the earth is not the center of the universe. The recognition comes, however, with real experience. When astronauts first observed the earth from outer space, they escaped the framework of the earth-centric viewpoint for the first time and their reactions were indicative of the start of a new frame of realisation. Similarly, we will go through stages of development until eventually we have shifted to the standpoint that lies outside the ego, and we look back at the individual life as a very small point of reference in an enormous living creation.
Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is so with everybody. Human nature is shot through in all its stuff with the thread of the ego; even when one tries to get away from it, it is in front or could be behind all the thoughts and actions like a shadow. To see that is the first step, to discern the falsity and absurdity of the ego-movements is the second, to discourage and refuse it at each step is the third, — but it goes entirely only when one sees, experiences and lives the One in everything and equally everywhere.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, The Ego, pp. 286-289