When you hear the word "ego," does it make you shudder? We blame it for selfishness, haughtiness, false pride and according to Oprah Winfrey's first "Lifeclass," even for identifying too much with our thoughts. The former queen of daytime recently urged millions of viewers to find the "space beyond thoughts" where we don't overly identify with appearance, job, self-image, or how others might see us, but instead with a deeper level: a quiet self-knowingness free of ego constraints.
Whether we're in need of an ego boost or ego break, most of us would gladly welcome a higher state of consciousness, less burdened by attachment and insecurity. Some people try to restrain the ego in an effort to become detached or non-judgmental. However, there's another approach to developing a healthy ego, easier than struggling to modify attitude or behavior.
Transcendence, ego and the brain
In university research labs across the country, neuroscientists are discovering correlations between different meditative states and brain patterns. For example, among people practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique, brain researchers consistently see high amplitude alpha coherence, especially in the prefrontal cortex (seat of executive functions).1
This increased brain integration correlates to the experience of pure awareness, where ego confinements are transcended. Meditators report that during a meditation practice, as attention settles inward -- beyond worries, thoughts, and mental fluctuations -- awareness expands and boundaries of time and space fall away. The meditator is at peace with herself and her universe, experiencing her true identity. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi called this "cosmic ego."
Maharishi explained that there are layers to the mind: Thinking takes place on the mind's active, surface level, and subtler than thinking is feeling. Deeper than feeling is myness or individual ego. Deeper than myness is amness or "I am" -- the cosmic ego.
I first shook hands with the cosmic ego when, as a teenager, I began experiencing transcendence. Not by thinking about it, watching for it or believing in it, but through the natural course of effortless meditation. Like a river merging with the ocean, transcending happens spontaneously during TM practice. I soon found that my friends who had learned this meditation were having experiences very similar to mine.
I went from a shy, introverted bookworm to a more well-rounded, socially comfortable young adult. My newfound self-esteem was based not on what high school clique I belonged to, but on this deeper connection with my true self and the freedom it brings.
How to liberate the ego
Almost everyone has had a glimpse of ego liberation, perhaps after a humbling incident or when awestruck. During such moments, the bigger picture might flash into view and we see our self part of the woof and weave of the universe -- more fully present, more appreciative of others -- our perception more acute.
Yet, all too often, no sooner are we set free than we find ourselves ensnared or overshadowed again -- by flattery from an admirer, a big credit-card bill, or the return of an old craving.
Venerated sages past and present have explained that we become bound when our individual ego is disconnected from its transcendent source. We then identify with the surface, changing aspects of life -- as if our true, unbounded nature is lost or veiled.
This is why wise council throughout the ages has advised: Know thyself. Deep within us there is something momentous to be discovered, something that completes us, something not available when attention is localized on the surface.
Transcending during meditation, the conscious mind spontaneously identifies with deeper, more expansive states of consciousness, until we're left experiencing our true, cosmic self. Awareness becomes non-localized, unbounded. Home at last, individual ego is not obliterated, but elevated, its incessant cravings fulfilled. This is ego at its healthiest. Here, beyond ego-tripping and ego bashing, one's ego resides in its most dynamic, vibrant state.
Total self/total brain
Twice daily transcending changes how the brain functions and thereby supports stronger self-identity in meditators. Brain researcher and professor of Vedic science at the Maharishi University of Management Dr. Fred Travis said:
We've found that during TM practice, the brain becomes more integrated, all its different parts communicating better, working together better as a whole. We call it 'total brain functioning.' The person's whole sense of self -- who they are, where they're thinking from, where they're appreciating the world from -- becomes deeper, fuller, more expanded.
This wholeness of self becomes increasingly stabilized in daily life as brain wave coherence carries over outside of meditation. As coherence grows, studies show, meditators perform better on tests for IQ, creativity, and moral reasoning; there is decreased neuroticism and heightened self-actualization.
Healing the bruised ego
We know the ego can be tender. A word misspoken or lack of recognition from others can hurt, if we're vulnerable. Transcending daily in meditation, one becomes bigger than that. And transcendence is powerfully healing: the physiological rest dissolves deep-seated stresses, even the residue of trauma. The most ego-challenging or stressful situations eventually lose their ability to shatter a meditator's composure.
This expanded state of self is not selfish. When we are secure within ourselves, we are less obsessed with our own needs and more sensitive to others. Ego liberation begets forgiveness and compassion.
Old-school psychologists may startle to hear that the human psyche is fundamentally cosmic -- a word defined as "immeasurably extended in space and time." Yet the global surge of interest in meditation is opening collective awareness to a different experience and understanding of what it means to be human. Deep within our ego lies a field of pure wakefulness, pure potentiality. Experiencing that expansiveness redefines one's sense of self and other.
While spiritual teacher, therapist or life coach may offer help and hope, no one can liberate your ego for you. A gentle, effortless technique of transcending is one way you can do it for yourself.
VIDEO: Dr. Fred Travis speaks on transcending, wholeness of self and brain function
1. Cognitive Processing, 11:1, 2010
2. Intelligence, 29: 419-440, 2001; International Journal of Neuroscience, 13: 211-217, 1981; 15: 151-157, 1981; Personality and Individual Differences, 12: 1105-1116, 1991; Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, (6) 189-247, 1991