Any meditator will tell you to be very cautious about putting the words “ego” and “mindfulness” in the same sentence, unless there’s a negation wedged between them! So it is with great caution that I proceed, acknowledging the spiritual contradiction of working to enhance ego strength while supporting and deepening a mindful spirit.
What does it mean to have “ego strength”? It’s a tricky idea, in my opinion, because of rampant narcissism. To have a “strong ego” may imply that somehow my needs are more important than yours. We see this in many ways, some ridiculous (think the recent Kardashian wedding), some mind-boggling (think of athlete’s salaries), and some tragic (think “Penn State football”). But having a strong ego in the narcissistic sense is really a rather weak way to live. The narcissist can only see his/her own situation, has little if any perspective taking skills, and cannot form a true and meaningful relationship. What a way to suffer.
Ego strength, on the other hand, refers to being resilient. The resilient person says “I can bend but I won’t break.” The brittle ego is rigid and snaps under pressure; the resilient ego is flexible and adjusts to the ebb and flow of demands. Resilience is a state (“I get it together again after a rough day”) and a trait (“I stay calm, cool, and collected even when things get really rough”). The resilient person bounces back with skill after losing equilibrium (i.e. goes easily from ego depletion to ego replenishment) AND, at times, does not lose equilibrium even in the face of great adversity (i.e. able to sustain ego strength).
Here’s a video from ABC news that makes a great case for meditation as a way to build ego-resilience:
I love the little boy in the video who says that his sister is screaming, mom is cussing, and he’s meditating! But what’s truly impressive is that with even a little practice, the meditative brain functions differently, in ways that strongly suggest that the mind comes to a state of comfort and ease more readily, even in difficult situations.
I hope this series on ego-depletion, ego-replenishment, and ego-resilience has been helpful. I’ve enjoyed going back and reading this literature again, and have taken away several “lessons learned” for myself. First, I’m going to run out of “mental” gas sometimes; accept it, it’s natural. Second, if I can recognize when I’ve run out of gas AND accept it, then I can mindfully decide to “cease and desist” in further activity, and give my mind the rest that it needs. And if resting in that moment isn’t possible, at least I can be mindful in guarding against a total meltdown that might offend or hurt someone I love. Third, I know the antidotes: rest, nutrition, and fun. Fourth, I have a great tool to build up that “mental muscle” so that ego-depletion is minimized. Any activity that allows me to practice self-regulation, no matter how trivial, builds up my strength. Finally, my meditation practice gives me the insight to be aware, accepting, and able to act to replenish and strengthen. And the more I meditate the more my brain is readied to be aware and accepting.
The spiritual paradox in this practice of mindful ego-strengthening is that with this resilience comes the realization that what I conceptualize as my “self” is very transient. There’s an abiding “sense of self” but the actual activity of a “self” comes and goes, and changes so easily. As I let go of clinging to this “self” I find something that lasts within, something that is hard to define, but is there through each moment. I don’t know what to call it. I suppose “sense of self” will have to do for now. Perhaps that “sense of self” is transient also; I don’t know. But there’s strength and peace in the realization that I don’t have to cling to an ego that demands that life conform to my perceived needs in this moment. This painful ego state has happened before and will happen again, but it’s not permanent. It has flowed; it will ebb. In that moment I can have clarity that my “sense of self” remains untouched; this painful ego state is not about “me,” whoever or whatever that is.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you’re able to experience deep gratitude this week and throughout the coming holiday season.