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The Kleshas in Detail: Asmita or Egoism

The Kleshas in Detail: Asmita or Egoism

We continue our exploration of the five kleshas – the obstacles to realizing our inherent peace – with a more detailed look at asmita or egoism. We’ll look at the various and perhaps unexpected forms egoism can take, how it distorts our worldview and causes distress, and the ways we can use awareness of asmita to reduce our tendency to fall into misunderstanding and the suffering it causes.

Ego: It’s Not (Necessarily) What You Think

The first thing it can be helpful to understand about asmita is that it differs from our traditional conception of egoism in a few important ways. When we think of ego, we generally think of conceit or holding a high opinion of oneself, but this is only a small part in the Yogic view.

Patanjali defines egoism as mistaking the transient aspects of ourselves – the physical, emotional, and mental – for the true self, which according to the Yogis is the unchanging, ever-peaceful observer behind those characteristics. Obviously, one form is when we focus on what we think highly of in ourselves – what we typically call egoism. But the Yogis realized thinking poorly of oneself – whether appearance, education, or talents – involves the exact same mistake. When we are either proud or ashamed, we start to think of the conditional and ever-changing parts of our lives as who we are and begin the generation of friction and pain inherent in an ego-based worldview.

A second major difference between the western view and the Yogic view has to do with our evaluation of ego as a whole. Here in the west we tend to either applaud it or vilify it – either seeing pride as good and even essential or as an evil to be avoided. From the Yogic perspective, both of these views represent avidya or misunderstanding – that is, to either place ego on a pedestal or to condemn it is to engage in an equal act of misapprehension, resulting in friction and unrest. By contrast, if we can see both the limitations and the function of ego, we can work with it – both in ourselves and others – and in turn bring both peace and productivity to our lives. To better understand how to do this, let’s take a closer look.

Egoism & Dualistic Thinking

As discussed in our previous article, Patanjali points out the subsequent kleshas, including egoism, can be seen as arising from misunderstanding and bringing the same consequences, namely friction and suffering. Essentially, when we start to think of ourselves in terms of the incomplete view provided by limited aspects of our being, we begin a process of alienation from both ourselves and the world. This alienation becomes more striking when we realize those partial elements are also transient.

To put it in more concrete form, when we think of ourselves in terms of a few aspects – for example, our occupation or our possessions – we begin to look at the world in dualistic terms. If I identify with my job, then I naturally start to divide the people around me into those who appreciate and support my work (who I think of as supporting “me”) and those who don’t (who I see as prospective enemies, or at least “problems” with which to deal). If I identify with my possessions, I see bad weather that damages my house or rust that threatens my car as potential affronts and, at worse, attacks on me on the behalf of the universe. In other words, both other people and life itself start to be seen as either “for” or “against” me.

Obviously, at best this creates a view of life filled with stress and struggle – even if we are lucky enough at the moment to feel the factors “for” us outweigh those against, we still must live in a constant effort to maintain this and a constant fear of losing it. Further, we must approach all people and situations from a state of wariness – an approach which breeds alienation rather than building connection. Ultimately, even those thoughts and acts intended to bring security must be ceaselessly approached from a place of doubt, fear, and anxiety over life….

Beyond Judgment: Ego, Individuality & Interdependence

In spite of all the negative consequences of ego in its unchecked form, it is again important to understand the Yogis by no means denounce or denigrate ego itself. In fact, quite the opposite: the Yogis realized ego, just like our bodies, is a natural part of who we are and can be a powerful tool for both growth and service. The key, again like the body, is to understand it in the proper light and work with it accordingly.

Like any aspect of nature, ego can be said to have both indirect and direct benefits – that is, aspects which serve us through the lessons they bring as well as those which contribute in positive ways to our growth. Since we’ve already discussed several of the “less pleasant” ways ego helps us to grow, let’s shift our focus at this point to the more positive ways our individuality can serve us.

At the heart of the positive role of ego is svadharma, or “self-nature.” As discussed in earlier articles, svadharma refers to our own specific character and temperament, which the Yogis considered an invaluable thing. It is our svadharma which gives us the gifts and talents that allow us to fill our specific role in society and the world – a role no one else can fill and which we can’t complete if we don’t honor who we are.

In contrast with asmita – again, a distorted view of ourselves which limits our interactions – svadharma allows us to fulfill our role while appreciating the distinct contributions of others. In other words, this aspect of ego leads to connection rather than alienation. Further, by embracing our gifts, we are able to both serve without attachment, and by accepting the gifts of those around us (including many we might judge or denigrate when coming from a place of ego), we are able to accept help without guilt. In short, through svadharma, we learn to transform ego from grounds for competition and fear into a means for connection and care.

Asmita the Remaining Obstacles….

Again, just as asmita can be seen to stem from misunderstanding (avidya), so egoism sets the foundation for our remaining obstacles. As noted before, the more fully we understand the evolution of these feelings, the easier it is to reverse them before they become entrenched. It also helps us build compassion for those who wrestle with different obstacles, as we can now see them as arising from the same grounds as our own. For that reason, let’s conclude by looking at the connection between asmita and our three final kleshas: attachment, aversion, and fear.

As we become more attached to a specific definition of ourselves, we naturally concretize our sense of things we “need” in order to be complete. Whether in terms of material objects or the ideals in which we believe, the more we think: “This is who I am…,” the more we naturally continue with: “…and this is what I need to be happy.” In this way, egoism naturally leads to the third klesha, ragas or attachment. Again, this can be coarse or subtle, but the results are the same: a dualistic view of life and the people around us based on preoccupation with whether our “needs” will be met or hindered.

In a similar fashion, as we lock into a rigid sense of self, we tend to be more defensive about or fearful of certain occurrences – situations or outcomes we wish to avoid. This leads us to our fourth obstacle, dvesha or aversion. Again, aversion can be material or ideological, but in both cases the results are the same – an increasingly dualistic view of world and a more stressful view of life.

Finally, through attachment and aversion, egoism naturally leads to our final klesha, abhinevesa or fear. Obviously, when we cling to a specific view of ourselves, we increasingly see life as a series of threats to that identity – whether circumstances that prevent us from achieving our “destiny” or people who don’t agree with our view. This in turn leads to fear. If we can use this fear as a guiding sign, it can help us trace our thoughts back to asmita and to consider if there’s a softer, more open way to think of who we are – a way that honors our character while allowing flexibility in how we view ourselves and the people around us. In Zen, this is called “Big Mind” and, in contrast with the small mind of ego, is considered the cornerstone of true compassion….