Lies your ego tells you:
1) When I have enough money and power I will have total security.
2) I’m not sharing with anyone. They can earn their way just like I did!
3) I don’t need anyone. Total independence is a virtue.
4) I may not be perfect, but I’m so much better than they are.
These lies are easy to believe. They protect us; keep us comfortable. When we live according to the desires of our ego we may feel contentment, but we will never experience the blessings and joy that is meant for us in this lifetime. “Much of what we see is an illusion painted negative by our ego,” Michael Berg explains. “If we are able to let go of our ego the true good can be seen.”
A story in the Zohar tells a tale of a man aboard a small ship. One day he notices a man drilling a hole in the floor of his cabin and immediately confronts him, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” Confused, the man looks up and replies, “This is my cabin. I can do whatever I want in it.” Deeply upset, the other man shouts, “You fool! A hole in your cabin will sink the whole ship!”
Our egos keep us wrapped in a kind of cocoon, oblivious to the world outside our own. They create separation by preventing us from seeing the pain or needs of others. When we begin to understand that there is more to this life than our own experiences, that we are all influenced by the actions of those around us, we can begin to break out of the prison of the ego. Unity is not feeling any division between ourselves and others—feeling their pain as if it were our own.
Unity is the key to growth—breaking down the invisible barriers the ego builds. Kabbalist Rav Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein, spoke of this in the 1700s, “In order for a group to be able to reveal great Light, it's important that no one individual views him- or herself as more important than anyone else. The smaller the ego, the greater the Light.”
Ego is responsible for sickness, chaos, war, hunger, and death. According to author Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, only through compassion can we eradicate the ego and foster unity. During his 2008 TEDSalon Talk, he states, “The sources of human problems have to do with egotism, I.” He goes on to say that when the boundaries of the ego dissolve, we become one with the universe, with every human being, and with the Creator.
This idea is not new. Kabbalists have been teaching the same lesson for centuries. Rav Brandwein explains that the word ekev means heel. A particular chapter in the bible is named such to remind us to diminish the self (as if crushed under foot) in order to nurture spiritual growth. He writes, “Only someone who merits greater and greater diminishment of his ego merits hearing the words of the Creator.”
Still, the battle of the Ego is continuous. As children, we approach people and experiences with innocent curiosity and openness. We interact with the world, having any number of experiences that can cause us to feel rejection, shame, or heartbreak. Without consciousness, negative experiences have the potential to feed the ego and create emotional callousness that can manifest any number of ways—prejudice, isolation, fear, or depression to name a few. Over time, these events can leave a mark, creating a metaphorical callous around our hearts, convincing us to hold back and be a bit more reserved when dealing with others, or isolate ourselves.
The biblical story of Ekev illustrates a pivotal moment in the physical journey of the Israelites. Moses stands before them as they are poised to cross the river and enter the Promised Land. Before they continue, he stresses the importance of releasing negativity as they complete their journey; “circumcise your hearts,” he says and don’t be “stiff-necked.” While roaming the desert for 40 years, the Israelites have picked up some emotional baggage. Slavery and a series of traumatic incidents have left the people of Israel with hardened hearts and stubbornness.
It is natural for oppression and struggle to leave an imprint on our souls. Painful experiences leave us feeling vulnerable—an opportune time for the ego—the Desire to Receive for the Self Alone—to creep in and take root. Moses understood this flaw in human nature. Before the Israelites can inhabit the Promised Land, they must be ready spiritually. Therefore, Moses urges them let go of their egos so they can connect to each other and as a result, connect to the Light. He tells the Israelites, “Do not say in your heart, ‘The Lord brought me to this land because of my righteousness,’” a warning against ego.
Desire to Receive for the Sake of Others breaks down the walls the ego erects and unites us. Through compassion we circumcise our hearts and learn what it truly means to share with others. As Imam Rauf reminds us, “Our objective and our mission must be to be sources of compassion, activators of compassion, actors of compassion, speakers of compassion and doers of compassion…Compassion on earth is given, it is in us. All we have to do is get our egos out of the way.”
Furthermore, we have a choice, as Michael Berg very simply states, “We have the power to choose our reality. Each moment, we can connect in varying degrees to Light and to Darkness, depending on our actions. To the degree our actions connect to God, we will experience Light and fulfillment. To the degree our actions connect to Darkness and ego, we will experience pain.” Let our actions bring us together. In the end, it’s unity through compassion that erases the ego.