How to Transcend Your Ego by Way of Meditation

If you’re not careful, you can grow a big ego.

As I surfed the web the other day on my favorite topics like yoga and meditation, I was surprised to see a study claiming the following:

“Yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement”

This was in contradiction to all that I’ve learned about meditation. Naturally, I was intrigued.

But before diving into the nitty-gritty of the study itself, let’s take a quick breather to remind ourselves of the basics of meditation.

According to the principles of Yoga and others like Buddhism, the lower self or the ego is an illusion.

Rather, what exists is the higher Self that is identified with material objects and gives rise to the ego.

As the famous master, Paramahansa Yogananda said, “the ego is a soul attached to the body.”

Yoga and mindfulness practices thus have a central aim — to transcend this ego and realize your oneness with all creation. They encourage practitioners to renounce their personal desires and distance themselves from self-centeredness.

In fact, they urge them to move towards Self-centeredness (with a capital ‘S’ mind you).

By regular meditation and other spiritual practices, one realizes that his sense of self is far too limited. As soon as a realization of an inner world dawns upon a person, he starts to question the nature of his own ego.

This is how he gradually unlocks himself from the shackles of the ego and begin to transcend it.

So what have modern psychologists behind the study found that contradicts this? Let’s find out.

Self-Enhancement Through Meditation

In the paper published online by the University of Southampton, researchers note that the meditation teachings of transcending the ego contradict the findings of William James.

James posits that practicing any skill breeds a sense of self-enhancement. To put it simply, if you learn to play the guitar, and play it well, you feel good. But the reason you feel good is your sense of self-regard inflates.

In other words, your ego expands — “Wow, I’m such a good guitar player!”

Meditation, he argues, is like any other skill. Thus, getting good at it would inflate your ego to think you’re better than other meditators or those who don’t meditate.

A team of researchers from the University of Mannheim in Germany decided to test this assumption.

They took 93 yoga students and evaluated their sense of self-regard over a period of 15 weeks. Here are the measures they used:

  • They assessed participants’ level of self-regard by asking them how they compared to other students in their class.

  • They had them complete an inventory to assess narcissistic tendencies. It asked them to rate how deeply phrases like “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done” applied to them

  • Finally, they kept an eye on a self-esteem scale by asking participants if they agreed with statements like “At the moment, I have high-self esteem”

When students were evaluated using the above measures within an hour of their yoga class, they showed significantly higher levels of self-enhancement.

Next, they recruited 162 meditators from Facebook groups and found similar results. These people were asked to rate themselves on statements like “In comparison to the average participant, I am free from bias.”

Again they found self-enhancement levels higher in the hour after meditation than at other times.

Researchers also evaluated participants’ well-being using two measures, the satisfaction with life scale and the eudemonic well-being measure, which evaluates satisfaction with autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.

They found that well-being increased along with self-enhancement, suggesting that self-enhancement is linked with the increased sense of well-being that many get from meditation.

Okay fine. So does that mean yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices are not fulfilling their promise?

Not at all!

Spiritual Materialism

The purpose of the spiritual path, as I said above, is to transcend the ego. The problem is, we operate in the world with our ego itself.

Do you see the irony?

We have to transcend ego while still working within its bounds. No wonder spiritual enlightenment doesn’t come by easily.

This problem is best explained by the concept of Spiritual Materialism. It was first coined by the famous author and Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

The main premise of the book is that the ego likes to use the spiritual path for its own ends. Not realizing this, spiritual seekers can fall off their path of enlightenment.

He writes, “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use…even spirituality.”

This means that even the most devoted amongst us can fall into the traps of the ego.

One such trap is Spiritual Narcissism which the above study aptly refers to.

Spiritual narcissism is a broad category of mistakes people make.

For instance, carrying out spiritual practices with the motive of self-aggrandization and boosting the ego.

At the end of the day, what decides is an activity that lies under the purview of spiritual narcissism is our motivation behind the action. Meditating for long hours is good but if you do the same to show others you’re better than them, then it has the opposite effect.

Keeping your body in a good condition to continue your spiritual practices is good. But if the same fitness turns into a sense of achievement and superiority, it fuels the ego.

Even the purest acts of love like serving food to the homeless or donating money can turn into narcissistic behaviors if done to build your self-image as a philanthropist.

At the end of the day, an honest reflection on your motivations behind the action is enough to find out if you’re falling into spiritual materialism.

The Right Explanation

Let’s come back to the study now.

The reason these studies were able to find results that indicated higher self-enhancement is simple — the participants were practicing the teachings in a wrong manner.

Think about it. So few people around the world are actually interested in transcending the ego. They take up meditation to improve focus, or release stress. They take on yoga to reduce body fat or increase flexibility.

Most practitioners fail to inculcate the selfless aspect of the teachings in their lives. Naturally, they feel they’re better meditators than others or better yogis than their classmates.

It’s just a form of spiritual materialism that we all can fall into. This doesn’t mean that the teachings and principles of yoga-philosophy don’t work.

It means, we’re not doing them correctly.

The notion that yoga can feed rather than diminish the ego won’t be surprising to those who’ve met holier-than-thou yoga devotees clad in designer athleisure.

We all know people who roam around wearing beads around their neck, posting photos of their Vipassana retreat on Instagram.

These behaviors, as we saw, are just a temporary high. Their joy is fleeting and will always keep you looking for the next drug.

Awareness and introspection is the key.

So the takeaway is this — the study doesn’t invalidate the principles of meditation, religion, or spirituality.

What it does is serve as a wake-up call to all of us to introspect and take a harsh look at our own lives.

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Written on January 5, 2021