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What Power Does the Ego Have?

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Q: Does the ego have the power to create what it wants to be, have, and do? Does the ego have the power to block the natural flow of life through me? Or can the ego only create psychological suffering or happiness, but it doesn’t have the power to block the flow of life or to create what it wants?

A: The ego has a small degree of power to create what it wants and, at times, to block the flow of life temporarily. However, the ego does have a lot of power to cause us to suffer, although suffering itself is just an experience in thought—a mental state. There is no actual thing called suffering. It only exists as a mental experience. Mental suffering can trigger feelings and physical sensations, but the source of those feelings and sensations is thoughts.

For example, there is probably some furniture in the room where you are right now. You can think about the furniture, but the furniture is also a physical reality. Compare that to imagining a baby elephant in the room where you are right now. You can think about the baby elephant and imagine it in great detail, but the baby elephant is still not really there in the room with you. So suffering is all imagined, like the baby elephant. That is why the ego has so much power to cause us to suffer—because it doesn’t take much to imagine something. We only have to exercise our imagination to suffer; we don’t have to do anything else.

In the midst of this potential for suffering, there are also the events in your life and the actions you take. The ego has a small degree of power to affect these. And when it does, we often learn much more about how limited the viewpoint of the ego is. Oscar Wilde once wrote that there are two great tragedies in life: One is when we don’t get what we want, and the other is when we do. When the ego gets what it wants, we often discover the limitations, problems, and difficulties we hadn’t foreseen when we were lost in the perspective of our ego’s desire. The ego acts out of a very narrow range of impulses that are focused on its own needs and preferences. When these get satisfied, we discover the limitations of our understanding and foresight. A friend of mine always wanted a house in the country with a big yard. When she finally got one, she spent the entire summer mowing the lawn! Spending all her time riding a lawn mower wasn’t in her ego’s picture of the joy of having a place in the country, and it also wasn’t her deepest desire.

So the ego can create distractions and detours that interfere with the unfolding of our life’s purpose, but fortunately the underlying wisdom and discrimination of our Being is still also working. So we eventually feel a truer impulse and adjust course and end up back in the flow. Or our ego’s creations fall apart and then essence, or Being, picks up the pieces and puts us back on track. Our life is a dance between all these forces. Ego has some capacity to affect what happens, but that capacity is much less than the capacity of our Being to unfold life in truer directions.

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