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Our egos, our identities, and our struggles to let go

27 March 1964. “37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police” was a front-page splash in The New York Times. While the headline declared there were 37 bystanders, the article said there were 38. The write-up described how for more than half an hour “respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab” 28-year-old Kitty Genovese. “I didn’t want to get involved” -- one of them had admitted to the police during the investigation.  

The article gained much traction, and the episode became the emblem of urban apathy in America. It triggered academic studies, and the incident eventually made its way into psychology textbooks, which called this tendency of witnesses to distance themselves from a crime scene the “bystander effect,” or the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.” 

On the personal front, Kitty’s brother, 16-year-old Bill Genovese, was among the most affected. 

When he was 19, Bill readily enlisted in the Marines to fight in the Vietnam War. While his friends saw America’s intervention in Vietnam as tragic and schemed to dodge the draft, for him that kind of evasion smacked of the same apathy that shadowed his sister’s murder. In an interview with The Washington Post, Bill said he had responded to America’s call for arms because he “didn’t want to be like the 38 witnesses”. 

Bill was injured on the war front in Vietnam, and lost both his legs. 

Calling Bill an egomaniac would sound way off the track and downright absurd. But was it his ego that pushed him – covertly – into a war that left him physically challenged? 

For an answer, we need to better understand the ego’s working. 

The ego

For starters, let’s discuss the positive indispensable role that the ego plays in our lives -- as paradoxical as that may sound! 

The ego – ahankara in Sanskrit – gives us our identities. Under the ego’s influence, I see myself as an Indian, a monk, a disciple, a son, and so on. And once I know who I am, I also know what I should be doing. Put differently, our identities define our thoughts, words and actions. As an Indian, I am patriotic, seek opportunities to glorify our country’s ancient culture and teachings, and behave as a responsible citizen; as a monk, I think spiritually, try and avoid mundane gossip, and strive to serve society selflessly; as a disciple, my thoughts are discipled, and so are my words and actions; and as a son, I desire for the good health of my aging parents, call them up regularly, and visit them once in a while. Waking up every morning I don’t find myself in limbo, endlessly wondering how I should spend the day. My identities bring to mind my responsibilities – and I am out and about. Put differently, the ego’s job is to ensure we know who we are and behave accordingly.

The ego gets toxic, however, when it endlessly defends identities that it has given. Take for example the story of the American inventor Edwin Land. 

Edwin Land, best known for co-founding Polaroid Corporation, invented the instant camera in 1948, following which his company took off. For three decades Polaroid ruled the world of photography. In 1980, Sony founder Akio Morita confided in Land that the camera niche seemed to be on the cusp of digitalization; he expressed interest in collaborating on an electronic camera. The idea was lost on Land, who reasoned that customers would always want print, and that the quality of digital pics could never match those of chemically processed ones.

As it turned out, Land was wrong. But ironically, even as Polaroid Corporation suffered in the emerging digital market, Land was unwilling to come around. He shielded himself with devout followers who supported his adamency to continue pouring the company’s resources into traditional non-digital research. Eventually, the mounting losses forced the Polaroid board to oust Land from the very company that he had co-founded. 

Would it be preposterous to conclude that Land’s own ego had catalyzed his toppling? 

Land saw himself as a physicist and a chemist, and for three decades these identities powered his brilliant ideas, actions and inventions that resulted in his great run. But when the digital era started making its irrepressible headway, it was high time for him to let-go of these identities in the larger interest of the company. Instead, his ego evidently was unwilling and defensive, precipitating his downfall. 

The ego’s defense team

The defense team of the ego, or the ahankar, has two players: mann and buddhi. Mann, often translated as the mind, is the emotional part of our psyche. And buddhi, often translated as the intelligence, is the rational part. The mann, buddhi and ahankar together form our sukshma sharir, our invisible-self, our psyche. (Interestingly, even according to modern science our psyche consists of 3 selves – the emotional self, the rational self, and the egoistic self.)          

The mind acts as the ego’s hatchet man and one of its jobs is to keep the ego happy. Any information coming in from any of the senses that threatens any identity given by the ego, the mind dismisses. That rejection it expresses through negative feelings like fear, anger, disgust, melancholy, annoyance, and so on. Edwin Land’s mind, for example, very likely picked annoyance when Akio Morita expressed that the wave of the future could be digital, a piece of information that threatened Land’s identity of being a physicist and a chemist. 

Intelligence is the mind’s champion; it analyzes the situation in accordance with the feelings generated by the mind. When Land was annoyed, his intelligence managed to reason out why the idea of a digital-takeover was indeed irksome: people would always want printed photos, and the quality of digital photography would always be substandard.

Coming back to the murder story of Kitty Genovese, the apathy surrounding her slaying had hit hard on Bill. He wanted to be empathetic; that was to be his new identity. Empathizing with the American cause in Vietnam, therefore, became his calling. And while defending that identity of being empathetic, his ego presumably ignored the naysayers of the Vietnam war, like Land’s ignored Morita’s foresight. A stark example of how the ego’s tendency to defend identities can be a detriment even with virtues like empathy. Bill’s story also demonstrates how the ego can have an overbearing influence on your life -- unbeknownst to you -- even though you qualify nowhere close to being labeled an egomaniac.  

Further implications of the ego’s reluctance to let go  

The ego’s reluctance to let go of identities has ramifications on every world that you inhabit -- from the macro to the micro. 

So far we have only been discussing the ego-driven-undoing of the lives and careers of individuals, and before we move on, here’s another interesting case study that I came across as a spiritual life coach: that of a young man who relentlessly held onto the identity of being a professional cricketer. He spent hours at the net practicing, and dreamed of one day making his mark on the international scene. Blindsided by the ego, he ignored the raw reality that he hadn’t even qualified for first class cricket despite his advancing age. Clearly, it was high time for him to pivot away from the sport, and start looking for alternative careers. But he was struggling to let go of his cherished identity even as time was ticking by, leaving him with fewer and fewer backup career options. 

And I have seen this trend extend beyond the cricket ground, to people giving shots at -- but failing repeatedly at -- gaining a CA degree, an IAS post, a cast in Bollywood…the list is endless.      

On the global stage, the ego’s reluctance to let go of identities has been the steadfast recipe for wars all through history. While the First World War got instigated and extended because countries couldn't let go of their extreme nationalism, the Second World War was founded on Nazis defending a fabricated identity that Hitler had given them. And as regards the annals of wars that followed, the same principle of defending identities beyond limits resurfaces as the root cause time and time again. Right now, as I am typing these words on my computer, China is rehearsing military drills for the invasion of Taiwan, with the intent of defending its identity of “One China”. 

And while this war-mongering continues between nations, small domestic battles are waging in innumerable Indian homes between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws, again because of the ego’s tendency to hold on to expired identities. In Sanskrit, a mother’s affection for her son is called mamata, which literally means “ownership”. The mother has the identity of being the owner of her son, and it sure enhances the sweetness of motherhood. But once the son gets married, a new owner enters his life, his wife. And if the mother fails to acknowledge this change in proprietorship and continues to defend her expired identity, a war is sparked in the household.

Even in nuclear families, it’s often because of the ego that couples grow apart. Husbands and wives end up drawing battlelines upon returning from office because they refuse to leave behind their professional identities at the doormat. You may be the boss at the office, but back home your identity gets relegated to that of a servant -- doesn’t matter whether you are the husband or the wife. Either you acknowledge this and learn to play the part, or prepare yourself for fireworks.        

Zooming into the run-of-the-mill affairs of your daily life, whenever you feel stressed or anxious, it’s very likely the ego that is stoking these negative emotions. Let’s suppose that your ego has given you the identity that you are good-looking. Now, if the evening selfie that you posted on Instagram is starving for likes even late in the night, you will very likely go to bed anxiety-ridden and stressed-out. Waking up in the morning, if you find it still famished, you will be either depressed, or angry at your friends, at the world, or perhaps at yourself. On the other hand, if your post is brimming with likes by morning, you will likely get arrogant. Or at least, your identity of being good-looking will get reinforced. There would be little reason to celebrate though, because the next time you post your selfie on Instagram – with that heightened conviction about your good-looks – your experience is going to be more intense: more stressful to begin with, and then, either more painful or more boastful. When the ego wins a battle, prepare for the war that’s going to follow; and again if it wins, prepare for a bigger war. And the more wars it wins, the more excruciating will be the defeat that eventually follows.

When the ego is battling to defend an identity, you experience stress and anxiety; when it loses, you either slip into depression or soar into a rage; and when it wins, you get arrogant. This battle-within gets waged every single day, every-now-and-then. These emotions – stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and arrogance – are ubiquitous in our times, a primary reason being that people’s egos are busy defending identities all day long. 

On the professional front too, your efficiency will take a nosedive if you don’t learn to let go of identities. Let’s sample a professional tennis player’s life to gain more clarity on this point. In his memoir Rafa, the legendary Rafael Nadal says, “What I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head…and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing. If I made a mistake on a previous point, forget it; should a thought of victory suggest itself, crush it.” Those “voices in the head” that Nadal is talking about are of the ego’s defense team. When you meet with a setback, the ego quickly hands you the identity of being a loser; when you see success on the horizon, the ego promptly awards you the identity of being a winner. Either way, its defense team jumps on board to defend the identity, filling your head with “voices” that don’t allow you to concentrate on the task at hand, thus sucking you dry of your efficiency.

In his book, Nadal documents in detail his struggle with the “voices” in his head as he played through the historic 2008 Wimbledon Final against another tennis giant Roger Federer. 

In the very first set of the match, when Nadal broke Federer’s serve to gain a two-game-to-one lead, the TV commentator exclaimed, “What a break of serve it is! First blood to the Spaniard (Nadal) in his attempt to win Wimbledon for the first time.” Nadal, however, “felt satisfied but not elated,” as he discloses in his autobiography. “There was a long road ahead, and any thought of victory, any hint now of a movie with a happy ending entering my head, would have been suicide.” In other words, Nadal didn’t allow his ego to prematurely crown him with the identity of being a winner. Having outplayed Federer, and more importantly his own ego, Nadal went on to win the first set 6-4. And then the second. “The scoreboard said I was two sets to love up, but in my mind it was still 0–0,” writes Nadal, “One set away from winning Wimbledon, people watching might have felt I was within easy reach of my life’s dream. But I intended to allow no such thoughts into my head. I would take each point as it came, in isolation. I’d forget everything else, obliterate the future and the past, exist only in the moment.”

During the seventh game of the third set, Nadal succumbed to the ego -- nearly. The scores leveled at three-games-all, and with Federer serving, Nadal secured three break points. But then he lost all three. In the face of disappointment, the formidable ego posed a test… “and I failed it, that’s why I remember it so painfully,” he recalls. “I failed where I had trained myself all my life to be strongest. And once again, I caught myself thinking, ‘I may not get this chance again; this might be the turning point of the match.’” In other words, his ego had sold him the identity that he was already a loser, and he had bought it. But before the ego’s defense team could cloud his head with its voices, he “wiped out” that identity from his head “immediately”. And so his play remained unaffected. Notwithstanding, Federer upped his own game and won the set.    

In the fourth-set, Nadal was 5-2 up in the tie-break, two points away from the championship, when he allowed himself a moment of celebration. “Nothing too exuberant, nothing the crowd on the Center Court could see,” writes Nadal, “but inside—I couldn’t help myself—I felt this was nearly, nearly it. Serving, at 5–2 up, I felt I was within touching distance of my life’s dream. And that was my downfall.” This time the ego had successfully bestowed upon him -- untimely -- the identity of being the Wimbledon champion, and the mind and intelligence had been whipped up into the defense mode. His embattled mind got stressed and anxious -- almost instantly. Nadal records in his memoir: “Until now, the adrenaline had beaten the nerves; now suddenly the nerves trumped all. I felt as if I were on the edge of a precipice.” Even before he had climbed to the summit, his mind was ironically gripped with the fear of falling off the ‘cliff of glory’.  And what about his intelligence? Taking cue from the mind’s fear, it started to over-analyse the situation: “As I bounced the ball up and down before my first serve, I thought, ‘Where should I hit it? Should I be brave and aim at his (Federer’s) body, trying to catch him by surprise, even though I failed with that gambit a couple of sets back?’ I shouldn’t have given it so much thought.” The voices in his head winning over him, Nadal lost the next three points, and eventually the fourth set, to Federer. 

“It’s a rotten feeling to be so close to your goals and have it taken away,” you can hear the commentator empathizing with Nadal if you watch this match on Youtube. As the camera trains on the young Spaniard sitting on his chair waiting for the final set to begin, the commentator adds, “He must feel hollow, absolutely hollow.” But that guesstimate couldn’t have been farther from the truth. 

“As I sat in my chair waiting for the set to begin,” writes Nadal in his memoir, “I wasn’t lamenting the loss of the last two sets, I wasn’t letting my failure to capitalize on the 5–2 advantage I had on the last tiebreak eat me up.” If not for his alertness, the ego would have again touted -- this time the identity that he was a loser. And the voices in his head would have returned. 

Cutting to the chase, underpinning the extraordinary success of Nadal is his ability to let go of the identities that the ego relentlessly keeps imposing upon him all through a tennis match: either that he is a winner, or that he is a loser. And you stand to learn much from him, even if the fluctuations you experience in your profession may not be nearly as frequent and turbulent as Nadal’s. 

And Nadal’s uncle Tony, who coached his nephew since childhood, has for parents a piece of advice, which is again related to the ego. “The problem nowadays,” he says, “is that children have become too much the center of attention. Their parents, their families, everybody around them feels a need to put them on a pedestal. So much effort is invested in boosting their self-esteem that they are made to feel special in and of themselves, without having done anything…they fail to grasp that you are not special because of who you are but because of what you do.”

Such children continue to feel entitled even when they grow up, for the identities entrenched in childhood are the hardest to let go of in adulthood. 

“I see it all the time,” continues Toni. “And then, if it turns out that they make money and acquire a little fame and everything is made easy for them and no one ever contradicts them, they are accommodated in every little detail of life, well . . . you end up with the most unbearable spoiled brats.”

Bhagavad Gita begins with Arjuna’s ego going defensive

Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita opens with the warrior Arjuna – his ego rather – trying to defend identities on the warfield of Kurukshetra. 

The lead-up to this fratricidal war is described in the epic Mahabharata. In essence, the Kauravas – one hundred brothers headed by Duryodhana – had usurped the throne of their cousins, the Pandava brothers – Yudhishtira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Consequently, the citizens had come under the sinister rule of Duryodhana, a megalomaniac. The Pandavas, after failed attempts for a peaceful settlement, had rightfully decided to wage a war to reclaim their kingdom – not for themselves, but for dharma to prevail in the state. Meanwhile Duryodhana, continuing with his shenanigans, had convinced a major portion of the family-friends and kinsmen to side with him during the fight against the Pandavas.   

At the brink of war Arjuna threw up his hands. He turned to his charioteer Lord Sri Krishna:  

My dear Krishna, seeing my friends and relatives present before me in such a fighting spirit, I feel the limbs of my body quivering and my mouth drying up… I do not see how any good can come from killing my kinsmen in this battle…why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? (Bhagavad Gita 1.29,31,34) 

On the battlefield, opposing Arjuna, was grandfather Bhishma, whose presence reminded Arjuna of his own identity of being a pet grandson. There was guru Drona, whose presence brought to his mind his duties as an obedient disciple; friend Ashvatthama’s presence evoked his commitment as a faithful friend; uncle Shalya’s sight called upon his responsibility as a loving nephew. The specter of war threatened all these identities -- of being a pet grandson, an obedient disciple, a faithful friend, a loving nephew, and many more. And so Arjuna’s ego entered the defense-mode, and his mind rushed-in with negative feelings of depression, as Arjuna’s words reflect.

Next, Arjuna’s intelligence backed-up those feelings with rationalizations; the Gita enlists – verse after verse – the reasons that he gave favoring evasion of war.   

Sri Krishna, well recognizing Arjuna’s state of mind, rubbished those feelings and justifications. It was high time that Arjuna let go of those identities and did his duty as a responsible warrior. Sri Krishna didn’t mince any words while shaking up Arjuna: 

Do not yield to this degrading impotence. It does not become you. Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemy. (Bhagavad Gita 2.3)

Sri Krishna didn’t stop at this, for he knew a mere pep-talk would fall short as Arjuna’s crisis ran deep – it was rooted in the ego.

Sri Krishna subsequently mentored Arjuna in the art of letting-go of identities through Karma Yoga. 

The Bhagavad Gita comprises 18 Adhyaayas or chapters. The first Adhyaaya primarily contains Arjuna’s reasons for not fighting. Adhyaayas 2 to 5 are exclusively about Karma Yoga. And this book draws from these Adhyaayas.  

Karma Yoga, in essence, is about leading a purpose-driven life. 

The first part of this book touches upon the correlation between being purposeful and the art of letting go. The second part elaborates on how to elevate yourselves to become purpose-driven. For, although there’s a lot of buzz nowadays about being purposeful, hardly anyone seems to know how to get there except the Gita. The third part of this book analyzes what’s a worthy purpose worth dedicating your lives to; again an important issue that most moderns don’t think through. The fourth part is about tips for furthering your advancement in Karma Yoga. And the fifth part details how to let go, after situating yourself firmly as a Karma Yogi. 

Part one of this book maps to Adhyaaya 2 of the Gita; Parts two and three map to Adhyaaya 3; and Parts four and five to Adhyaayas 4 and 5 respectively.      



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