Ego is a much over-used and over-hyped concept, especially in spirituality. Someone put the wheel in motion, and everyone is spinning it with spirituality.
Even the darshanas (the six hard-core systems/schools of Hindu philosophy) make only a lip-service mention to ego as a separate ontological classification representing, ahamkara or “self-identity”, which has no anthropomorphic “good or bad” attributes (as is ego often associated with). So, in the context of spirituality, ego doesn’t deserve an existence of its own. Your drive, motivation, passion, etc. are driven by the same. Even the spiritual seeker’s desire for enlightenment (emphasis on the word “desire”) is something arising from the same.
Which is why I love the verse below. Unfortunately it is one of those rare pieces that is difficult translate, as the word atma here takes on simultaneous multiple meanings; I’ve read all sort of crude translations of this, and none come close. The best is to appreciate it in the original form without any translation (atman=self, Atman=Self):
उद्धरेद् आत्मना अत्मानं नात्मानम् अवसादयेत् ।
आत्मैव ह्यात्मनो बन्धुर् आत्मैव रिपुर् आत्मनः ।।
One should uplift the atman by the Atman; one should not degrade the atman/Atman.
For the atman/Atman alone can be a friend to the atman/Atman. And the atman/Atman alone can be the enemy of the atman/Atman.
Will post a follow up article that shows a different perspective, one that doesn’t need the concept of ego at all, and which is more liberating than the “you vs ego” concept. Anyway, we’ll go along with the traditional view for now. That is, where ego refers to the undesirable part of the self.
There are plenty of definitions of the ego. Here’s my two cents. Ego is a false-identity created by you so that you can fit securely in society, often based on what the society wants you to be. Like a small nest. The nest has to be constantly reinforced (via acquisition of all sort of petty desires – from material possession, to fame, power, and even building up the intellect, etc). The moment you stop doing that, or even hesitate in reinforcing the nest, then there is fear.
If you destroy this nest, you lose your identity, and you feel as insecure (reminds me of Linus and his security blanket).
So what other identity is there? If one looks deeper there is the unshakable, compassionate, all-loving, identity – the Atman (or the Supreme Spirit). Instead of trying to build an identity (or a nest), if one moves towards this Atman, it establishes all the aforementioned qualities of the Atman.
The false-identity keeps you chained, as a slave, a beggar, weakens you, limits you from discovering your fullest potential.
The ego is also very elusive. It goes into hiding by morphing itself into something more benign – giving the illusion to the mind that it is gone and that you are back in control. Only to come out again, when least expected. That is why in the puranas the ego is always depicted as shape-shifting asuras (demons), taking hostage of the devas (celestial beings representing the mind, body, senses, and elements of nature).
You know your ego is in action when you get excited when you get things you want, and become upset when you don’t get it. That is why spiritual texts emphasize detachment (via yoga), so that one becomes more centered on one’s true self, the Atman. Once he is centered, he can continue to act and to want, even with passion, but this time with the full realization (not just an affirmation or conviction) that it is all a divine play or maya, and that it is his body-mind that is acting, and not him (like how many sages continue to live in the world even after enlightenment).
भोगैश्र्वर्य प्रसक्तानां तयापह्रत चेतसाम् ।
व्यवसायात्मिका बुध्दिः समाधौ न विधीयते ।।
For those ignorant ones attached to enjoyment of power; whose thoughts are stolen away by that,
Resolute natured insight in meditation (or peace) is not granted.
— Bhagavad Gita 2.44