By Jimmy Warden
The Cherokee Native Americans tell a story of two wolves that live inside all of us. One wolf is kindness, empathy, compassion, joy, faith, love, friendship, generosity, and several other positive characteristics. The other wolf is anger, jealousy, envy, rage, guilt, sorrow, false self-confidence, self-pity, superiority, and ego.
Why am I telling you this story?
Because the Cherokees say that we become what we feed.
Far too often, we feed that second wolf. That wolf talks to us, yells at us, and we often listen. We feed its need to be heard through the actions that we take. Instead of doing something for a pure purpose, we have ulterior motives. Instead of doing something for the purpose of individual or collective growth, we do something out of haste because that wolf is hungry. What is that wolf? That wolf is our ego.
What is the ego?
The ego is that voice inside our head that we always hear. It is a judge. It is compulsive and impulsive. It is our tampered image that we project to others when we’re seeking approval. Our ego is a part of us that can help us and hurt us. It can be our friend and our enemy.
I like to define the ego as thoughts, feelings, actions, or words that intend to manipulate a situation. It is very complex and has different dimensions. For example, in the thoughts and feelings dimensions, our ego is very present. When we’re feeling confident or unconfident, that is an ego manifestation. It is manipulating how we think and feel about a situation we’re facing by controlling our self-esteem. These thoughts and feelings often influence the actions we take, or don’t take. When we believe in ourselves, we take action. When we don’t believe in ourselves, we stay stagnant. This is how the thought and feeling dimensions of the ego fuel the action dimension. The same could be said for the word dimension. Words can be spoken or unspoken (which is essentially thought), but they’re influenced in the same manner.
How does the ego manifest itself in real life?
In daily life, the ego often manifests itself in a variety of ways. It is mostly one track minded in an attempt to self-serve the decision-maker. It is often the poor decisions that we make due to selfish intentions. It could range in a variety of areas, from finances, to relationships, personal development (or lack thereof), emotional outbursts, and giving in to instant gratification. For example, our ego is that flash of rage that we feel (or express) when someone cuts us off in traffic. It could also be a financial decision that serves a short-term desire. Perhaps, we’ve been trying to save money, but then we see a new car on a commercial or tv and think, “I need that”, so then we go out and buy it when we don’t really have the means to buy a car. It could also be holding onto a relationship that doesn’t serve the other person, but it’s serving you, so you don’t let them out.
The big problem is that our ego will never be satiated. No measure of success will ever be enough for the ego. No matter how much money we make, how good we look, how amazing our job is, how attractive our significant other is, how many awards we’ve won, or how many material items we’ve purchased, the ego always wants more. Our ego will never understand the idea that enough is enough. Every time we feel accomplished, or proud of ourselves, our ego will be lurking around every corner ready to knock us down a peg and tell us that we’re still not valuable enough, or doing enough. It’ll constantly be keeping score against other people, and how their lives are going in comparison to ours.
Not only that, but it will feed our negative bias and false narratives. It will break our self-esteem down by engaging in negative self-talk that is oriented with a fixed mindset. When we feel like we can’t do something, or we tell ourselves that we can’t do something, that is our ego.
The same could be said for when we fully believe that we can do something, but fail. When we think that we’re the best thing since sliced bread, but then fall flat on our face, we can thank our ego for that. This is how the grandiose element of the ego manifests in daily life. We feel that we’re better than we really are, so we take a risk that we feel is in our “challenge ballpark”, but drastically overestimate our ability to take on that challenge, and fail as a result.
Why do we need the ego?
So far, everything about the ego has been negative, but it can also serve some positive purposes. For one, in order for us to differentiate value, our ego needs to be involved.
Because the ego serves as a judge, it actually helps us experience positive events in our lives. In order for something to be positive, there must be an opposing negative, and we must be able to distinguish between the two. This is how value is created. Without this differentiation, there would be no value. Without this differentiation, everything would be bland and be the same as everything else.
This also helps us prioritize people and responsibilities in our lives. If we didn’t have our ego, we would prioritize all of the people in our lives equally, which strays far from the ideas of priorities. If we prioritized all of the responsibilities in our lives, we would not have enough time in the day to complete those responsibilities, leaving our ego in a frenzy.
How can we tame the ego?
We can start to tame the ego by first acknowledging that it is a necessary evil that we must all live with because it is not going away. Once that is accomplished, the next step is to cultivate an awareness of how it is manifesting in our lives. Is it our thoughts that are rooted in our ego? Do our actions reflect our ego? How about our words that we speak to ourselves and others? Once there is an awareness of how it manifests, observing its manifestations will become a bit easier.
It’s not easy to develop this awareness because it is an act of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is a way that we can speed up the awareness process. More specifically, practicing the mindfulness technique of noting. Noting is a practice where an individual sits down, focuses their attention on a physical sensation such as the body or breath, and notices when thoughts arise in the mind. It sound simple, which it is, but that does not make it easy. Reason being is that it is hard to notice thoughts, especially when the mind has drifted so far from its anchor of the breath, or the body. However, the more that we practice mindfulness, the quicker we’ll be able to recognize the thoughts, and when the mind drifts. From there, we can cultivate a deeper awareness by recognizing the thoughts, and then considering their roots.
In order to cultivate this awareness, it is important that we think about the ideas we think about, speak about, and act out in order to get to the root. Then, try to think about where the thoughts, words, or actions came from. Did they come from a place of authenticity? Or were they merely self-serving? Did they have an intention to help ourselves or others? Or did it have an intention to hurt ourselves or others? If our thoughts, words, or actions came from an authentic place with an intention to help ourselves or others, there’s a high likelihood that they came from our soul. If our thoughts, words, or actions were self-serving or intended harm, there’s a high likelihood that they came from our ego.
Another practice that can help us tame our ego is journaling. We can journal about events throughout the day and how we responded to those events. This can help us understand when we are acting out in a pure way, or in an ego driven way. Not only that, but this can help us see the triggers for our ego. When we have this knowledge, we can write down how we would like to react in a more purposeful way, rather than in an impulsive way.
We can also take a look at some of the thoughts on our mind at any given time by doing what’s called “brain dump” journaling. This is when we literally write down the streams of conscious thought in our brain, as they arise, no matter how random and different each thought might be from the next. This can help us see thought patterns, which can help us understand their origins and connections to each other. It can also lead to new thoughts and ways to solve any problems that continue to arise in each brain dump. The ego has a tendency to get us into problems because of its impulsive and greedy nature, so “brain dumping” can lead to less problems manifesting from ego action.
Putting it all together
The Cherokee story about the two wolves has been around for decades, perhaps even centuries. The wisdom encompassed in the story about the ego is timeless. We often feed the ego wolf by acting selfishly, impulsively, and without thought. This can often get in the way of being the best version of ourselves because the ego can never have enough of what it’s seeking. Oddly enough, we do need the ego at times in order to differentiate between what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, what our values are, but those are the only positive ways that the ego can serve us. We don’t have to be slaves to our ego, however. The more that we can create an awareness of how it manifests in our lives, the more that we can tame it. Once it is tame, it can serve us in a more positive way, but it’s going to take a bit of work to get to there.