Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Practising the Art of Letting Go of the Ego

"Letting go of the ego." That's one of the main developmental tasks of aging defined by Carl Jung, who called the later years the afternoon of life, quite a pleasant image, calling up the pleasure of walking along a beautiful path. Which we are.

I have been working on letting go of the ego since I became a Buddhist in my mid-30s. After 40 years I wish I could brag about my progress. But if I were bragging about how egoless I have managed to become.... well let's face it, that would be a tad egotistical.

It is a work in process. I still have not succeeded in transforming all that lead into gold. Understated, but true. I will spare you the gory details. I'm sure you have your own to contend with.

"Altruism is innate, but it's not instinctual. Everybody's wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped," says author David Rakoff.
Getting older does help with flipping that switch. One is aware that these are the final years of life. That recognition hopefully puts some wind in the sails.

The inner work that is a natural part aging sails us into waters that we could never have navigated earlier in life. We just were not experienced enough. Even in later life navigating these waters is challenging. Facing death, life review, healing old wounds, letting go of the ego--these are profound areas of maturation and self-understanding.

That's why later life is a real treasure chest for the alchemist who is willing to spend time in the laboratory refining lead into gold. It's natural to be in that laboratory as we age. Much more natural than the hyper-active busyness that some older adults ascribe to as a way of filling every inch of space possible while avoiding the inner life.

I love this quote from the famous author and spiritual leader Ram Dass who tells us, "I didn't have to be somebody..."And that from a person who has been a highly visible public figure for many years. How he came to not having to be somebody is his unique journey, one interesting to read about. It's the same for each of us. We all have our own path.

I notice that there is a great deal of freedom in not having to be somebody. Loosening up the bonds of attachment to identity, performance orientation, station in life. It's one positive aspect of being less visible, stepping back out of the action a bit, spending more time with the inner life.

I am weary of heroism. I am tired of doing. I am tired of great projects and frenzied efforts.  I have left the busy land of the middle-aged for a realm of deep inner stillness, quiet and sacred being." --John Robinson

Left to right Jeannie, Laurie and me at Tashi Choling
This quote resonates, because after decades of mighty Type A and semi-reformed Type A ambitions, I have been surprised at what it feels like to drop that kind of focus and perspective. It is different. I am another person really. Not having to be somebody, not having to accomplish something big to save the world, or some part of it. A different vantage point, something more panoramic.

Being more self-aware and quiet--letting go of heroic attitudes and ambitious great projects-- doesn't automatically mean disengaging from positive activity and engagement.

The process of letting go of the ego naturally propels older adults into more altruistic ways of thinking and being. We find ourselves asking ourselves, What is the most meaningful way for me to contribute now?  With a less constricted sense of self, freed up from the confines of having to be somebody, and knowing time is short, some older people can be great activists, philosophers and mentors.

I'm not saying it's easy, this business of self-transformation, letting go, and opening up in ways never dreamed of before. Letting go of the ego. I am grateful that I have a good strong ego to wrassle with. Seriously. But being ruled by the ego is too limited and limiting. Such self-fixation is a constricted version of who I really am, or could be as I go deeper.

So here I am, at the tail end of summer, navigating my boat in these beautiful waters. Hope this finds you well and happy.

P.S. Quotes from Ram Dass and John Robinson are from the Fierce with Age Digest, which you can subscribe to by clicking the link above. I look forward to receiving it, because it contains such thoughtful content about aging. You may enjoy it too.


  1. Boat to boat...I hear you. Wish I could put into words how adrift I feel in my boat listing in the lake. Hard to get that feeling living in the desert; however, we have had a daylong gentle rain today. Not being able to answer "What is the most meaningful way for me to contribute now?" bugs me. My visions and ideas of collaboration go nowhere these days. The irony is I have the time to look at things from many perspectives now. Perhaps my contribution is to continue to have HOPE for those who are on shore.

  2. There is no Other....we are all in the same boat...not having certain answers seems to be part of the process too. Take good care of yourself along the way. And thanks for sharing....

  3. Interesting thoughts, but do we ever have all the answers? I think not. Someone told me once that no one is altruistic, suggesting there is something the individual receives from their giving act.

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