To give your children the total acceptance they deserve will expose you to the diamond of the
spiritual tradition: the chance to lose your ego.
As parents, it’s hard not to be egoic. By the very fact we say, “This is my child,” we enter into ego. Indeed, we are rarely not in ego when it comes to our children, for there is nothing we take more personally than how they fare in school, how they look, who they marry, where they live, and what they do for a living. Few parents can allow their children to exist without seeing them as an extension of their own ego. I asked a group of parents why they had children. Their answers included, “I wanted to experience what it was like,” “I love children,” “I wanted to become a mother,” “I wanted a family,” and, “I wanted to prove to everyone I could be a good mother.” In each case, the reason for wanting children was infused with ego. This is doubtless the case with many of us.
Parenting is a journey that tends to begin with a high level of egoic narcissism, an energy we take into our relationship with our child. The consequence is that we can easily, though in many cases inadvertently, fall into the trap of using our children to fill some need in ourselves, all the while under the illusion that we are loving, giving of ourselves, and nurturing. We use them to try to heal our broken self, use them by thrusting them into roles in the family that aren’t theirs by right, use them to provide ourselves with a sense of worth, and use them to magnify our illusion of our influence in the world. We find it hard to believe that many of us became a parent, at least in part, to fulfill our own longing. Unless we realize how strongly our ego drives us and gradually free ourselves from our identification with it, we will parent our children from this false state, which will render us unable to connect with their core self.
HOW DOES EGO FUNCTION?
We have seen that our ego is a blind attachment to the image we have of ourselves, the picture of ourselves we carry around in our head. Our entire way of thinking, emoting, and acting is rooted in this self-image. To gain a better understanding of the ego, recall how I noted earlier that when I suggest to parents they must change if their children’s behavior is to improve, they insist I’m mistaken. They then present various explanations for why their relationship with their children is as it is. We find it difficult to sit with the knowledge there may be a piece of us that contributed to whatever negativity we are experiencing in our life, preferring to place responsibility for our situation on factors in the world around us. When all we know ourselves to be is the image we have of ourselves, the idea of having to change threatens our identity, which is why we vigorously defend ourselves and vainly hope that the others in our life will be the ones to change.
Ego is in operation anytime we find ourselves attached to a thought pattern or belief system. We often don’t even recognize we are attached until we are triggered on an emotional level. However, whenever anger, control, domination, sadness, anxiety, or even a positive emotion such as happiness takes over and our sense of our “rightness” reigns supreme, we are in ego. When we operate from this rigid place of “rightness,” we bring to our reality an already formulated assumption, ideal, or judgment. If a situation or the individual doesn’t conform to our will, we react to control the situation or the individual, bringing them under our domination
Living in an egoic state, we fail to see others for who they are in their true being, their essence. A classic example is that of Stuart, whose son Samuel was an energetic, vibrant young man who was good at everything he undertook. Samuel particularly excelled at acting, desiring more than anything to go to drama school. Stuart opposed this. A first-generation immigrant, all his life he had worked in unstable, low-paying blue collar jobs, which caused him to want more than anything for his son to enjoy the security of a steady job, not an acting career with its uncertainty and instability.
When the time to apply to college arrived, Samuel wanted to select schools with fine drama programs, whereas his father insisted he attend business school. The two fought daily. Finally, Stuart threatened Samuel that if he applied for acting school, he wouldn’t help with his tuition and would cut him out of his life forever. When Samuel saw it meant so much to his father, he caved in. Being the bright young man he was, he was accepted at Columbia’s Business School and went on to have a prosperous career. Even though Samuel owns his decision to let go of his acting career, he still resents his father for negating his passion. The lifestyle afforded by his corporate career doesn’t begin to compensate for the joy of spirit and sense of purpose he felt when onstage. For him, acting was his true calling—an expression of his essence, his very being. Now, mired in mortgages and student loans, he feels little freedom to change course.
As long as the pillars of your ego remain intact, as they were in the case of Samuel’s father, you will struggle to live authentically; and if you are inauthentic, you will have difficulty allowing your children to be authentic. To parent children from ego is to live with the unconscious mandate that your way is the right way. Consequently, you urge your children—as happened to Samuel—to enter your world and miss the opportunity to enter theirs. Sadly, it’s likely you feel the most competent when your children are under your domination, willing to follow your word as gospel.
Our ego-attachments are a mask for our fears, the greatest of which is surrendering to the mysterious nature of life itself. When we come from ego rather than from pure being, we don’t connect with our children’s essential being. As a result, they grow up disconnected from their own essence, and thus learn to distrust their connection to all that exists. Approaching life from fear stifles the emergence of their genuine, uninhibited, unaffected being. Our ego therefore needs to crumble to allow our authenticity to emerge, which in turn frees our children to grow up true to themselves. If we free ourselves from our ego and simply observe our children’s development as life spontaneously teases it out of them, they become our teachers. In other words, living authentically allows us to cease looking at our children as blank canvasses on which we can project our image of who they should be, seeing them instead as fellow travelers on the journey, changing us as much as we are changing them. The question is, are you willing to give up thinking you “know,” step down from your egoic pedestal of authority, and allow yourself to learn from these creatures who are most able to live in a state of egoless consciousness?
To live authentically instead of in ego is to embrace continuous evolution, realizing we are always in flux, always a work in progress. Authenticity requires us to access that deep, silent aspect of our being that is nevertheless audible beneath the whirring din of whatever may be happening in our life. While supported and guided by the external environment, this authentic state of being doesn’t need the external environment in order to survive. Rather, it requires synchronicity with our mind and a moment-by-moment connection with our body
When we live authentically, we may still have the relationship, house, car, and other luxuries that ego is drawn to (the things Samuel’s father so wanted him to have), but the purpose for which these things exist is completely different. If our relationship, house, job, car, and other externals are what we rely on to make us happy, we are enslaved to ego. If they exist so we may serve others through fulfilling our purpose, they further our commitment to our essential being. Although the manner in which ego manifests is different in each person, there are common patterns the ego follows on its path toward self-entrapment—several universal ego styles. It’s helpful to have a clear picture of how each of these functions.