We love to talk about it, sometimes glibly, sometimes with an earnestness you can only find in a dorm room bull session. We tell each other to recognize it, avoid it, and at the end of the day, let go of it, as if it were some detritus we’ve collected over the years, imperceptibly, like some disintegrated portion of ourselves.
I am referring, of course, to ego.
And with apologies to Mr. Montoya, I do not think it means what you think it means.
So, at the risk of offending all those earnest dorm room philosophers, I’d like to take a stab at it today. First, however, some background. What I propose here is not some metaphysical treatment of the concept, or an examination from, say, an Eastern or even aiki perspective. Today is all about practicality. And so, in that spirit, let’s subtitle this little discourse…
A Practical Guide to Ego
We all know the signs of overt ego gratification, so I’ll dispense with this one quickly.
The subtle hints we give, that emphasize seniority; the conversations we have, that are intended to exclude; the gratitude we lack, when offered a lesson; these are all behaviors that, even in our worst moments, we recognize as ego driven. And these are the behaviors that, when allowed to pass unchecked, are most destructive to dojo life.
But there are other, less obvious signs of ego poisoning.
The Self-Deprecating Student
Let’s start at the other end of the spectrum, with someone you may recognize. She’s the Aikidoka most disappointed in her technique. Unrelentingly self-critical, she never seems to measure up to some arbitrary, personal standard she’s devised. In her mind, judgment has already been passed, despite the remarkable progress she’s made, and continues to make.
And yes, she is just as ego driven as her boorish counterpart.
From where does her internal critic reside? And from what stuff does he make his judgment? From her own ego driven expectations.
Taken to its extreme, this behavior plays out in that instance where the student believes she doesn’t deserve the rank awarded to her. In that case, the student is actually substituting her judgment for that of her instructor. And although her behavior may appear humble, or even praiseworthy, it is, in fact, completely ego driven.
Let’s move on. I’ve written about this particular fellow before, but I think his type bears repeating here. We’ll call him…
He Who Approves
The problem here is one of judgment. We all know how criticism, specifically that noxious form intended to reinforce differences, or draw attention to rank, can be a vehicle for ego. What you may not realize is that praise, functionally speaking, is exactly the same. In both instances, the student, whether by critique or compliment, is relying on his own personal standard to judge a fellow student.
“So what?” you may ask. “I like compliments. What the heck’s wrong with you?”
But therein, of course, lies the problem. This interaction, this dispensing of judgment, confuses the role of teacher and student. In the dojo, the only role the student has, properly, is to receive instruction. It is the teacher’s role to correct, or offer praise when warranted. By giving the compliment, and thereby extending judgment, the student has usurped a role not meant for him.
I’m The Most Non-Competitive!
My last example today involves intent, specifically the intent a student brings to training. In truth, this topic is broad enough to fill several posts, so I’ll be brief.
In a nut: Aikido is a cooperative martial art, at least from my amateur perspective. Our training methodology is to approach our kata with martial intent and vigor, but with the purpose of helping our partner understand the technique. And yes, in some cases, this means countering the throw or pin. Sometimes failure is the best teacher.
But the intent here is always cooperative. It is never a contest of strength, never a desire to win.
Competition therefore, at least in a dojo setting, is yet another manifestation of ego. It is the refusal to put your partner’s training before your own.
To be clear, I’ve certainly been guilty, at one time or another, of all the behaviors I’ve just described. And yes, ego training is difficult — it’s a not insignificant part of my Aikido practice. I write this as a fellow student, a beginner, trying to make sense of a frankly confounding topic.
I hope you find it useful.