One thing that I constantly struggle with is knowing whether something I decide to do is the result of listening to my heart or if it is a function of my ego. I don’t know if I’m just doubting myself or whether something really is coming from my ego and it just fooled me to thinking it was coming from my heart.
Heart or Ego?
Dear Heart or Ego,
The question you raise is one that every person walking the path, including myself, has to ask oneself pretty much every day because the ego is so sneaky and cunning.
But there is a very straight-forward way of knowing whether your ego is asserting itself or whether you are acting purely from your heart. If something you are doing brings about agitation, fear, or some other negative state, even boredom, then you know that your ego is involved. Because if you are acting solely from your heart, you would not be suffering. Nothing that comes from your heart will cause you suffering.
Now there are two difference possibilities as to what is going on. The first is that the action itself is coming from your ego, not your heart, and therefore is not a skillful action. It is not consistent with the Five Precepts. The second is that the action itself is coming from the heart and consistent with the Precepts … something like helping others or making friends or finding a job … but your ego has become involved in the process and so you become attached to those efforts, you are no longer acting out of equanimity. They thus become unskillful actions and you suffer.
So the next question is how to decide which it is. And you do that by checking the action against the Five Precepts … protecting life, helping others, not engaging in sexual misconduct, listening to others deeply and speaking with loving kindness, and consuming (in the broadest sense of the word … what you read, watch, eat) mindfully only things that nourish and instill peace in your body and soul. (This statement about the Precepts is a paraphrase of Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Precepts.)
If the activity is something which is not consistent with the Precepts, then spiritually it is not something you should do. Period. (Note, an activity like finding a job, although not found in the Precepts, is not as such inconsistent with the Precepts. However, if the particular job you are seeking is not consistent with the precepts, for example if the job or the company you would be working for harms others, then that’s something you shouldn’t do.)
If the activity is consistent with the Precepts, then your ego mind has grabbed ahold of it and you need to meditate and give the activity back to your heart. If this is a broader issue for you, then you need to take action to turn you will and your life over to the care of your true Buddha nature, surrendering your ego. As to how to accomplish that very difficult task I have written many posts, the most recent of which is, “How to Surrender Your Ego or Turn Your Will and Your Life Over to Your True Buddha Nature.”
It says a lot about your practice that you are aware of this issue, because without awareness one has no hope of meeting the challenges of life spiritually and not being in the control of your ego. Even with awareness, the task we set for ourselves in walking the path is difficult. We are only human. Our past has formed our present.
It is important to remember that even if we don’t always succeed in hearing our heart, the fact that we have the intent to do so, the intent of surrendering our ego to our true Buddha nature … it is that intent which is important. Every day we try to follow our spiritual intent. Some days we do better than others, but typically we get better at it as the weeks and years pass.