The Sāṃkhya Kārikā (350 C.E.), a metaphysical text of the Sāṃkhya school of Indian philosophy states:
Ahaṃkāra (I’ness) is self-assertion.
Ahaṃkāra, also known as I’ness or ego, is that force or entity that causes us to falsely identify with the body/mind. It pushes us to believe that ‘what we are not’ is ‘what we are’. In other words, ahaṃkāra is the ego that says:
“I am Indian, I am male, I am a student, I am a professor, I am intelligent, charming, kind and a good person.”
I=Indian, Male, Student, Professor, Intelligent, Charming, Kind, Good person, etc.
According to the Sāṃkhya school of philosophy, this sense of identity, however, is not our true nature. No matter how convincing it may seem, you are none of these traits. Rather, the real us is eternal, infinite, consciousness that watches the world in a state of detached, peaceful observation.
Inquiry into Confidence
Why is this significant in our daily affairs? In this kārikā, it states that ego (our identity) is self-assertion (abhimāna). What does this mean? The ego, our identity, constantly needs to assert itself. In other words, it needs to desperately push and establish:
“Here I am and you better not forget me.”
This is why we suffer. Through this need, we restlessly compete, seeking recognition, honor, power and respect from others.
Scenario I: The Interior Designer
In a conversation with three people, Vidyā having helped design Priyā’s apartment, is praised and complimented for creatively arranging the colors in the room. Mānsī, a professional interior designer (unknown to Vidyā and Priyā) watches Vidyā being complimented but feels a bit of discomfort from not being recognized.
Note: It is here we commonly say “She is just jealous.” However, the dynamic is a much more intricate process than commonly labeling a person’s emotion and dismissing it (as seen in day-to-day interactions).
To get recognition, acknowledgement and praise for being an interior designer, Mānsī may make an overt or subtle comment.
Overt: “I think these colors are great because they match the outer walls, I’m a professional interior designer.”
Mānsī may not even care about analyzing the colors on the wall. Instead, she is more interested in informing others of her being an interior designer. These types of assertions are not very common because they can reveal the person’s intent or desperate need to be noticed. Interestingly, even if the ego wants to be known, it still shields itself from revealing to people in the room that it wants to be known. Thus, the ego says: “Be known, but do not reveal the intent to be known.”
Subtle: “I’ve noticed that royal-yellow is better than lemon yellow on these types of walls, but on other types, clover-lime is better.”
Mānsī may appeal to the intricacy of the color yellow, more specifically, her knowledge of the intricate shades of yellow to entice others into asking, “How do you know this?”
Subtle: “Yea it is good a good choice. I would suggest something but you may not like my choices. My friend’s always tell me that I have an exotic taste when it comes to choosing colors.”
If we observe carefully, there is a common message, rather, common need behind many of these statements. Notice me. I am an interior designer. This is a form self-assertion. There are countless variations demonstrating how the ego reacts to not being noticed.
Scenario II: The Philosopher
I consider myself to be a philosopher. I am a philosopher. I read philosophy. I argue and reason logically. I admire Śankarācārya, Socrates, Epictetus. My favorite modern philosopher is Jiddu Krishnamurti. Imagine a conversation where three people are talking about their college degrees. Arjuna, who studies molecular biology, turns to Narendra and just notices that he studies philosophy. Arjuna, with great interest and approval states, “Wow! You study philosophy! That’s so cool” He turns to me and asks, “Do you also study philosophy?”
I, majoring in Law, may say “No”, but there is an inkling of feeling in the ego that wants to be recognized, and subsequently assert.
I: “No, not as a major, I study Law…but I also study philosophy on my free time, I read The Discourses by Epictetus, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, etc…”
Arjuna responds, “Oh, that’s cool,” and I nod my head not completely feeling the anticipated satisfaction of being noticed.
Note: The need to assert can change based on who is watching and participating in the conversation. For example, if a girl my age was watching the conversation, the ego may provide more of a push to assert itself in the act of impressing.
This is why the loudest people are not the most confident. People who appear to be confident, outspoken, sure of themselves are in fact, in a constant state of asserting their identities. A truly confident person, is quiet, silently watches, rarely triggered by the invalidation surrounding him. Faced with difficult comments creating a need for assertion, he can detach the need to be understood from the answer itself. You should not have done that. Why did you choose that major? I disagree with your view. That doesn’t make sense. He is better than you. You should not grow you hair out. I don’t like that shirt as much. You are not being fair.
All of these comments evoke a certain feeling. Behind that usually negative feeling, is a restless need to be understood in the form of “Ok, but…I think…” Confidence is not only the ability to remain silent in these situations, but also if required to answer, it involves answering without the ego’s need to assert in the form of being understood, correct or right.
The ego, in the most fundamental sense, is composed of our beliefs.
I=Indian, Male, Student, Professor, Intelligent, Charming, Kind, Good person, etc.
If someone or something challenges a fundamental belief, it, for some reason feels invalidated and the ego identity, must assert that very belief.
Challenge: “You are not a good person.”
Response: “How can you say that, I have done so much for you?” “I’m honest, I’ve worked so hard.”I am a good person, I have no idea why you would say that.” “You are not a good person.”
This indicates, that the belief itself is weak. In other words, the identity is being severely challenged whenever a supposedly firm belief is challenged by invalidation. It the ego’s nature to assert.
Knowing this, whenever we feel hurt, insulted or misunderstood, immediately catch the ego’s need to assert. Watch whatever irresistible urges or frustrations arise and ask if it is absolutely necessary to assert. This practice can help us pull back the ego’s dependency on external validation and also starve it of its incessant need to assert.
If we truly know something, then we know it. No one around us needs to agree.
We become more confident of ourselves and our views. “If I truly believed in my belief, would I need to assert it to every single person who comes my way?” “If I believe in animal rights, do I have to tell everyone to be vegetarian, or can I follow the practices, write speeches and love animals to the best of my ability, naturally showing the world what I believe?” “If I believe in creative self-expression through art, media, dance and music, should I join a fraternity and show my talents off to such limited avenues for self-improvement, or should I create works of art present it to the world?”
Winston Churchill, former Prime Minster of Great Britain during World War II once said,
“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
He’s right. I have a dream. I want to change the world by showing us to be more sensitive. If I spend my whole day mindlessly arguing with my friends, co-workers, family members in a small town in New Jersey, will even a drop of conviction land upon my cause? Rather, should I read, write, earn a degree, speak publicly, while learning psychology, philosophy, economics, etc? We all know the answer.
Do not waste time and energy. Go straight to the cause.
When should I assert?
Assert whenever it does not have to do with the ego. Where there is injustice, harm, violence, cruelty, then step in. If we see someone being bullied, step in because it is right, not because if we step in, we become brave protectors and if we do not, cowards. We must do what is necessary not out of a need to keep the ego alive, but from what is right. When we fail to act, we feel bad. We feel immense guilt. “I should have done something.” Why feel guilt? It is not about “us.” Instead, we must rephrase it, “Something should have been done in a right manner,” without our identities involved, we are more likely to do it.
Sāṃkhya would say “Enough, you are not the body and mind. You are pure consciousness, observing the false identity, ego.” Whether or not we accept this, we can certainly relate to the immense power of the ego. We must carefully watch and resist the magnetic pull of the ego exclaiming “I am.” Nevertheless, it is a gradual process and in doing so, we should love ourselves and the people around us.
Let us inquire beyond
the castle walls of limitation,
and a home of endless Comfort.
-Hemal P. Trivedī