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  • Getting Rid of the Ego
    How to Learn Kung Fu

    自我 the Traditional Chinese characters for Ego.

    A very common theme in yoga philosophy is the idea that we have to get rid of the ego. This same idea can also be found in martial arts, particularly internal martial arts like Tai Ji.

    Ego is Result of Discernment

    I was inspired to write this by one article in particular that talked both about getting rid of the ego and the need for discernment. The trouble is, both ego and discernment use the same mental machinery. Ego is basically untrained discernment.

    This same article also talked about Gong Fu (or Kung Fu).

    Turning the Ego Off (So that you can turn it back on again)

    Kung fu is basically the ability to act intelligently without thinking. It is an egoless state. This doesn’t mean that the ego has been destroyed. Instead it has simply been turned off. The idea here is that you don’t just do kung fu, you have it (or better put, you learn it). And part of having it means being able to turn the ego off and on again at will. Turn the ego off, do kung fu. Turn the ego on again and stop doing kung fu. Put another way, if you are really doing Gong Fu, your ego will turn off automatically. You can't do Gong Fu unless your ego is turned off. They are mutually exclusive.

    Sensing and Responding Without Judgement

    The mental state where you do kung fu is basically the same as when you are doing yoga. Doing yoga you aren't thinking about how good your ass looks in downward dog. Instead you are focused on feeling or sensing what is happening in your body and responding to what you sense without judging whether it is good or bad.

    And that is one simple way of turning the ego off, by sensing what is happening in your body or in your environment.

    The key is to sense (and respond) without judgement. Judgement is that little voice that says "this is good" or "this is bad".

    Judgement is also the little voice that says "I am not ready".

    The Mental Machinery of Discernment

    Judgement is another way of saying discernment. They use the same mental machinery that drives ego. This machinery is useful because you can use it to create the inner skill that you actually use in kung fu.

    It's very much like the machinery that Google uses to canvassing the web. Google has tools for "spidering the web". While great for learning the web, this tool is not so useful for serving up search results. That's done by different machinery. Both are part of Google but both have different jobs, different uses.

    When google canvasses the web it essentially learns the web. It can then pass on what it has learned via search results. Without canvassing the web Google wouldn't be able to learn. In the same way, without ego, we loose an essential tool for learning.

    Ego exists in the machinery of discernment. Or it is the machinery of discernment. What we tend to think of as the negative aspects of ego is simply the engine of discernment applied repeatedly solely to distinguish between ourselves and everything else. Learn to turn the ego on and off at will, and it becomes less of a tyrant and more of a tool.

    Discern to Learn

    It's a tool that we can use to help learn ourselves as well as anything else that we want to learn. As an example, to learn martial arts you have to practice. Discernment is what you use to decide what to practice. And it’s what you use to decide when you’ve practiced enough of one thing and need to practice something else.

    During actual practice, you turn discernment of. The idea here is that you get a taste of kung fu by practicing with the machinery of ego turned off. You don't judge yourself while in the process of practicing. Instead you soak your awareness into what you are doing as you do it. That little voice that says "good" or "bad" or "right" or "wrong" is turned off. You just get on with doing. And since it is practice, you practice doing repeatedly until what you are doing matches your intent.

    An Important Learning Skill

    To make practice faster, to make learning faster, it helps if you break what you are practicing down into clearly defined pieces. If you practice small enough chunks, it becomes relatively easy to acquire whatever skill you are practicing in a relatively short time.

    The tool that you use to differentiate, to break things down, that's the ego. Or at the very least the same mental machinery that drives the ego.

    Defining Kung Fu

    What is gong fu? It’s the ability to act with skill without thinking. More generally, its the ability to handle change effectively, skillfully and with minimal effort. "Without Thinking" is the same as "without ego" or "without judging".

    Modes of Intelligence

    We tend to associate "thinking" with intelligence. Thinking is a mode of intelligence. Again it uses the machinery of discernment but it is only one aspect of intelligence. Another mode of intelligence, the same mode that you do kung fu and yoga in, involves simple awareness. There is purpose or intent, but it is at the back of the mind. It guides the way we use our senses and the way we respond without the need to think about how we sense and respond.

    The Purpose of Training

    The whole purpose of training or learning is so that we can act effectively in this state. Training creates sub conscious programs or habits or even if you like, the equivalent of intelligent employees that act when needed based upon the intent that you have sitting at the back of your skull. If your training is insufficient then your inner skill will be lacking. And that's why hindsight and looking back on what you've done with the machinery of discernment is useful. It allows, among other things, for us to learn from our mistakes. It also allows us to design our learning in such a way that we minimize the risk of our skills not being adequate.


    Gung fu involves taking in information and responding to it effectively, the moment it is received. To do that, you have to be tuned in to what is happening now. You have to be using your senses. But rather than taking time to think about how to respond to what you sense, pre-programmed mental constructs (which are developed during training) do all of the processing for you in real time.

    You could think of training as "pre-thinking". You do all the prep work before hand so that when it comes time to act, all you have to do is act. No thought required. And again, Google is a good example of this. Indexing the web takes time. There's a lot out there. But Google does this ahead of time and separates this task from the job of providing search results. As a result, when it gets a search request it can respond instantaneously or near as with results that are relevant.

    Tuned Responsiveness

    While visual sensing can be an important part of doing kung fu (it can be used to sense incoming change so that you are ready by the time the change reaches you), the way that the body is held and used can go a long way towards minimizing response times. Appropriate amounts of tension can enrich body awareness. That same tension, appropriately tuned does the equivalent of removing any slack, further enabling responsiveness. And this is part of Gong Fu.

    Gung fu, acting skillfully, means acting with minimal wasted effort. And more often than not it involves using the body in such a way that all the parts of the body work together, as a fully integrated system. Adding the right amount of tension to the parts of the body, tuning the body, has the multiple benefits of unified sensitivity and responsiveness as well as integrated effort. It makes it easier to sense and to respond and the act of tuning brings you into your body. Via your body you can then sense what is around it.

    Differentiated Learning
    Using Ego to Reach the Egoless State

    To get all of the parts of your body to work together, you may have to train the parts individually, in isolation. And to do that effectively (so that your body works well together) you need discernment, or in other words, the ego.

    You can use ego to break the body into clearly defined parts (or relationships) that you can learn in isolation. Isolation isn't the goal, it is a tool to be used for better integration. The better you are at isolating during training the better you can integrate the body and the better you can prepare it for handling all sorts of change.

    But training for kung fu or yoga is more than just training the parts of the body in isolation so that they work together as a system. It also means training the body to respond to different types of changes as well as different sequences of changes. And to train for any possible sequence of changes it helps ito practice handling each change in isolation. And to do that you need ego to discern different types of changes.

    With practice it becomes possible to respond to any change effectively and with minimal wasted effort without thinking, without ego. But to get to that stage you need ego.

    The Art of Gong Fu

    Gung fu is when you can effectively respond to changes, both expected and unexpected, skillfully and without thinking. But the unexpected change doesn’t have to come from outside of yourself. It can come from inside of yourself also.

    Gung fu is often thought to mean martial arts, but doing anything with inner skill can be thought of as kung fu. You could think of kung fu as the creation of art. Art springs from total presence. Or it can do.

    But to reach the stage where you can create true art, discernment is required.

    Riding The River of Time

    One way to view the egoless state is that it is as if we are within the river of time, flowing along with it. Time ceases to pass us by because we are flowing with time, or if you like, being carried along by it. Ego (or discernment) offers us the view from the waters edge.

    Just being able to step into the river isn't going to help you learn Gong fu. You learn Gong Fu by constantly getting in and out of the river and using the time out of the river to look back at what was done while in the river.

    From the Self

    Chinese Character for ego, hand painted. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    Note that the two Chinese symbols that make up the word for Ego in Chinese (at least as far as Google Translate is concerned) could be translated individually as: From 自 Self 我.

    Ego provides you with the tools to teach yourself, or at the very least, to become a better learner.

    Here's the article that inspired this one: Spiritual Fruit