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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 both 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 canvas the web. While great for helping Google learn the current state of the internet, this tool is not so useful for serving up search results. That's done by different machinery.

Both machines, the machine that learns and the machine that serves up search results, are part of Google, but they both have different jobs. Google needs both of them.

When google canvasses the web it essentially learns the web by breaking each page of each website into discrete units of meaning. It then creates a model of each page that is ranked for different meanings along with every other page. This process is time intensive and requires analysis and judgement. When a search term is received, it is able to respond to that request instantaneously because it has done the work of sorting and ranking the internet ahead of time. It is important to note that the machine that canvases the web is not the same machine that provides search results. The machine that scans the web and builds a model of it is the equivalent of ego. The machine that provides search results is equivalently egoless.

Ego is part of the machinery of 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 to seeing differences as a bad thing. Used positively, ego can be used to break whatever it is that we are trying to learn into discernable and learnable elements that can be re-assembled inside of ourselves.

The key is breaking things down into clearly defined elements.

Discern to Learn

Say you practice kung fu by yourself. Discernment is what you can use to decide what to practice. And it's what you can use to decide when you've practiced enough of one thing and need to practice something else.

During actual practice, you turn discernment off. 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 what 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 turning off the ego easier, it helps if you break what you are practicing down into small, clearly defined pieces, and practice that small piece repeatedly. If you practice small enough pieces (but not too small), it becomes relatively easy to turn the ego off. Because you are repeating an action or exercise, you don't have to think about what move comes next. You know. And you can focus instead of feeling what you are doing and noticing when you get it right.

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

You then use the ego to decide what to do. Then while actually doing it, you turn the ego off.

Defining Kung Fu

Kung fu, or Gong Fu (or Gung fFu) is the ability to act with skill "without thinking".

More generally, its the ability to handle change, even unexpected or unexperienced change, effectively, skillfully and with minimal effort. "Without Thinking" is the same as "without ego" or "without judging".

The more your practice time involves being in the egoless state, the easier it is to get there when you aren't practicing.

Modes of Intelligence

We tend to associate "thinking" with intelligence. An alternative viewpoint is that 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 non-thinking state.

Training ideally 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 Gung 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.

What is Isolation?

In terms of learning the body, isolation can mean focusing on a clearly distinguishable part of the body. This can involve decoupling by relaxing the parts of the body not being focused on so that the effects of other parts of the body are minimized. It can also include focusing awareness on and feeling a part of the body that is moving repeatedly through a short sequence of movements.

For isolation to be effective, the part isolated has to be distinguishable, have feelability and be controllable.

With isolation, what you are learning is how to create a specific change, and how to feel it. An example could be engaging and then relaxing a particular muscle and noticing either the changes in muscle activation or the change in connective tissue tension that changing muscle activation creates.

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. That could be considered an initial or basic step. In that basic step you learn to feel and create change within the body. The next step is to learn to deal with changes that occur outside of the body.

And to do that you need ego to discern different types of changes so that you can train yourself to respond to them without having to think.

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.

Inner change can be thought of as your emotional and intellectual state, even the current state of your body. Kung fu can mean being able to respond effectively to change no matter where it comes from.

Gung fu is often thought to mean martial arts, but actually, doing anything with inner skill, the result can be art. Art springs from total presence, the egoless state. But to get the inner skill to create art, ego, or 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. It happens when we step outside of the river of time.

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

by: Neil Keleher
Published: 2018 02 09
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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