Everyday Mindfulness

When the Ego Hijacks Mindfulness

Practice mindfulness for any period of time, and you’ll know its wide-reaching benefits. But what happens when the practice is hijacked by the ego? When “being mindful” becomes a concept, another form of mental commentary that distracts from the present?

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, without being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. An area of focus is often used to reach this state of presence. 

For example, in mindfulness meditation, you might focus on the breath or another “anchor,” such as a pleasant sensation or the feeling of the weight of your body on the chair. During day-to-day activity, the focus is the task immediately in front of you—washing the dishes, talking with a friend, exercising.

Anyone who has attempted meditation understands how difficult it is to avoid being carried away by currents of thought. This constant stream of mental activity has a strong grip, and it takes time and patience to tame the wandering mind. Plus, not all thoughts are equal, and some catch our attention more than others.

If a particular pattern of thought or belief occurs regularly, the ego might “hijack” those storylines, forming part of your identity. For example, if you see yourself as a thoughtful person, you might develop an ego around this belief, and I am a thoughtful person becomes part of your identity.

Although it doesn’t sound so bad, this can cause us to act in ways that aren’t authentic or helpful, especially if there are conflicting beliefs. For example, a belief of being thoughtful means I should always put others first might cause you to neglect your own needs.

How the Ego Hijacks Mindfulness

In a similar way, mindfulness is hijacked by the ego under the disguise of being mindful.” This happens when an “I” identity replaces the direct application or experience of practice, often accompanied by beliefs such as I’m more mindful than you or I’m always aware of my thoughts and never distracted. A narrative forms in the mind, and the practice of mindfulness is replaced by a storyline or a running commentary. 

These are still beliefs, they’re still thoughts. But because they’re under the disguise of mindfulness, the ego’s hijacking is difficult to detect, because on the surface these concepts and thoughts appear to be part of the practice. I occasionally find myself caught in this trap, and always smile at myself when I realize how I’ve been tricked.

I’ve experienced ego-hijacking in multiple forms. One particularly interesting manifestation occurs almost immediately after a moment of intense presence—I might be taken aback by the beauty of nature, or notice how tuned in I am to the textures, tastes, and smells as I enjoy a meal.

I’ve gone extended periods of time thinking about how mindful I am, before realizing I wasn’t being mindful.

This experience is then hijacked by a storyline that enters my mind. “Wow, aren’t you super present right now!” The irony is, if I get carried away by thoughts about how present I am, I lose my connection to the present! I’ve gone extended periods of time thinking about how mindful I am, before realizing I wasn’t being mindful.

Equally, the intention to be mindful can become a form of self-criticism. Let’s say I’m practicing eating mindfully. I start my meal, and then a narrative forms in my mind: “Make sure you eat mindfully,” or “Appreciate the food you’re eating.” Any time I slip up, I punish myself.

Mental reminders to be mindful are useful. But the difference with an ego-hijacking is, rather than conveying open curiosity and acceptance, the narrative is judgmental. It lacks compassion. Such “mindful perfectionism” adds to stress and doesn’t ease it.

How to Let Go of Ego

So what’s the solution? Blind spots are often overcome simply by being aware of them. Hopefully, this article helps with that. In addition, a “beginner’s mindset” of curiosity, openness, and nonjudgment keeps you vigilant and helps you avoid getting carried away by the ego’s attempts to hijack mindfulness.

Learn to treat all mental activity equally, no matter what the topic is or how supportive certain thoughts appear in the moment.

Always assume the ego will be lurking in the background. Remember that mindfulness is a practice, an experience, not an intellectual exercise. Learn to treat all mental activity equally, no matter what the topic is or how supportive certain thoughts appear in the moment.

By identifying this quirk, we don’t want to vilify or condemn the process. Know that it comes from a good place, and having an inner commentary around mindfulness is certainly an upgrade on self-criticism or ruminating on problems or daily concerns.

Plus, mindfulness isn’t silencing the mind. Thoughts will always be there. In fact, trying to force the mind to be silent can make the ego’s chatter even louder!

Spotting nuances and subtle ways the mind gets in the way is all part of the journey. So although occasionally the ego might hijack your practice, always remember you’re in the driver’s seat. 

And next time you find yourself thinking about being mindful rather than being mindful, simply refocus, return to the present, and smile.

Dr. Michael Gervais speaks with clinical social worker Wendy Behary about how to identify and approach someone with narcissistic tendencies.
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