John and Ego

Before arriving in India, I felt I had an ‘ego’ problem. For several years, I found that I had two motivating forces when deciding what I wanted to do, whether in my work, or in my relations with others.

One was the desire to be constructive in society, to do ‘good’. The other was my ego, which I felt was my concern over what others thought of what I was doing. I thought this was basically a self-important or ‘bad’ motivation. The pull between these two forces, one ‘bad’, the other ‘good’, was a lack of direction I felt inside. Earlier, as I sat waiting to be allowed into the ashram, I thought meditation would help this. And for some reason, I was sure John must have already gone through this stage in his life, and that talking with him might help me resolve my conundrum.

Early one morning, John was sitting alone at the table by the cliff, writing. We both asked for ‘chai’, and when we had finished our tea, and he had stopped writing, I described what was bothering me. I asked him if he had experienced the same and, if so, how he had resolved his internal struggle. He laughed heartily, and after a moment, said, “Good one, mate! There’s one of the great puzzles in life. How to do good for others and, at the same time, for yourself? And where’s the line between?”

He paused, and I said, “Exactly! That’s where I’m having trouble. Doubting myself, and at moments I do nothing, not knowing what’s ‘right’.” “I still have that in me head, too,” he chuckled. Clearly, we were both having a good time. “Really?” I asked, incredulously. “Uh-huh,” he said, affirmatively, and continued, “I asked the Maharishi about it the other day, and he said ego is not a bad thing. Actually, it’s a good thing. The important thing, he said, was whether our ego manifestations result in good for others or in hurt for others.”

“Uh-huh?” I said, expecting that he’d continue.
“Well, then, that’s where you draw the line, mate. That’s how you tell. Then we’re doing good for others, while we’re doing good for ourselves.” “Thanks, John”, I responded, “that helps.” “Good then,” he said with a smile.

In the quiet that followed, I continued to think about it and it made a lot of sense. As we sat, a flight of 7 or 8 crows landed in a nearby tree. All of a sudden, a large lemur monkey swung boldly, leaping five feet through the air from an adjacent tree into theirs, sending them skyward amid a cacophony of strident danger signals.

After a few moments, John added,”You know, Paul, it’s like the civil rights work you did. Someone said you were in the American South registering blacks for the vote, a few years ago, isn’t it?”

“Yes, in the summer of 1965.” I answered, surprised that he’d heard about it. He hadn’t been present when I’d mentioned it in a brief conversation about Martin Luther King that several of us had over dinner, a few days earlier. “Your civil rights work” he went on, “is a bloody good example of your ego doing something good, for others, and also feeling good about yourself, at the same time.”

“Yes, that’s true.” I responded, “I believe it helped in a small way, and certainly I felt good about myself.” He tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow, as if to say, “There you go,” and went back to writing in his notebook.

That talk with John helped me enormously, actually clarifying the issue for me. Now, I didn’t feel weird to have been confused. After all, one of my heroes had been puzzling the same conundrum, so I was obviously pretty normal.