In yoga philosophy, Asmita is one of five kleshas, or things that distract or distort our otherwise quiet mind. Asmita is often translated as “ego” or a narrow focus on self. But it’s not just warning against egocentrism or self-conceit. And it’s not exactly the Freudian kind of ego, and not a dismissal of the kind of self-awareness and self-knowledge that we all need to function and develop as whole human beings. One of my teachers calls this practice of Asmita “selfing”: the continual building, elaborating and repairing of our self-image, both in our own mind and in the projected minds of others, that can rule our thoughts and motivate our actions. Asmita distorts our sense of purpose, and takes up lots and lots of energy. When we drop our concern about how we are seen, we can drop much of our over-efforting.
So I’m calling one of my current mindfulness practices the Asmit-o-meter. Here’s how it works. When I notice myself feeling tense, or gritting my teeth, or tightening my shoulders (you may know your own sites of over-effort), I check in with my situation to see if that level of tension is merited. And usually it’s not. My muscles are on alert, but I’m just waiting in line at the grocery store on an ordinary afternoon. Or I’m balancing in a yoga posture, but from the clench of my jaw you’d think I was balanced over a pit of alligators. Or I’m hearing someone on the radio express a viewpoint that I don’t agree with, and every hair on my body is bristling. Where is that tension coming from?
Very often, I can trace it back to self-protection or self-projection. Waiting in line, perhaps I am thinking of all the important things that I need to get done. If, at some deep level, I need continual achievement to justify my existence, then waiting in line becomes a true threat. Balancing in yoga class, perhaps I am confronting my inner perfectionist, or maybe I’m secretly competing with others in the room to hold the balance the longest. Again, though the situation is actually perfectly safe, the part of myself that needs to be liked, praised, or good is definitely on the line. In the same way, hearing someone’s opinion is not a physical danger, but the part of myself that is invested in my opinions feels directly attacked.
You can experience this friction yourself. Wherever you are right now, completely relax your face. Let all the muscles go slack, drop any expression. Release your jaw, your cheeks, your eyebrows. Sense the natural pull of gravity on your skin. When I do that, I feel instant relief. My mind slows to a crawl or even a stop, the pressures in my jaw and head evaporate, my heart rate and breathing slow down, I feel calmer and better. But even so, I can also sense my resistance to relaxing. After all, heroes have resolute, square jaws. Slack-jawed people are dopey and foolish. Intelligence is portrayed with bright, alert eyes and quick reactions, not droopy jowls and a dreamy countenance. Without usually noticing it, we use a great deal of effort in our face to project ourselves in just the right way.
The asmit-o-meter is a measure of actual effort vs. required effort, or fear/anxiety response vs. true level of risk. Sometimes it’s worth the effort to pick up your cheeks and smile. Sometimes it’s worth dropping your guard. When we can trust that we don’t need to bolster our ego, we can do less and have more energy.