Our unconscious egos can seem to offer us an endless array of issues to sort through. It can seem like you’ve no sooner tackled one than another issue pops up, leaving you in an endless game of ego whack-a-mole. But the deeper you go, the simpler things become. And the further you journey inwards, the more you find that it really is the same main issue that is being dealt with again and again in a hundred masks.

Nonetheless, I encourage you to respect your process. If you need to understand why you are choosing certain toxic relationships or bad job situations, start there. Look at what it is you think you want and what you’re getting. Look at how you grew up and how that informed what you wanted. As you do this, you’ll find all kinds of spiritual revelations and realizations that will further your growth and accelerate you towards dealing with the top ego issue.

Now, I do want to say that the ego has a couple of big issues, but we’re going to biggest one, which leads us further in understanding the human animals that we are. Because make no mistake about it, evolution has built up layers and layers of deeper programs that greatly inform how we construct our egos. So to go to the next step and truly confront the number one ego issue, you’re going to have to get to the biological roots and truth of the situation.

What Is the Number One Ego Issue?

The number one ego issue is this: safety. At all costs, the ego wants to keep you safe. The unconscious ego attempts to keep us safe socially, intellectually, emotionally, financially, energetically, and physically. It is a hyper-active pitbull that has us chasing our tails in a whole variety of ways, although we usually don’t really understand this.

Initially, wanting a nice home or having a job don’t really looks like safety issues. But when we really look at them, the only reason to have a job is to get money to get the necessary resources for food, shelter (the nice home), clothing, healthcare, and so on. Those are all part of attending to our physical safety. People care about money to put their children through college because the assumption is that higher education will lead to better paying jobs, aka ensuring their long-term safety.

And while I don’t want to say that everything is about safety, the huge majority of ego issues are rooted in this fundamental issue, and until we deal with the issue of safety and the biological fear of death, the unconscious ego will keep growing back and distorting our perspectives on what safety is and how it should look.

The Fear of Death and the Human Animal’s Drive to Survive

Biologically speaking, the fear of death–which is a whole lot of biochemicals that prepare us to run, freeze, or fight–is really necessary. Before we had any kind of analytical brains to assess situations, the body had to develop some kind of mechanism to keep it alive. If it hadn’t, we would be here today because our ancestors wouldn’t have run or fought when a tiger decided to eat them.

These days, we have a limited need for this physiological response, but it has infiltrated most of the way we live our lives. The legacy of evolution in this regard is kind of like building multiple houses and then skyscrapers on top of the original foundation that was never really meant to support these things. It is also defines the structures that you can create. With a fear of dying and of not being safe defining our civilization, we are easily persuaded to go to war, drive other businesses out of business, and to do other aggresssive (fight) actions because we feel threatened. So as you can see, this type of thinking is extremely harmful, and it keeps us all locked in cycles of pain and suffering.

What’s worse is that we use our memories to create longer and longer lists of things that we think threaten our safety. This includes everything from insults or criticism to having to wait “too long” in a grocery line. Because things are not going according to what we want, we consider that a threat to our survival at the most fundamental and unconscious level. This perception of threat then defines our actions, which tend to spread more pain such as the lady throwing a fit about having to wait too long to check out her humus and chips.

Looking Deep Into the Anatomy of the Ego

For today’s spiritual blog post, I really want you to think of the ego more in a physiological sense or at least a slave to it. There’s a lot of talk in the spiritual world that we can just get away from this whole physical mess we call the body, but our bodies are our sacred vessels for this current moment. That is a simple spiritual truth (read more spiritual truths here: 9 Spiritual Truths to Live By). There’s no getting away from that, and while we all have fun spiritual experiences from time to time, those experiences all are vetted through the lens of the ego. The more open and clear you are to life, the more you can experience.

But what is openness really?

In my experience, true openness is a state of mental, emotional, and PHYSICAL relaxation.  Without the physical relaxation, experiences become extremely brief if they arise at all. A lot of feeling openness has to do with having perspective. Many people don’t know what openness really feels like because they’ve been so shutdown for so long. For some opening up brings out a host of undealt with and upsetting issues. As such, some people conclude that openness feels bad. But this is just the unpaid bills coming due. Eventually you pay them, and you can then go deeper into openness.

On the other side is limitation and constriction, which is largely what the ego does. The ego filters out a lot of experiences, sensations, and memories to get you to the ones that are most important. The ones most important to the body–which is defining this show–are typically those that impact safety. Anything that appears threatening unconsciously brings about constriction on the mental, emotional, and physical level, which ultimately doesn’t feel very good. The more constricted someone is, the more pain likely to feel in their physical being. The more pain they feel, the more likely the unconscious ego is to interpret that you are still under threat and to interpret a great portion of your life including benign things as potential assailants and or unsafe situations. This leads to self-fulfilling prophecies where someone creates bad situations because of their own fear and inner pain. And other people are likely to respond int he same way, and this becomes cycles of shared pain.

What’s worse is that if someone had a painful and abusive upbringing, pain and safety are now confused. For many people, they gravitate to painful situations because that’s how they grew up. That situation gets–strangely enough–interpreted as a “safe” situation, when that’s absolutely not the case. Furthermore, many people stay in abusive situations because the greater perceived threat is the fear of the unknown. In this way, familiarity often ends up on the safety list when it shouldn’t.

Creating a List of Perceived Threats

Tackling this safety issue head on is difficult for most people because if we’re honest, most people would say that they want to feel safe. Now, there’s an important distinction here; people want to feel safe. But feelings come from within us. So we have ultimate determination over what we feel. That’s part of the realizations that need to arise for you as you grow on the spiritual path and become more and more heart strong.

Becoming Heart Strong

No one makes you feel anything emotionally or even physically. The nervous system is what tells you about pain. If you didn’t have that and other associated anatomical pieces, you wouldn’t feel pain. But if you didn’t feel pain, you could tell that you’d stuck your hand in the fire and were doing irreparable damage. As such, on the spiritual path we learn to understand pain as a communication tool and not some kind of inner enemy that is torturing us.

In any event, writing down your list of perceived threats in life can be very rewarding and illuminating. Since everyone sees life differently, this will be very unique to you. The more painful your childhood has been, the more likely you are to see more threats because on top of the anatomy of the ego, you were being taught that life was threatening at an early age. The types of perceived threats are expansive and can include not getting good grades in school, getting insulted by other people, not having a 401K, not being able to get a job, not having any friends, not looking attractive, and so on. But sit down and be sincere. What are you threatened by/scared of? See what comes out.

One Other Major Ego Issue

Also built into the biology of the human being is the drive to procreate. This is typically where the unconscious ego’s drive towards romantic relationships are rooted. I don’t want to go into too much depth with this one because the safety one is the bigger of the two. It’s primarily because you have to survive long enough to procreate. Once some people have had children, many people suddenly find a big inner shift has happened, and the drive for sex or romantic partnership can disappear (not always, but it does happen). This is because you’ve achieved the biological mission.

With survival and safety, that issue can be at play to some people’s last days. Everyone is programmed differently genetically and via their upbringing, but for most people if they’re starving or are being physically attacked, a huge amount of fear and other inner energies are going to be ignited to protect the human body–to protect your life. And as I said, this type of physiological marshalling of your forces has been and to some degree is still needed. But if we are to evolve further, there’s a deep re-training of these core processes that has to happen as we rebirth the ego into a truly helpful lens for seeing, interpreting, and interacting with life.

Spiritual Mindful Breathing and Reprogramming

You really can’t think your way out of these old physiological programs that drive the ego’s number one issue. But you can breathe into them when they come up. To get down to this level, you’ll need to have worked with a lot of unconscious beliefs about what you want and who you’re trying to be. Because if you give some of these instinctual safety fears any kind of space, they’ll take over your whole body. I often refer to this as a kind of contraction. When we drop into our issues, our perspectives narrow into tunnel vision. We don’t physically feel good, and we have to sit with this issue to allow it to process out. The deeper you go into this core issue, the harder the contraction feels. Partly, this is due to knowing what freedom and openness feel like. The contrast becomes bigger, and it really makes it very clear where you still have work to do.

The Animal Within: Retraining the Primal Instinctual Body

Working with the safety issue is best addressed with mindful breathing. When you already know how to handle your unconscious beliefs, the breath is a simple and beautiful way to signal to the body to come out of fear. It helps you to dissolve the response and stop the physiological chain reaction that can lead someone into total fear paralysis, others to violence, and others into deep depression. The myriad of unconscious ways we respond to threats on our safety is vast, and the amount of energy and ease we reclaim by breaking these inner cycles can be equally immense. But this is no picnic. This is not an affirmation away from “getting it.” This is taking your spiritual practice to your roots and retraining your animal within. This is about doing whatever we can to restructure the evolutionary foundation through mindfulness and mindful breathing so that we truly own and master our bodies.

Because as I said, the body is always part of this moment and this experience. It already colors how you see life, and you can either help it to allow you to see life for what it is, or you can remain trapped in your physical responses and continue playing whack-a-mole with the latest ego issue that grows back out of that core concern about needing to feel safe.


I'm a spiritual teacher who helps people find freedom from suffering.

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