Robert Louis Stephenson once wrote: "I have a little shadow who goes in and out with me; and what can be the use of him is more than I can see. He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head; and I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed."

Clever poem, but what is he talking about? The ego, of course. It is the chief culprit in all human unhappiness. Yet, most people live and die with this little inner character running their lives. They neither know him nor recognize his presence. If they did, they would take the necessary steps to bring an end to it.

What is ego? It is your "social self," as Martha Beck has labeled it. It is what the philosopher Immanuel Kant described as your "precious little self." It is the illusory image of yourself, the karmic collection of all your life experiences. It is really not you, of course. No more so than the image of you that you see in a mirror is really you either; but it is the image of yourself that you wish to project upon the world. It is, therefore, what Deepak Chopra calls, "your make-believe self," or your "social mask."

Ego is distinguished by the fact that it is self-centered, self-obsessed, and self-absorbed. Ego has one aim, as Wayne Dyer has eloquently put it, and that is to "Edge God Out." It is, therefore, the human condition, the one reality all humans share in common. The Biblical equivalent to the ego is described throughout the Old and New Testaments as "sin." It is that part of you that you may think of as you but it really isn't you at all. It is instead the "little shadow" of you, as Stephenson described it, or the "dog," within you, as the Nietzsche is purported to have once called it.

Since the ego is this little monster inside everyone and is the cause, not only for personal unhappiness, but virtually all the interpersonal and social problems in the world, what can we do to overcome it?

Here's how:

1. First, know that most of the talk that goes on inside your head is the voice of your ego. So, learn to watch what's being said. Believe virtually none of it; but question it, at the least. This part of you who does the watching is closer to who you really are anyway.

2. Second, don't fight the ego. You'll lose almost every time. After thousands of years of human history, the ego has become quite clever. It is best just to recognize within yourself, not only the virtually incessant conversations the self has with its-self, but the times you feel offended, when you catch yourself judging yourself, someone else, or some situation. Know that this is the ego in you. No need to fight it. No need to judge yourself or condemn yourself when you catch the ego behaving in its customarily self-centered fashions. Just recognize it. The recognition alone is enough to diminish the ego's control over you. Notice, too, that in Stephenson's poem, he writes, "And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed." That's the kind of "watcher," as Eckhart Tolle calls it, you must become. As the watcher, you can train yourself to recognize the antics of the "little me" inside of you. If you will make this your spiritual practice, you will overcome the ego.

3. Finally, know that the way to greater happiness is the way of ego-death. Ego, the self-centered you, will die as you become more and more aware of its presence in you. Awareness, observation, recognition of the ego is as a death-nail to it. That is to say, the more you become aware of it, the less control it has over you. You'll discover yourself freer of self-judgment (itself the cause of much unhappiness); you'll discover you are much less judgmental of others and situations (another cause of much inner suffering). Whenever you judge someone, for example, whether yourself or someone else, you are in a mental state of resistance. "What you resist, persists" said one spiritual teacher. That is to say, if you don't like something someone is doing but sit in continual judgment upon them (most of which, coincidentally, takes place in the head - YOUR head), you should not be surprised to see their unwanted behavior proliferate and your inner suffering to escalate. Why not recognize this resistance within yourself, instead? After all, it is none other than the ego, and you can be free of it.

The way to happiness is ego death. Recognition is the key. As the ego in you dies, you live. Until it dies, you don't.

Author's Bio: 

Dr.Steve McSwain is the author of two other books. His more recent, The Giving Myths: Giving then Getting the Life You’ve Always Wanted, is a profoundly provocative and inspiring book on generosity. He holds a doctorate in Christian ministry and served as a pastor for more than two decades. For the last fifteen years, he has consulted with religious leaders and congregations within virtually every branch of the Church—Catholic, Evangelical, and Protestant alike. Today, he continues his consultative work, while maintaining a writing and speaking career at churches, conventions, and corporate events nationwide.