I remember the first time I heard the term spiritual egoism. A master yogi I greatly respect was giving a talk on meditation. He warned that seasoned yogis—especially those we sometimes refer to as “rock star” yoga teachers—are just as in danger of being slaves to their ego as anyone else.
The yogi should neither accept nor smile with pride at the admiration of even the celestial beings, as there is the possibility of his getting caught again in the undesirable. (sutra 3.52)
Watching for Spiritual Egoism
It’s easy to fall so deeply in love with yoga that it takes over our lives. Sometimes we become so “good at it” that we begin to suspect we are living on a higher level than those around us. We must immediately reject thoughts like this, as Sri Patanjali warns.
Note that even if the celestial beings themselves admire a yogi, the yogi should resist spiritual egoism. Celestial beings—or enlightened beings in the lore of yoga—were once mere mortals themselves. Specifically, says yogascholar Jaganath Carrera, they “were unenlightened yoga adepts in a former life.”
Fortunately, Patanjali gives us a few verses to help us look out for the unique form of attachment known as spiritual egoism. The first is to notice single moments, because they make up what we perceive of as time.
By samyama on single moments in sequence comes discriminative knowledge. (sutra 3.53)
The idea is that once a yogi learns to recognize the illusion of time, he or she can distinguish between what changes (illusion) and what is unchanging (reality or truth).
Thus the indistinguishable difference between objects that are alike in species, characteristic marks, and position become distinguishable. (sutra 3.54)
The transcendent discriminative knowledge that simultaneously comprehends all objects in all conditions is the intuitive knowledge (which brings liberation). (sutra 3.55)
An adept yogi can simultaneously experience all of creation at the same time. He becomes one with all that is.
But as soon as he notices this, he become separate again. That’s the trap of spiritual egoism!
You Can’t Fool Your True Self
When the tranquil mind attains purity equal to that of the Self, there is Absoluteness. (sutra 3.56)
Reverend Carrera explains this sutra profoundly. “When the mirror becomes completely clean and undistorted, it is transparent to the Self. It is then that we can understand how we can, in the words of Lord Jesus, ‘Be perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48)”
When we know ourselves, we can no longer fool ourselves. We no longer have the experience of being separate—whether that means we feel less than, better than, or different in any way from the source of our being. Obviously, we can’t have this experience of oneness if we suffer from spiritual egoism.
So, practice, and strive for perfect union with the divine.
But don’t feel too good about it!