Recall a time when you woke up in the middle of the night worrying about something—perhaps a work issue or an unresolved conflict. Most likely your mind jumped from one concern to the next, as each anxious thought reminded you of something that in turn created another worry. Maybe you started thinking about an uncomfortable interaction with a family member, or you recalled the way a colleague at the office had been dismissive toward you and as a result you felt resentful. Do you remember repeating certain conversations in your mind and regretting what you said or didn’t say, or rehearsing what you would say next time if you got the chance? Probably the more you thought about it, the more agitated you felt.
Or maybe you woke up and started worrying about money, about all the expenses piling up. How would you ever manage? Did this lead to thoughts about other people who were better off, or those who didn’t have so many financial issues? Did the envy make you more upset; did it make you feel more helpless or angry or even more of a victim?
So there you were, tossing and turning in bed, exhausted by your own thoughts and emotions; and to top it all off, realizing that you had an especially busy day ahead, you got scared about not being able to get back to sleep. How would you get through the day after having been awake all night? And this new vicious circle of thinking continued, feeding on itself, consuming you in its reality.
If you recognize yourself in this scenario, don’t feel bad. This is typical of what the ego does whenever you feel threatened or unsafe in any way, especially with the uncertainty of a health issue or if you are in the midst of major change. The ego simply does not know how to deal with challenging feelings like vulnerability and feeling out of control. When the ego is running the show, you can notice a dynamic: One thought generates an emotion that leads to another thought that generates another emotion. Round and round you go like a dog chasing its tail—well, in this case tale—becoming increasingly agitated and upset, even if in that moment you are otherwise actually fine, safe, and secure in your bed. Meanwhile, you never even really recognize the original feeling that triggered this mental stampede; you never actually face it and meet it with awareness.
To get you so worked up, the ego has to make you oblivious to the present moment, because the ego recedes when you are fully in the Now. So to maintain itself, your ego will yank you away from the Now—away from reality, thought by thought. If you begin to observe what your ego is doing, you will notice that when the ego leads your awareness away from the Now moment, there are only four places it can take you: into the past, into the future, into stories about yourself, and into stories about others.
The good news is that you can get off this not-merry-go-round as soon as you recognize that you are not in the present. Ask yourself, “What is actually happening now?” Look around you, observe, and listen. What is the contrast between your actual situation in your immediate surroundings—the sounds, the quality of light, the colors, and so on—versus the mental and emotional world created by your thoughts? Become aware of your breathing and bodily sensations. Let yourself relax. You may be sick, but you aren’t under attack, except by your own thoughts.
Recognize what your ego has done: it has yanked you out of the present, into memories and expectations. Thinking about the past has created emotions of guilt, blame, regret, or nostalgia; and thinking about an imaginary future has generated anxiety and fearfulness. You have been overtaken by debilitating mind-made emotion. This intense self-contraction is the hallmark of ego at its worst. But becoming aware that you are not in the present and realizing I’m in the future or I’m in the past is what it takes to wake up out of the dream and drama.
As you restore yourself to the present, the inner turmoil recedes because you have stemmed the tide of thoughts that had been creating and sustaining it. You are cutting through delusion. As you learn to use the power of your awareness to come back to the present moment, you become more embodied, more awake to your true self, and able to address the demands of your life with clarity.
Every time you leave the Now, you inevitably identify with a story you tell yourself, about yourself, your health, or your life. It is as though you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland into an imaginary universe. But unlike Alice, who knew that she was in a fantasy world, most of us are totally convinced that it is real.
This is crucial to understand, because blind identification with your stories will continue forever unless you recognize the pattern and expose it to the light of Now-moment awareness. You are only your authentic self when you wake up and take your rightful place as the aware being watching the whole show but no longer captured by it.
The process of awakening into greater awareness and presence is sometimes referred to as the death of the ego. In fact, many spiritual teachings talk about killing the ego. But the ego doesn’t and indeed shouldn’t die as you develop a high degree of presence; rather, it ceases to rule your mind and determine your experience. Thereafter, it serves awareness by providing your unique point of view, but no longer in a way that defines your identity, separates you, and makes you special. As the ego recedes and awareness prevails, your identity as a separate self becomes less dominant, and at last you really taste the fullness of being.

Richard Moss, M.D., is an internationally respected leader in the field of conscious living and inner transformation. He is the author of six seminal books on using the power of awareness to realize our intrinsic wholeness and reclaim the wisdom of our true selves.