Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ego: A Loyal Friend

"Wear your ego like a loose fitting garment.”

Sometimes our egos get us into trouble. Actually, a lot of times our egos get us into trouble. The ego is inherently not a team player. It's the part of the mind that believes "I should be the supreme ruler of the universe." Everything that stops us from attaining that exalted status is a crisis for the ego, and it has all kinds of ways of throwing tantrums in protest. Maybe it's a sniping comment, a career-ending outburst, an urge to punch someone, or simply annoyance in response to another person's every little action.

A lot of people go through life letting the ego call the shots, and the problem with this strategy is that the ego doesn't care about actual well-being; it cares only about the feeling of being special. The experiences necessary for growing up and being happy--and maybe even being successful--require the ego to confront failure and embarrassment; they require the ego to submit to the desires and leadership of other people; they require the ego to see its own imperfections. The ego would much rather delude itself: "I don't need to go to college--I'll just win American Idol/marry someone rich/start a business and sell it to Google." "I don't need to listen to that jerk--I'm better/smarter/prettier/more blessed/more realistic."

When facing the "harsh realities" of the world, the ego can turn to dysfunctional fantasies just to keep alive the feeling of being special. Poor people can convince themselves that the rich are evil and that poverty makes them morally superior. Rich people may feel guilty that people suffer in poverty and think they have the right to "fix" things by temporarily meddling in others' lives. Atheists may think that their skepticism is the sign of a superior mind, while religious people may think their faith is the sign of a superior heart.

One problem with all these opinions is that they are divisive; they engender distrust, dislike, and even mistreatment of other people. Another problem, maybe the biggest problem, is that they foster self-destructive behavior. The ego will go to great lengths to maintain the fantasy it has spun for itself, even at the cost of one's own well-being. It can be completely counterproductive: hating the rich won't lead to a good livelihood, assuaging guilt won't make the world's problems vanish, intellectual arrogance leads to small-mindedness, and blind faith leads to grandiose delusions. When egotistical plans fail to produce the intended outcomes, many people interpret the failure of their actions as a personal assault, and the ego gets riled up for the next round of reactions.

Some people are lucky enough to learn from these mistakes, and they begin the process of understanding how their mind works. Zen is such a process, but I want to add that other traditions have their own ways of helping people get over ego hang-ups. Religious customs and laws serve to guide people past the ego's momentary passions so they can better live in tune with the reality of being a little person in a big world. When explored intelligently, these traditions can lead to a broader awareness that allows for a wonderful and deep understanding of life. Part of that understanding is an appreciation of the ego, its function and dysfunction, and what to do with it. This can bring powerful relief from a lot of the ego's bad behavior.

Yet there are still pitfalls. The ego is very sneaky.

Whether you take the Christian approach, for example, which puts the ego in its place beneath the supreme authority of God, or you take the Buddhist approach, which deconstructs the ego and the rest of empirical existence, you can fall back into the ego's trap pretty easily. You might have a sublime spiritual experience that puts you in touch with a deep feeling of connection with God or reality, and for a while the ego seems to be stilled; you feel content with your place in the universe and you don't want to change a thing. But then the ego gets active again and starts to speak up. It says, "Wow, that was an amazing experience. I'm making such great progress. I'm really good at this. Why doesn't anyone else see what I see? I must have some unique ability. I must be special." Then it's back to the old ways: "I don't need to meditate. I don't need to pray. I'm just naturally in tune with this stuff. Whatever I do is fine." Or there could be greed instead: "If I try harder, I'll attain enlightenment. Maybe God will start talking to me. Maybe I can develop psychic powers."

It's hard to see or stop these feelings from taking root; they are often happening at the periphery of consciousness. What is easy to see is the result of these thoughts: disapproval of people who do not meet the ego's idealistic new standards, frustration that the great spiritual experiences cannot be repeated or captured, or disappointment when reality fails to live up to the ego's unrealistic expectations. When a profound spiritual event is followed by a permeating dissatisfaction with life, the ego is often, perhaps always, the culprit. This may also be the case with any emotional event that is followed by depression or dissatisfaction. The ego gets really excited when things are going the way it wants, and it does not let go gracefully.

When people recognize that the ego is responsible for so much anguish, they may turn to spirituality as an escape. Ironically, this is still an egotistical action. As mentioned before, the ego can use spirituality to make itself feel special, but even deeper than that is the issue of intention: what are we really doing when we seek an escape from our anguish? Aren't we simply engaging in the delusion that we are too special to be subjected to pain?

We're looking for special treatment. We're hoping to be the one person who never suffers. In that hope, we turn our spiritual journey into an impossible mission that will bring about more frustration and disappointment than anything else, because every little pain in life will be a reminder that we are failing in this impossible goal, and so our pain will be multiplied and multiplied.

Clearly, we can suffer less if we just let go of the impossible goal and learn to live with the suffering that comes on its own without trying to escape.

But this doesn't come immediately. Nor should it. In this intermediate position, where we recognize the suffering caused by our egos, but we haven't moved past it, there are opportunities to see what the ego really is. This is the time look at it.

The ego's relentless effort to make you feel special, no matter how self-destructive it may be, no matter how badly its clever attempts backfire, shows us its true nature: it is like a loyal but simpleminded friend, a doting grandmother, or a loving, nagging spouse. Our ego loves us dearly and wants only the best for us, but does not understand what we really need. It is not evil or malicious. It is simply blinded by the intensity of its love for the being it calls "me." It is an emotional being, not intellectual. It cannot be swayed by reason. It wants to destroy anyone who stands in your way, even though you know you need those people on your side. It is convinced of your superiority and wants to encourage you to have more, do more, and be more because it believes you deserve it. So it nags and nags, thinking it's helping. It's actually making you suffer, but it doesn't see that. It's too caught up in its love for you. It won't admit to itself that it has hurt you--that would be painful--so it blames all your pain on others and hides its actions from itself. That's one reason it's so hard to see it for what it is.

Another confusing factor is that when the ego uses language, it uses the name "me" to refer to itself, to other parts of the mind, and to the idea of one's identity. We're taught to think of our minds (and selves) as single, unified entities, when the reality is that they are composed of many parts that interact in all kinds of ways. Even the ego isn't one thing. There are all the different layers of ego from each period of your life, layered like tree rings. There's so much going on that it's hard, probably impossible, to sort out the whole mess. And even if you did get to the bottom of it and figure out your mind and the meaning of life, the ego is not going to respond to a purely intellectual understanding. So what can be done?

Because the ego is an emotional being, it does respond to emotional experiences. One aim of spiritual practice is to lead you to the kind of experiences that will reach the ego. When that part of your mind finally discovers that there is happiness to be found in caring about others, in accepting change, in forgiving, and in simply living the life that you are living, then it will become an asset instead of an obstacle. Ultimately, this means teaching the ego to share some of its boundless love with others. When that finally happens, and the ego sees that it's not just okay, but wonderful to do, it creates a positive feedback cycle.

Nevertheless, old habits persist, and the ego still nags. The different sides of ego, the love and the nagging, are inseparable. But the more we come to understand and appreciate the ego, the more skillful we can be about our response to it. It's like learning to live with someone who loves you a lot but upsets you with their high expectations: sometimes you need their encouragement, and other times you have to brush off what they say.

When I first read the line "wear your ego like a loose fitting garment," which is vaguely attributed to Buddha on the Internet, I thought it meant "it should be easy to take it off." That understanding was based on the desire to escape from the suffering caused by the ego. But if that's impossible, the quote simply means that the ego should serve its function without being too restrictive, and that is a much more realistic state to work toward.

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