First of all, what is the ego?
The ego is a term used to describe the conditioning, concepts and ideas you have acquired during your life that act as a lens through which you view the world. It was put there by you yourself as you went through different life experiences, as a way to make sense of the huge amount of input you received from the external environment. The ego constructs itself through first-hand experience (for example, being bitten by a dog once might leave you with a fear of dogs), as well as second-hand ideas we get from our culture and society (for example, the belief that some vocations are ‘better’ than others). Every belief and unconscious reaction you have is the result of your ego.
Overall, the ego has been an incredibly effective survival tool, and we wouldn’t be here today without it. However, it is now becoming evident that the structure of ego, and the greed, fear and violence that is born out of it, is reaching a breaking point, where to go on as we are would probably mean destroying both ourselves and the planet. To care predominantly about one’s own survival is becoming an unsustainable way of living.
The spiritual path is about seeing beyond the ego – beyond our small selves. We can start to see through the ego’s lies and realise that it is, in fact, entirely made-up – an illusion.
Our ideas we have about the world are not actually the world itself.
This is the problem with the ego – we always think our own ideas are true, when in fact they are simply one view, one angle of the totality of things. In fact, no idea, no concept could ever completely depict or represent reality as it is. Reality is beyond words.
It is a great pity, then, that the root of a large majority of the suffering in the world is simply born out of ideas, and is therefore totally unnecessary. Once you start to see through your own ego, you see the madness of it all.
The good and bad news is that since your ego was created by you, only you can deconstruct it.
So how do you deconstruct it? By first simply observing the ways in which you judge both yourself and others.
What we care about and what bothers us in the external world is an indication of where we need to work on ourselves. It’s just a reflection.
Let’s take a fairly common example of an egoic reaction – road rage. You might not be a road-rager or even a driver, but let’s just go with it.
Now, I’m not saying that bad driving is a good thing. Not at all. But we can choose how to respond.
Let’s say someone pulls out in front of you, and you have to slow down. You’re alright, nothing happened, no one was hurt. This is a common occurrence on the road. Yes, it could have caused an accident. That is absolutely true. But if you think about it – isn’t an accident possible at any time when you’re on the road? I mean, literally anything could happen. A fox could run out and cause you to crash.
Risk is an inherent part of life.
Again, I’m not condoning poor driving but, being human, don’t you think that mistakes are an inherent part of life too? Don’t we all make mistakes sometimes?
So how do you react when that person pulls out in front of you? Maybe you honk your horn angrily. Does that help?
Stop for a minute and think – does it actually help? You might find yourself justifying it with thoughts like, ‘But if no one reminds them then they’re just going to do it again’.
Let’s question that further. Will beeping at that driver make him less likely to make the same mistake again?
From my own experience of being a driver, when I make a mistake, I tend to know I’ve done it. If someone beeps at me, do I think ‘Oh jolly good, thank you for reminding me’? It obviously depends what it is, but in the example above – unlikely. Most people’s reactions would probably be somewhere along the lines of: defensiveness (‘fuck you, you prick’), or self-hate (‘oh God, I’m an awful driver’).
That last option might sound positive to you. ‘Good’, you think, ‘As long as they hate themselves they’ll be motivated to change.’
And here we arrive at the sorry, sorry state of much of humanity.
Please, ask yourself:
Does self-hate make you a better person?
How do you feel when you make a mistake on the road?
Are you kind to yourself? Do you forgive yourself as soon as it’s happened, because you know you’re only human and everyone makes mistakes?
If not, how do you react? What do you say to yourself in your head?
Maybe it’s something like, ‘I’m such an idiot. I’m going to cause an accident one day’. Maybe it adds to a story of how you’re not good enough.
And does that make you a better driver?
Probably not. If anything, it erodes your confidence, and we know the effect that a lack of confidence has on one’s ability.
But what about the other type of driver? you say. The one who doesn’t care, or who doesn’t even notice that they’ve made a mistake.
What about them? They exist, yes. And what can you do about it? Is there anything you can do? The type of driver that just doesn’t care, rather than self-hating, is probably hating the world – other people – even hating you. Do you think beeping your horn at them will make them change?
… really though?
Rather than trying to change other people, which is more often than not a waste of time and even worsens cycles of defensiveness and self-hate, wouldn’t it be better to work on ourselves first?
So let’s ask ourselves – does it feel good to be full of hatred, whether it’s self-hate or hatred of others?
I personally don’t think it feels good. On the thought level, it makes me more distracted and therefore, ironically, more likely to make mistakes myself. And the effects on our physiology are quite shocking – anger weakens the immune system and dramatically increases the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
It’s a disease. Hatred of yourself and of others. It’s toxic. And everyone’s suffering from it.
Even if you only feel hatred once in a blue moon, that hatred is still there, it is simply lying dormant, and the only way to be free of it forever is to understand the ego.
Returning to the road rage example, the fact is that you have no idea what’s going on in another driver’s head, and you never will. So why not assume the best of them? Assume they’re trying their best. Assume they’re only human, and just like you they have their worries and desires, and navigation problems, and kids screaming in the back, or whatever it might be.
What’s the other option? Assume they’re trying to kill everyone on the road? How does that work for you? Is it realistic? Is it a helpful belief?
Okay, so let’s say you see the ludicracy of it all and want to put an end to hatred. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to feel angry. No feeling is wrong, as such, but maybe you can see how some emotions are simply misinformed and unnecessary reactions to life. You are then starting to see through the lies of your own ego, and from there you can begin to forgive yourself. You can stop buying into all the stories of how you’ve been wronged or how you’re not good enough – all the stories your ego thrives on.
What does this look like? It means:
- When you make a mistake, you are kind to yourself.
- As a result, when others make a mistake, you can forgive them, just like you forgive yourself.
- Free from incessant thoughts of judgement and condemnation, you have more space to actually be present when you are doing things. The result? Fewer mistakes!
- Weakening your own story of self-hatred, and contributing less to other people’s, self-love is starting to reassert itself.
- You are contributing to world peace. Absolutely. Definitely. In concrete, physical ways. You have no idea of the knock-on effect this can have.
So think carefully the next time you react to something – why do you react that way? Does it help? Where is this feeling coming from?
Remember, it’s all a reflection. If something about someone else annoys you, that indicates there’s part of you that needs to be healed.
Other examples of the hypocritical ego might include:
- The environmental activist who can’t keep their room tidy
- The homophobic/xenophobic/anything-o-phobic person who fears being different and needs to belong
- The therapist with unresolved trauma from their past
Obviously environmental action and therapy are things we need much more of to heal the world, but our contribution in these fields is really limited when we haven’t gotten to the root within ourselves.
Lasting change really does start from within!