Living an ego-directed life, as most of us in the United States do, could be compared to walking through a “mine”-field. To most of us it seems like the logical path (or maybe even the only path) through life, but it is fraught with danger in that sooner or later a “mine” is bound to blow up in our faces, causing us additional suffering and injuring others around us with its shrapnel. While its probably a tall order to expect to live entirely without ego, most of us could benefit from developing our “mine”-detectors so we can limit the damage.
What is Ego?
The ego is one’s concept of “self” – the seemingly eternal and unchanging core “me” that distinguishes us from everyone and everything else. It is made up of values, beliefs, assumptions, ideas and theories and these can be positive, negative or neutral, learned or fabricated. To maintain the ego, it must be protected and fed – and it takes an enormous amount of energy and time to do so.
The “mine” consists of things that serve to protect and feed the ego. They don’t really belong to us, but we strongly identify with them and the ego is diminished without them: my partner, my children, my friends, my job or role, my money, my house, my car, my good name.
The more the ego is fed the bigger it grows, so it can never be satiated. There can be a subtle sense of dissatisfaction, a restlessness to act, a constant hunger, a need for ever more. The bigger the ego grows, the more protection it needs due to its high perceived value. Any damage or loss seems enormous, so we ferociously defend “me” and “mine” and we are easily bruised and frightened when the ego has been threatened. Our egos can be inflated or deflated by the things we identify with.
What is an Ego-Directed Life?
When I say ego-directed, I don’t mean that we are all “egomaniacs”, behaving in a grandiose manner with a sense of entitlement, believing we are superior to others. Even the most outwardly humble, generous and loyal person can be driven by ego.
Ego-directed means that we tend to be over-focused on “me” and “mine” and this drives our behavior (giving and kind or otherwise), leading to eventual suffering. We automatically follow our own “instincts” and pursue our needs and desires, sometimes at others’ expense. We feel viscerally that we must protect this idea of self. This leads to grasping at things that we perceive as desirable, clinging to them once we have them, and pushing away things that are aversive to “me” and “mine”. Our ego-driven behavior is often very subtle and automatic, based on ignorance and fear rather than on bad intentions.
The insatiable yearning to analyze and discriminate, judge and choose—and thereby to control or shape the self in the image of its constantly shifting desires—is the elemental force of [suffering] in its most basic form. It is the inescapable plight of the self. – C. W. Huntington, Jr.
We’re All in This Together
To believe our “selves” separate and independent from other people and things is an illusion. Everything we do has consequences. When other people suffer, we indirectly suffer. When we harm the environment, we harm our “selves”. We often don’t realize the small ways in which our ego-driven behavior causes ripples of suffering every single day for all beings and we don’t anticipate the larger waves of suffering that come later down the line for our children and their children and so on.
Navigating the Mine-field
In this ego-driven society, it can be hard to fathom letting go of “me” and “mine”. How could it be possible? What would be the consequences? Perhaps at best we can set an intention to strike a better balance and focus a little more on the bigger picture. The only way to do this may be to begin to notice and objectively observe the ego. First we have to be still and be a witness to our inner experiences so that we can be aware of when the ego is in play. Then we can refrain from getting caught up and acting on it – this is what is meant by “letting go”.
Ego can be quite tenacious and deceptive. The suffering we feel due to the self-conscious emotions such as shame, embarrassment, and envy all spring from the ego, but we do not readily identify it as an ego-driven problem. We must have a self to blame, judge and compare in order to feel these emotions, so letting go of ego allows us to be less ashamed, shy, and jealous. This frees us to be more open, courageous, genuinely benefit others and appreciate their good fortune.
Even actions that appear selfless and altruistic on the surface can turn out to be ego-driven once we look deeper. Demanding the best for ones own children, defending an ally when they have acted unskillfully, giving money to a panhandler – the only way we can truly know our intentions is if we stop to examine them. We have to learn to detect the “mine” in our behavior. If we can see that our actions are serving ego first, we can choose not to engage in them or to do something truly selfless instead.
Of course there are certain basic needs that must be met in this modern society. We have to obtain basic resources, both for immediate needs and on reserve for times of scarcity (such as saving for retirement, having an emergency fund for unexpected obstacles). We have to take care of our bodies and minds so we can benefit others.
What if we took the perspective that all beings are intrinsically “perfect”? Even the cruelest person and the vilest of creatures carry within them all that is needed -yes, even you. It’s just that this perfection has been obscured by ignorance, fear, misguided concepts (ideas of how things are, should and should not be), unskillful reactions to causes and conditions.
All we need to do is to clear away our own obscurations in order to tap into this perfection. This would mean that we are all equal and no being is greater, more important, or more deserving than any other. It would also mean that each being, tapping into their own perfection, would benefit all others. This is a pretty radical concept in our culture and ego shattering as well.