According to the Buddhist perspective clinging to our egos, which is a form of bondage, is the root cause of all suffering. But what exactly is ego? I associate the word ego with egotism and imagine an individual who is conceited, self-serving, unbalanced, using language filled with I, me and mine, a person who is so full of themselves that they can’t empathize or connect with other people. An egotist is a person who is mentally ill because he or she has an overblown sense of self. An egotist is deluded. And yet we all have egos; we all at times exaggerate our own importance, clinging to definitions of ourselves as more important than that of other people. Ego comes into play when people really like us or really don’t like us or when we feel we’ve been wronged by someone or some group and foster this pervasive sense of resentment. So ego is about how we perceive ourselves and how we think others perceive us, about Self and Other. It colors our moments.
Anger, hatred and violence are expressions of ego; even minor annoyances and impatience show where we are holding on to our own self-importance in relation to others. Cravings and desire, anxiety and fear, withdrawal and indifference all circle around our sense of self, what we want and what we don’t want. None of us can say, even the most spiritually well trained person, that we don’t encounter some of these elements in our daily lives. Ego oriented thoughts come into our awareness a lot of the time. They are part of what makes us human and fallible. But when we are in the grips of these thoughts and feelings we lose our balance and our happiness. Neurotic or psychotic we fall in and out of deluded perspectives. Most of us don’t challenge ourselves to question our reactions, we just accept the reaction, feel the feelings and stay stuck inside the anger or desire or fear. In this way, we give permission to our egos to stay in control of our lives.
Each moment we have a choice to be ego or self centered or to be other centered. Even when we’re alone we can be other centered, realizing that we are interconnected, a part of the web of life. I still spend much of my time alone. Part of that is due to my sickness; I pull into myself and block out having contact with others. I mistakenly think that I am protecting myself. But more often I spend my time alone because I want to work at my spiritual practice by listening to spiritual teachers, taking notes, writing, reflecting on what I’m learning in an audio journal, reading and making up songs. There is a Buddhist mind training slogan that goes, “Liberate yourself by examining and analyzing.” I take that slogan (many of the slogans) seriously. I don’t see it as being self-centered and self-absorbed; I see it as being self-reflective in order to free myself from my ego so that I can reach out to others from a position of self-acceptance or lovingkindness. Helping others starts with helping yourself and that takes the discipline of self-honesty.
Ego is about self-deception; egolessness is about self-honesty. Buddhists would say that if you are really honest with yourself, you would see that there is no self. The ego and self are a fabrication of our thoughts and our thoughts have no substance. They arise from nowhere, exist and disappear and arise again like clouds in the sky or waves in the ocean. This doesn’t mean that we don’t exist, but our existence is more subtle and more connected to the environments we find ourselves in. We are not separate, solid and fixed; we are interconnected, spacious and always in flux. But inside the learning dance of everyday life, we deceive ourselves about important things using our egos. I still succumb sometimes to the belief that I am isolated from other people. This illusion of isolation breeds fear in me and my fear distorts my reality.
There is the pull in those moments to distract myself, to run away from my discomfort or to indulge in thinking about my fears and get pulled into a negative orientation. For the last year I have trained myself to not do those things but to sit with my suffering and befriend it. What I’ve discovered is that the suffering starts to diminish when I don’t act out or repress my feelings. Of course the suffering doesn’t go away entirely, it returns, but then I return to working with it, thereby lessening it. The change in me is in my attitude and my beliefs. I believe that I am connected to others and not alone most of the time now. This is an important shift that challenges the ego orientation that I am separate, solid and vulnerable to attack. Because we are interconnected we support each other and are not as vulnerable as the ego would have us believe. So we don’t need to keep armoring our hearts by listening to our misguided, self-protective thoughts. The result is that we stay more open and responsive to ourselves and others and we begin to see through our more egotistical thoughts and feelings. We become less reactive and more responsive.
The difference between being reactive and responsive is that when we react we don’t think, we are on automatic pilot, but when we respond we become more thoughtful, more gentle, more willing to work with the situation or person. We have reinforced our reactive responses to external triggers all our lives; they are very deeply ingrained. The likelihood is when someone or something triggers us that inside we will still react. Cultivating the practice of self-honesty through reflection, which to me is the essence of spiritual practice, we slow the process down and allow for the room to respond. We begin to transform aggression into peace in our daily lives. When our egos are in control we react, get defensive, over or under estimate ourselves, lose a balanced perspective. War and violence are the expressions of a fortified ego. The ego depends upon an us versus them mentality. When we stop clinging to our egos, we find many ways to be peaceful by acknowledging that we are all in this life together and that we depend upon each other. We are one huge family and not a bunch of warring tribes.
That is not the way many people see it despite the globalization of our world. This is because we each have to contend with our attachment to our egos, to our selves. Our ego won’t just go away, just as our thoughts won’t just go away; we have to re-train ourselves through some kind of spiritual discipline. This doesn’t have to be religious, it can be humanitarian such as in helping others through social activism. Just seeing ourselves as part of something larger and greater than ourselves gets us back into a better balance. Clinging to our egos does make us suffer, but letting go of identifying with our egos has to be a gradual process. The ego is not the enemy, for really there is no enemy, but to over-emphasize it in our lives is to live inside an illusion. Spiritual practice is about waking up from the dreams we feed ourselves and each other generation after generation. Cycles of abuse can be stopped, but only through awareness. We have a choice; we can fortify our ego and our suffering or we can let go of ego orientations and let go of so much unnecessary suffering. This is some of what Buddha taught.