The Ego Is Not The Enemy
One of the most misunderstood concepts of psychology is the concept of the ego.
Ask 10 people what the ego is and you are likely to get 10 different answers.
Among the most common definitions of ego are an exaggerated sense of self, our lesser self, the conscious mind, the voice in our head, and how we view ourselves.
But what exactly is the ego?
Is it us? A part of us? Something that controls us? Something that seeks to direct us?
What does it do and why does it exist?
Like most people, I have spent most of my life thinking of the ego as something of a tyrant, a thing to overcome so my worst instincts don’t come to the fore.
As you probably know yourself, it is hard work to try and remain humble and hardworking and not allow ourselves to become selfish and lazy.
But at the same time, we have to make sure we fight for our rights and don’t let the world take advantage of us.
But over the past few years, I have started to view the ego differently.
It seems to me that to consider the ego as evil or undesirable or something that we need to manage is to profoundly misunderstand the true nature of the ego.
It’s like saying “gravity is unfair” when gravity is simply a natural mechanism of attraction exerted by a body of mass.
In the same way, the ego is nothing but a result-seeking mechanism.
It is born from the idea that things could be better than they are right now.
Said another way, it is born from desire.
The more we desire comfort and pleasure or try to protect ourselves from their opposites (pain, disappointment, and discomfort), the harder the result-seeking mechanism works.
While this mechanism is wonderfully suited for keeping us safe, it is totally unsuited for helping us change our emotional states.
As such, the more we analyze, fix or cope with our uncomfortable feelings (and their perceived causes), the deeper we fall under the spell of the ego.
Before we dig deeper, I want to point out that desire (i.e. wishing that things were different) creates two interesting phenomena:
Firstly, it creates the illusion of time.
If everything were perfect in this moment and you wished for nothing to be different, there would be nowhere to get to, and thus, no need for the concept of time.
However, the moment you can imagine an alternative - a better future - it becomes a thing or state to obtain somewhere in the future.
Our mind creates two points (point A: the now or the current situation, and point B: the future, better situation), and because they cannot exist simultaneously, we need the concept of time.
Thus, it is our desire that creates the illusion of time that doesn’t otherwise exist.
Secondly, our desire creates our sense of self.
When we are immersed in what we are doing or have lost ourselves in an enjoyable book or in the company of people we really like, we are not thinking about ourselves as a separate being.
Instead, we are simply in the flow, acting and reacting naturally to what’s happening around us. We are natural, authentic, and spontaneous.
Yet the moment we desire something to be different, like time, we also create a sense of self to whom everything is happening and who must think, decide, and take action to survive and thrive in this world.
When the result-seeking mechanism identifies with the wants and needs of this imaginary self, it begins to do its work to try to give the imaginary self what it wants.
The result is that we focus even more on ourselves, which makes us stiffer and less natural in our actions and responses. We begin to doubt ourselves, because no matter how hard we try, we aren’t able to make ourselves feel better except for a few, fleeting moments.
So what do we do with this information?
A key realization is that the only way to prevent getting lost in the illusions of the ego is to stop running, seeking, coping and fixing.
This can be hard, because most of us are so used to flinching at the first sign of discomfort.
But if instead of flinching, we turn toward the feeling, we will find something rather surprising - that we can actually bear any feeling no matter how painful or daunting it may seem.
Now, I realize it’s easy to say to embrace, allow and surrender to an uncomfortable feeling and it’s a whole different thing to actually do it.
But please realize that this is what you’ve been doing your whole life - you’ve been avoiding these feelings, and what has it gotten you?
It has burdened you with an imaginary sense of self that you must seek to direct, motivate and protect, and it has created the illusion of time that distracts you from staying in the present moment.
The result of all this is that you have made your life a lot harder and more painful than it needs to be.
When you turn to face your discomfort (boredom, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty, etc) and drop the story about it you’ve been telling yourself about it, the beliefs that held the story in place are exposed and dissolve by themselves.
And on the other side you will find that which you’ve searched for all this time: peace, freedom, and resilience, and a life that flows freely, effortlessly and naturally.
Some people call that state of being “love”. Others call it “home”, “god”, or the “true self”.
Whatever you choose to call it, you have already taken the first step toward that state by understanding the nature of the ego as the result-seeking mechanism of desire that it is.
Or as Rumi put it:
"When I run after what I think I want, my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety; if I sit in my own place of patience, what I need flows to me, and without pain. From this I understand that what I want also wants me, is looking for me and attracting me. There is a great secret here for anyone who can grasp it."
Happy exploring, my friends.