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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ego Rant

Let’s talk about ego. First, what is ego? Sociobiologists would contend that it evolved as a survival mechanism many thousands of years ago. In a world where beings compete with other life forms for a place in the food chain, having an instinct for self-preservation can be a major asset. The ego is just such an asset. It is the mechanism that puts us on high alert when we perceive that we are threatened in any way.

The reactions that are driven by the ego tend to be one of two types:

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
In other words, we either attack or defend. Our choice of which is based on an incredibly complex array of inputs and analysis. Yet, we manage to perform this feat in a few moments – sometimes in a split second. All this sounds like a good thing to have a dog-eat-dog world. I suppose it IS a good thing to have in such a world. The question is, do we want to live in such a world?

I suspect most of us don’t. Or, as Warren Zevon once put it, “what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” If we can agree that the ego service the primitive mind, it is not a leap of logic to further agree that it at least MAY not serve the evolved mind. Intuitively, many people know that the ego has become a destructive force for humanity.

Allow me to illustrate the effects of the ego by describing a brief encounter between two people. This is a common type of interaction first with ego and second without:

With Ego

Bob: Hi Bill
Bill: Hi Bob
Bob: Bill, you know your breath smells really bad.
Bill: I brushed my teeth. What do you want me to do about it? I can’t help it if you have a sensitive nose.

Without Ego

Bob: Hi Bill
Bill: Hi Bob
Bob: Bill, you know your breath smells really bad.
Bill: I’m sorry, Bob. (Bill takes a step back from Bob)

In scenario #1 Bill’s ego takes over. He sees Bob’s comment as an attack on him, not an observation designed to make Bill aware of a problem he has. Bill’s reaction is a combination of defensiveness and passive aggression. If we were to continue these dialogues, it is likely that in scenario #1 Bob and Bill may have to struggle to remain civil, whereas the Bob and Bill in scenario #2 have demonstrated a care for each other that will only strengthen their relationship.

As innocent as these types of exchanges seem, they are the root of all societal ills. They explain our lack of compassion for strangers, corruption in religion and politics and the growing economic disparity between rich and poor. The ego is responsible for every war that has ever taken place. Without it, we would have only compassion and empathy to fill the void left behind.

It is no mistake that the Bible says, “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” The meek is “Us” without our egos. Mandela and Gandhi both understood the power of non-violence towards an intractable enemy. They both knew something else. They knew that it takes a lot more courage to NOT fight than it does to fight. Sacrificing oneself to save the life of an enemy is the ultimate sacrifice. However, they both knew that it was the quickest way to melt away an enemy out of existence.

Okay, so how does one get rid of an ego? This is not an easy task even for the most determined seeker. First, you must understand the ego well enough to spot it at work in your behavior. You will not be able to control it at first, but if you can identify its mark on your reactions, you can eventually start to modify your behavior. The key to this first stage is vigilance.

One way to remain vigilant is to read books that remind us of the topic. There are different types of books that approach it topic from different angles. Here are a few suggestions:

Paths Beyond Ego, Roger Walsh et al
The Eye of the I, David R. Hawkins
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

As we gain insight into the work of the ego, it is natural that our repulsion for it will grow. It makes us do and say things that bring pain to others and us. People with wounded egos tend to be more vociferous in its defense. Sadly, many parents unwittingly destroy their children’s egos during development, so there are lots of people walking around who are psychically damaged.

Dealing with damaged egos is particularly challenging. Damaged egos tend to attack first. Our instincts are to defend an attack, but this only escalates the attack. The solution is to listen with empathy (assuming it is not a physical attack) and indicate that you “understand.” If they try to provoke a response, avoid offering your opinion if it differs from theirs. The ego is not interested in your opinion, except as fodder for another attack.

The more we suppress our egos, the happier we will be. It is hard work and most of us have a lot of it to do. There are very few enlightened beings on the planet, but it’s nice to imagine what a wondrous place it would be if we all were.
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