When I present an inappropriate version of my self to others and when I assign inappropriate values to the world’s material phenomena, I am living my life through ego. Ego isn’t an object or an unbreakable law of nature. It’s just a bad set of habits we can control and eventually drop all together. The fact that it seems impossible is only in our mind and ironically the very basis of ego. Breaking free of ego is not only possible; it’s relatively easy to do when we break the effort up into small, achievable chunks. The benefits of doing so are profound and actually the point of most of the world’s well-trodden spiritual paths.
We all witness ego-based behavior in others every day. We recognize it when we wish someone would just “be themselves” or when we notice someone’s behavior and actions are completely driven by material possessions rather than appropriate relationships with people. It’s harder to see ego-based behavior in ourselves than in other people, but it’s certainly there if we’re honest and are able to self-inspect. I don’t believe an ego-based life is necessarily evil. Plenty of successful and admired people are driven completely by ego. I just believe it’s essential to move beyond ego to live a life of contentment. And, before we can ever have a chance of letting go of our ego, we must first learn to manage it.
Ego presents itself as a clichéd two-edged sword, which enables us to ignore the interconnectedness of all things simultaneously to our benefit and detriment. It’s easy to bash on ego now, but it did play an important role in our early evolution. During humanity’s earliest beginnings, ego enabled people to ignore less relevant details of daily reality long enough to survive it. Ego caused people to cluster in tribes and prejudge outsiders to better protect their progeny. This prejudice was vital to the survival of our species. Ego emerged as a mechanism that helped us discern differences and focus on very critical particulars like a stalking panther in the weeds or the guy from the other tribe trying to steal our food.
Yet, today with access to advanced social systems, ego and associated tribalism is at the root of most of our biggest social problems. From the living room, to the street corner, to the UN, the usefulness of ego seems to be little more than a holdout with similar efficacy of other ancient implements, like a hay rake or a spleen. Ego is at the root of all sorts of our collective pathologies, including racism, sexism, and materialism. It seems as though the boogeyman of prejudice which once kept us alive is now killing us. To practice what a lot of us preach, I think it’s important to wave goodbye and good riddance to our ancient ego, with compassion and understanding of its contribution as well as its fallacy.
But, I can’t start with your ego. I have to start with mine. Even though “be the change you want to see in the world” has devolved into a bumper sticker, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. To facilitate personal awakening, as well as for the sake of others, we must shed what amounts to a constant, habitual presentation of an inappropriate persona. To begin this shedding, everyone can start small and ramp up. It can be as simple as ignoring your fear long enough to tell a family member or a close friend you’re sorry or you love them, even if your ego problem has previously caused that truth to remain hidden. You can continue your practice by dropping incessant expectations, which rarely match reality, starting small with morning traffic and stair-stepping on to being honest about your unrealistic expectations of other people. Or, maybe you need to start with a more primary step and get right with your own self. To be sure, you can’t love others until you love yourself.
After practicing those easier, simpler ego-less behaviors, you can then move on to clearing out the more caustic emotional clutter. It’s up to everyone to do their own work with whatever tools or support they can muster. And, when you accomplish even a small portion of this work, you’ll be better prepared to present your appropriate self to those around you. We all know how to do this methodical simplifying and unpacking in the material aspects of our lives. It merely requires mindfulness, focus and effort. It’s a shame that most people spend more time cleaning out their garage and moving papers around on desks than they do taking inventory and gaining control of their mind and emotional life. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re surrounded by tools and assistance if we just wake up and decide we’d rather be content than irritated.
Perhaps you’ve read some of the stories Matthew the Apostle wrote like, “Small is the gate and narrow the path that leads to life” or, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a materialistic person to enter the kingdom of God.” I believe on a certain level Matthew was referring to the fact that the silent, formless, perfect space in which contentment resides is too small and too narrow for our habitual ego to fit. And, I also believe Matthew was thinking about how people hide their inner awareness with the structure of ego, when he wrote, “People don’t light a candle and put it under a basket…they put it on a candlestick so it lights up the house.” These are well known stories many of us read about in Sunday school as children.
When I first read these passages as a child, I distinctly remember thinking there’s no way I can stay on the narrow path or fit through the eye of a needle, so I’ll probably never succeed in what Matthew described people should do. Later as an adult, I better understood their metaphoric meaning, but rejected the plausibility of the message, as unfortunately more and more adults continue to do. There’s an assumption that was attached to Matthew’s message somewhere along the way that there’s some sort of future prize or payment, which can only be earned with impossible behavior. And, layered on top of that message is another assumption that anything remotely good is separate from us, “out there” somewhere, inaccessible to anyone until they die. I now believe these notions of unachievable goals and an inaccessible heaven drown out Matthew’s simpler and more powerful message.
Matthew’s metaphors provide us with more than unachievable objectives. It was centuries later when puritanical and Calvinistic influences indoctrinated Western minds with the “work hard on an impossible task for a prize after you’re dead” mindset. Today, those influences are still deeply embedded in the perception of just about everything we consume, including our religion. But, Matthew wasn’t influenced by the puritans or Calvin. And, Matthew wasn’t talking about earning some future payment or prize by doing an impossible task. He was talking about rediscovering what we already have by merely letting go of a set of bad habits.
Using every day, household metaphors and simple language, Matthew told his friends, and us through centuries of transcription, that the world and all its distractions feed our insatiable ego. And, that ego hides an illuminated awareness, which resides within us all. And, when we set that ego to one side (death to bad habits) we are in a better position to wake up to that illumination (born again).
The narrow and small spaces and removal of the light-covering basket, are meant to explain that dropping our ego and presenting appropriate behavior to the world takes effort and it’s rare when we meet someone who’s actually done it. But, it’s not impossible and the payoff isn’t just after we’re dead. The kingdom is literally at hand – here and now. If we care enough about contentment and compassion while we’re alive in this world, we’ll make the required effort and practice moving in that direction. I believe practicing new habits and dropping the mental baggage of our ancient ego does take a lot of sustained effort. And, I believe it’s the same effort required to balance on Matthew’s narrow path, fit through the eye of that needle and uncover our inner light. This is indeed the point of those stories – we must drop our attachments, cease our material clinging, and say farewell to our inappropriate ego, so our true Self can balance and reemerge.
And, what exactly is our true Self? I believe it’s the Universal Self, which is another name for God. Revealing your true Self is another way of saying, “let your light so shine.” A way of living that reveals your individuation of God to those around you instead of your stale, inappropriate ego. It’s a process that prevents YOUR ego “basket” from hiding YOUR God “light.”
And, what then is the ultimate objective? What precisely do the narrow path and needle’s eye metaphors represent? Heaven? Nirvana? Rumi’s Love? Gautama’s awakening? Saint Paul’s contentment while he was chained up in a dungeon?
Everyone has an opinion, but I for one choose all of the above. I believe all of those stories, metaphors, and historical experiences point to the same, unified truth; that setting aside our mind-numbing expectations and our relentless remorse clears our view to experience the Universal Self, the Kingdom of God, the illumination which resides in all of us. We can wake up to the fact that our origin and we are one-and-the-same. We are indeed the offspring, the children of God.
And, if you don’t believe in God, it doesn’t change any of this. There’s still an energy of awareness within you that can either continue to be hidden by fake characters you invent, or synced up with reality and presented transparently to those around you. You might use different spiritual language or no spiritual language at all. You might simply refer to what I’ve described as being an authentic person. But, I believe you will agree that authentic people are more content than egocentric people. And, living a life of contentment is preferable to being irritated all the time.
Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I sincerely believe Frankl’s space is indeed Matthew’s path and the needle-small space in which our authentic self can narrowly balance and tightly fit. But, to do so we can’t take our ego with us. Dragging along our ego doesn’t provide us with time to appropriately respond to external events and it covers up our true, illuminated Self with a bushel basket-sized, inappropriate persona.
Whereas, compassionately setting aside the ego leaves the same shining, formless awareness that is within us all. And, if we try, we can see how our formless awareness resides in that imperceptibly small space between expectation and reality. It is indeed the space between the world’s stimuli and our response.
With practice that space can grow as an insulator between action and reaction, giving us time to practice saying and doing the right things. The same things we want others to say and do to us.