I’m convinced we cannot fully understand complex systems until their components are detached from the whole so we can analyze their unique attributes. Knowing how those components connect and interrelate with each other is also essential to knowing why systems behave as they do. This goes for mental as well as physical systems.
Emotional systems and their components can be conceptually separated and studied so it’s easier to understand how they work together. Almost like a malfunctioning mechanical device, inappropriate emotions and resultant behaviors can be taken apart, modified and put back together in productive ways to transform anger into contentment.
If we can look within ourselves with an open mind and study our “emotional mechanics”, we can use a deeper understanding to modify our behaviors. And, not by merely suppressing our existing emotions, but by actually transforming them into products of sustainable, positive change.
From a lifetime of studying my own emotions and behaviors, I’ve become convinced of an important truth; the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear. And, from fear flows all of the associated negative emotions and behaviors including anger, greed, envy, as well as hate.
The fear I’m referring to isn’t the fear of flying or spiders. That’s normal, healthy fear we use to avoid danger. I’m referring to big F fear. The bitter dark that contrasts with the light of Love. The empty, blinding fear in which prejudice and hate reside. Some call it Evil or even personify it into a devil character. I simply think of it as Fear, the opposite of Love.
Understanding fear is important, because whether we’re working on ourselves, helping a friend or attempting to make positive changes in the world, if we are focused on stamping out hate and fail to include its underlying source of fear, we will never make genuine progress. Fighting hate without addressing fear is a never-ending chore. It’s like stomping out fires whose embers are never fully extinguished.
Unpacking fear and ego
As a visual model, I imagine fear as a sealed gearbox filled with tightly meshed gears amounting to a single, moving system. Melded into this gearbox of fear are the habits of ego. And, on the outer cover is an almost invisible layer of emotion called indignation. Indignation is easy to overlook because it’s so common. But, indignation is worth careful observation because I believe it’s the secret to opening up this housing of fear and ego.
Our unmet expectations, indignation, and anger all connect within a space between external events and our ego’s (habitual) reaction to those events. Our expectations run amok most of the time, plowing right through indignation to ignite our anger without us giving the process a second thought.
Without thinking about it, our out-of-control expectations create an ever-growing gap between our ego’s perception and reality. When the gap gets too wide, when fewer-and-fewer of our expectations are met, indignation reaches a steady state and anger becomes pervasive in our lives.
Among all of the various fear-based emotions, I believe indignation is the easiest to identify and control. And, if we can interrupt it, there’s a chance the more difficult and complex inner workings of ego will begin to loosen from the exposure of our awareness. And, eventually a few of our negative habits might even dissipate from lack of use.
My favorite definition of ego is “a bundle of bad habits which are fueled by fear.” And, the fear of being ignored is at the top of the list. If ego is ignored, it disappears. So, acknowledgement is literally a matter of life-and-death for ego. Constantly afraid of nonexistence, ego is never satisfied.
Ego is the epicenter of self-centeredness, demanding you completely identify yourself with it. Ego demands that you become it. And, we’ve all met people who have become their ego. Many people are completely defined by their bad habits. This isn’t unusual or particularly interesting. The interesting point is that it’s all a big lie.
You are not your ego. You are infinitely more than your bad habits. Whenever you choose to stop your bad habits of ego and ignore its gnawing, craving demands, your ego disappears.
Deep down you already know this. If you think hard enough, you’ll remember experiencing this without even knowing what was happening. Most likely it was during a crisis in which another person needed your help and you just acted without thinking about your own safety or benefit.
Usually, in emergency situations, the ego is shoved aside and silenced by your true Self. Some refer to this state of being as the “angel of our better nature.” I prefer the less romantic, but more unified explanation that in these situations you were just being you rather than identifying with your ego. It wasn’t so much that you were being Self-less, as much as you were being ego-less.
Being your fearless, authentic Self while relating to another in an empathetic way feels different than ego-driven behavior. It feels better, even when it happens by accident. Regardless of the ethical or moral implications about their relative differences, authenticity and compassion simply feel better than fear and anger.
Even so, bad habits are usually strong because they’ve been a long time in the making and they can and do appear solid and real. And, when we dupe ourselves into identifying with our habits, the ego’s fear of being ignored becomes our fear. Then when ego is ignored, we feel we’re being ignored and it makes us feel irrelevant. Indignation arises from this feeling of irrelevance, and right behind it comes anger. It happens to everyone almost every day. Some just do a better job of controlling it than others.
Indignation triggers anger
One of the reasons I believe understanding indignation is key to unraveling the facade of ego and controlling our anger is because it is so common and available for observation. Most of us experience indignation multiple times each day, so it should be easier to acknowledge and abort.
Sitting in heavy traffic is a good example, or even when we’ve stood too long in the grocery store check-out line and have that indignant feeling of being forced to wait on others. These common examples are also valuable because they’re not personal. They are impersonal events, not actions of an individual which might cause us to react too personally. When it’s just traffic or a waiting line, it’s nothing special. Everyone’s experiencing the same irritation.
We can and should take advantage of these common, non-personal gaps between indignation and anger as an opportunity to practice positive, non-egotistical responses.
This practice can also help us realize that at the center of everyone’s core is a content witness who has no problems or worries because it takes nothing personally. The witness within us doesn’t judge. It just contently watches. Our ego and its fear of irrelevance are merely piled on top of this core of who we are. Any hope for relief from the burden of ego and any experience of sustained contentment, depends on learning how to not take external events personally. And, it does take study and practice.
If we are mindful and seize upon these daily opportunities to study our indignation, we can at least begin to recognize our behavior for what it is; an almost comical display of our unfettered ego.
You know the moments I’m talking about. As our ego demands recognition and fears irrelevance, thoughts arise in our mind like, “I’m too busy for this, can’t these people move faster? Who’s holding everything up? It’s probably some (fill in the blank) causing me to be late.” Left unchecked, the bad habits of ego can eventually convert relatively benign indignation into full-flared anger and even exclusionary thoughts and actions of sexism, ageism, or racism.
Who we really are
Whereas our true Self is a calm and abiding witness to external events, our ego lives in the ever-evaporating material world, grasping and clutching to concepts and ideas which never were and never will be.
Our true Self lives in the expansive world of love and compassion, gratefulness and generosity. Our ego lives in the ever-shrinking world of fear and anger, greed and envy. Our authentic Self doesn’t care about concepts like fame and recognition, while our ego ceases to exist without them. Ego evaporates without recognition.
And, that fear of evaporation, of dying – if we live our life as our ego – becomes real and horrific for us. Unattended, it will drive all of our actions and behaviors. That’s why ego-driven people almost always seem scared and angry. And, they never seem satisfied until everyone around them is scared and angry, too.
But, I truly believe this cycle of fear and anger can be broken by focusing first on indignation. And, by starting with non-personal irritations like traffic jams and grocery store lines, which actually amount to little more than irritated impatience, it will eventually become easier to tackle larger, seemingly more personal emotional events.
By being mindful and watching for common, impersonal indignation to arise and taking time to react to it less personally, we can practice preparing ourselves to handle more personal and heated emotions more successfully.
The problem with taking things personally
Quite some time ago, I was consoling an angry friend when suddenly he became angry with me. I had been suggesting he not take a situation so personally and my suggestion made him mad. It confused me, because I wasn’t suggesting anything was his fault. I was just trying to provide him with some relief by reminding him that a bad situation wasn’t caused by anything he had done. But, merely the suggestion that he not take things personally caused his anger to erupt toward me.
Later that day, a second friend was consoling me about a problem I was having, when in the middle of our conversation he reminded me that the situation wasn’t about me. This was another way of telling me I shouldn’t take things personally. And, oddly enough, his comment made me angry! Even though it was almost immediately after someone had reacted a similar way toward me and even though I knew for a fact my friend meant well, his comment still frustrated me a great deal. I remember thinking, “How dare you tell me my situation isn’t about me. Don’t you realize I don’t deserve to be treated this way?”
Luckily my recognition of the similarities between these two events gave me enough space and time to witness my irritation rather than reacting negatively to the second friend’s comment like the first friend had reacted to my comment earlier that day. And, that inadvertent recognition was the breakthrough I needed to become aware of indignation and its significant role in the process of fear-based, egotistical behavior.
In that particular moment I was somehow able to disassociate from my ego and be present with my friend as my authentic Self. I was able to stop before I acted on my indignation and observe the situation as a witness to an event rather than as a reactive participant.
Even though the comment denied my ego its indignation, the fact that it came from a trusted friend is probably the biggest reason I didn’t take it personally. This is an important component because the impersonal nature of the event placed it in the same category as heavy traffic and grocery store lines and not taking it personally helped me control my response. I was able to interrupt the anger which normally would have arisen from my ego grasping on to my indignation as proof that it exists.
Now I understand that ego’s grasping for recognition, the habit of taking things personally, and the resultant indignation when expectations aren’t met, collectively amount to ego’s chain of vulnerability. And, indignation is the weakest link.
If I take indignation away from ego, and I don’t attach to the ego’s resultant anger (breaking an egotistical habit), then it all evaporates leaving nothing but an event and me, a content witness to the event, regardless of the outcome of that event. I remember thinking this just might be the secret of being content in all things. Or, at least it might be what genuine, sustained contentment looks and feels like.
Luck certainly played a part. The fact that those two experiences were so close together on the same day enabled me to readily compare the transmission and reception of similar advice and the emotional reactions between two separate people and me, back-to-back.
Slowing down helped, too. Friendship overshadowed my normal defensiveness which slowed down my reaction time. This is critical to reclaiming our authentic status of witness. Observation takes time. Being able to slow down long enough to observe events rather than robotically reacting to them plays a critical part in interrupting the habitual ego process. And, it stands to reason that treating everyone as a friend provides the benefit of less defensiveness and more thoughtfulness in our reactions.
It’s also quite logical that our egos flare up when we’re told “it’s not about you” or “don’t take things personally.” Because, that’s the same as telling our ego there is no place for it and that it actually doesn’t exist at all. Which is true!
And, it makes sense that ego hoards anger like it’s a matter of life-and-death, because it depends upon emotions like indignation and anger to feed the fear that makes it relevant. If you attempt to take that anger away or insinuate anger is unjustified, then indignation immediately sounds the alarm to ego that it’s being ignored.
Those responses are normal, if we live our life as our ego. They’re normal, but they’re inappropriate because they’re coming from something which doesn’t exist except in our mind. And, understanding that fact of mental delusion is one of the most important steps toward dropping the bad habits of ego.
A series of fortunate events caused me to wake up a little bit that day. I decided I might not be able to completely dispense with something as intractable as my ego in this lifetime, but I can do something about my indignation. I can start by not taking everything so personally. And, I’m convinced these efforts will lead to the transformation of my bad habits of ego into the good habits of compassion and contentment.
The beginning of the end of anger
We can break our bad habits if we try hard enough. But, the experience of trying can be a violent proposition because the realization of irrelevance is a death sentence to an ego-driven personality. The simple and seemingly benign indignation we feel every day feeds our sense of importance. And, as we attack that indignation we attack the Self, to the extent we perceive the Self as being our ego which is glued to the indignation.
Whereas, if we detach and study indignation and accurately classify it as no more than a weak component of ego’s system of fear, if we refuse to identify with our ego and remember to be the non-judgemental Witness we all are at our core, then our indignation will dissipate into thin air and leave the ego exposed for the fraudulent structure that it is.
And, as the ego retreats into its shadow of nothingness, we will be left with reality. When ego subsides, we are left with the contentment of observing “what is” without the disappointment, frustration and anger of “what I expect or wish it would be.”
Ultimately, we are left with a clarified experience we can witness genuinely without extraneous habitual layers of second-guessing. When we choose to not take events personally, we’re really just pausing mindfully to witness an action while preventing our ego from rising up to display an inappropriate reaction.
By slowing down, pulling it all apart and observing it, we can cause our fear and anger to subside. And, if we do it enough times it will become a positive habit which begins to replace the negative habits of our fear-fueled ego.