One could argue, such as the Buddha, that the ego is the source of all the suffering on an individual level.
The logic for this is simple: after everything is said and done, we have the responsibility for how we think, feel and behave. Yet the ego is not just the cause of one’s pain, it’s also where contentment and happiness is found. It’s not just some egos either; all of us have the problems and solutions which accompany the way in which we keep our ego in check.
So, what is our ego?
“Ego is the immediate dictate of human consciousness.” ~ Max Planck
For the purpose of this article, when I say “ego,” I mean the part of us that thinks and feels “I am me.” To elaborate, it’s the beliefs that we have about ourselves. It’s all of our thoughts, feelings and memories. It’s our activity which explains us as separate from everything else, including our body. Therefore, it is the combination of our rational, moral, intuitive and instinctual capacities.
That means that even the ways in which we experience love and conceptualize the unity of existence, is filtered through our egoic self.
This is contrary to what is usually discussed about the ego. It is sometimes exclusively portrayed as the negative, self-absorbed aspect of the personality. But the ego can also be open, kind and giving; it is everything both negative and positive about who we are.
What, then, is not our ego?
“Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa
It’s our ground state; our pure self. Our individuality is a flame in the eternal fire and our ego is our flame’s heat. The non-ego part of us is our flame—or our spirit—before the ego starts to define it, as well as the entire fire. The fire is of course the unity of reality which different people have different terms for, such as God, the quantum zero-point field or the spiritual conception of cosmic consciousness.
No matter which way we sway, it’s not our awareness or our flame which is our ego, but everything we define our individual awareness as. What we identify as characteristics and beliefs about ourselves are reflections of our ego. It is all our personality traits, both good and bad, which means it can be functional and healthy, or the opposite.
What is the role of the ego?
“The Ego is a veil between humans and God’.” ~ Rumi
Our ego is obviously necessary for many reasons. It helps us to maintain a separate self, even if it is fundamentally illusory, so that we can survive and potentially thrive in the third dimensional construct that we find ourselves in. So it’s not going anywhere, nor do we want it to. Given that what we conceive as ourselves, is in fact our ego, we just need to work out how to manage it, or ourselves, in a functional way.
For example, our ego talks to itself. It says: “Hey mate, you’re being foolish.” It also says that we’re being productive, such as “I’m glad you stopped and thought for a moment before you did something silly.” Our ego-voice-of-reason tells our ego-instinct that something is or isn’t the right thing to do. The opposite is also true; our ego instinct can tell our ego rationale that we’re overthinking in a way that is contradictory to our feelings.
Effectively, our rational ego self trains itself. It can say: “You’re being illogical, how about you be more reasonable because you’re acting poorly.” It also trains other areas: “You know being angry and sad hasn’t worked well for you in the past, so maybe it’s time to think and feel differently.” It continues: “So now that you say you want to change, I’ll monitor the situation and make sure you do, because we both know how many times you’ve said that before.”
How does our ego make us suffer?
“The weak are dominated by their ego, the wise dominate their ego, and the intelligent are in a constant struggle against their ego.” ~ Hamza Yusuf
All egos have their flaws, which is perfectly okay. However, there’s nothing wrong with developing it either. If our ego is continually angry, self-absorbed, depressed, stubborn or an array of other problematic mind and behavioral states, then there is a clear need for some self-improvement.
That doesn’t mean that we hate these aspects of ourselves, we can love and embrace everything about us even if we want to evolve in certain ways.
For example, if our ego gets really upset about something not going its way or has an unjustified sense of entitlement, then it is dysfunctional and self-abusive. The same goes if it is more likely to react instantly to situations instead of accessing its executive thinking capacity to respond appropriately to the circumstances. If it rubs a lot of people the wrong way, instead of the rare few (well, we can’t please everybody), then it’s not just causing others to suffer, but also itself.
The ego treats itself in different ways, such as being self-harming or self-benefiting. So if it is always hurting itself over and over again then it’s probably setting itself up for failure with too many expectations and too many desires. This might be the case for some of us, although there is a path to relief; all it needs is to give itself some tough love and a little nurturing, however this is a challenging and ongoing process that requires a sustained and self-aware focus.
What is a strong ego?
“If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do and in my art or music, then in that respect you can call me that… I believe in what I do, and I’ll say it.” ~ John Lennon
A big ego isn’t problematic until it executes priorities at the cost of itself and others. There is an old conception that a big ego is inherently delusional and full of itself, however this is just a strong ego that is unhealthy and dysfunctional. A strong ego can have a big confidence in and understanding of itself, but still be healthy; big ego problems arise simply when it is closed to change.
In other words, a big ego might be extremely strong-willed and have conviction in its stance, but for its own health and for the positive impact on others, it needs to undertake a journey of true self-empowerment.
There are many people who have super strong egos, even those people who might be considered an introvert. It really is determined by their complexity and degree of self-determination. Nevertheless, some strong egos have big ego problems and others don’t; generally the difference comes down to whether they truly and deeply care about other people or not. This is obviously highly influenced by their philosophy on reality.
What does a healthy ego look like?
“How to get rid of ego as dictator and turn it into messenger and servant and scout, to be in your service, is the trick.” ~ Joseph Campbell
A functional ego is balanced; it can be a confident, crazy and playful extrovert, but at other times it can also be a creative or vulnerable introvert. It’s a personality which understands itself, with all its strengths and flaws, yet it’s neither excessively self-absorbed nor insensitive to the needs of the people around it.
It is kind and loving. Not just to others, but itself too. It genuinely cares for its world and will sacrifice its desires for another’s benefit. It also lives on the edge and tests its boundaries, but it does so as respectfully as possible.
To be a healthy ego it definitely needs to be open to change, as well as crave it. It needs to be aware of the subconscious drivers that influences its conscious world. It needs to let go of strict future expectations, as well as heal its past traumas on an ongoing basis, which is why meditation can be so effective for ensuring a healthy and functional ego.
What about ego problems?
“Midlife is the time to let go of an overdominant ego and to contemplate the deeper significance of human existence.” ~ C.G. Jung
Generally, any ego with problems is consumed by itself or suffering from itself. It also causes pain for others. Additionally, an ego with problems sometimes worships itself above all others too.
If we think we may have serious ego problems, then we should ask ourselves the following questions:
>>> Do we make a scene over little things that don’t go our way?
>>> Are we so immersed in ourselves that we struggle to have empathy for others?
>>> Do we excessively love ourselves?
>>> Is changing and evolving our ego difficult?
>>> Are we always angry or upset in our daily lives?
>>> Are we so self-centred that we always put ourselves first?
>>> Is our image of ourselves and how others view us one of our top priorities?
>>> Are we spiteful and generally disrespectful towards others?
>>> Do we continually condemn other people to make ourselves feel better?
>>> Do we have little compassion for our fellow man?
>>> Does being overly competitive bring emotional dysfunction to our life?
>>> Do we aim to tear apart perceived threats with gossip and lies?
>>> When our ego is hurt, does it hurt really badly?
Answering yes to any of these questions potentially indicates significant problems with our ego. It may even be classified as narcissistic behaviour. That’s because an unhealthy ego wants more, it wants to want more. It doesn’t fully embrace what it has and is therefore not content.
Being unforgiving, resentful, jealous or angry is an unhealthy attachment to our ego desires. It’s unhealthy if our ego says: “I should have had something else than what I got, so I’m going to cause issues for others.” That’s because itself is suffering during that process.
How can we maintain a healthy ego?
“I own and operate a ferocious ego.” ~ Bill Moyers
There’s nothing wrong with a fiery ego, yet most of us think that the guy acting all “road raged” should chill the hell out. The same goes with that mother going off her nut in the shopping center because her children are being children. But what about the person obsessed with their image? Or the people who believe they’re better than others and are always trying to prove so?
These are examples of unhealthy ego self-attachment. An ego with problems wants a particular outcome at all costs, or it may feel superior to its fellow man, so when it doesn’t get its ego fix, out comes the ego-monster to rip apart the seams of its injustice.
An ego with problems loves to blame others for how it feels. I call this blamism: “It’s my parents fault for the way they brought me up,” or “it’s the government’s fault for the policies they institute,” or “it’s my ex-partners fault because they broke my heart.” Blaming others is a cop-out; it merely justifies the ego feeling helpless and inhibits it from taking on the responsibility to change itself.
So, let me be clear: the bottom line is we think and feel the way we do because of ourselves and it’s only us that can change it. It’s also important to note that balancing out our ego and managing the aspects of ourselves that could potentially turn out unhealthy and dysfunctional will never end to the day we die, so let’s own it.
Here’s a tip: the single most motivating factor to overcome ego problems is that they cause suffering for everyone involved including ourselves! Do we really want to unnecessarily hurt ourselves and others? I seriously hope not!
The simple fact remains that we have the power to control how we think, feel and act. Living the way of the v-three; that is, virtuous thinking, feeling and action, is absolutely essential for true self-empowerment. If we operate virtuously, we do ourselves and everyone else a service. It’s that easy.
Ultimately, we should aim to have a healthy, functional, contented and loving ego which has a balanced attachment to itself. This means it should be attached in ways that is practical for its existence but not attached in ways that reinforces the pain and suffering of itself and others. That’s how to maintain a nourishing and peaceful ego.
“A bold ego leads itself into the depths of disconnection whilst knowing itself as fundamentally faux.”
Author: Phillip J. Watt
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Celine Nadeau/Flickr