Ego: The Reactive Ego-mind
The Quest for Purpose Continues
The word ego comes from Latin, meaning I, the first person pronoun. "Ego sum via, veritas et vitae" — or "I am the way, the truth and life itself" (John 14:6). In western vernacular the ego has gotten a bad rep, as in you don't want to be called an egoist (someone who is self-centered or selfish, often without realizing it), egotist (an arrogant or conceited person, always talking about himself) or egocentric (a self-centered or self-obsessed person). It is important to emphasize that the ego is not our enemy; it is not something we must subdue, overcome or conquer. The goal of this chapter is to help assign the ego its proper place and to clarify its role in living our lives.
The role of the ego
The ego has important roles in our development. The ego helps us form our personal boundaries and build our self-esteem. Personal boundaries come from our values, or the limits of what we will and will not do, accept, tolerate or condone. These values are heavily influenced by the ego, or the way we want the world to perceive us.
Many scholarly works in psychology emphasize the importance of self-esteem but I have yet to find one which tells us how to get it or build it. My personal experience suggests that the way to build self-esteem is to exercise free will (choice) and be allowed to be fully responsible for the consequences. The ego guides many of the choices we make in life, especially early on in our spiritual evolution, thus the ego has a significant role in developing our self-esteem.
Immaturity is often characterized by three traits: being in a hurry, being unstoppable, and egocentrism. Observe young children; they always seem to be running, nothing can ever happen soon enough. They rush through experiences, always looking for the next thing, always in a hurry. When a child is thwarted, he or she gets frustrated and an emotional outburst follows. Children do not handle being stopped, prevented, precluded or thwarted very well, they are unstoppable. Children believe that they are the center of the universe. They go to bed and the sun goes down, they rise and the sun comes up, ergo… These three traits are signs of emotional immaturity in adults as well and indicate the level of domination by the ego.
As we mature, our value system is formed and becomes solid. We establish our personal boundaries and as we age, they become more firm and eventually quite rigid. One might wonder about the role of the ego in an emotionally well-developed, mature person. The ego keeps the economy growing. It demands more stuff to enhance its perception of well-being, appeal, security, social acceptance and status, importance and legitimacy. The ego gives opportunity to various pitchmen, marketers and entire goods and service producing industries to sell us stuff we want but may or may not need.
The tools of the ego
The ego uses many tools to achieve its goals of self-preservation, self-gratification and self-aggrandizement. All humans seek significance and the primary tool for attaining it is the ego. The three primary tools the ego uses are judgments, discomfort and elation. Judgments are a very important topic which will be examined in detail in the next chapter. By definition, the ego is never satisfied — our public self-image always seems to be larger than our private one. We want to appear bigger and better than we think we really are. Thus the ego is always either on offense or defense, never at rest.
When we sense an offense or put-down or slight, even as minor as being cut off in traffic, the ego rebels at the violation of self-importance and goes on defense. It increases the adrenalin in our bloodstream and evokes a fight response. Our blood pressure rises and we begin emoting, venting anger or frustration. "How dare you…?" How do you feel when being criticized? How do you react to being put on hold, to being denied a job or a loan?
Don't worry about what people think. They don't do it all that much.
When such feelings become frequent or even chronic, the discomfort escalates to pain and disease such as depression. We become bitter and disgruntled, hopeless and desperate. We begin to escape personal responsibility by using a variety of tactics such as blaming (others, our spouse, our children, the neighbors, the government, the democrats, the republicans, etc.), withdrawing (shutting down, becoming uncommunicative or even inert), rebelling (fighting the "system"), or by being self-destructive (drugs, alcohol, other forms of abuse of self and others).
When the ego gets its way, it produces elation. When you get that new car or a promotion at work, you feel good about yourself. Your ego is saying "See how well we are doing?" Unfortunately, the elation is temporary and quite elusive as the ego goes about looking for the next high or the next thing to worry about. "Yeah, but can we afford the car insurance?" and "Do you think you can live up to the demands of the new position?" and "Maybe we should get a sailboat next, or a bigger house." The wanting and fretting never seems to stop, the ego is relentless.
Dealing with the ego
The ego-mind is a fine instrument when dealing with analytical problems like balancing the checkbook or the number of tiles needed to redo the bathroom. It is ill-equipped to make life decisions. The ego is susceptible to external influences like advertisements, the opinions of others, taunts, ridicule, praise and many others. The ego can destroy you in pursuit of its own goals — if you let it. Each evening, as time allows, I put my ego mind to work solving the daily online crossword puzzles of the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and the LA Times. I even let it take some pride in the amount of time it takes on each puzzle. It also understands that in major decisions like where to live, whom to trust, whom to marry, it has no say.
The ego is conditioned (by our past experiences) for robot-like emotional responses. Such automatic reactions relinquish our personal power and offer it up to anyone who cares to trigger our reactive responses. The ego easily buys into the hype that we are not fit to be seen in public without this adornment or that cosmetic and responds accordingly, compelling us to spend our resources on stuff we did not even know about before. The ego falls prey to messages that we are not good enough, that we do not have enough, that we are not enough.
In North America, the cosmetics industry generates billions of dollars in sales to make our skin darker, "healthier looking" and women spend hours in tanning salons. In the Philippines and other tropical countries, the same cosmetics companies are selling skin whitener creams, whitening soaps and various potions to lighten the skin. You see, whether you are fair skinned or tan, you are just not good enough the way you are so you better go out and do something about it. Go figure!
The path out of the addictive cycle of programmed ego responses takes us through elevating our addictive demands to preferences. We learn to notice the triggers and observe our ego mind's responses and with higher awareness we consciously choose an option which serves our highest good. The first step on this path is making the choice not to react to external triggers or the demands of our ego, but to reflect on the observations and allow our higher self to have a voice. "The Handbook to Higher Consciousness" by Ken Keyes, Jr. is devoted to this process. It has changed my life forever, many years ago. The book is now out of print but is available from a few sellers at Amazon.
How do we allow our ego to occupy its rightful place in our lives? I wish I could offer you a simple, straightforward prescription, but the ego is too powerful, too resourceful for simple tactics. It takes training and diligence, awareness and vigilance, and most importantly, daily practice to work with the ego to make it our life-long ally. The next chapters are devoted to the process, starting with judgments, personal responsibility, and choosing mastery over victimhood.
The greatest lesson the ego offers us is this: IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU! Whatever happens in the world around you, whatever anyone says or does, please remember that it is not about you. The world does not hold a grudge against you, it has no volition towards you at all. If you think someone offended you, trust me, they did not — they are just acting out their own melodrama. You may have supplied an inadvertant trigger or been a convenient bystander or just a needed audience. The next time someone cuts you off on the freeway try to remember that they are just acting immature (in too much of a hurry) or just stupid, but most likely they do not know you. It is not and cannot be about you!