The Ego: A Necessary Brat
by Doug Duncan Sensei
Edited by Catherine Pawasarat and Andy Rogers
The Ego: A Necessary Brat
Most of us cherish our independence and our freedom to decide our own values, goals, and other life choices. At the same time we want to feel connected, valued, and that we belong. How do we resolve this conundrum? Perhaps the first step is to understand the ego’s role.
What is the Ego?
The ego is the mechanism by which we manage our lives. It determines how we work and play with others. It makes evaluations and decisions and it weighs choices. It also acts like a lens; what we focus on is how it gets put to use. Basically, it’s a management tool that allows us to engage with each other and the world in a meaningful way. In fact, without the ego, we don’t really exist in this world of action, interaction, and relating.
In terms of our evolutionary development, it’s the ego that allows us to know that we exist as seemingly separate and independent beings. With this comes the knowledge that we will die. The implication is that we are, therefore, also alone. Alone inside our heads and bodies.
The Ego Has Separation Anxiety
In fact, since the ego provides a sense of self as distinct from others it is, by definition, alone. We see ourselves as separate individuals at sea in an ocean of other individuals. Therefore, we often feel lonely.
What’s more, we’re living lives that make this inherent issue worse. Recent findings¹ show that three out five Americans are lonely, with more people reporting feeling they are left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. Generally, what is true in America often becomes true elsewhere over time, so we can expect this trend to spread to other countries.
This self-awareness of aloneness is a powerful force that can lead us to crash and burn in ego fears and anxieties. Sometimes the ego “crashes,” through schizophrenia or lesser mental stressors, or through diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Anosognosia. When this happens, we are at sea in existence, but without direction or purpose. We lose our ability to relate, leaving us inside our own heads and exacerbating our sense of being separate and independent, and alone. In extremis, this isolation can be frightful, even terrifying.
At the same time, due to the ego’s apparent sovereignty, this self-awareness can lead us to great imaginative and creative leaps of invention and discovery.
“The ego is a tool that has given us awareness of our own existence and frailty.”
The ego is a tool, then, that has given us awareness of our own existence and frailty. At the same time, it has also helped us cope with it by learning to work together to survive and thrive. We went through a cognitive revolution some 75,000 years ago that led to the agricultural, scientific, and cultural revolutions, all of which have created a dual reality for us as people. Namely, me as an individual and me as a member of a 7+ billion team.
In other words, our sense of duality has pulled us together. Since we are small and weak characters in the survival game of plants and animals, we have developed team spirit. We used our ability to overcome our inadequacies physically with the enhanced power of the group, giving us advanced communication skills, division of labor while working together, planning, and highly developed tool-making abilities. While these aren’t necessarily just human abilities, we have taken them to very advanced levels of accomplishment.
With these abilities we’ve learned to work together with others we don’t know, haven’t met and who don’t speak our language, to develop systems such as languages all of us humans share, whether verbal, symbolic or computer code. This unparalleled development has been attributed to our lengthened childhood compared to other species, the domestication of fire, our advanced language skills that enabled social cooperation, and the ensuing mythologies that allowed us to embody fictions such as nations and religions. Yes, we are alone. But we are alone together.
The View – Transcending the Self
According to Namgyal Rinpoche, the Buddha once said, “All things are done for the sake of self.”² But what is a self? The ego is a mechanism that allows me to be aware of being aware. The self, then, comes from the reflection of this awareness back to me. I believe this self exists because I see it reflected back in the mirror whenever I direct my awareness out. In this way, I mistake this continually reflected image for a fixed me.
What does this ‘self’ want? Principally to exist. It’s a boundary issue. The self inserts a dividing line between what’s perceived and the perceiver. And if I’m doing this, so is everyone else. We are all drawing lines in the sand, which get washed away with the tide of death and even before, moment to moment. Maybe we could more accurately say that we’re drawing lines on the surface of a lake.
Thus, we come to what the Buddha names as incorrect view. Our thoughts about the self are in fact thoughts about these temporary lines in the sand; whether the self exists or not, how it was or will be, or what the ego is on about. To transcend such views, which merely focus back in on the mechanism, is an example of the universal expression of the Awakening that is the major stumbling block for most people. The good news is we can make it easier to transcend incorrect views by seeing the ego as a tool, and not as a fundamental identity.
Why the Ego is Never Satisfied
Nevertheless, we feel pressed to satisfy needs and desires in this relative world of projections where the “I” lives and works and desires, as does everyone else. We want to survive, as does all life. But the difference may be that we know it and other creatures just do it.
I need food, clothing, shelter, sleep, and medicine to survive. But I need safety, relationships, and meaning to flourish. This is where the dilemma of self and other gets activated. In other words, the ego learns to manipulate and control to get what it wants and avoid what it doesn’t want.
Who gets the last apple, who gets to build their house on the top of the hill or by the lake, who do I stand beside for my sense of connection, who gets to decide the organization’s direction and purpose? From my perspective, it’s me (or someone I approve of in my head)! From another person’s perspective, it’s them!
This endless marathon of seeking fulfillment is doomed to failure as the ego is never satisfied. Why is this? One reason is that life is always moving on, while our sense of the ego is that it doesn’t. So, there is always a sense of not being quite there, or of catching up to be happy in this moment.
But at one time, in early childhood, we had experiences of connection and contentment that were divine. These divine moments came precisely because until two years of age our ego has not yet formed. We get these moments as adults, too, such as when we’re in concentrated mental activity, or ‘in the zone’ in a physical activity. What we don’t perhaps notice is in those moments of extreme contentment, is that the ego has taken a ‘nap’, or as in early childhood, wasn’t there at all.
We strive to recapture these moments or, even better, create new ones, but what is making this effort? It’s the ego. We have an attribution error, then. The ego cannot make happiness; it allows happiness to take over by getting out of the way.
Nevertheless, the ego plots and schemes and manipulates and controls always in pursuit of contentment. In other words, it acts like a brat. It is selfish and self-centered in this process. It will get together with other egos in order to try to find this peace of being in the unitive experience and sometimes can find it, but it is always fleeting. Rather, it is when we let the ego fall away for a time that our pleasure is fulfilled.
Ego As Illusion
The fact that it is an illusion doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that it doesn’t exist the way we think it does. Like all illusions, it only seems real. Think of the illusion of the rainbow. As adults, unlike children, we know how silly it is to try to capture a rainbow; but the ego does try to capture the rainbow of contentment.
So not quite being successful, the ego compromises. It stores up old moments of contentment and feeds off them or chases the dream of momentary satisfaction with the idea that it can hold on to it forever.
This impels us, in the many moments when the ego is dissatisfied, to recognize its fears* of abandonment, annihilation, or its own vindictiveness. These fears can drive us crazy. But perhaps more importantly, in spite of all the reasons we have for anger and lust and confusion, our failed attempts at permanent happiness manifest into basically just feeling hurt.
Remarkably, it is just this hurt that can resolve the ego’s isolation. How so?
We hold the keys to our own freedom. How does this work? In the moment of anger or bitterness, we can acknowledge we are feeling hurt, and accept that this hurt arises for reasons. What reasons? Such as because we are getting what we don’t want, or not getting what we want. When we can acknowledge that this is what’s happening, we are not being fooled by the want/aversion itself. In other words, we can disengage from confusing the want/aversion with our ego by acknowledging and accepting that hurt is happening. (For more on hurt, download the chapter Protecting Against the Hurt is What Hurts from our book ‘Wasteland to Pureland‘)
The last step is letting the hurt go. This is difficult because a good part of our self-identity—and therefore our behavior, feelings, and ideas—are rooted in just this mandala of hurt. Thus we act like a hurt child, wailing at the unfairness of being dependent on others, and at the isolation of aloneness. That’s the brat, thinking and feeling it should get what it wants, how it wants it.
Correct View: The Horse Before the Cart
In the letting go, the ego is put in its proper perspective; it’s an effective management tool of the mind. As such, it can serve to help us contact ever greater clarity and joyfulness, and a sense of enlivening impermanence. With letting go, the cart of our ego then follows behind the horse of spiritual awakening. We awaken from a sleep of ego dominance, to a state of ego as an aware, skilled, and willing assistant.
In this way, the ego can serve its central purpose as an excellent management tool: its best function is to help us implement the realization of the universal unity of Awakening. Then we can manifest this in the material world of relative truth, the field of choices, decisions, and actions in our daily lives.
When we get this horse and cart in the right order, our lives become much healthier and joyful, and we become more compassionate. Others are not the enemy. They are simply us in another body.