I wrote this post about six weeks ago but wasn’t really happy with it and wasn’t ready to post it- the ideas were underdeveloped, it was clumsily written, I had no idea of the basis of my statements. It’s never going to be ready or perfect, so I’m posting it anyway.
The past few days I’ve been ruminating on the nature of the ego and the effects it has on the world. I’ve come to the general conclusion that striving to let go of one’s ego is the most important and most difficult step in becoming a better person/reaching Enlightenment/achieving oneness with the Tao.
First let me explain my understanding of ego. In this context, when I talk about ego I am referring to a sense of inflated self-importance, the idea that “I am more important than [you]”. Although it sounds confronting and unrealistic, I believe almost every human being engages in this line of thought every day, usually without realising it. When we get into our cars without thought for the insects we kill and the pollution we produce, when we work for faceless corporations whose goal is control or profit, or when we see someone who’s hurt and struggling and we continue on with our own business… In almost every action we do, we are prioritising ourselves over others (be they plants, animals or the world at large). Of course it’s impossible to live life without harming and killing other creatures (even if you’re a vegan hermit on a mountainside)- this is the way of life, and some death is natural- but practically all of us think that we’re more important than everyone/everything else. As a rather simplistic example, if 20 people in the room are catered for by 39 tiny, insufficiently filling sandwiches, I think most people would be tempted to sate their own hunger and take two instead of one. Survival of the fittest, as it were. But this is not the wild. Most of us no longer have to struggle to survive in this society of affluence, yet we still cling to material goods, we still hoard resources we cannot possibly consume, because we need them more than they do (they being animals, plants, people etc). How willing would you be to share your breakfast with a hungry magpie?
I also want to clarify that when I say ego, I do not mean self esteem. I understand self esteem to refer to how much one values oneself, and clearly having a low esteem is very harmful. But neither should one have an overly high opinion of oneself, for this leads to egotism, vanity and all manner of problems. It seems that the challenge is to know exactly how much you are worth, and to value yourself exactly enough. As Lao Tzu put it, to know you are a “straw dog”, an ordinary collection of materials that are raised up and celebrated during ceremonies, and then destroyed and trampled afterwards. Each of us are very special, entirely unique and with tremendous potential, and we are important. But no more important than any other life form. In a sense, you could say that your life is worth as much nutrition/fertiliser as it could produce for a growing plant when your body is buried in the ground. (And, just as an aside, if I ever die, I would like a fruit tree to be planted over my body. Perhaps apples. It pleases me somewhat to think that this bag of flesh I inhabit might provide the energy for new life to grow, and that the world might benefit from the fruit borne of my body.)
Obviously my opinions are my own, and my understandings might be perilously deluded. But I cannot help but think that if all human beings were to treat all other life forms as equally important, we would live in a much nicer world. That’s not to say one should give up one’s life for a fly- human beings are more important than other species because of our ability to shape the world- but sometimes I think we cling to ourselves too tightly when others would gain more from our absence. Again, as an overly simplistic example, if I needed somewhere to live but building a house would require cutting down part of the rainforest, I think the world would be better off if I were homeless instead. In “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior”, Dan Millman talks about a wise woman who was walking along a cliffside and saw a lioness had fallen to her death. Her cubs were sitting by her body crying out in grief, alone and hungry, and the woman threw herself from the cliffside without hesitation so that they would have something to eat.
The Buddha said that detachment is the most important aspiration of life. Letting go of everything you cling to frees you to live as you were truly meant to, to achieve Enlightenment and to understand the nature of all things. I think that you can let go of all your material possessions, let go of your body and let go of your control over life, but if you cannot abandon your sense of self then you will not truly become Enlightened.
The Dalai Lama said that compassion is the most important value in life, regardless of religion, creed or lifestyle. I think that by understanding you are no more important than other other being allows you to happily give of yourself for the betterment of others. It becomes clear that you see yourself in others, and you want them to be as happy as you wish to be.
By abandoning ego, I think that it becomes easier to let go of notions of suffering and injustice. If you are hit by a car, you don’t have to scream “Why me?!”, but embrace the unfortunate as a natural part of being around fast-moving cars. You are not the target of some divine force who thrives off your misery, and if you should develop a terminal disease it does not need to affect your happiness and kindness to others.
Is it possible to entirely dissolve one’s ego? Perhaps some human beings have accomplished it (those who have attained Enlightenment are probably good examples), but most of us will never even come close. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Like perfection, even if it’s impossible to achieve it’s still an ideal worth striving towards. It is better to be a little self-less than it is to be entirely selfish, is it not?
How then does one strive to abandon one’s ego? It is hard to say, but my best guess is by reflecting on everything I have written about. By being aware of when we act to get a re-action from others, as opposed to acting in order to express our own natures. By coming to know our true natures, and true “worth” and valuing ourselves as much accordingly. Quite a daunting task, and not one that can be achieved overnight. But I think that the hardest thing about becoming a better person is never becoming complacent, saying “Oh, I’m good enough now, I can stop trying to be kinder/less egotistic/better”. To strive with every action to be a better person than I was yesterday- that’s the real struggle.