We are living in an insane nightmare. Does it seem logical or necessary that we suffer from fear, low self-esteem, anger, and other negative feelings even when, on a purely physical level, things are going quite well? Does it make sense that people hate and even kill each other for ridiculous reasons such as skin color, religious belief, nationality, or sexual orientation? What causes this insanity? Why can’t we simply enjoy the wonder of being? To understand this, we must understand the mental constructs that lead to it. This book will describe them and, it is hoped, help you shed them.
In a worldly sense perhaps you have “made it”. Maybe you have a career, wealth, health, significant other, social life, and a bright future. But something beyond the five senses is missing. You feel as though you should have or do more, but you don’t know what or where that “more” is. You wonder whether working and doing chores and striving to get enough shelter, food, money and social acceptance as you head toward your inevitable death is what life is all about. The world is full of people doing bad things, and even your loved ones can sometimes be shallow, petty, selfish and contemptible. You might be having trouble trying to derive meaning and purpose from a seemingly meaningless and purposeless existence.
Congratulations. You are an evolved human being. A lot of people never reach this stage. They spend their lives on a treadmill pursuing only earthly desires and basically living like animals, unaware that there could be anything more than food, shelter, sex, entertainment, money, possessions and social status. You have enough sensitivity and self-awareness to know that you are much more than that.
The stage of development you are at is both a blessing and a curse. You have the wherewithal to aspire to higher levels of development that will bring greater peace and joy, but right now you are caught in an uncomfortable larval stage where you cannot be satisfied with things that used to satisfy you while at the same time you have not grown enough to have inner peace.
Before you can move on you need to understand what brought you to where you are now, why you have the negative feelings you do, and, most important, who you are.
Our feelings of fear, powerlessness and worthlessness are baggage we accumulate from having endured abuse, deprivation, ridicule and rejection. We develop fear of bad things happening or good things not happening; the frustrating feeling that we cannot make things be the way we want; and the notion that we have little or no inherent value. Life then becomes a struggle, something to be dreaded, an exercise in trying to manipulate external circumstances and people in order to ease our inner pain. When we fail, when things do not go the way we want, it reinforces the negativity. Even when we get what we want, we still do not grow or heal because all we get is temporary relief from the struggle, and our pain will return the next time we encounter something or someone that is not the way we want it or them to be.
We all have an inner monologue. “I hate doing this.” “My thighs are fat.” “That guy’s a jerk.” “I hope they like me.” “I hope I don’t get fired.” All thoughts create feelings: positive thoughts create positive feelings, and negative thoughts create negative feelings. Much of what we think is negative, and so we create the vast majority of the negativity and suffering in our lives. Sure, other people might sometimes criticize or reject or betray us, but how long does that last? A minute? A few seconds? If we then spend hours, days or years thinking negative thoughts in response to what happened, who is to blame for all that emotional suffering? We are.
No one has the power to make you feel anything negative. Any negative reaction to others is just that – a reaction. You can choose to react any way you want. For example, if others reject you, then you can choose to think, “This confirms my suspicion that I’m worthless,” or “I despise those people for being so mean.” That will surely cause negative feelings. Or you can think, “They are not bad people, just ignorant. They do not realize what a worthwhile person I am. I do not have to adopt their opinion as my own or place my happiness at their mercy. I am good regardless of what they think.”
We need to realize that we are perfect the way we are. Others judge and criticize us not because we are imperfect, but because we look or act different from the way they do. They believe that their appearance or actions are “right” and that anyone who deviates from them is “wrong”. If we allow their opinions to become ours, then we see ourselves as flawed.
How do we come to accept ourselves? That is the wrong question. We cannot accept ourselves until we find ourselves. In fact, the very purpose of our earthly existence is to find our true selves. Our purpose is not any of the worldly things that many people pursue, such as money, power, procreation, or accomplishment. It is not even higher pursuits such as love and meaning (though those things will happen once we do find ourselves). Our purpose is to find the wonderful beings of conscious energy that we are. We cannot do this by merely existing as disembodied entities floating around in a vacuum. In order to find ourselves, we need something other than ourselves to reflect us back to ourselves. This is why we are here, right now, in bodies in particular sets of circumstances. Unfortunately, many of us mistakenly view these very bodies and circumstances as “all there is” and thereby remain blind to who we really are.
The greatest source of misery is the state of not knowing oneself. Until we find ourselves we will feel afraid and powerless due to being cut off from our true source of power no matter what worldly things we accumulate, and we will cling to possessions, intimate relationships, religious beliefs, social status, etc in a futile and ongoing attempt to assuage the existential loneliness of self-separation and fill the power void that cannot be filled by anything other than self-realization. This is why we become dependent upon worldly things, why the loss of these things sends us into such despair, and why the mere threat of loss causes us to become jealous, defensive, anxious or angry. As long as we cling to these external things, we will never find ourselves. We will remain needy, fearful of loss, vulnerable and desperate. We will continue to feel that we are “not enough”.
Now, does this mean that we should not have possessions or relationships or beliefs? Certainly not! It is wonderful to connect deeply with someone or have a nice home or feel that one is with God. Just don’t forsake yourself in the process.
Why must we suffer? Because it is how the Universe lets us know that we have not found ourselves. It is not that we must suffer; rather, we cause ourselves to suffer as long as our business remains unfinished.
Why is it so difficult to find ourselves? Actually it isn’t. All of us eventually do. Some of us just take longer than others because we identify more strongly with our worldly form and things. Perhaps, if we are spirits (see chapter 5), we will continue to experience lifetimes until we realize that everything around us is temporary, that what we call “life” is but a school that enables self-discovery. We do not have to do anything special in order to find ourselves. In fact, there is nothing we can do to make it happen; we can only prevent it from happening by placing too much importance on worldly things. Once we stop agonizing over our bodies, wealth, social status and so forth, our true self emerges from underneath the cloak that we had placed over it.
Finding and accepting yourself are really the same thing, because once you find yourself, you will accept yourself. Yes, you will, because the real you – not the negative self-images caused by things you’ve done and regretted and/or what other people have said about you – is good and valuable. This idea seems wrong to the many millions of people who have low self-esteem and are afraid to find themselves because they don’t believe they will like what they find. Ah, if they only knew! All we need to do is shed our false self-notions, and then our wonderful true selves will be revealed and we will like what we find! As long as we live under the illusion that we are what we see, own and accomplish, as well as what other people say about us, we will never accept ourselves because we cannot accept what we haven’t found. Therefore, finding – waking up to – who we really are under our bodies, clothing, possessions, accomplishments and social status is what this life is all about, and once we do that, we will be rewarded with self-acceptance and a fulfilling existence. Each of us is responsible for doing (or not doing) this. No other person or book can do it for you. However, you can certainly be assisted, and that is the goal of this book.
THE FALSE SELF
So how do we find ourselves? Well, perhaps a good place to start in determining who we are is to establish who we are not. As mentioned earlier, we create false notions of ourselves. Let’s look at what those notions are and why we create them.
As we develop, we interface with the world via mental abstractions that are known as the ego. The ego can be thought of as a shell of thought that the real you resides in. This shell consists of beliefs, desires and judgments. The ego is what wants, criticizes, resents, hates, and becomes dependent on or addicted to things, thoughts, people and relationships. The ego says, “I am male / female / black / white / Asian / liberal / conservative / Christian / Jewish / Muslim / tall / beautiful / athletic / intelligent / strong / thoughtful / rich / successful / helpful, and you are not (or at least less so), so therefore you are wrong/bad/inferior, and I am superior.” The ego always needs to obtain more, to be more, because its feelings of fear, powerlessness and worthlessness make it need to fabricate feelings of superiority. It loves to judge and criticize others, for that makes it feel superior. Because it is always striving for some future reward, it cannot live in the Now, for the Now does not serve its purposes and is therefore a threat to its very survival. It is the ego that makes us think, scheme and worry about the future, as well as regret the past, and thereby prevents us from fully experiencing, enjoying, or living in the moment.
Our ego makes us unhappy by causing us to seek happiness outside of ourselves, thereby making us unaware of our true selves and the happiness to be found within. Everything the ego wants is something other than the true self: money, possessions, comfort, pleasure, social status, etc. It was created in response to the feeling that inherently we are worthless, so it then believes that we do not deserve to be happy just by existing and we must therefore attain physical items, accomplish feats, and impress others or else we must, by default, feel miserable. This causes people to desperately clamor for these external things, often belittling, stealing from, pushing aside, and even killing each other in pursuit of what the ego wants because it believes that not obtaining these things would annihilate it.
Even when the ego obtains or accomplishes something, the good feeling is only temporary. After a short while there is a renewed desire to obtain or accomplish more. Why? Because the constant feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness make the ego believe that past victories are not enough, that it must keep obtaining things, accomplishing feats, and impressing others in order to sustain the illusion that it is a worthy being. As soon as it stops doing these things, it is left by its worthless self. Thus it must constantly perform just to satisfy the craving. It can never rest. For example, no matter how many people an ego has impressed with athleticism, wit, physical appearance, intelligence, or whatever, as soon as anyone is not impressed with it, it is reminded of its feeling of worthlessness, and it suffers. This is why some people become very upset if you criticize their beliefs, their physique, their clothing, their nationality, etc – you have triggered the pain of worthlessness that their egos carry. Thus any random person can deflate someone’s ego and cause them to suffer just by making a less-than-flattering comment. The ego is at the mercy of others’ opinions for its feeling of well-being and power, because it has no feeling of well-being or power of its own.
Virtually all of us have an ego, and the stronger it is, the more it rules us and makes us miserable. Sure, it might help us gain wealth and social status, but at what cost? The psychological torture of want, worry, resentment, anxiety, depression, isolation, anger, and other forms of mental suffering. They all stem from one primal emotion: fear. The ego fears not getting what it desires. Because it sees external things as the only hope for any kind of good feeling, it exists in fear of not getting them. The egoic person, then, cannot feel comfortable in his or her own skin.
Now, here is the ego’s secret weapon, the one that enables it to have such a hold on us and cause us to do its bidding at the expense of our happiness: it fools us into believing that we are the ego. For example, we mistakenly believe that we are white or black, that we are Democrat or Republican, that we are Christian or Muslim. We are not these things! They are nothing more than attributes of our physical bodies or thought patterns. We are the conscious beings that possess these bodies and thoughts, not the bodies and thoughts themselves. The ego believes that we have to think or behave a particular way because of these attributes. Well, we don’t. They do not define us. We always have the power to change our views, thoughts, attitudes and behavior.
The ego maintains its false sense of superiority and security in a number of ways. Each individual uses a different permutation of them. See how many you recognize.
These methods can create a sense of pride. Pride is not self-acceptance; it is the exact opposite. Pride is an egoic fabrication based on something external, while self-acceptance is based on the true self. Pride identifies with a certain race, nationality, belief system, sports team, possession, etc. Self-acceptance comes from feeling a sense of self-worth, regardless of one’s external situation or affiliation. Pride is the lack of self-acceptance; it is self-rejection. Most people feel bad about at least a few aspects of themselves, so they grasp at something or someone to associate or identify with and thereby attain validation. This causes the religious fundamentalist to cling to the belief that he possesses the one and only truth and is headed for posthumous rewards, the sports fan to ride the coattails of the local sports team so he can feel good when it wins, the voter to take pride in being a Republican or a Democrat, the American to wave his flag and feel superior to non-Americans, and the Muslim fanatic to hoot and holler with his comrades. Instead of growing spiritually, these people perpetuate separation from, and rejection of, both themselves and others.
The ego becomes a slave to whatever it depends on for its false sense of self-worth. For example, the popular person depends on the approval of others. Her sense of well-being is at the mercy of other people’s opinions, thus they possess the power to cause her pain. As soon as someone rejects her, she feels hurt.
The ego looks for certain types of feelings in order to gratify itself. For example, “falling in love”. The ego swoons when it attaches itself to someone who is physically attractive, spends money on it, provides sexual gratification, laughs at its jokes, and tells it it’s beautiful. “In love” is an addiction, the act of clinging to a drug that keeps one high and that will leave one empty and bereft if/when it ends. This causes lovers to cling to each other and to become jealous and suspicious for fear of losing what they can get from each other.
The ego uses intimate relationships as a way of being saved from its misery by someone else. It doesn’t want to work on self-improvement. It wants to be worshipped and pampered. The first few months of any relationship – the honeymoon phase – are full of ego gratification as people are enthusiastic about getting to know each other, having fun times together, and being on their best behavior. Once the novelty wears off and people see each other’s egos for the flawed constructs that they are, they become disenchanted. They think, “Where is the wonderful person who used to think I was perfect?” This leads to disappointment, disgust, and/or resentment toward each other for not living up to their egos’ desires and expectations.
True love is the appreciation of someone as they are, warts and all. It is a down-to-earth relationship with a partner with whom one shares mutual respect. It does not make your heart go all a-flutter. It does not make you deliriously “happy” or afraid to lose your partner. It does not need whirlwind romantic getaways in order to be interesting. It is a peaceful, sensible relationship. Unlike “in love”, it is sustainable, because it does not require being emotionally “high” all the time. It does not require lots of physical attraction. And if someone leaves you, it doesn’t hurt as much as it would if you had been “in love” because you would want what’s best for your former partner and not be so concerned with your ego needs.
True love comes from fullness, not need. People “fall in love” for things such as physical attraction, finances, sex, status, security, etc. These needs and desires push people together, create pleasant feelings of need satisfaction, and masquerade as “love”. It is only when we do not need anything from someone that we can truly love them, for then it is pure love, not a clinging in order to get worldly needs or desires met.
One might ask, “If you don’t need anything from someone, then why have a relationship with them? If you do not feel the need to live with, have sex with, or gain security from someone, then why even be with them? Don’t relationships need an ego basis?” Well, it depends on what kind of relationship is desired. Relationships based on getting egoic needs met certainly do require an ego basis. That is why they become turbulent and fall apart when egoic needs are not met. When people see each other’s true selves, they love each other based on their true selves, not on ego, and that kind of relationship is much less likely to deteriorate.
The ego hates to be wrong, so it will vehemently defend its beliefs, even when evidence does not support them. This is called the confirmation bias: the act of supporting something you already believe in or opposing something you are already opposed to regardless of any information that might suggest you’re wrong. For example, people of a particular political party will criticize something that someone of another political party does, but support the very same action if it is done by a member of their own political party. This hypocrisy stems from the fact that these people have identified with their political party, so if they were to admit that someone from their party did something wrong, it would make them look bad. They also need to demonize opposing parties because the ego needs an “other” to feel superior to.
The ego hates to be criticized, because it is robbed of its feeling of superiority and thus deflates. Deflation is the most painful thing the ego can experience. Watch an egoic person become upset or defensive when criticized.
The ego not only hates to have itself criticized; it also hates to have something it considers important (e.g., religious or political belief) criticized. This is because the ego identifies with it, so its sense of power depends on it. Belittling its belief thus makes it feel diminished, causing deflation and pain.
In order to feel superior, the ego needs others to feel superior to. This is why so many people gossip about others; ridicule them; criticize their behavior, intelligence and attractiveness; and demonize their skin color, nationality, and political or religious belief. The ego must have enemies, otherwise it cannot look good by comparison.
The negativity that results from living within the ego includes feelings such as anxiety, depression and discontent. Often people try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, or they throw themselves into activities in order to distract themselves from their pain.
Negative thoughts cause negative feelings. Much depression, for example, is caused by negative thoughts that are part of the ego. They might be about the self (“I am worthless”, “I am powerless”, “I am lonely”), or about life in general (“life is meaningless”). Depression is often wrongly attributed to brain chemical imbalances, when in fact it is a cognitive problem, not a physical one.
The ego believes that it cannot be happy because it has not obtained something (the perfect significant other, enough money, a nice house), or because people wronged it in the past. This is an illusion. For example, studies have shown that lottery winners are no happier than paralyzed accident victims in the long run. In fact, lottery winners are often less satisfied with their lives than non-winners due to contrast and habituation.
The “never enough” mindset that so many of us have with money is caused by the ego’s using money to provide a sense of security or well-being that we lack because we have not found ourselves. We feel that no matter how much money we have, we will run out. It is important to realize that this is only a feeling, not a fact, because no matter what calculations we do to prove that we will always have enough, our fear keeps telling us that we won’t. This causes us to be afraid to buy things that could improve our lives, and experience pain whenever expenses come up. For example, in any form of gambling, such as casinos or the Stock Market, the ego has a “must win” mentality. Even a small loss hurts because we have placed our sense of well-being in something external. As long as we lack an inner sense of well-being, no amount of additional wealth will allay our fear of not-enough because external things such as money can be lost.
In short, the ego makes everyone miserable because it keeps us from finding our true selves and it can only exist in a framework of fear, judgment, competition and separation. It is a spoiled brat that wants what it wants and experiences pain when it does not get it. It is like a drug: we use it to make ourselves feel temporarily good (via feelings of self-importance or superiority), but it makes us dependent on constantly acquiring a “fix” that we feel miserable without. Basically all egoic people are addicts.
But why do we develop an ego? If it is such a blight, then why on Earth would anyone want one? Is it necessary to develop one? Is this an essential step in a full human experience? Must we all suffer in the ignorance of ego in order to fully develop and to gain wisdom that can be gained only via that path? Or is it possible to prevent someone from ever developing an ego by raising them in an environment where an ego is discouraged by telling them all throughout their life that they have value regardless of their accomplishments and outward appearance?
Ego development is not necessary, but it is inevitable in the world we live in, because we do not exist in a perfect environment that always gives us love and acceptance. The ego is largely created as a self-defense response to our emotional pain. As toddlers we were content to play and love and be loved. Eventually painful things happened: rejection, abuse, ridicule, deprivation, neglect, and/or being told we were “bad”. We also learned that things we want are not always easy to obtain, and that sometimes we need to compete with others to get them. Our minds then created mental defenses, i.e., an ego, in an attempt to mitigate these harsh outside influences. The greater the traumas, the stronger our egos became. The greater our feelings of fear, powerlessness and worthlessness, the more we fabricated feelings of courage, power and self-worth by creating mental constructs. Each time something or someone hurt us, it added to the amount of pain we carried around. We did not overcome it or release it, and it did not go away with time – it simply added to our baggage. This painful burden is the reason that people feel the need to live inside an egoic shell: constant pain necessitates constant mental protection. The ego is therefore fueled by pain, and so it seeks more pain to keep itself nourished. It gets its food by creating all forms of drama, such as abusive relationships, criticism (of self or others), resentment, becoming offended, hatred, bigotry, violence, and so on. This is precisely why the world is so full of conflict: most of us live with pain-created egos that need more pain to survive.
Part of the ego can also develop naturally, even in the absence of adversity. Once children become aware of themselves, they see themselves as separate individuals. There are “I” and “others”. This causes them to vie for material things and superiority, and the result is competition for toys and contests in physical abilities.
So it seems that the human experience will cause virtually everyone to develop an ego because our emotions and environment predispose us to it. If nothing else, it teaches us how ignorant and destructive the ego is, and having suffered through that experience, we have the necessary information that can lead us to reject it.
We each decide whether to live with our destructive, addictive ego. Many people live entire lives blindly reacting to their egoic framework, never changing their thoughts or beliefs, suffering with self-created feelings of fear, resentment and anger while judging other people according to their accomplishments, physical appearance, behavior, skin color, nationality, beliefs and so forth. Others eventually see the light: they realize that their pursuit of external power has caused them to gain the world but lose their soul. They wish to turn things around. That is what the rest of this book is about.
SHEDDING THE EGO
So, how do we break free of the ego – the mental prison we have built around us – and wake up from this nightmare? In order to break free of the ego, we must diminish it. The only way to find our true self is to cut the ego down to size. Usually this involves a gradual reduction rather than an instant disappearance of the ego. The process will hurt, because shrinkage is the most painful experience for the ego. The good news is that the pain will only last during the shrinking process. Once the ego is down to a small size, there is very little shrinkage left to be done, so we can avoid egoic pain as long as we don’t let the ego grow again. If we become unconscious and let it regain its former size, it will be subject to being diminished (thereby causing pain) in the future.
So how does one diminish their ego? The first step is to notice it. The reason the ego is so successful in operating is that it does so under the radar. You don’t even know it’s there. The almost constant inner chatter, the judging and resentment are just accepted as part of you. You don’t realize that all this mental hooey is not you; it is something you do, not something you are.
Whenever you feel judgmental, or judged, or angry, or rejected, or offended, or superior, or inferior, that is your ego. It is easy to observe these in others, but not so easy to see them in ourselves. Well, we must see them in ourselves, for in order to defeat an enemy, you have to know the enemy is there.
Even if we notice our ego, we might still not be motivated to reduce it. If so, then this means that we simply haven’t suffered enough. It is only when the pain caused by our ego outweighs its benefits that we finally have enough incentive to take action. Sometimes the pain accumulates slowly over the course of our lifetime until we finally get fed up. Other times a specific incident can wake us up (for example, an alcoholic might have no incentive to stop drinking until he or she hits “rock bottom” in an incident that causes him/her to alienate people or endanger lives). Either way, our ignorance, arrogance, fear, anger, etc cause pain, either in and of themselves, or via things we say or do that cause painful consequences such as losing friends or lovers or money. When enough pain is experienced, our true self is able to see just what a cancer our ego is, and we then make an effort to shed it because it is doing us more harm than good.
Once you have exposed the ego for the life-ruining process that it is, you might be ready to start letting it go. However, if you carry a lot of emotional pain, you might have to reduce that first. This pain has two sources: 1) life events (which are the main reason we developed an ego in the first place), and 2) the ego itself (it perpetuates fear, anger, etc long after the causal events have taken place). Most people have this pain simmering just below the surface, ready to latch onto any negative stimulus in order to enlarge or at least sustain itself. This is why so many people feel compelled to watch a tragic news story, or view a traffic accident as they drive past, or watch a fight, or talk negatively about people behind their backs, or become instantly indignant when criticized. Our pain distorts our view of the world, people and events. For example, an adult who was teased about their weight as a child might feel hurt or offended by fat jokes, while someone who has never been overweight might not. What we enjoy or despise is determined by our state of mind and our personal history more than it is by things in and of themselves. The only hope we have of seeing things clearly is to get rid of our pain.
We will continue to experience pain until we realize that the ego is consuming us with its need to be right, to judge others, to control others, to feel indignant when others think or act in ways that we disagree with, and to enlarge itself with material wealth, social status, accomplishments, and/or power. We all have different levels of suffering that must occur before the pain of keeping our ego fed is greater than the pain of not obtaining the things that it wants. Only when we fully realize that this is happening will we decide to reduce our pain and our ego.
As with the ego, the first step in shedding our mountain of pain is to recognize that it is there. When we overreact to things, it is because our emotional pain has been triggered. We all have sensitive areas of our psyche – emotional buttons – that, when pressed, cause more pain than would occur if those buttons weren’t there, just as touching an infected wound hurts more than touching healthy skin. No one can cause you emotional pain; all they can do is bring to your attention the pain that is already within you. Notice that you have pain. Whenever someone says or does something that triggers your pain, instead of wrongly blaming them for behaving in such a way as to cause you pain, recognize that the pain you feel was already there; it was simply brought to your conscious attention. In this way, the “villains” in our lives often help us grow more than our friends do.
Once you become aware of the pain within you, “divorce” yourself from it: instead of viewing it as “part of you”, as most people do, see it as an infected wound, an illness, a monkey on your back. Don’t chastise yourself for having it. Instead, see it for the illness that it is – an illness that is not completely your fault.
Whenever you feel emotional pain, let it be. Don’t fight it. Any energy directed toward fighting pain only adds to it. Mentally resisting a situation without taking action to change it does nothing more than torture you. Simply let the pain be. Notice it. Know that it is caused by all the past negative experiences that hurt you, not just the current situation that triggered it. Visualize the pain passing through you, like wind wafting through a screen. It is not part of you. It is only a temporary feeling that will pass just like all feelings do.
Over time, practicing the letting go of pain will diminish it. Once pain is down to a manageable level, letting go of your ego becomes easier because the ego needs pain to sustain itself, so it begins to starve.
As the ego starves, it might try to feed itself. When there is no pain being created from the outside, and therefore no enemy to fight, the ego has nothing with which to nourish itself, so it might desperately look for an adversary, a reason to be, a justification for its existence. (As mentioned in the last chapter, the ego needs enemies.) As the amount of pain (which is its food) diminishes, it might attempt to feed itself by creating drama. As a result you might find yourself inexplicably judging or criticizing people or things that you never felt that way about before. If this happens, be aware of it. Your awareness will enable you to stop it.
Pain/ego diminishment is a synergistic process: less pain means less reason to defend oneself with ego, and less ego means that no new pain replaces the pain that is diminishing.
If your ego persists even when no pain is apparent, that is because it has been so active, so ingrained in your psyche, and such an unconscious process for so long that it is on automatic pilot. It will take months or maybe even years to untrain it. As with pain, you cannot fight it, for that will only energize it and have the opposite effect from what you intended. You only have to notice that it’s there and not exercise it. For example, if someone criticizes you, you can notice that your ego’s knee-jerk reaction is to attack that person or defend yourself, and you can instead choose to not react with painful negativity.
Sometimes an acute event can cause the ego to shatter completely. Any form of loss that renders the mind powerless, such as a near-death experience, the death of a loved one, or financial ruin, can remove or diminish the ego (for the time being anyway) and allow people to get a glimpse of their true selves and feel the love that the ego had been hiding. It’s as though we finally realize that certain things are beyond our control and resisting them does nothing more than cause us pain, so we might as well accept them. Thus the “tragedies” we dread can be the very things we need most for our spiritual development. For example, a couple stops fighting when one of them gets diagnosed with cancer or they hear that a mutual friend has died. The mind’s thinking, judging and striving to be right are suspended, allowing the true self to come through. Thus, loss is a door to spiritual awakening and growth, because when the ego loses some of the stuff it identifies with, that part of itself dies. It might react ignorantly by hating the loss and striving to regain its stuff or pump itself up by finding new stuff to identify with, which of course keeps one spiritually immature. However, the individual can choose not to react this way but to accept the pain and use it to grow.
The importance of letting go cannot be overemphasized. This is not a “war on the ego”, because fighting this enemy only makes it stronger. You must instead ignore it. This is not the way we’ve been taught to overcome problems. Most problems are dealt with via physical and/or mental effort. Dissolving the ego requires that we do just the opposite: nothing. Simply stop feeding it, and it will starve to death.
In addition to letting go of pain and ego, you might have to let go of relationships and activities that feed the ego. For example, becoming aware of your own ego will make you aware of the ego in others, and you might find that you no longer derive any benefit from socializing or being intimately involved with those egoic people who you used to cling to. You might realize that the relationships you have with them are based only on feeding each others’ egos (via complimenting each other, criticizing others behind their backs, being careful not to mention certain topics, providing social security, etc), that there is no spiritual connection, and you might then seek deeper relationships with people who are more spiritually evolved. You can offer to help your current friends or lover to evolve by telling them how you are doing it, but if they reject this growth opportunity and remain just as egoic and shallow as ever, you might find that you have to move on.
Outgrowing your spouse is a particularly difficult situation. The typical marriage, while it might involve love, has a worldly basis. It gives people financial security and rights, a sense of belonging to each other, companionship, an arrangement wherein people share the chores of daily life, and a way to “legitimize” offspring. It does not, however, ensure spiritual growth, because it is engineered to be a physical arrangement. Most people remain very ego-driven as they strive to get their worldly needs and desires met, and often spouses are at odds with each other, causing arguments, infidelity, anger, resentment, mistrust, jealousy, domestic violence, abandonment, theft and betrayal. A couple in this type of relationship might stay together because it is functional in a worldly sense (they share financial and childrearing responsibilities, keep a household running, etc). If one person becomes aware of her soul, and grows out of the egoic pattern, she might want a deeper relationship than the mere worldly agreement that her marriage is. If her spouse remains unevolved, she will have to decide whether to stay for practical reasons (financial security, companionship, child care, etc) or divorce.
It is essential to forgive everyone, including yourself, for their ego-driven actions. All of us are blind when under the ego’s influence because we act on wrong information. It was not we but our egos that acted. If you hold onto judgment and resentment, that is your ego in action. Perpetuating those feelings serves no useful purpose, it destroys lives by preventing us from seeing things clearly or fully experiencing life, and it makes us suffer for no good reason. Did someone betray your trust, steal your money, say something unkind about you, or cut you off in traffic? Okay, that happened. Now what? Can you undo what was done? Will hating them help you get back what you lost? Will it punish them? Will it help you heal? No. You must let go of this negativity if you are to heal.
FINDING THE TRUE SELF
Now that we know who we are not, who are we?
Most people start out being very unaware of themselves. Little children are always in the moment, absorbed in whatever they are doing or feeling. They have not developed an ego yet, so they are blissfully ignorant to that sort of pain, like animals are. Eventually we become self-aware. It is the ineffable understanding that “I am”. Unfortunately this usually leads directly to ego development and all the madness that it entails, but whether or not it does, we know that we are individuals.
While living via the ego, we remain out of touch with ourselves even though we sense that “I am”. We believe that we are the worldly things and thoughts that we identify with. “I am a man.” “I am a Democrat.” “I am a Christian.” “I am an athlete.” “I am a doctor.” “I am funny.” The ego is wrong. Those things are attributes of the self, not the actual self.
We are the perceiver that perceives these things. Picture yourself driving a pickup truck along a country road. Now picture yourself driving a sedan along a city street. What has changed? Not you. Only the vehicle and location have changed. Similarly, you might be a white male living in Cincinnati, or a black female living in Johannesburg. What has changed? Your vehicle (body) and your location, but not you. You are the consciousness that is independent of worldly situations. The ego cannot understand this because it is wrapped up in and identifies with its situation. The true self sees beyond that.
Does this mean that we are spiritual beings, i.e., “ghosts in the machine”? That is one of the oldest and most hotly debated questions that Mankind has ever asked. It will be discussed in chapter 5. For right now it is sufficient to state that there is no way to demonstrate conclusively whether we are only spiritual, only physical, or a combination of both. But where personal growth and self-awareness are concerned, it doesn’t matter. Either way there is a true self to be found underneath all that we perceive with our five senses and think with our brains.
Awakening to who we really are is an individual process that happens at different times of life -- or not at all -- for different people. After a number of ego-driven years we become aware, vaguely at first, that all of our thoughts, accomplishments, possessions, physical attributes, and how others perceive us are not who we are but things we have or do. This awareness might make us feel uneasy at first, usually because the ego feels threatened: all that it has accomplished in order to keep itself inflated is threatened by the true self, who would be just fine without all those things. Self-realization is the last thing the ego wants, because once the true self is found, the ego is exposed as the fraud that it is. It will fight for its survival, which is why the process of finding ourselves can be difficult.
As mentioned at the end of the last chapter, you must forgive yourself for all your ego’s past transgressions. As long as you keep blaming yourself and beating yourself up for things that your ignorant ego did in the past, you will maintain a feeling of low self-worth that will obscure the real you. In order to find your true self you need to wipe the slate clean and start your life anew.
A huge difference between the ego and the true self is that the ego experiences temporary emotions (which are subject to fluctuations), while the true self experiences states of being. The ego, in response to getting its needs met, may experience elation, humor, gratification, etc. However, these can quickly turn to disappointment, sadness or frustration in response to deprivation. The ego is fickle, weak, needy, and volatile. It has no permanence because it is subject to thoughts and external events. The true self, on the other hand, has a solid foundation of contentment and joy. It is not easily rattled by external events and it is not saddled with compulsive thinking. It does not have the shallow needs that the ego has, such as wealth and social acceptance, so it does not experience negativity in response to not getting them.
The vague uneasiness/emptiness that is commonly seen as “depression” is often the result of the ego battling the soul. It is not a pathological condition to be talked out of by therapy or medicated with chemicals. Those methods do precisely the opposite of what the soul needs: instead of allowing it out, they shut it up. “Depression” lets us know that we are smothering our true self with ego and fear. It is part of our awakening.
Depression can be caused by loneliness, because one of our true (i.e., soul) needs is love. It can also be caused by brain trauma or chemical imbalance because well-being in a particular incarnation depends on both the soul and the body being healthy, just as music depends on both a healthy musician and a functional instrument. However, much “depression” is caused by the inner battle between soul and ego.
Fortunately, the true self is not difficult to find. After all, you are it. The only difficult thing is letting go of the ego. Once that happens, there is nothing left but the true self. It was never lost; it was only covered up.
TECHNIQUES FOR FOLLOWING THROUGH
Once you have found yourself, you might still be saddled with fear, desire, and other unpleasant feelings. Why?
Finding yourself is not the end of spiritual growth. It is the beginning. During the ego-driven years your ego grew. Your true self did grow during the infrequent times that your ego wasn’t active, but the rest of the time it was hindered by the ego, your inner pain, and a whole lot of negative thoughts. Now, having found your true self that was hidden under all that garbage, it can make great strides in growth. However, your ego, pain and negative thoughts will flare up from time to time. In fact, rather frequently. You see, nerve pathways that have been exercised for decades will not go away very easily. You might consciously realize how wrong and destructive your ego and negative thoughts are/were, but it will take time to reduce them because they are unconscious processes. You must establish new pathways while letting the old ones wither. Remember, do not fight the old thought patterns, for that will only strengthen them. Simply stop exercising them.
“More easily said than done,” you might be thinking. Yes, but certainly attainable. The rest of this chapter contains techniques that might help you put aside your old destructive thought and emotional patterns while replacing them with better ones.
When a situation arises that causes you emotional discomfort such as anger, resentment, indignation or frustration, realize why you feel this pain: your ego is feeling belittled, inconvenienced, betrayed or deprived. The external event rarely causes any damage to the true self. Your suffering is caused solely by your ego’s mental fabrications of what it wants and its knee-jerk reaction of negative feelings when it doesn’t get it. If you can catch your ego when it starts to make a situation unpleasant, and redirect your attention to your true self, the ego and the pain it causes will disappear.
Let’s look at some common situations, how the ego’s typical reaction to them causes pain, and how to prevent this from happening.
Situation: You and your significant other disagree on something. Each person’s ego wants to go to a particular restaurant, or leave for a party at a certain time (or not go at all), or buy an item (or not buy it because it’s expensive or takes up too much room). Each ego sees only what it wants, not the bigger picture. It focuses on a small desire while losing sight of something more important, i.e., the intimate relationship. A battle for power ensues: each ego vies to get what it wants, and a simple decision of where to go for dinner results in a big fight. Solution: Realize that being happy together is more important than which particular activity you engage in. Let go of the need to “win”, because your partner is just that – a partner, not an adversary. No matter who “wins” a fight, both of you lose.
Situation: You didn’t get invited to a social event. Your ego feels hurt because it wants to be valued by others (because it has no value of its own). Solution: Realize and accept that not everyone appreciates you. This doesn’t mean that you have no value in an absolute sense; it simply means that a particular person’s ego does not value you or your ego. Their ego does not get what it wants from you. This is a good thing, because it means that you do not kowtow to others in order to obtain their tenuous acceptance. You remain who you are, and if someone uses that as a reason to exclude you, then you are better off without them because they only want to use you for their own ego gratification.
Situation: Someone criticizes or ridicules you. Your ego experiences pain. Solution: Realize that their ego, not their true self, is acting, because criticism and ridicule come from the ego’s need to feel superior or right. The ego is blind, deaf, and always wrong, and for this reason you should never take anyone’s ego seriously or let it cause you pain. The egoic person does not realize what she is doing, so do not condemn or resent her. Just ignore her rantings for the lies that they are. Do not defend yourself, because the ego that is attacking you will never admit that it is wrong, so your self-defense will waste time and energy, plus you will stoop to their level. Now, what if you are being criticized in front of a bunch of people? Won’t they infer from your lack of self-defense that you agree with the criticism? No. Only their egos will. You ever notice how many people are very eager to believe negative things about someone? It’s because their egos want to feel superior by comparison. The true self is not quick to believe rumors. It wants to get the full story. So, when being criticized in front of a group, instead of firing back a rebuttal or raising your voice, simply say, “Thank you for your opinion.” People who are not ruled by their egos will not automatically condemn you, and some might ask to hear your side of the story.
Situation: You feel the urge to impress others (with your wit, accomplishments, physical appearance, or whatever). Solution: Realize that your ego, because it is inherently worthless, is afraid that others will reject it if it does not put on a good show. But only their egos will ever reject anyone, and all they will ever reject is other egos. People’s true selves will like your true self; they will not have to be impressed with externals in order to like you. If you find yourself being ostracized because others consider you “boring”, then they are ego-controlled individuals who you are better off without.
Situation: You are worried that you don’t have or earn enough money. You feel financially pressured, and every financial loss causes you pain. Solution: Realize that unless you are unemployed and/or homeless, you have or earn enough. Only your ego can be in a state of not-enough (this applies to other things besides money). You can afford enough food, housing, medicine, transportation, medical care and entertainment for you and your family to live a good life. In your leisure time you can well afford to get together with friends, engage in hobbies, take walks or relax in front of the TV. Your ego, however, might have lavish desires, such as expensive vacations, a boat, a sports car, a new wardrobe, or whatever, because it feels the need to have more and to do more. You might not be able to afford these things, but you do not need them. Only your ego does, and it will then tell you that you are “poor” or “broke”. You are not poor or broke. You just need to enjoy and appreciate what you already have.
Situation: You are consumed with the desire to win while playing a game or sport, or while watching your favorite team play. Your ego feels pain when you or your team loses. Solution: Realize that “winning” and “losing” are nothing more than mental constructs created by the ego in an attempt to enlarge itself. It believes that if it or a team it identifies with “wins”, then that makes it superior to those who “lose”. The true self derives no benefit from “winning”. If you or your team wins, what great thing results from it? Are you or your loved ones then blessed with greater health or happiness, or less crime or pollution? No. Winning is thus an illusion. So is losing, because losing has no more effect on the world or the true self than winning does. But the ego suffers when it feels that it has lost, because it feels deflated, and the ego hates to deflate. For example, when the local team loses, the egoic person becomes upset, perhaps yelling obscenities, because some professional athletes – who he does not know personally and in fact will never even meet – got outscored. This happens because the ego identifies with the team that lost, and so it feels that it lost. It would be better to simply watch the game, enjoy human achievement each time a good play is made (no matter who made it), and not want a particular team to win.
Situation: Someone cuts you off in traffic. Your ego instantly feels emotional pain due to being deflated because someone got ahead of it, making it feel inferior. You might speed up to cut them off, or honk at them, or give them the finger. Solution: Realize that someone’s getting ahead of you does not make them “better” than you. It simply means that they are so selfish that they are willing to endanger life and limb in order to get to their destination two seconds earlier. Also, their action was not directed against you personally; your vehicle simply happened to be in such a place and time that the other person’s ego viewed it as just another impersonal obstacle to get around. Let the other motorist pass. It will not delay you more than a few seconds. Do not allow your ego to get involved and torture you with emotional pain. Do not risk an accident by speeding up to cut the other motorist off later. Just let the danger pass and enjoy your peaceful life.
Situation: You catch yourself feeling superior to someone else because you have accomplished more (more money, more physical fitness, more education, more social status). This causes a feeling of separation. Solution: Look at why you have accomplished certain things. Were you driven by your ego’s fear, emptiness, and desire for more? Does this make you superior? Perhaps the person with lesser worldly accomplishments is more spiritually developed than you are, and does not need more money or social status. Maybe you are not “above” their level. Maybe you could learn from them.
Situation: Someone wants you to do something for them. Either you decline and they call you “selfish”, or you comply but only out of a sense of obligation and you resent spending your precious time “giving in” to them. Solution: If you decline and they call you selfish, perhaps it is they who are selfish. After all, they are the one looking to get something for nothing. It is not selfish to mind your own business and live your own life as you see fit (as long as you don’t take advantage of others). Refusing to cater to others is not necessarily selfish. When selfish people call you selfish for not catering to their own selfishness, that is merely a veiled attempt to coerce you into doing their bidding by making you feel guilty. If you agree to do what they want and resent it, look at why you resent it. Is your ego demanding that you do things only for yourself? Helping others can feel quite good, but you must put your ego’s selfish desires aside in order for this to happen.
Situation: You are afraid to introduce yourself to someone, or to ask someone out on a date, for fear of rejection. Solution: This extremely common problem stems from feelings of worthlessness. If someone rejects you, then it confirms your feeling that you are worthless. Remember that you have worth regardless of what anyone else thinks. If someone “rejects” you, it is only their ignorant ego that does the rejecting, and they are rejecting not you but your outward appearance because they do not even know you. Their ego’s ignorance says nothing about your self-worth. If someone lets their ego reject you, then it is their loss because they are missing out on the opportunity to be with you.
MATTER OR SPIRIT?
There is no way to know for sure whether we are (temporary) physical life forms or (eternal) souls. Nevertheless, the ideas of matter and spirit will be addressed if for no other reason than to stimulate insight.
Whether we are matter or spirit, personal growth is more important than material things, because the ultimate goal is peace, happiness, joy, or whatever you call it. Material things don’t give us those. Only our true selves do.
When we see the physical Universe as “all there is”, we might feel like a very small, insignificant, vulnerable speck. All around us we see injustice, inequality, deprivation, pain, loss, suffering and death, and we fear having those things happen to us. The physical world seems to be based on power (brute force, money, beauty, guile). We see the world as cruel and unfair: some people live long prosperous lives while others die very young from starvation or disease; criminals get away with murder while innocent victims and their loved ones suffer. The Universe often rewards or punishes without regard for what we believe we have earned or deserve. Why are some people born blind or crippled? Why do floods and earthquakes destroy peaceful villages? It all seems so random. It doesn’t make sense. Additionally, while we would like to see reason and fairness in the people around us, instead we see hypocrisy, ignorance, bigotry, favoritism and selfishness. We have an inner sense of fairness and reason, but the world we have been thrust into seems unfair and unreasonable.
If the Universe is seen as merely physical, we might believe that the things that can make us happy are all located outside of us: money, possessions, social status, sexual partners, food, alcohol, etc. Therefore we cannot be happy as we are, hence we must be innately worthless. Self-worth must therefore be earned (by attaining goals, obtaining possessions, impressing others, etc). As long as the Universe – and we – are merely physical, we are constantly needy of external things, because what else is there?
If there is a spiritual dimension, that changes everything. If we are “ghosts in the machine”, maybe we live more than one earthly life (and possibly lives in other worlds), and each life’s purpose is to assist our spiritual development. If so, then this physical world doesn’t seem so dangerous or unfair. Nothing can “kill” us, since we exist forever. “Death” simply means going to another realm. Perhaps the murder victim, the blind person, the starving child, and the labor camp prisoner who we pity need to experience their situations in order to grow. We have self-worth regardless of our wealth, physical health, social status and worldly accomplishments, because we are not physical, hence our self-worth is based on our spirit.
If we are spirits, then this life is only a temporary school where we grow and learn, then move on. We are not our bodies or our accomplishments. Regardless of how rich or poor or healthy or sick we are, no matter whether we are sighted or blind, ambulatory or crippled, we will be this way only for a short while, then we will shed this mortal coil and go on to another sojourn.
Perhaps we need many lifetimes, many situations, in order to learn and grow. Each person (i.e., temporary incarnation) is a soul that has had a particular set of experiences in various lifetimes. The different “natural” levels of compassion, responsibility, and other attributes that each person has are the result of what that soul has learned in past sojourns. This is why different people are born with different amounts of these attributes.
When we see ourselves as beings of energy having human experiences, we don’t feel so limited because we are not merely the physical bodies we temporarily reside in. The problems of our lives don’t seem so daunting because they are not our entire reality; they are merely details in a single human life. We do not have to change each thing we perceive as undesirable. We do not feel compelled to right every wrong. We learn to accept, to surrender. It is only through surrender that we can find ourselves, because as long as we feel the need to control everything around us, we will be outwardly focused and bothered by every little thing that our egos cannot accept. Now, this does not mean that we let everything happen as it will without our intervention, e.g., if our child tries to run in front of a moving vehicle, we stop him. But we act with our true selves, which will do only what is truly important, and this gives us a sense of purpose and direction. When we live via our egos, which agonize over trivialities and expend lots of energy trying to control every detail, that is when we feel rushed, weak, fearful and stressed.
The existence of non-physical entities cannot be empirically proved. Spiritual matters can only be “felt”. Why is it that some people can “feel” spirit and others can’t? Are the former more evolved than the latter, or are the latter more realistic than the former?
Religion indicates that many people are aware of a spiritual realm. Putting aside the absurdity and hypocrisy that often accompanies it, the fact remains that people would not be enthralled by religious texts if the ideas didn’t resonate with them. While acts of worship, kneeling, praying, lighting candles, etc might seem silly to some people, those that perform them do so because they feel reverence for something that goes beyond the physical realm.
One might ask whether, if we are spiritual beings, we should reject this world. We shouldn’t. We need bodies and a material environment to enable us to grow. Bodies are necessary because we cannot interact without eyes, ears, vocal cords, faces, a common language, culture, language, etc. Even if we could somehow communicate as disembodied entities, then whenever we experienced certain thoughts or feelings, how would we know whether they were ours or someone else’s? A material environment is necessary because a spirit cannot just “float” around on its own and grow in a vacuum. It needs other spirits and matter to interact with. When we act on physical matter we grow via creation, whether it’s using a tool or a creating a piece of art or cooking a meal. This is why these activities feel so good. Once the object has been created, its value is then merely worldly (utilitarian, aesthetic, or both). The spiritual value lies in the creating, not in the having or consuming. Maybe this is why materialistic, uncreative people feel so empty. Sitting around in a mansion wearing expensive clothing and jewelry is the ultimate in uncreativity, and it starves the soul.
Paradoxically, we grow by acting as though the things of this world are important, even though they have no inherent value. Their value lies in the growth they assist. For example, let’s say we are in a position where we have the ability to donate or steal money. This tests our character and helps us grow only because we value money. If we were fully aware that money has no value because it is only temporary matter in a temporary world, it would be very easy to donate or refrain from stealing it because there would be no cost to us, hence there would be no spiritual growth.
While we grow by interacting with matter, we should not become attached to it, because that is what causes the pain of loss. We should pursue and enjoy things of this world without fearing losing or not getting them, without going through a lot of unpleasantness to get them. Even if we are merely physical beings, the reduced wealth and social status due to reduced effort will be more than compensated for with happiness in the moment; more genuine relationships; and lack of fear, worry, anger and resentment.
If we are spirits, then why do there seem to be so many physical influences on our consciousness? For example:
Does all this mean that our consciousness is solely determined by our physical brains, genetics and upbringing? Not necessarily. It proves only that certain preferences and tendencies can be influenced. These influences can be mitigated by looking inward.
If we were merely physical beings, then wouldn’t we be content if we had all the physical necessities such as warmth, shelter, food and perfect health, as well as “nice” things such as a big house, big-screen TV, etc? Why are so many people who have all these things miserable? Why was Buddha, who lived a comfortable material life, moved to seek enlightenment? Maybe our desire for something beyond materiality shows that we are beyond materiality. Maybe this is why a truly spiritual person – someone who has found himself – can live very happily in a mud hut.
Why are such a large percentage of people full of negativity? Why do we fall so easily into ego and emotional pain? Maybe only ignorant and/or sick souls come to Earth. Maybe once a soul becomes enlightened, it moves on to a better realm.
Here is an exercise that might help you determine whether you are mere matter or more than that. Lie down in a quiet, comfortable place and close your eyes. Feel the energy within you. Focus deep within. Don’t focus on heartbeat, breathing, or any other bodily process. Go beyond all that to the energy within you. Move body parts and focus on the inner energy that moves them, not the muscles themselves. Feel yourself as a being of energy that resides within your body, making the body function while not actually being the body itself. Can you do this?
The bottom line is that all we know for sure is that we are emotional, thinking beings living in a physical world. We cannot prove whether there is anything beyond all this. We cannot jump out of our bodies and then leap back in at will. We cannot go to another realm as if going on vacation and then return here. If we lived past lives, we cannot remember them. But whether we are matter or spirit, our purpose for being here is to live earthly lives, to learn and grow from the experience, and to find our own path to self-realization.
LIFE ON EARTH
Now that we’ve pondered the deeper issues of self-discovery and metaphysics, we can consider how they apply in earthly life.
The world is here to teach us, to help us grow and find ourselves. If we keep this in mind we can feel peaceful in most situations. However, if we live via the ego, viewing the world as a place that must satisfy our desires, always wanting and expecting certain things and feeling as though an injustice has been committed against us if we don’t get them, we will be miserable even when our external situation is relatively pleasant.
One good thing to practice is gratitude. For example, if you live in a small house you can be grateful for having your own home, plus loved ones, physical health, enough food, etc. That is gratitude. Or you can look at all the larger houses and become envious of them and dissatisfied with yours. That is egoic desire, and a perfect example of how the majority of emotional pain is self-inflicted.
When the ego is shed and the true self is found, the world becomes a peaceful, satisfying place rather than one of hostility and deprivation. We appreciate what we have and don’t compare our lot with that of others. We know that others have more, but that doesn’t change the fact that what we have is good. The ego wants to have more than others in order to be more than others; the true self never compares itself with others or what it has with what others have, and in that way it enjoys what it has because it never sees it as “less” than anything else.
The only source of well-being and power is the real you, that is, the perceiver, not the mental constructs (ego). The real you does not need to obtain wealth or possessions or social status in order to feel good, because simply being is joyous in and of itself. As a powerful being, you are not dependent on others’ opinions. You do not need a fancy car or a mansion. You do not need to feel superior to others. Only the ego does, because it is completely powerless and therefore seeks to obtain power from external things.
In human relationships, it is best to seek others who appreciate the real you, not your ego. When a “normal” (i.e., egoic) person accepts someone else, in reality one person’s ego accepts the other person’s ego. Whether members of the same club or nationality or race or gang or political party, or people who cheer for the same sports team, their acceptance is based only on externals, i.e., ego. They don’t accept each others’ true selves, just like egoic people who reject each other don’t reject each others’ true selves but their egos, because they do not actually know each other. One cannot accept or reject what one is not aware of.
Do you rush through life because you feel pressed for time? There are only so many hours to get work, chores, etc done. Your life might seem like an exercise in “getting things over with” instead of enjoying them. This kind of life is just one long set of obligations, not a joyful experience. This is the ego in action. It is always looking to the future, never living in or enjoying the present moment, because it wants “more” and it believes that the future is where it will obtain “more”. When you find yourself you will no longer feel rushed and you will be able to live in the Now because you will enjoy and appreciate what you have and not seek “more”.
The ego’s constant stream of thought is what removes us from the Now. It frets and awfulizes, “predicting” future negative events (most of which never occur) and blowing up small incidents into worst-case scenarios. The true self understands. It takes action where action can be taken, and when action is not possible, it does not worry because it understands that worrying does nothing but cause suffering. If a bad event happens, worrying did nothing to stop it; and if it doesn’t happen, worrying caused the person to suffer for nothing.
The true self absorbs reality by perception. The ego thinks, but thinking is the opposite of perception because it is nothing more than mental gymnastics, so it blocks pure perception. Only a perceiver can experience anything (one’s own being, or outer things). All a thinker can experience is thoughts about them. The ineffable good feeling of a beautiful mountain, soft sheets, great music, or one’s own spiritual energy can happen only when one does not think, for what we ultimately experience is ourselves. Two people can see/hear/taste/smell/touch the same thing, but if one person is a relaxed perceiver and the other is an uptight thinker, the former will experience and enjoy it much more because experience depends as much on the subject as on the object. This is why trying to enjoy something, or pursuing happiness, is a frustrating exercise in futility: happiness and enjoyment come as unintentional by-products of letting go, non-effort (which goes directly against the usual method of accomplishing things via the effort of thought and/or action). Only when the clutter of ego and thought is removed will you have enough space to return to your true self, i.e., once again be a perceiver rather than a thinker.
Thought cannot bring lasting fulfillment because it is always selfishly thinking, “How can I become fulfilled?” It is a desperate beggar, always looking for that one nugget of information that holds the key to ultimate happiness. No such nugget exists, and so the best that thought can bring is temporary satisfaction. The hunger will return. Such is the nature of egoic pursuits. Love is the opposite. It wants to selflessly give, and by giving, is fulfilled. So we get what we want when we don’t strive for it, when we don’t even think about it.
While self-discovery is essential to lasting inner peace and joy, let us not forget the basic human needs that we have. These include physical needs (food, water, shelter, warmth) and social needs (feeling connected to others such as friends, family, or members of a community). Even someone who has found their true self may find it difficult to enjoy life if they are starving or isolated.
It is true that many people live happy lives even without self-discovery if their physical and social needs are met. However, their sense of well-being is at the mercy of these external factors because they lack the self-awareness required to remain at peace in the face of external adversity. For example, if someone in their group rejects or criticizes them, they might experience negative feelings such as anger, depression or shame because their ego is hurt; whereas if they were to find their true self, they would be able to see the other person’s criticism or rejection as the egoic process it is and not experience negativity.
Conversely, some people live blissful lives even without much food or belonging to a community if they find themselves. In fact, some folks voluntarily become hermits in order to find themselves because they find society distracting. Thus meeting one’s soul needs can provide inner peace even when one’s human needs are not met.
The ego often goes to extremes while the true self finds balance. For example, selfishness versus selflessness. The ego can be very selfish, grabbing wealth or glory for itself at the expense of others. Or it can become selfless, always doing things for other people in an attempt to gain public favor (thus selflessness is really selfishness), exhausting itself in effort, expecting appreciation or compensation from others and feeling resentful when it does not get it. Another example is politics: egoic people become very conservative or very liberal, demonizing those at the other end of the political spectrum as wrong, stupid, or evil.
The middle path is generally best. Everything is on a spectrum, e.g., active versus sedentary, conservative versus liberal, fat versus thin, etc. Either end of the spectrum is extremism, which is the ignorant, fearful philosophy of running into a corner and refusing to weigh the various pros and cons in order to find balance. Worldliness versus spirituality is the same way. Just as focusing only on the world is lopsided, so is focusing only on spirituality. This world is not to be transcended or rejected. It is to be experienced so that we may grow and find ourselves. Self-discovery happens not only via looking inward but also by balancing that with worldly experiences.
We run into many unpleasant personalities during the course of our lives. The ego’s knee-jerk reaction is to hate or resent these people for being “bad”. This causes a feeling of separation from others in addition to the poisonous negative feelings. When there is no ego unconsciously ruling us, we can see that the “bad” behavior we observe in others is due to their own egos, and when we remember how badly we have often behaved when we were under our own ego’s control, we see others not as bad but as merely ignorant, just like we used to be. Or perhaps others’ behavior is not bad at all but only how our ego perceives it (because it does not serve our ego’s selfish desires). Either way the true self sees beyond what is immediately apparent. It understands what is really going on, and as a result it does not poison itself with hatred toward others.
This relates to the concept of unconditional love, which is touted by many self-help gurus, as well as some religions. Is it really possible to love, say, a mass murderer as much as we love our own family members? If we could, then there would be no standards for selecting friends or mates, e.g., anyone could marry anyone. Such a world would be meaningless.
While we might not be able to love (i.e., feel an emotional connection with) everyone, we can at least recognize that they, like we, are having a human experience, feeling and reacting to pain, and making mistakes. We might not like what they do, but we can understand that they are acting according to their particular set of circumstances and their current state of knowledge and spiritual growth. This is what our true selves can do. Our egos, on the other hand, are always looking for things to be outraged about and people to vilify, and this keeps us in a state of constant turmoil.
Many people find comfort and direction in religion. If used correctly, religion can help increase love and decrease ego. However, it is often used to create fear and oppression and actually increase ego through the belief that one’s dogma is right while all others who disagree are wrong. Religion is completely different from spirituality. Spirituality is the willingness to pursue one’s spirit, or God; to admit that one does not have all the answers; and to grow as an individual. Religion is the willingness to believe and act as others command, and to cling to a static belief regardless of any evidence that might contradict it. Religion requires a leap of faith. The problem is that one could make that leap in any religion. How can you pick one? Most people don’t. Rather, they believe whatever religious dogma they were brought up with, which means that they would just as easily have swallowed some other doctrine if they had randomly been born into that one. The Christian who is absolutely certain that his dogma is correct and that all others are wrong would be absolutely certain that Islam is correct and that all other beliefs are wrong if he just happened to be born into a devout Moslem family. The mind creates feelings from the act of believing, so people claim that they “feel” their particular religion to be true, but other beliefs could just as easily have caused them to develop similar feelings.
Religious concepts are not necessarily correct or to be taken literally. For example, “eternal life”, as promised by the Bible and the Quran, does not mean eternal time. Worldly minds can think only in terms of time. Eternal life means timeless existence, i.e., outside of time. For example, when you’re totally absorbed in something, you don’t notice time – it seems that “time flies”. Eternal life, then, does not mean that you never cease to exist. It means that while you live, you experience well-being, fulfillment and joy, which make life seem like an endless Now. Only negative feelings such as fear, anger, desire and worry bring on the sense of impending doom and make time seem to “drag”.
Whether to adopt a religion is a personal choice. If it helps you grow, then it is a good thing. If you do it out of fear of the consequences of not believing (e.g., Hell or ostracism) then it will block your personal growth.
Many people cling to and defend their spoon-fed religious beliefs, never questioning them, rejecting anything that contradicts them, and maybe even persecuting anyone who disagrees with them, because they are afraid of being proved wrong. Being wrong not only causes great pain to the ego, it also raises the prospect that one has “wasted” his life thus far believing erroneous ideas and that he will not be given the rewards (salvation, Heaven, 72 virgins, or whatever) he was promised. The only way to grow is to have the courage, honesty and humility to challenge one’s beliefs and seek truth on one’s own.
The soul (the true self) is at peace with itself. It is only when the ego identifies with something else (an object, an event, a thought, a belief) that it becomes disturbed. It becomes fearful or angry over unpleasant things, and it fails to enjoy pleasant things. It is very easy to get drawn into the vortex of worldly attachments and thereby allow our sense of well-being to ride the rollercoaster that life becomes when we lose ourselves. We must remain centered in our true selves if we are to maintain inner peace and joy.
Peer pressure is an excellent outside force for enabling you to grow. Conformity – the idea that different equals bad – is based on fear. Fearful people want you to look, act, and/or believe as they do. You are thus given a wonderful opportunity to either grow by mustering the courage to be yourself in the face of ostracism, criticism and rejection; or remain spiritually stunted by giving in to fear and rejecting yourself in order to do what the herd wants you to do.
The security afforded by giving in to peer pressure is short-lived. As soon as you deviate from what the masses want, they will turn against you, for their “acceptance” of you was not acceptance at all. Rather, their ego accepted your ego. They never accepted the real you because they never knew you. If you spend your life doing what they want in order to keep their tenuous “acceptance” rather than doing what you want, you will remain their slave. You will throw your life away on your addiction to public favor.
Loving and giving to others feels good because it rids you of ego. Focusing on getting makes you fearful and unfulfilled; giving fills you by emptying you.
Know that in most situations you can choose to be peaceful. Even when bad things happen, or have the possibility of happening, you can make a conscious decision to focus inward instead of reacting negatively to outside circumstances. It becomes easy when you realize that the pain you cause yourself by worrying or reacting is worse than any pain caused by the thing being worried about or reacted to. So you can choose not to worry or react, not that unpleasant things don’t happen, but as a practical matter.
Adverse circumstances cause negative feelings only when we resist them, when we think, “This is bad. An injustice is happening to me. I do not deserve this. I want things to be different.” Realize that the Universe provides you with what is best for your self-discovery and spiritual growth. It does not allow you to meet all of your ego needs, for that would not foster growth. If you can see adversity for the soul growth-promoting process that it is, you can embrace it instead of torturing yourself.
If we stop placing importance on the things of this world, then can we still enjoy them? Yes! In fact, we will enjoy them more because it will be pure enjoyment of the things themselves rather than a desperate grasping for limited resources. We also won’t fret about losing what we are enjoying. You might discover, while finding your true self, that you lose interest in some of the things you used to enjoy. This does not mean that you have outgrown life or that you have lost your ability to enjoy things. It means that you have grown past things that do not help you grow. For example, you might lose interest in going to happy hour to get drunk and pursue sexual partners because you realize how shallow and meaningless it is. You will move on to things that feed the soul rather than the ego.
Do not argue with egoic people. You can’t tell the egoic person that they’re wrong, because they don’t hear you, only their ego does, and the ego will never admit to being wrong.
Goals are good but only if pursued for the right reason. If you pursue something that gives you joy, so that the activity is its own reward, that is good. However, if you do it to obtain a reward other than the joy of being involved in the activity (such as fame or money), it becomes a chore. It implies that happiness is not within you but outside of you, that it must be earned, and that it is not available now but only in the future. The only way to enjoy any activity is to find the real you, for therein lies the joy of being. Once you find yourself, any activity becomes enjoyable for its own sake, and worldly accomplishments are no longer necessary.
But wouldn’t a life of not accomplishing anything make one worthless, a “loser”? Only the ego believes that. The ego judges those who do not “accomplish” because it needs to feel superior. Meanwhile it is actually envious of those who don’t “accomplish” because they are happy in their own skin and it isn’t.
The fact that we don’t need to accomplish doesn’t mean that we should not do anything at all. When we find ourself, we will then enjoy all activities, so many possibilities open up to us. Furthermore, we might find passion and enthusiasm in certain activities that we never considered engaging in before.
If it seems that particular patterns keep repeating themselves in your life, such as you keep losing money in investments or you keep getting involved with significant others who have similar negative issues, that is no coincidence. It means that you have work to do in these areas, and the Universe is making sure that you keep encountering the types of situations that will help you grow in the ways you need to grow. For example, if you keep losing money in investments, it is because your fear is causing you to make poor financial decisions. Your overvaluing money is a fundamental mistake that the Universe wants you to correct, so it allows your fear to cause financial loss. Loss is an essential part of your learning and growth because only by losing external things will you be able to learn that you should not rely on them for peace and well-being, that the only reliable and lasting source of peace and well-being is your true self. Losing money will also show you that it is foolish to fret over it because losing it will not have the dire consequences you feared. If the Universe were to satisfy your ego’s desire by allowing you to profit, then you would not learn anything and you would remain fearful and addicted to money. Remember, the goal in life is not worldly but spiritual gain.
The bottom line is that peace is to be found only by being in touch with your true self. As long as you live via the outward-focused thought system known as the ego, you will remain fearful, selfish, judgmental, unhappy and emotionally reactive. You will make irrational decisions because fear will hamper your brain’s cortex, leaving your limbic and midbrain areas to act unchecked. If you shed your ego, there will be no fear, no negative thoughts, and no emotional reactivity. Your cortex will be fully engaged, allowing you to be creative and act rationally. You will love others for who they are and have empathy for them. You will feel safe, peaceful and joyful.
Ben Schwalb was born in Boston MA in the early 1960s, too late to be a Baby Boomer and too early to be a Generation Xer. He grew up in the nearby suburb of Newton as a middle class white child to a stay-at-home mother and a judgmental father who pushed him to be materially successful. He had a fairly normal childhood in a worldly sense but he always felt different from other children. He was prone to OCD, anxiety and depression, but these were not big problems because his environment was relatively safe. He spoke his mind, which often got him into trouble with his peers and teachers. He excelled in mathematics and became a good athlete. In middle school he was considered a “nerd” and had few friends. In high school he made a conscious decision not to let his unique mindset prevent him from having a satisfying social life. He became very outgoing and made a good number of friends. In his senior year he was voted captain of the wrestling team. In college he continued to be very involved socially, athletically and academically.
After graduation he entered the work force as a computer scientist. He remained athletic and social. Once he passed his mid-20s he began to sense that there was more to life than was readily apparent. He studied religion and philosophy, became vegan for a while (until he developed anemia), and kept a thought journal in which he amassed thousands of pages of handwritten notes.
His search for existential truth and meaning hit a wall when he did not find any ultimate truth, meaning or purpose. He felt that he, and all of humanity, was just adrift in an indifferent Universe, left to derive our own meaning and purpose. Disillusioned, his OCD, anxiety and depression grew worse. He found it difficult to enjoy things that he had once derived pleasure from. He isolated himself within the fortress of his own ideas, spending his evenings writing instead of getting together with friends.
In his early 30s he dived back into the world. Over the course of seventeen years he bought a house, wrote many books, took in stray dogs, became an avid homebrewer, got married, raised some children, built a network of friends, got divorced, dated a number of women, eventually “fell in love”, and endured a heart-wrenching break-up that involved several months of sadness and tears. He eventually realized that he had not been in love, but had been addicted to his ex, or, more specifically, what he'd thought she was.
His ego was still active into his early 50s, and after a few painful episodes he was moved to diminish it by reading several books on the subject, journeying within to find his true self, and practicing non-resistance. He continues to improve to this day.