The ego is the insatiable craving within which chooses to live as if its fantasy is reality.
Right now I know there are billions of people worse off than me. Who have no food or shelter, no sight or hearing, no money or no loved ones. Who are living in war torn places or are in the grips of addiction.
I know all this. I know in comparison to them I am so lucky.
Yet a part of me chooses to ignore all that and focus instead on what I don’t have that some others have, or what I had but now don’t have. Others have better jobs. Or more money. Better looks. More recognition. Or: I myself had it so much better before and now I don’t. It was taken from me. Or I lost it myself and it made me into this much smaller person now. So the thinking goes.
The bite of the painful comparison (“He has it and I don’t”) requires that I put out of my mind that I am better off than many others. The bite gets its grip through feeling as if the world only have two kinds of people: those who have what I don’t and people like me. For this to get a grip, all who are worse off than me have to removed from my mind – or rendered into a general, vague, nameless and faceless masses who don’t need to thought about.
The ego is the part of me which fuels this forgetting. Which suggests the forgetting is entirely natural. That my sense of loss is uniquely important to me (the ego me), and to hell with people worse off than me. The ego only wants to think about those who are better off and that too to flame my resentment/sadness/anger/hurt at what I lack that they have.
The grip of the ego is intense. Right now there are people I know, who are my friends who are going through difficult times. When I think of it, I feel bad and concerned. But it fades soon enough. Until I don’t have the food I want to eat or I think about some issue at work. Then the ego dominates, subordinating all – even the concerns of my family, and even that of my wife and perhaps in the future, even my child – to what I don’t have and want and deserve.
This self importance or focus can seem natural. So much so that our ordinary notion of identity treats it as entirely fine. “Of course you care most about yourself. That is just self preservation and biology!”
Actually: it is us normally not distinguishing between ourselves and our ego. In that conflation is all the existential pain of our lives. Not the physical or material pain. But the pain of not having enough.
A deep peace arises when one disidentifies with their ego. When one doesn’t endorse the fantasy that one’s life and pains and status really matter; that somehow one’s life and situation is really unfair. That sense of unfairness only works in the ego perspective, where one can walk by (as I did today) a homeless person begging for change while lost in my thoughts that there are no good places to eat where I was walking. Seeing the homeless person didn’t make me stop my inner dialogue of “woe is me” because I can’t decide on a place to eat. Rather, the world of the homeless person and his luck compared to mine was swiftly set aside, so that instead I could focus my energy on my luck compared to those who live in fancier places. That is the ego’s work.
It is the world of illusion we normally live in. Which we choose to live in. Choosing the matrix over the reality.
This is the world of maya.
To be open to the world as it is requires giving up the lazy commitment to the maya. Not just in moments of meditation or mystical insight or when one feels inspired. But to give up the haze of the ego every moment, in every interaction and most of all, when one is alone with one’s thoughts and preoccupations. To see the preoccupations as the web which the ego weaves and as nothing more real than that.
To buy into the preoccupations – the nagging concerns, worries, even hopes and ego ideals – is to slip into the fantasy world the ego spins around us, making it seem like it is just who we are.
To be mindful of this drama and not buy into it is painful in the moment. For it means starving the ego. But beyond the ego’s narratives, there is the reality without comparisons and judgments waiting to be experienced in stillness and joy.
My maternal grandmother said to me when I was a boy and was complaining about something, “Think about the people who have less than you.” This is the kind of commonplace one says to kids. But in it is the core of wisdom.
The ego survives on comparing oneself upwards. Thinking of oneself in comparison to those who obviously have much less is the ego’s kryptonite. The ego can’t handle it. It cannot survive the reality of one’s good fortune, especially in relation to those who clearly have less. The ego requires bracketing that reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that the mental energies can be expended only on its grievances.
My grandmother’s simple words can free the mind as powerfully as chanting Rama’s name. If I keep in mind the multitudes of people, and many of them just little children, who don’t have the mere basics which I take for granted, that takes the energy away from the ego and redirects it back to the more expansive consciousness within me which doesn’t require a fantasy to survive.
The point isn’t to become sad for those less well off. My sadness doesn’t help them in this moment anyway. The point is to help myself see the world more clearly and less clouded by my ego awareness. Whether I help others or not, first I can help myself by freeing myself from my ego.