An Ego Exam
The “ego” is a familiar enough concept to most people or rather “ego”. “The” is an important addition because it underlies a key difference in what people understand when the word is used. Colloquially, “ego” is used when we’re speaking about someone’s (unjustly?) inflated sense of self. So we always hear of people with a “big ego” but we hardly hear of people with normal sized egos, mostly because there is no metric of what a normal sized ego is.
The “ego” pops up a lot in my current reading stack which is largely philosophy based so the ego I’m speaking about here is of the “The” variety. The ego is the “sense of self” that we mentally create and project into our outside world. The word is derived from the Latin of “I” and the ego is made up of all the things we’ve learned, stories we’ve believed, feedback we’ve gotten, biases we’ve created and so forth. Sigmund Freud added some hocus-pocus to the idea with his breakdown of the Ego, the Superego and the Id which is a designation that I don’t particularly buy into but that’s because of my anti-Freud bias.
Blame that on a guy named Adam Curtis — ->
The ego is undergoing a renaissance of sorts because philosophy itself is entering a new age of acceptability on the backs of Stoicism basically becoming a work hack of sorts. I also think that Youtube has played a large role in this because philosophy buffs have various formats that they can play with to get their ideas across.
Youtube Channel, WiseCrack, has a series called “The Philosophy of” where they combine pop culture with the age old ideas of philosophy;
Or Einzelgänger speaking about Chinese philosopher in accessible length content;
Or these guys who’ve mixed old Alan Watts lectures with “ChillStep music;
Writers such as Ryan Holiday, founder of the Daily Stoic, has a book called “Ego is the enemy”, the title of which is a little misleading mostly because of the absence of “the”. One would almost expect that this is a handbook to be more “humble” but in learning more about the ego, even trying to be humble is one of the ways in which our egos stop us from living a good life. Philosophy is basically the study of what constitutes a good life and it seems like the ego is the main culprit that prevents that.
My grandma, who I grew up with, was the matron for a Catholic boarding school in my community so we grew up in the church all the way through high school. I’ve always realized that under the religiosity there was a functional philosophy that people utilized via the Church. The difference in religion and philosophy isn’t that far off from a certain perspective. It’s just that the fly in the ointment one side is the Ego and on the other side its…….SIN!
The Catholic Church’s approach to sinning has always been a bit too informed for my tastes. The idea of having categorization of sins, mortal and venial, could hold water if we weren’t talking about cosmic ramifications. The idea that a group of guys could know exactly what God’s checklist was didn’t carry for me. The other side didn’t hold water either. “Sin is Sin” as most of my non-Catholic friends would say, literally means that I could be a moderate liar and end up being lava cave-mates with Hitler or the guy who shot Bob Marley. Doesn’t follow for me.
Back on track. The common thread here is that the Ego and Sin both get blamed for pretty much the same thing… suffering. “Suffering” is of course contextual or better yet, on a scale but the idea is that most of our troubles in the world are actually self-propagated.
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
The 7 deadly sins are by and large a collection of the worst traits of the ego.
The word “Sin”, translated from the Hebrew Chait, has undergone quite a bit of reworking over the millennia and can now best be associated as the deductions that lead to you burning in hellfire for all of eternity. The original translation is something along the lines of “missing the mark”. It’s literally missing the point of living because “sinning” prevents us from living our best life. That’s a hell of a reframe, because the original translation does away with the chronic guilt that most Christians feel on a day to day basis. We don’t look up to sports players who let a missed shot or catch derail their entire game.
Pride is a weird one because it’s diametrically opposed with regards to how it’s used in spiritual and contemporary cultures respectively. It’s weird that a sin could be something that is extolled almost on a daily basis. Pride is also what religion and secular philosophy almost readily agree that it’s one of the main causes of problems in our lives.
It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels. — St. Augustine
The English language is full of words with multiple and opposing meanings for no other reason but to trip up people trying to learn it, I suppose. But it’s rare for a word to be on polar ends of the good/bad spectrum. It’s even more interesting because the Christians and secular philosophers would agree that pride is possibly the root of all the other sins or egoic behaviour.
Pride could almost be seen as the foremost of the 7 Deadly Sins and it’s certainly the most sneaky. It’s easy to find the irony in someone saying “I’m the humblest person I know” or taking pride in their humility. It’s a tricky one. Yet “National Pride” and “Pride in your accomplishments” are just two examples of the many variations that one is encouraged to maintain. It’s a little strange to hear “Don’t be prideful” in a sermon and then hear your public official encourage you to take pride in your town after Church. Except, it’s not. We’ve all rationalized it somehow.
Dr. David Hawkins, in his book Letting Go outlines his belief that pride going before a fall isn’t just a warning, it’s definitely gospel. He explains that pride is paired with vulnerability and consequently, defensiveness.This defensiveness leads to impaired behaviour which will inevitably lead to a trip and then a fall. In his estimation, pride is an indication of uncertainty and insecurity;
“That which is worthy has no need of your defense.” — Dr. David Hawkins
The ego’s expressions (sins) are usually born from a place of comparison which i guess is the reason that’s been described as the thief of joy. Comparison creates subjective dichotomies such as better/worse, more/less, richer/poorer into infinity. The Ego then concerns itself with trying to tip the scales of the imaginary dichotomies towards “more” or “better” and inevitably causes more stress and drama in our lives because there’s always more and better.
It’s usually at this point where a conflict starts popping up because I like nice things, living in nice places and spending on the nice things that I like.
Are you saying you want us to go live in a fucking hut? — The Ego
But the truth is, all of those nice things are really on top of the things that I love which are the things that a dysfunctional ego might deem are not important right now… because we need more or better. It could be said that the Ego is either past or future based, always focusing on what could have been done differently to change the present or thinking about a future instance of the present. Alan Watts put it more elegantly that I can;
“One fine day, you realize that to your astonishment, that there is no way of having your mind anywhere else but in the present moment; Because even when you think about the past or the future, you’re doing it now aren’t you?”
The alternative to living within the thrall of the Ego? Awareness. The alternative to Pride? Joy. The actual enjoyment of the process without the ghosts of the past or future. Doing without attachment to the outcome. It’s what my basketball coach used to preach in high school;
“BALL THEN BASKET”
It’s what your gym trainer might say when they ask you to focus on getting each rep right rather than focusing on the whole set. It’s what Jesus was alluding to about keeping “your loin guarded and your candle burning” which is the state of keeping your present circumstances in order without projecting fears from your past or anticipations from your future. Or as Master Oogway would put it;
If the Ego is indeed the enemy, then that enemy doesn’t have a place in what you’d call “the present” or even just general awareness. It is a lack of awareness about our motivations and where they come from that lead us to unfulfilling lives. It is “the sins” of our character which even though they feel justified in the moment, that lead to stress and drama later on. Our mind-made self should do what we want it do and not the other way around.
This is my first deep dive at writing about this so I’ll get more succinct in time but I hope that this has sparked at least some interest in the exploration of the self, mind-made or otherwise.
“The unexamined life is not worth living”
Andre Burnett was a co-founder of Krash, which pales in comparison to numerous achievements and ideas conceived and executed during his time on earth. A giant.