Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Where does the ego come from? Why is it bad? Is it possible to get rid of it?
Asking my Zen teacher
We all sat on our zafus facing the center of the dojo - the meditation room. This was the opposite of what we normally did when we practiced zazen - Zen meditation - which we did facing the walls. At one side of the dojo, there was an altar with a statue of the Buddha, flowers and incense sticks. At the other end, sat Dokusho, our Zen teacher, wearing his brown kesa.
This was mondo: a formal question-and-answer period with the Zen teacher.
I joined my hands in gasho - the formal salute -, bowed and got up from my zafu. I walked to the center of the dojo to face Dokusho. I bowed to him and kneeled to ask my question.
“How can I get rid of my ego?”
“You don’t want to get rid of your ego. You need a strong ego to practice Zen. Otherwise, your determination will weaken and you’ll stop practicing.”
I was surprised by his answer. This is what is supposed to happen during mondo. The answers of the teacher are meant to shake your assumptions, to force you to look at things from a different point of view. But I also felt relieved. I didn’t have to understand what the ego was, something that I could not fathom. I didn’t have to live in self-doubt, constantly questioning if I had too much ego. I just need to be strong and determined, and keep practicing Zen.
That happened many years ago, sometime in the 80s, in Madrid. Ever since, I had often wondered if Dokusho was right in his answer.
As it often happens in Zen, he was both right and wrong.
Shame, pride and other social emotions
Eventually, I stopped practiced Zen and left Buddhism. I had learned a lot, but I could no longer agree with some of its basic teachings. But that is a story for another day.
But I never abandoned my quest for self-understanding, for transcending my limitations. I just turned away from lofty goals like achieving Nirvana to more mundane endeavors. I wanted to stop suffering, help others, understand myself, and reconcile myself with death.
One of the things I realized was how sensitive I was to shame. I had shame attacks. The smallest social gaffe would trigger a paralyzing and painful feeling of shame. My mind would go over and over what had happened in an endless loop. I also had a small voice in my mind that would say, always in Spanish: “How stupid!” It left me with the feeling that what was stupid was me. The fact that the voice only spoke Spanish, when most of my internal dialogue happens in English, told me that it was something from my childhood.
I put these experiences together with a conversation I overheard at a meeting of the Mind and Life Institute, and perhaps with some things I’ve read, to create a theory about the origin of the Ego. It goes like this…
Shame and pride are two opposite emotions that evolved in humans to control our social interactions to maximize cooperation. I am convinced that we carry shame in our genes, given the fact that it triggers physiological responses like blushing and universal behaviors like hunching, freezing and withdrawal. Pride also triggers behaviors like standing tall and strutting.
Shame punishes us, not only when we do something wrong, but also when we fail to perform our duties or fail when trying to do something. Conversely, pride is a reward for our success.
I also think that our brains are programed so that shame and pride are triggered by other people, especially those in our close social environment. We may try to get rid of our shame and boost our pride, but we are largely unable to do that because these emotions arise automatically. This makes sense from the evolutionary point of view. If these emotions evolved to increase social cooperation, they should be controlled by others. If we could control them from inside our minds, they would lose their power to enforce social behavior.
There is a host of other social emotions that work together with shame and pride to control social interactions:
Guilt happens when we harm somebody or our community. It is different from shame in that it does not produce blushing. It is triggered by wrongdoings, not by failures.
Indignation leads to blaming, which triggers guilt in the person who is blamed.
Contempt, likewise, triggers shame in the person it targets. It leads to shunning and social isolation.
Ridicule is another trigger of shame. When somebody acts proud undeservingly, that person is ridiculed to “bring them down a peg or two”.
Humor accompanies ridicule. When people laugh at you, that makes you feel ashamed. Humor serves to bond together a group that is pouring contempt on somebody. However, humor also offers an exit from shame when the person being shamed accepts his decrease in social status by laughing with the group.
How shame and pride build the ego
We are subject to the pull and push of pride and shame since the day we are born. Power struggles with our parents, toilet training, squabbles in kindergarten… they all teach us that to be loved we need to succeed and not disappoint.
Soon, we start to internalize these drives. We start to feel proud of ourselves and ashamed of ourselves. That is how the ego is created, as a core for the emotional memories and habits of feeling proud and shameful.
Emotional memory is a type of memory that makes us feel a particular emotion upon receiving a particular stimulus. Often, a stimulus would trigger an emotional memory, but we don’t understand why because we have forgotten the event that created the emotional memory. Emotional memories are very persistent and difficult to control.
Emotional habits are those that we create by reacting with the same emotion over and over again. If you let yourself feel angry at the least provocation, you will eventually become an angry person. But if, instead, you choose to be patient, patience will become easier over time. Likewise, shame and pride carve pathways in our brain, so that more and more events are interpreted through those emotions.
We are not our ego. Our ego does not belong to us. We belong to our ego.
It’s hard to escape from a black hole
I had a vision of my ego as a black hole. It was huge, with gravity so strong that it captured everything that came into my consciousness. Every sight, every sound, every taste, every smell, every feeling, every idea, was interpreted based on its value for the ego. It twisted and warped everything that came into my mind. Like a black hole, not even light can escape it.
From its early beginnings in childhood, the ego grows and grows throughout our life. It’s the base of our values, because passing judgement is what the ego does best. It convinces us that we cannot live without it. When it feels threatened, it warns us that we are in danger, that nobody will love us, that we will do things that make us ashamed, that we will stop doing things that we need to live and prosper.
Dokusho was right in that we need a strong ego to succeed in life. If we have a career, like I did, we need a strong ego to motivate us and give us the energy to put the hard work to succeed. Every time we slack off, the ego brings out its whip of self-shame to make us try harder. It feeds from our work environment, sucking in every praise, every diploma, every raise in salary… But also all of our defeats: the job we lost, the lover who broke up with us, the competition we didn’t win, the paper that was rejected… Both pride and shame feed the ego equally. It uses these emotions to build an image of who we are, and it shows it to us to prod us forward.
Why is the ego bad?
The problem is that often the ego takes over our lives. It grows and grows until it becomes so big that occupies the entire space of our consciousness.
Because the nature of the ego is craving - of success and praise - and fear - of failure and disapproval - the ego makes us constantly unhappy. Its victim is that innocent child that wanted to play and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. The teenager that looked at the world in wonder and wanted to know for the simple pleasure of knowing. The young adult that wanted to love and be loved.
Successful people are deeply unhappy because success has built an ego so strong that they are forever their slaves and cannot break free from it. They paid a heavy price for their success: an insatiable ego that has taken over everything in their lives, leaving no room to breathe.
The ego causes us to live false lives because it sets goals in function of what others and society expect from us, instead of what we really want. It creates mirages and imbues them with craving, so that we chase after them. It takes over our perceptions: the moment something comes into our consciousness it is judged in term of the cravings of the ego. That way, we start chasing fame, money and status symbols that we don’t really need. We see our lives through the distorted optics of winning and losing prestige.
Yet another problem is that we start believing that we are our ego. It takes so much space in our mind that we see nothing else. Then, anything that threatens the ego becomes an existential thread to our entire being. We cannot let go of the ego because we feel that then we would die. But the ego is just a bunch of emotional habits that create an image of who we are. In reality, we are the entirety of our mind, both the conscious and the unconscious. We are much larger and powerful than our ego.
The trap of the ego
The problem with many spiritual practices and philosophies that are supposed to free us from suffering is that they can’t help but falling into the black hole of the ego. The ego pats us in the back after every meditation, every yoga session, every church service, every political demonstration, and tells us that we should feel proud of ourselves, because we are so spiritual, so illuminated, so saintly, so politically engaged…
Some philosophies, like Stoicism, even provide intellectual support for the ego by giving us a false model of our mind in which there is one part of it that controls another part. The superego and the id. Rationality and instincts. The conscious and the unconscious. The ego welcomes these ideas because, of course, it sees itself as the part of the mind that is in control.
Meditation practice can bolster the ego when it becomes the part of the mind that forces it to pay attention to something, like the breath, or the chakras, or whatever. That’s why I prefer meditation practices that open the mind to everything that happens, instead of trying to focus it.
Another problem is when consciousness is worshipped and made the center of everything, because then the ego disguises itself by calling itself consciousness. Instead, meditation should open us to our unconscious, breaking the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious by letting sensations, feeling and ideas flow freely.
The trap of the ego makes it very difficult to do transformative work or follow a spiritual path. Any such work needs to challenge the ego and the distorted view of our lives that it creates. But, instead, the ego protects itself by distracting us from that work with false objectives like how many hours of meditation we are doing or how much money we are donating.
Following a teacher, guru, religion or sect traps us into the game of the ego by making us dependent on the approval of these people, instead of giving us inner freedom. Jiddu Krishnamurti warned us about that.
The wounded ego
Unsuccessful people also have egos. But theirs, instead of accumulating successes, accumulate failures. They suffer from low self-esteem because of a lifetime of failures that fill them with shame. That creates a state of mind of continuous freezing, incapable of genuine happiness. That frozen state also deprives them of the creativity that they would need to achieve any future success.
It doesn’t matter if you are actually successful or not. What matters is how you see yourself.
These people often try to numb themselves with alcohol, drugs, gaming or some other kind of addiction. The ego-driven craving sets the stage for that.
Wounded egos are very sensitive to shaming. They quickly take offense at anything that remotely appears like a put-down. The mere presence of successful people reminds them of their failures, and this manifest as envy and schadenfreude. People tend to avoid them and that hurts them, too, because shunning is a form of contempt. They crave praise and suck it up like sponges. They constantly demand recognition for the things they do.
The dilemma of the ego
We face a tragic dilemma. We either build a strong ego that leads us to success in life - but that at the same time makes us unhappy - or we become ego-less happy fools that would never succeed.
In ancient Greece, some philosophers saw this dilemma and chose the latter. They called themselves the Cynics: the ones that lived like dogs. They lived like animals, enjoying the present and the simple pleasures of life, avoiding worries, money, fame and anything that could become a trap of the ego. They made a point of being shameless.
However, most people would rather have a strong ego than live like a dog.
The Way of the Warrior
I have a glimpse of a way out of this dilemma.
It’s called the “Way of the Warrior.” I think it’s a horrible name, because it speaks of war and “warrior” sounds like something the ego would love. However, it consists of learning to do things in ways that do not feed the ego.
I first encountered the Way of the Warrior while reading books by Carlos Castaneda during my youth. Castaneda presented a doctoral thesis at UCLA on anthropology in which he related his experiences with don Juan Matus, a Yaqui sorcerer of northern Mexico. He published it as the book The Teachings of Don Juan, that was an international success and was followed by a series of books on the same subject. Don Juan gave Carlos Castaneda a variety of psychodelics like peyote, psilocybin mushrooms and Datura. Besides this use of psychedelics, don Juan taught Castaneda a way of life called the Way of the Warrior, which consisted of losing self-importance, erasing our personal history, taking responsibility for our actions, and using death as an advisor. The first two things seem related to erasing the ego. When I finished reading the whole series of Castaneda books, I became convinced that they are works of fiction, which is the present consensus among the experts. However, the Way of the Warrior made a strong impression on me and became part of my personal philosophy.
I encountered the Way of the Warrior again in a book that was highly recommended by my rock-climbing buddies: The Rock Warrior’s Way, by Arlo Ilgner. He incorporates the philosophy of Carlos Castaneda, Stoicism and Zen Buddhism into a mental training for climbers that enhances focus, performance and enjoyment. Specifically, he analyzes how the ego decreases the climber’s performance by taking away performing the moves in an “impeccable manner”: with complete focus and commitment. I incorporated his advice into my climbing and felt a great improvement. The best thing is that it helped me to avoid “phantom fear”, a crippling anxiety that filled me the day before I was going to do a challenging route. Even better, while I was reading the book I felt that this advice could be applied, not just to rock-climbing, but to most aspect of my life, writing in particular.
Mushotoku: focusing on the doing instead of the praise
Circling back to Zen, the Way of the Warrior reminds me of the Zen teaching of mushotoku:
“Mushotoku is the attitude of non-profit, of not wanting to gain anything for yourself.” Taisen Deshimaru.
Taisen Deshimaru was the teacher of Dokusho, who traveled from Spain to Paris to study with him.
Mushotoku addresses the craving that is inherent of the ego by focusing on the action itself and not on its goals. This includes the self-praise we derive, because there cannot be any gain for the self.
Doing things with mushotoku requires a high level of mindfulness and meta-attention: paying attention to how we pay attention. For me, doing this is tricky. A part of the mind is trying to control other parts of the mind. This is difficult to do without causing internal divisions and struggle. In particular, it’s easy to become self-judgmental, which takes us back to the game of praise and shame that the ego plays.
Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity. Self-pity comes from a wounded ego, which thinks that is not treated as it deserves. It is based on self-importance and not taking responsibility for our actions. It’s demanding from others the care we are not willing to give to ourselves.
Self-compassion, instead, is a commitment to taking care of ourselves by being aware of our needs and limitations. In its quest for success and praise, the ego often compromises our well-being. The ego trap in which we fall while pursuing lofty professional, spiritual or political goals makes a virtue of self-denial , until we find ourselves living a life devoid of playfulness, joy and rest.
Self-compassion requires a special kind of mindfulness that lets us listen to our bodies and our unconscious, which tells us what we need. It knows that we are fragile and mortal, that strength and health are not to be taken for granted, that our time in this world is limited and has to be used wisely. It limits the ego by advocating for our entire self in front of it. It laughs at our failures with good humor and uses our natural curiosity to learn from them. Instead of the mirages of grandeur of the ego and of dejection of the wounded ego, self-compassion relies on the truths of our natural limitations and the randomness of the world.
Self-compassion evolves naturally into compassion for others when we realize that everybody is as fragile, limited and subject to the randomness of life as we are. Bad luck strikes everybody, and it is cruel to make people pay for it.
Importantly, when we are used to battling our ego, we see how people around us are slaves of their own egos. When they become confrontational and angry, they are just defending their egos. The same way as we do.
It may be impossible to live completely ego-less. But we could decrease the ego to a manageable size, so that it doesn’t fill consciousness so completely and cloud our mind. I may become more aware of how it hurts me, which would be a beginning to decrease my suffering. Slowly, I could free more space in my mind for joy, curiosity, playfulness and wonder.
Musings About the Ego was first published in Sex, Science & Spirit.