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The Traps of the Ego

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Thinking that we deserve the best, and chasing happiness and virtue, feed the ego.

Coyote seating on top of a snow cliff
Coyote pondering. Photo by the author.

What is the ego?

The ego is not who you are.

The ego is not your self. It is not ‘the thinker of thoughts’, that illusory being that we believe does things around inside our mind.

Who we really are is the totality of your being, conscious and unconscious. The ego is not that, either.

Of course, there are many opinions about what is the ego. Here I am going to explain what I think it is, which I found particularly useful to understand myself and to help me live a happier life. Please bear with me. You may find it useful, too.

This conception of the ego is the one used in the Way of the Warrior, a philosophy of life that I have embraced lately. It is similar to the concept of the super-ego in psychoanalysis.

Shame and pride are two powerful social emotions that direct human behavior. They seem to have evolved to facilitate cooperation and discourage cheating in the tribes in which we used to live during most of the history of our species. Since early in our childhood, they provide a latch to allow our parents and teachers to educate us. Pride rewards us when we are successful and shame punishes us when we fail or when we engage in antisocial behavior. These emotions likely interact with the dopamine neural pathway linking the ventral tegmental area (VTA) with the nucleus accumbens, an ancient system that motivates our behavior. We soon internalize the instructions of our parents and teachers, so that shame and pride are driven by an inner judge instead of them. That inner judge is the ego.

Fear is another emotion that takes part in the building of the ego. When something threatens our physical or emotional integrity, the ego sounds an alarm.

The ego is not bad. It is there to ensure that we are safe and that we play fair with others. It provides the motivation that drives us to succeed and to avoid failure. Self-driven people have strong egos. Even without external stimuli, they are able to gather a great amount of energy to keep going at work for long periods of time. It is difficult to have a good professional career without that an ego.

However, we pay a price for it in unhappiness.

When the ego takes over our lives, we forget how to be joyful and loving. We cannot make ourselves vulnerable because the ego doesn’t tolerate anything that threatens its self-image.

We even start believing that we are our ego. Then, we perceive emotions that hurt the ego, like shame and guilt, as existential threats. We feel that, if the ego were to disappear, we would die. But this is not true because we are not our ego. We are the entirety of our mind.

Is it possible to get rid of the ego?

We do not want to get rid of our ego. It fulfills an important function. It keeps us safe, doing good deeds and avoiding bad behavior. It provides the energy to keep working hard in our careers.

However, we need to put the ego in its place, so we don’t become its slaves. Inner freedom means to learn to control our ego, instead of it controlling us.

There is also a way to act that is not based on the automatisms of the ego. This egoless action is what leads to the state of flow, in which we are creative without apparent effort. But the effortless of flow is an illusion because we need to do a lot of training before we can achieve it.

The key is to realize that the ego is made of emotions: pride, shame, guilt and fear. We cannot control our emotions directly, because emotions direct the flow of our consciousness. But this happens in passive states of consciousness. There are active states of consciousness in which we direct and focus our attention, like we do during meditation, mindfulness, sports and creative work. This ability to direct our attention allows us to control our emotions indirectly: by selecting our ideas and mental images. For example, we can gradually turn off our anger by directing our attention away from the ideas and images that feed it.

When we keep having the same emotion over and over again, it creates an emotional habit. It carves a groove that our mind tends to follow. Therefore, a spiritual practice consists of cultivating healthy emotional habits while gradually undoing the unhealthy ones.

The ego can be conceived as a set of emotional habits based on pride, shame and fear. By practicing egoless actions, we can unlearn those emotional habits and built a healthier ego, one that does not control us.

The traps of the ego

The problem is that most of our present action is driven by the ego so, even when we decide to follow a spiritual practice, it is our ego directing us to do so. At every step, the ego would feed on what we are doing, interpreting it through its glasses of pride and shame. The ‘patting on the back’ that we give ourselves when we experience a good meditative state comes from that. It is pride. And that ‘patting on the back’ destroys the good meditative state by taking our focus away.

And yet, we know that egoless states are possible. Flow is one of them.

One possible path is to practice sports like rock climbing or martial arts that make easier to achieve flow, because the attention is directed to physical acts and, when we lose focus, we get immediate feedback.

Another path is art or writing. Right now, as I type these words, I try to maintain a state of flow. I try to avoid the prideful ‘patting on the back’ that would take me back to my ego. Or the self-doubts that paralyze my writing.

Today I want to write about the traps of the ego. These are beliefs inculcated in us by society that feed our bad emotional habits. By avoiding them, we can develop healthier and happier mental state.

“You deserve the best”

When I was a teenager, my family became wealthier. My father a university professor, was named president of the University of Santiago de Compostela. Then he was called by the government to be the founding president of a larger university. We moved to Madrid, and my father enrolled me and my brothers in a posh school for rich kids. Under their influence, we developed an attitude that we were special. We were smarter than anybody. Common rules did not apply to us.

That was the privileged attitude of the upper class in the last years of the Franco dictatorship.

Fortunately, I only spent one year in that private High School for wealthy kids. Then I went to college, read extensively, and became friends with people with progressive ideas. Still, that idea of being somebody special was implanted in me.

I am not alone in feeling this way, I guess. Although, for some, it may be the opposite: they feel permanently undeserving. Either way, it’s all ego.

The message that we deserve the best is constantly conveyed by our consumerist culture. That’s what advertisement is about, isn’t it? “Buy our product. It’s the best, and you deserve the best.”

Do you see the ego in that message? Behind that feeling of being special, there is pride. We compare ourselves to others and decide that we are better than them. Therefore, we deserve the best.

That’s the foundation of greed.

My point is not that greed is unethical. Instead, look at what that greedy attitude does to your mind. It makes you constantly anxious to make sure you get the absolute best. Even in the simplest things: the best parking space, the best dish in the menu, the best vacation, the best job.

This craving attitude can totally ruin your life.

I’m not saying that you should not enjoy the good things in life. If you find a good parking spot, by all means, grab it. But you are not going to enjoy anything if you are focused on getting the next best thing.

Perhaps a good practice would be giving up things on purpose. Let somebody take that good parking spot. And feel good about it.

“You should be happy”

Since antiquity, many sages have reflected on the paradox of happiness: the more you chase it, the less happy you are. The desire to be happy makes you unhappy.

Their response has been to reject happiness altogether. Epicureans, Stoics, Buddhist, Christians and other philosophies and religions tell you that you should give up trying to be happy. You should strive to reach ataraxia, instead: a calm, peaceful state where there is no more striving. Or wait to be happy until you go to Heaven. Or until you achieve Nirvana.

“The best that you can hope for is to avoid suffering,” say the Buddhists. “Not even,” say the Stoics. “Suffering is unavoidable. The best you can hope for is to deal with suffering gracefully.”

I beg to disagree.

I think it is possible to be happy.

The problem is not with happiness, but with craving happiness.

When happiness is a goal, instead of something that happens right now, it’s not happiness anymore.

On the other hand, consumerist culture constantly sends us the message that we should be happy. We live in a wonderful civilization where all our basic needs are met. Where we can access wonderful pleasures: food, drinks, music, movies, books, travel… There are so many things to enjoy that what we lack is the time to sample them all. If we are not happy with all of that, surely something is wrong with us. We should see a therapist who will fix our unhappiness. Or take medication that will ‘restore the chemical imbalance in our brain’.

The quest for happiness become a trap of the ego when happiness is seen as something that we can possess. The ego wants it because it can feel proud when it determines that we are happy. However, happiness is not something that you can possess. Happy is something that you are.

Therefore, a quest to possess happiness makes you unhappy because, while you chase happiness, you are not happy.

We also fall prey to confusing happiness with joy, love and other positive emotions. It is impossible to always feel joyful or loving, because living means feeling a bunch of different things. Emotions guide our thoughts, behavior and motivation. We need them all.

We can be happy while feeling sad, angry, disgusted or scared.

Negative emotions are okay, as long as they don’t become destructive.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t gently guide your emotions by cultivating healthy emotional habits. After all, freeing ourselves from our ego is just that: escaping from the stranglehold that pride and shame have on us.

What this means is that being happy should not become another obligation.

Letting go of the craving for happiness in order to be happy is paradoxical and hard to understand.

“Be virtuous!”

The same thing happens with the imperative to be good. It can be another trap of the ego.

The Epicureans, the Stoics, and other Greco-Roman philosophers taught that the pursuit of virtue was the highest goal in life.

Again, I beg to disagree.

I think that virtue should be a means, but not a goal. A means to what? A means to live a meaningful life.

Here is the problem. The ego is the program we carry inside since childhood that makes us feel proud of ourselves when we do something good, and ashamed of ourselves when we do something bad. When we pursue virtue, we are falling into the same game. The more virtuous we are, the more we inflate our ego.

In our striving to be virtuous, our ego becomes the little dictator inside ready to sacrifice our needs in its endless race to feel pride. More so if we believe in a religion or a philosophy that tells us that happiness is something we shouldn’t have. That we will pay a price in suffering for every time we feel happy.

That’s how asceticism is born. We are so good, so much better than anybody else, that we are willing to deprive ourselves of the pleasures of life in this blind pursuit of the invisible medals of virtue.

Our ego constantly judges ourselves in the race for virtue, punishing us with shame when we fail to act up to par.

Once the fall into the habit of judging, we extended it to others. They are certainly not measuring up to our standards. And this pleases our ego, because it means that we are better than them. And if we manage to get them to admit this, even better. We get full of pride about how good we are, and this feeds our ego, making it bigger, more powerful. And, therefore, more able to oppress us.

That’s the process that creates gurus and cult leaders. People who are supposedly saints but, in fact, are just narcissists with hypertrophied egos.

Beware of their false modesty! They know well how to hide behind fake humbleness so that their game is not exposed.

So, what is the solution?

Following the Way of Warrior is like walking a knife edge.

The ego uses anything we do to feed itself. Every little victory can be tallied for his pride. Even calling ourselves a warrior is nothing more than ego-building.

We need to start by accepting that this will happen. The ego will be there and will feed on our deeds. There will be pride when we succeed, and shame when we fail. We shouldn’t make much of that. Just follow our way, unperturbed.

We should laugh at our ego. Humor deflates it, decreasing our self-importance.

We should engage in activities that bring a state of flow, where we leave the ego aside by focusing completely on what we are doing.

When we recognize the inner dialog of the ego, made of self-praise and self-doubt, we can label for what it really is: a distraction and an energy leak. Then we can gradually learn to replace it with an inner dialogue focused on acting with impeccability: performing at the top of our ability, focusing all our energy on doing and learning.

Instead of chasing virtue, we should have a moral code consisting of not harming others, working for the common good, and following a path with a heart.

Not harming should be based on compassion: an acute awareness of the ubiquitous presence of suffering and a commitment to decrease it however we can. We suffer, and therefore, we feel the suffering of others.

Working for the common good should be based on our personal power. We generate so much energy that giving becomes natural, because we have energy to spare. We take pleasure in giving because we thrive on the happiness of others. Just like their suffering is our own suffering, their happiness is our own happiness.

Following a path with a heart means finding meaning in life. Doing things that bring us joy, fulfillment and deep understanding. Creating art, science, knowledge, and social work.

Mushotoku is a Zen word that means acting without attaching ourselves to the consequences of our actions. In the context of the ego, it means detaching ourselves from the pride and shame that may result from our action.

There is a surprising shamelessness in true wise people that is different from the shamelessness of the sociopath. The wise is full of mirth and compassion, whereas the sociopath is creepy and selfish.

When we follow a path with a heart, happiness just happens. No need to chase it. We may meet joy and sorrow, but they are still meaningful when there is a heart beneath them. It’s the deep happiness that comes from living a life full of meaning.

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