Pick Your Pieces - Chapter 3
When most people hear the word “ego,” they automatically associate it with something negative. This is unfortunate because ego isn’t all bad. Think of ego as the collection of thoughts and beliefs that a person has incorporated into their identity. Many of the thoughts and beliefs are neutral, some of them are positive, and, of course, some of them might be negative.
To illustrate, imagine there’s a man named Pete. “Pete” didn’t know his name was Pete when he was born, but over the years he came to accept that name as part of his identity. Therefore, the name Pete is part of Pete’s ego, but it’s completely neutral.
Now, imagine that Pete became interested in helping sick children. At the age of 18 he started a nonprofit organization, and, 20 years later, his organization raises millions annually. Pete thinks of himself as a “nonprofit founder who’s dedicated his life to helping children.” These ideas are also part of his ego/identity, but they’re not neutral; they’re actually positive.
Ok, we’ve covered neutral and positive; now we need an example of Pete’s negative egoic thoughts and beliefs. But even this might play out differently than most would assume. Does Pete consider himself better than people who don’t share his priorities in life? (No.) Does he feel jealousy when a less principled organization gets more media coverage and raises more money? (No.) Does he expect a fawning show of appreciation from those he helps? (Not at all.)
The negative egoic belief that Pete suffers from is that nothing he can do will ever be good enough, and that too many children are suffering because of his inadequacy. This is an especially destructive form of negative ego because few recognize that it’s a problem. In fact, many believe the opposite. They view it as proof of humility and therefore healthy and good. (It’s not.)
In the examples given, Pete only needs to get this final part of his ego in check. He can do that by first removing “inadequate” from the list of words he identifies with. Next, he should replace that word and its implications with a healthier assessment of his impact on the world. Perhaps he could acknowledge that he wants to do much more, but in the meantime, “far fewer children are suffering as a result of the work that he and others have managed to get done.” He could go further by adding, “And we’re 100% committed to doing more in the future.” This creates gratitude for what is and can be done, instead of creating ingratitude for what isn’t or can’t be. The former nourishes health within the ego; the latter creates illness.
Ego – The ideas that you’ve accepted about who you are. These accepted ideas can be accurate or inaccurate, productive or counterproductive. Regardless of their value, because you identify with them, they determine how you respond to the challenges of life. They inform your reactions and behavior to such a degree that even one improvement can produce enormous benefits.
When our physical body is ill, we do not assume the body itself is the problem (we make a distinction between the illness and the body). Well, we should do the same with the ego. Just like our physical body, our ego can become ill. The ego itself isn’t bad; the illness that’s affecting it is. And by framing it this way in our mind, we can begin the process of treating the problem. We can sever the illness from our accepted identity, and, by employing two things that comprise the ego’s immune system (self-awareness and a willingness to change), we can restore its health.
If a person sits on a couch for five years eating nothing but ice cream and doughnuts, drinking nothing but Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, milkshakes, and beer, their body will become very unhealthy. However, nobody will ever suggest that “the body is the problem; we must kill it!” So, why then do people recommend “killing the ego” when it has endured an equivalent level of abuse? The ego itself isn’t the problem. It’s simply expressing disease caused by a steady diet of horribly unhealthy ideas. It’s expressing disease caused by an appalling lack of anything approximating “nourishment” for the mind. If unhealthy elements of the ego have become troublesome, the answer isn’t “kill the ego.” The answer is “help the ego recover its health.”
Sin, Sinners, and Suffering
If your ego is unhealthy, you’ll spend a great deal of time focused on the differences between you and “others.” It won’t matter if the differences are based on how incredibly awesome you are or how incredibly inferior you are. When afflicted, the ego’s only goal is to determine your place in its imagined hierarchy of superiority. It might even offer you the distinction of being superior to others based on your level of suffering. It might declare you a gold medalist in the suffering Olympics! My advice? Heal your ego. Focus on becoming healthier; forget about vying for status.
Unfortunately, most “debate” these days isn’t about sharing information; it’s about publicly shaming and belittling anyone who has a different point of view. It’s a lower-ego thing. (“You’re a monster and an idiot. Shut up, loser. I’m better than you.”) If we could fix that, the odds of people listening to each other, and even admitting they “got something wrong,” would go up dramatically. And the world would be a better place for it.
We’ve all seen it. The “good cause” that somebody claims to be fighting for isn’t really about the cause. It’s more about signaling their moral superiority. The cause is simply a path to status. It provides a right to posture. A right to belittle others in self-righteous indignation.
Status-seeking behavior ultimately aims at the acquisition of “stature” in the eyes of others. But if it depends entirely on the opinion of others, it’s not stature. It’s servitude.
Unopposed, the lower self will seek to establish its superiority over other human beings, and it will crush your higher self in the process.
Fixed attributes provide no indication of a person’s honesty or integrity, no measure of their talent or creativity. Fixed attributes reveal nothing about a person’s courage, their work ethic, or what their time on this planet will ultimately yield for the good of humanity. Those who ignore this fact, in my opinion, do so because they wish to elevate themselves above others without actually expending any effort of their own. They seek “superiority” as their birthright, but they end up demonstrating the opposite.
For some, it’s only about pointing at others and screaming, “I’m a good person; you’re not!” Whatever cause they choose to justify their superiority is secondary to the primary objective of putting themselves above you.
More often than not, people falsely equate tearing others down with making themselves bigger.
Your first responsibility is to take care of the body and brain you were given. You must breathe and sleep, you shouldn’t eat or drink things that are poisonous, avoid beating yourself in the face with a hammer, etc. These are obvious, but another part of taking care of your body and brain involves paying attention to the things you focus on, and, more importantly, it involves paying attention to how you let those things affect you. If you’re constantly filled with anger and resentment, you can’t blame the world for that. Political systems and “the mob” have always been a mess. Try to keep in mind that many have endured unimaginable injustice and still managed to live grateful and productive lives. That was only possible because they refused to use their mind against themselves.
Recognize and accept responsibility for all of the negative thoughts and feelings that you experience—all of them. By doing so, you turn your focus inward where it belongs.
It’s pretty simple really: Allow yourself to love something and make a note of how you feel. Then, allow yourself to hate and do the same. Choose the feeling you want to experience most often and develop your mind accordingly.
When it comes to your problems, they might not be your fault, but they are your responsibility.
You must choose how to define yourself. No matter how terrible the circumstances, never choose the word “victim.”
The negative consequences of our mental and behavioral habits may be very small at first. It’s understandable how a person could think there’s no problem and never think about it again. Knowing this, we’d be wise to periodically reexamine the consequences of our habits. If we look, we might realize they’ve become more obvious, and significantly more odious, with the passing of time.
Is a child more likely to be patient or impatient? Cautious or reckless? Confident or envious? Is a child more likely to possess or to lack self-discipline? Consider these questions when thinking about the elements of your personality and behavior that you’d like to change. How many of these elements formed decades ago, before you were old enough to see the potential consequences?
Self-destructive thoughts and behaviors serve a purpose: They nourish the self-destructive pieces of identity that exist within you. Remove those self-destructive pieces, and you’ll be disgusted by the thoughts and behaviors you were formerly drawn to.
“Achieving” in an attempt to project significance or status over others versus achieving with hope to inspire and experience the joy of becoming more. The first leads to suffering; the other leads to fulfillment.
You’re not less capable when people say you can’t, and you’re not more capable when they say you can. Dwelling on outside opinions is a waste of time. If you really want to know what you are or aren’t capable of, get busy and find out.
The happiest people optimize for intrinsic reward. It’s not that outward recognition doesn't yield an additional benefit for them; it does. It’s just that the outward recognition isn’t necessary.
Only you can decide what is and isn’t right for you. It’s a learning process, and it’s not particularly easy. So, pursue what you think you want until it becomes clear that another path makes more sense. Take what you’ve learned and start again. As long as you’re making honest choices (and honestly assessing the costs and rewards), progress is inevitable.
Let’s say that you’ve had an argument with Bob. Bob gets mad and hurls a couple insults your way, but you manage to maintain your cool. Over the next few days, Bob practically exhausts himself reliving the argument. He tortures himself by imagining wild scenarios that lead to more conflict, he complains about you to anyone who’ll listen, and the stress keeps him up at night. You, on the other hand, use the incident as an opportunity to weaken whatever remains of your unhealthy egoic impulses. You calmly explain the regrettable incident to anyone who asks. Who suffers less? Who gains more?
Never blame others for how they affect you. Choose your best response, own it, and if it’s lacking, develop the ability to do better. You'll disarm the outside world and empower yourself in the process.
Your reaction to life is the one thing that you can develop real control over, and it’s probably the greatest power you can possess. (It contributes to the acquisition and development of all others.) Regardless of the negative circumstances or challenges, don’t use them as an excuse to weaken yourself with harmful energy. To the best of your ability, resist the urge; find a healthier perspective. It will be tough at first, but the long-term benefits are profound.
Personal Experiences, Dreams, Meditations
February 25, 2018, listening to Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth. I’m really happy to hear him discuss the problem of people complaining or gossiping about others. He does a good job of capturing how some do this in an attempt to raise their own stature. Their complaints are more about signaling their superiority than trying to raise awareness about, or improve, any particular issue. The only problem I have is that he pins this on the ego in the same way that most spiritual leaders do (providing little or no clarification that the ego isn’t always bad).
At this point in my life, I’ve rejected the idea that ego itself is bad. While listening to his characterization, my mind immediately presented a few instances where my ego moved me toward healthier behavior. Example: It was my ego (sense of “separate self/identity”) that prompted me to stop judging others in the way that Tolle describes because I realized I was only feeding something unhealthy within me, and poisoning myself with negative energy in the process. It was my ego/identity that believed I could “do better” than I was when my life consisted of doing drugs, lying, stealing, wasting away in jail, etc. It is my ego that views monogamy in my marriage as imperative and cheating as the most ridiculous/self-destructive thing I could do to harm my sense of self, not to mention the harm it would do to my wife and the life we share.
So basically, I just don’t accept that ego is always bad, let alone unnecessary. I believe it exists for a reason and can work in conjunction with the higher self. That said, I realize that I might be misinterpreting what he and other spiritual leaders mean when they only refer to ego in a negative light.
Decades ago, I concluded that dishonesty weakens me. That was enough. So, to clarify, I don’t demand honesty from myself as a way to gain respect from others. (I’m not even sure honesty matters to most people. If honesty is convenient, they’re honest. If it’s not convenient, they lie.) Also, honesty isn’t a moral-posturing thing for me. Who am I to say, “Honesty is the best policy”? It is for me; might not be for somebody else. (When I realize somebody can’t be trusted, I treat their future statements and my relationship with them accordingly. No need to get indignant about it.) Finally, I don’t demand honesty from myself out of some sense of obligation…Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. I do feel somewhat “obligated” to obey my conscience because it’s what led me out of all the terrible places that my dishonesty led me into. It seems like a reasonable way to show my appreciation.
While cutting the grass today, I imagined what it would be like to restore/rekindle the energy and enthusiasm of childhood. Then, an idea occurred to me: it isn’t about restoring anything. The energy and enthusiasm are still there; they’re simply buried beneath the filters you’ve picked up over the decades. It isn’t about “adding” something back; it’s about removing things that you’ve added.
My progress began when I accepted responsibility for what I was doing wrong.
The most important characteristics of a human being are found in people of every color. They are found in people who are gay or straight, fit or fat, short or tall. They are found in the religious and unreligious alike. The most important characteristics have little to do with beauty, intelligence, creativity, talent, wealth, or popularity. If you’re not sure what they are, it isn’t difficult to discover them: Be patient with yourself and others. Strive to help rather than harm. Practice understanding, love, honesty, and courage whenever you can; avoid judgement, hatred, deceit, and fear. By doing so, you’ll discover, embody, and experience them for yourself.
Repeat after me: “I don’t get to choose how others think or behave. I DO get to choose how they affect me.”
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way law-of-attraction types frame “the secret” to visualizing and manifesting goals. Although I agree that it’s important to clearly see and feel what you want, the process is often presented in a troublesome way. It comes off as “just walk around like you’ve already got it, and you’re all set!” This can generate all sorts of problems, not the least of which is a mindset that takes the accomplishment for granted, a mindset that’s not prepared to exert significant additional effort.
To avoid this issue, I’d describe a good visualization process like this: Imagine it’s the day after you’ve achieved your goal. You wake up in the morning, open your eyes, and immediately remember that you’ve done it. A wave of relief and joy runs through you; you’re so grateful that it practically hurts. Now, spend a few minutes experiencing that moment. Allow your nervous system to really soak in how good it feels. This creates a powerful imprint in your mind. Every cell within you will conclude: “Yes, this is a state that I want to live my life in.” The greater the intensity, the easier it will be to add behaviors that move you closer, and weaken or eliminate behaviors that divert you.
Make a habit of nurturing higher states of mind, and higher states become the norm. Make a habit of nurturing lower states of mind, and lower states become the norm. Every moment of every day provides an opportunity to choose the level of consciousness that you cultivate and live in.
A negative habit of mind can only create negative narratives, feelings, and impulses. So, before taking it too seriously, know what you’re dealing with. The habit is biased; it exaggerates the significance of everything bad, ignores the significance of everything good, and it wastes your time with nonsense. Even if it temporarily hijacks your awareness, maintain your rightful contempt. Don’t embrace or surrender to its unhealthy narratives.
Run when you can run, walk when you can walk, and crawl if that’s the best you can do. Just keep moving in the right direction.
Practice makes progress.
We can’t do much about dishonesty and cowardice in others, so it’s best that we attend to our own.
A slave to fear, a slave to those who create it;
a slave to lust, a slave to those who can provoke it;
a slave to gluttony, a slave to those who can facilitate it;
a slave to status, a slave to those who can bestow or revoke it;
a slave to nothing, a slave to no one.
Everyone does the best they can, given the strengths and weaknesses they’ve chosen to develop.
The education that matters most is the one that helps you achieve your goals. You can learn some basics in school, but be prepared to learn your greatest lessons elsewhere.
Success is what happens just before persistence fails.
More than luck, more than fate, our lives are the sum of our habitual thoughts and decisions.
The sincerity of your interest will determine the duration of your effort.
What benefit are “riches” that do not meet our deepest needs? What harm is there in “poverty” if within we are fulfilled?
The only thing worse than giving somebody false hope is filling them with false hopelessness.
Just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean it’s not a form of illness that ought to be treated.
Having a high IQ doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make good decisions in life, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that all of your conclusions are superior. Test-taking intelligence isn’t the same as real life, problem-solving intelligence. Best I can tell, the latter is vastly superior, and it has little to do with a high number on an IQ test. Humility, patience, courage, honesty, and a sincere self-directed desire to learn (all of which can be developed and strengthened by anyone) yield superior results.
Yes, you could say that the ego is the source of all suffering, but you could just as accurately say that the brain is the source of all suffering. Though technically true, it doesn’t mean you should destroy the brain. Sure, you’ll no longer be suffering, but you’ll also no longer be in physical form.
The provocations we encounter, perceived as good or perceived as bad, are necessary. They are the catalyst for our growth. They provide us an opportunity to choose a reaction, ranging from excellent to horrible, healthy to deadly. The more we move toward health, the closer we come to remembering who we are, why we’re here, and what we’re capable of.
If you had a time machine that enabled you to visit a deceased loved one for a few minutes every day, would you choose to visit their funeral? Or, instead, would you choose any of the countless wonderful times that you shared together? If the latter, why not do the same when it comes to choosing the time you spend remembering those you’ve lost? Why not spend quality time visiting with them, and be grateful that you can? Why not remember that those beautiful moments are always there to experience again? You simply need to choose them.
When I think of those who’ve contributed so much happiness to my life (those who are no longer here), I feel a deep sense of gratitude, not grief. I know that all of those years we spent together have left me immeasurably richer, not poorer. I know that I didn't “lose” them, because they were never mine to lose.
Everything that I love is on loan, including every cherished relationship. When I accept that, and when I can say, “You gave me so much. THANK YOU!” (without expecting anything more) I’m able to connect with them in a way that doesn’t hurt at all. And, oddly enough, I’m left with the sense that they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re still with me, still giving, if I only choose to see.