By Geoffrey Geddes
The sword of consciousness slices with two edges. With the first, we cut through primal perplexity with Holmesian observation and Einsteinian reckoning, unearthing Troy and dancing on the moon. Ego wields the second edge.
Our lizard brain struggled mightily to outgrow its survival obsession long enough to recognize its own reflection. As our neocortex grew, humans developed increasingly impressive ingenuity, cunning, adaptability, and awareness. Regrettably, our budding brain also begot ego – a maladaptive byproduct of intellectual awakening that remains tied to our reptilian survival edict. Consciousness observes, ego fears; consciousness appreciates, ego demands; consciousness ponders, ego worries; consciousness lives, ego dominates.
Ego has appointed itself Supreme Defender of Consciousness, protecting its charge with dogged resolve. Its armory resides in our limbic system – the repository of our mammalian emotions – and is impressive, including fear, worry, regret, resentment, self-aggrandizement, self-doubt, narcissism, depression, addiction, compulsion, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Ego’s commitment to survival is fanatical and irrational; it ignores consequences in favor of immediate solutions.
Papa Freud hanged his shrunken hat on the metaphorical troika Id-Ego-Superego, and his psycho-sleuthing acolytes continue to tweak and debate that mental model long after psychoanalysis has faded from therapeutic favor. Still, Sigmund bequeathed to the world valuable insight when he exposed ego; he identified the enemy of effective, authentic living.
Ego is not a thing; it is not separate from consciousness. Ego is a functional construct that helps us to comprehend the percolating processes that underlie and influence our choices. Nevertheless, approaching ego as an adversary – as if ego hides the sunlight on which your bloom so desperately depends – can help marshal and focus positive life energy. Guard against sneak attacks that can leave you stuck in the mud of inaction or withered with self-loathing. Know your enemy.
Ego primarily seeks to eliminate threat. Regrettably, ego’s threat detector requires an unavailable upgrade. Lack of courtesy poses no threat, yet ego responds to an absent platitude with disdain or discourtesy. A critical remark poses no threat, yet ego defends with excuses, apologies, and lies. Failure invites no threat, yet, after a botch, ego preempts an anticipated attack with shame or deflected blame.
Ego can delay authentic living by wanting more, wanting better, or wanting different. Ego is never satisfied. Where ego reigns, regret, worry, and depression reside. There is no room at ego’s inn for acceptance and appreciation. War, sports, religion, and show biz all owe their persistent popularity to ego, as do plastic surgeons and quarter slots. Dissect any human frailty and you will likely catch a glimpse of ego dodging the knife.
Ego touts competition as a character builder. Our ancestors competed for sustenance; the victor survived and the loser perished. Today, we compete for rings and market share and the right to belittle our rivals. We compete for control, which is transitory at best and illusory at its core.
When the lights flash in your rear-view mirror after an innocent acceleration, watch ego work. What the… Great! Doesn’t he have anything better to do? I hate cops. I’m already late! Asshole! Here he comes. “Pardon me sir, but do you know how fast you were going?” Not fast enough, Pig! Ticket.
Shall we adopt a Zen tactic and seek to eliminate ego entirely? Ego is not an evolutionary mistake. Rather, ego’s development has failed to keep pace with human social evolution. Our need to run from mammoths and maintain vigilance in the dark of night has diminished with the advent of hunting rifles and door locks. Yet, without ego’s enthusiastic promotion of self-aggrandizement, human social development would cease. Some argue that human social development should cease, that humans have infested the Earth like bipedal bacteria and that thinning the herd and returning to a hunter-gatherer paradigm would better serve all of life – an ironically ego-inspired assessment. Ego drives perspective, and perspective determines assessment. A negative outlook (humans destroy) provokes negative conclusions and solutions (humans are bad and the world would be better off without them). A positive outlook (humans create and enrich) inspires positive conclusions and solutions (humans represent a worthy manifestation of life, and human creativity and curiosity should be encouraged and appreciated).
Our goal, then, should be to tame rather than destroy ego. Yet, a resolute approach is nevertheless necessary. Ego cannot reason; it will not negotiate. Ego will relentlessly discharge its maladaptive weaponry unless neutralized with extreme prejudice. So fight. Fight with a constructive perspective and a calm, confident demeanor. Practice a quiet, composed reaction to lights in your rear-view mirror. There may be moments in your life when ego’s approach enhances your chances for success; but there will be many more moments when ego sabotages your best efforts to live effectively. So embrace the Taoist paradox and fight by yielding. Resistance is futile; yet surrender is fatal. So fight!