Day 45: Ego Is Just a Bad Habit

The first third of Verse 39 in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

I’m not even going to pretend to be spiritual. I’m not going to tell you that I’m religious either. I’m an atheist, and I have been since I met God. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s because you are paradoxically challenged. Google thinks it knows what I mean by “paradoxically challenged,” but it doesn’t. God is no more special than a cockroach. Perhaps you haven’t been appreciating cockroaches enough. If you worship God but distain a cockroach then you are a hypocrite.

If you’re bristling right now, it might be because of your ego. I’m not going to pretend that there is anything wrong with having an ego, or that you shouldn’t have an ego. You should have an ego, because you do. Byron Katie can tell you more about why things should be they way they are because they are that way. You kind of have to have an ego to have a body. If you didn’t have an ego then you wouldn’t have a body. They come as one package. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the objective is to “destroy” your ego. It would be like a war on drugs. Before long, you would have ego coming out of your ears.

So what the heck is ego? The psychodynamic school of psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis in particular, considers it to be the part of the psyche that is involved in keeping your identity on track; it’s the conscious part of the psyche the mediates between the cheeky little Id (your instinctual drives) and reality. It’s what enables you to function in the world without getting arrested or killed. The ego gets you what you need in a sustainable way. Don’t steal things, buy them, that kind of thing.

Well, that’s not the ego I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ego that gets plastered all over your Facebook feed, in memes and in arguments. This is the colloquial meaning of ego, the new-age ego, the “I follow gurus” ego, and the “don’t be greedy” ego. Well, I suppose that there is a kind of overlap with the psychoanalytic meaning. Some people think that only loud and abrasive people have “big egos.” In reality some really timid, door-mousey, eggshell-treading, pandering, people-pleasing mediators, also have a lot of this kind of ego in operation. Look, ego fucks everything up in the end, so stop it.

But that’s all too complicated. It’s too vague. I am a pragmatist. I am a doer, a maker, a creator, a fixer, an engineer of atoms, of words, and of concepts, but most of all, I am a purveyor of braggadocio. Not really; I just wanted to write braggadocio. Ego is just a habit. It’s something we do. We don’t have an ego, we do an ego, we practice an ego. This ego we practice is just a habit of fighting reality as it is from moment to moment. That’s all it is. You can give up ego just like you can give up smoking, or drinking alcohol, or being a bitch-ass, complaining victim. Don’t believe me? Good.

Ego is another name for suffering. When we fight reality as it is, from moment to moment, we suffer. The moment we come into alignment with reality, when we come into “harmony” with reality as Lao Tzu puts it, we stop suffering. In that instant, and for all the instants afterwards that we refrain from fighting, that we surrender into reality, we neither suffer, nor therefore practice ego.

“He’s making fun of me!” Contains an implicit understanding that he shouldn’t be making fun of you, and that’s fighting with reality. In this moment, he is making fun of you. In this moment, we can either fight reality or accept reality. “He’s making fun of me. Interesting. What else is happening?” And then this moment unfolds: “Ah, I feel this ache in my chest. I wonder why he’s doing that. I wonder if he feels embarrassed like I do. I feel tears behind my eyes, pushing out of the little, soft cracks in this solid body.” And it continues to unfold: “How can I help people like him? How can I inspire people like him? I can feel my heart opening with the fullness of a ripe peach. My feet are planted firmly on the ground, and a tingling sensation is running up them. The pain in my chest is also made of love, a kind of blossoming fire that wants to rip me open and spill seeds of goodness all around me.”

Okay, that got a bit weird, but you probably understand where I was going with it: I was marching straight towards the freedom in completely harnessing the truth of the present moment. The whole of reality, or the “Tao” as Lao Tzu likes to call it, is conspiring, in a kind of passive way, to make this moment something beyond anything you have ever experienced. This moment. And then, now, this moment. Every moment is infused with this wordless, overwhelming beauty. And it never ends. You don’t have to stay locked away in a place where you can’t find the thing that is staring you in the face, that lives in every facet of your experience, that’s screaming out, “Look at me!” But with joy, not anger.

It’s in the face of your children, and in the face of your enemies. It’s there in the clicking of your keyboard, in your pulse, in each breath, in the sounds of cars passing by, and in your hunger. But that makes it sounds special, like it’s something far away, like it’s some kind of God. Just like God, it’s not special. The Tao is just reality.

You know how hard it is to stay asleep when you’re continually being shouted at? You know how hard it is to sleep while a fucking party is going on all around you in every single moment. Give yourself a prize, because that’s a feat of willful suffering.

But it’s time to quit now. It’s always time to quit now. See you tomorrow.