Our Ego’s Search for the Absolute
The eternal fight against impermanence
I’m enjoying life. Nothing to complain about. Not really. Yet, as so many others do, I’m struggling to find the internal peace I projected would come when I reached this or that. The mind quickly invents missing pieces.
It’s not enough to have the job I always wanted, my own apartment, and plenty of friends. No. But if I wrote a book, then I’d be happy. If I paid down all my loans, then I could relax properly.
Lately, I’ve noticed one commonality behind such thoughts. It’s so strong that I often wonder if it ever leaves the back of my mind. In fact, it haunts me more than I would like to admit. The thought might be familiar to you. It’s this:
How can I build something that’ll last forever?
Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. — Archimedes
Behind the question lies a drive. For me, it takes the shape of “the ego’s attempt at total surety”, as Mark Epstein puts it.
Last week I went to a retreat in the forest. I met wonderful people, ate fantastic food, listened to incredible musicians, explored my mind, and things felt right again. Yet, my ever restless brain whispered to me: “wouldn’t it be nice if you could do this every year? Every month?”
Yes, it would. I don’t know if that’s in the cards, but I know that weekends like this don’t come cheap. Which means, I need a stable source of income and academia is certainly not known for that.
I wish that was the end of it, but my mind wanders endlessly.
Intellectual discussions, board game nights, spontaneous jam sessions? That’s how I picture my retirement years. I wish my job will always be there, that my colleagues will never leave, that I’ll always be useful to someone. On and on it goes.
In short, the ego’s search for total surety is the notion that I want a fixed base from which the world revolves. What’s the fixed point? It could be a soulmate, a tribe, family, recurring activities, a place of belonging.
I want to build for the future an immutable set to which I can always return to.
With that safe haven, I can go out into the chaotic world, and try to move it around knowing that if I fail, there is an open embrace waiting for me.
So what’s the problem?
Nothing ever lasts
“Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.”
― Robert Frost
No wonder we humans are greedy in the face of change. There’s never enough money in the world to be entirely sure it won’t all be lost. There’s no relationship strong enough to not break down from time’s sharp tooth. There’s no fortress strong enough to resist the forces of evil.
So what’s driving the ego's search for the absolute? It can be understood as an innate fear of change.
In Buddhism, existence is characterized by impermanence. Nothing lasts. Our bodies change from young and healthy to old and sick. Our cities rise, then crumble. Even our thoughts are just clouds passing through an empty sky. But with no fixed points, a self can’t be sustained. No wonder the ego goes ballistic when faced with the shifting essence of nature, and as a reactive response latches on to whatever it can find. It needs an external reference to contrast against.
While a lifetime of conditioning has taught me the notion that I can achieve permanence through external means, I at some point started to suspect that nothing lasts and what I thought would be bedrock is merely sand sifting through my fingers. Yet my ego tells me I can keep holding onto the sand. That I can build castles with it.
Viewing life through that lens quickly colors every moment with the question: “what is this good for?”
Psychologically it makes sense. I grew up in a stable home where my needs were taken care of. I could run around all day with no worry about there being food on the table or a warm bed to crawl into. If I needed comfort, my mom was always there. If I needed help, dad would fix whatever was wrong. But my older brother, who read Lord of the Rings for me in the evening, who played Half-Life with me on the computer, who let me listen to Aphex Twin and wrestled with me, he moved away in my early teens. I understood that I’d never had another chance to relive those moments. An epoch had ended — I cried.
Now that I’m getting older, I dread the point in the future where I can’t do all the things I enjoy. I’m fearful of global warming, changing my comfortable lifestyle. I’m scared of technological progress rendering me obsolete. Simply put, I’m seeing all the epochs that are about to end, and it’s difficult to see that what comes after will be better.
I forget that life has only gotten better the more I’ve learned to let go. I forget that min-maxing my days for future inner peace drags my focus away from present tranquility.
In other words, trying to build that eternal heavenly embrace, to reach that impossible stability of tomorrow, whatever shape it might have, will paradoxically crush the only permanent thing there is — this moment.
“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” ― Rabindranath Tagore