“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
— Alan Watts
Part One: The Pitfalls of Ego
I was born into a society that idolizes the egoic mind. Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by an ambition for more: more power, more money, more possessions and more fame. For many years I too was consumed by the pitfalls of desire. I was never fulfilled, never satisfied and never centered within the present moment. I completely identified with the voice in my head, with the inner monologue that was judgemental of others, that desired more wealth and influence, and that was consumed by guilt for my past mistakes.
I have discussed this topic at length with my friends and family, and it seems that many of us in the Western world have fallen into this trap of ego as well. This matter of ego which I am discussing is simple to understand, but very difficult to break free from. We all have an inner monologue inside of our heads; many of us, including myself for many years, identify with this voice as our sense of self. We feel as if we are our thoughts, an internal speaker trapped within a bag of skin. However, this is not the case. At the core of our being what we are is pure awareness, pure consciousness.
By identifying solely with our ego we cover up this peaceful awareness with a constant stream of thought. We are never centered within the present moment. We are often unfulfilled aside from brief moments whilst our ego is placated by achieving a goal or attaining more material wealth/influence. We are constantly focused on the destination and in doing so, we forget to admire the beauty of the journey.
“To some people the ego is evil. It gives you so much. It gives you everything you want. But it takes back too much in return. It gives you everything: money, riches, glamour, everything you want. But in return, it takes back so much, and you’re soulless. That’s its goal. The ego’s goal is to leave you soulless.”
— Mike Tyson
If you embrace your ego it is very possible to attain a high level of wealth, accumulate land, start a hugely profitable company and leave behind an opulent coffin. But once you’ve been paid, bought your shiny new possessions and done something worthy of the history books will your fulfillment last, or will it be as fleeting as your material possessions? Will your ego allow you a moment of clarity, or will it demand you work towards more possessions, more power, and more money?
For years I was deeply ambitious and consequently unfulfilled. I spent thousands of hours teaching myself how to program computers based on my desire to accumulate material wealth and notoriety. After many trials and tribulations, my goals started to materialize. I was hired at first as a freelance developer and eventually, I found work within the technology industry. All the time I spent locked away in my room writing code and bypassing time with friends/family and enjoying nature, I was driven by the desire for future fulfillment. And this fulfillment did come, but ultimately it did not last. I had let my life pass me by while I worked away, alone and unhappy.
Now, this is not to say that working hard and receiving enough money to live off of is a bad thing. However, I had tricked myself into thinking that by solely focusing on the future I would somehow flip a switch in my brain and go from unhappy to peaceful and satisfied and fulfilled. Life is all about finding balance, and for most of us we are far from a state of homeostasis; we are consumed by our ego and by our thoughts. No matter how much success I received within my career, I would never live up to the mental picture I had painted of my ideal life and self.
Part Two: Why Must We Change the World?
Many of the people I have met in the business world are consumed by a desire to “change the world.” For a time, I too was devoured by this insatiable appetite to leave a mark on society. This urge is a manifestation of a mind consumed by ego. The ego strives for permanence in an impermanent world. We think that by changing the world in some way we will finally find peace, and transcend our mortal form that is destined to die and be forgotten. Based on many interviews I have read this is not the case; it seems that many of the most financially successful and famous people, the people who have left the largest imprint on society, are deeply unhappy.
We are currently living in a world that is dealing with the repercussions of such ambition. Our oceans are suffocating with plastic, our climate is being destroyed due to the incessant drumbeat of industry, we are slowly filling our exosphere (the outermost layer of the atmosphere) with an inescapable prison of trash, and my home country, America, is dealing with a terrible opioid crisis due to the unending greed of pharmaceutical companies.
We must take a step back and ask if the future we are creating is a pleasant utopia or its disturbing antithesis hiding within the shadows. Is it not simply enough to lead a simple life, live within our means and coexist peacefully with nature? It seems that if we don’t severely alter the course of our current trajectory we will face harsh repercussions. If you are not alarmed by the path that our society is walking, take a look at the Marshall Islands. In the Pacific Ocean, there is an entire nation being consumed by the rising sea levels; this is simply a looming indicator of what is to come if we don’t change something quickly.
Part Three: Finding Peace
Now that you understand the dangers of allowing your ego to consume you, let me begin to paint a more hopeful outlook for the future. I will try to show you the steps I used to overcome my own demons and find inner peace.
By identifying completely with your ego and mistaking that your sense of self is the inner monologue inside your head, you fail to realize that at our core is something much more beautiful, fulfilling and powerful. Look around you; have you ever truly admired the breathtaking and infinite detail of the world you inhabit? Examine the intricate details of the patterns on the skin of your arm. Feel the textures of the desk or seat you are sitting in. Take in a deep breath of air and feel the rush of life radiating throughout your body. Stare into the natural world around you and really feel that you are not a stream of thoughts in a cold, unfeeling and distant universe; you are the universe.
The greatest illusion of the human condition is that we are fundamentally separate from the cosmos. The same fabric of reality that created the stars permeates our being to the very core. When we identify with the voice inside our heads, when we allow ourselves to be consumed by future desires and past guilt we cover up the beautiful consciousness that is at the center of our being. We are not our egos, we are not our inner monologue and we are not defined by our possessions, careers, desires, wealth or legacy. We are the watchers, the listeners and the visualizers of the natural world; we are pure consciousness. The purpose of our life is not to create a legacy of power and influence, our purpose is to observe the intricately detailed beauty of the cosmos.
“The cosmos is within us. We are all made of star stuff.”
— Carl Sagan
I currently exist in a state of calm silence. There is no voice constantly chattering away in the back of my head. I do not desire money or notoriety, I do not fret about mistakes of the past, I do not judge others silently and I am not jealous when those around me achieve their goals. I spend most of my time learning new things out of enjoyment, wandering nature and laughing with the people I hold closest to my heart. I have not started a billion dollar company, I am far from rich and I have not left a massive impact on the world, however, I am peaceful and I am fulfilled.
Part Four: How to Reach a State of Pure Awareness and Overcome Your Desires
I personally found fulfillment by walking down a path of spirituality. I dove into the teachings offered by Buddhism along with a number of other such disciplines. However, I want to meld my advice to fit an audience of both the religious and the secular. It is certainly not required to explore the realm of spirituality in order to find fulfillment, however, it was personally beneficial to me.
The overarching theme you will find in going through these steps is that deep introspection is required. It is impossible to find what truly fulfills you without venturing deep into the cavity of your mind. At first, this may seem scary, and it is. Our minds are capable of great wonder, but also immense terror. You must overcome your fears in order to find peace; oftentimes this means confronting head on what terrifies you the most, what keeps you awake at night.
A final forewarning before I lay out the steps I recommend: your ego is deeply afraid of death. This is what drives the desire for permanence, for legacy, for remembrance, and for fame. All of our fears and anxieties are ultimately driven by this seemingly inescapable fear. Personally, I was so fearful of death for a time that my brain would produce panic attacks so vivid that I was convinced I was having a stroke or heart attack. In order to reach a state of tranquility, it is necessary to face your fears of death and realize that death is simply an illusion propagated by our misguided ego’s sense of individuality and disconnection from the universe at large. Our physical form will die, but the universe which created us, which flows through us and which is us will live on forever.
A Guide To Overcoming Your Ego
- Close your eyes. Focus your attention on the stream of thoughts racing through your head. “No one laughed at that joke I told earlier, they must think I’m such a loser.” “Bill just got a brand new car, I wish I could be as happy as he is.” “I am so worried about asking my friend out on a date, what if they say no? I will never find love.” Realize that this stream of thought is not you. You are something much more beautiful and much less immature. Take a step back from your thoughts and simply become aware of them. Watch as a thought forms, forces its way into your conscious mind and vanishes. Become aware of the internal battle inside your mind; a battle of supremacy between your desires, your fears, the past, and the future, but never the present.
- Try as hard as you can to quench this stream of thought. Picture a black void and attempt with all of your power to hold this “nothingness” inside your mind as long as you can. This will be very difficult at first, especially if you have never practiced meditation. However, this practice is incredibly worthwhile and will get much easier with time. Think of your mind as a muscle; you go to the gym in order to stimulate your body, you venture inside yourself to exercise your mind. As soon as a thought begins to form and attempts to force itself into your focus, try your best to stop it and throw it away.
- You may become tired and sleepy as you attempt to focus on nothing. This is natural when you are starting out but eventually, it will recede. Take this practice of stopping your stream of thought with you as you go about your day. Find time during breaks between work and life to close your eyes and focus on becoming a tranquil void. After enough practice, personally, it took me quite a long time, you will find that your default state has shifted. You will no longer exist with a constant inner dialogue speaking away incessantly, you will switch over to having a calm and peaceful mind.
- Take this meditative practice and apply it to what is causing you fear and anxiety. Rather than accepting your pain as who you are (I am depressed, I am lonely, I am sad, I am angry) realize that you are not your current state of obsessive emotion. Take a step back from identifying with your thoughts and your pain and become aware of them. Become an observer, become an entity watching the pain that is consuming your mind. Realize that this pain is not real and that it is not you. You are pure consciousness. Once you have become capable of watching your thoughts and pain from a third party view, you gain a much higher level of control over your mind, and you will find that your anxieties and fears start to melt away.
- This practice of meditation and introspection will allow you to regain control over your thoughts and your mind. By stopping the default flow of constant thought you allow your mind to take a break. When you are ready to apply thought, perhaps at work, you will find yourself to be much more productive, focused and capable. The greatest creativity and power does not come from our ego and thought, but rather the spaces of nothingness between thoughts. Take hold of your sparks of brilliance and apply your mind to focus on them rather than firing off random noise constantly.
- Once you have practiced quieting your mind, apply this practice to your daily life. Become hyper-conscious of the beautiful world around you. Focus on the infinite details of nature, admire the glimmer of how light reflects off objects and into your eyes, tune your senses to focus on taking in everything around you; focus intensely on every sight, smell, sound, and texture. Whenever a thought of the past or the future attempts to distract you from the present moment, reject it. Nothing will ever be as beautiful as the present moment you exist in. Go about your day to day life with as much focus on what you are currently experiencing as you can muster. You will find that by forgetting the past and not worrying about the future, you end up with a more fulfilling engagement in whatever you are doing, and a deep sense of calm.
A brief foray from our journey to existing purely within the present moment and foregoing time: sometimes it is important that you “jump” back into the flow of psychological time. Perhaps you are planning a career path for financial stability or trying to build a better future by visualizing mistakes of the past. This is ok! Throughout my day I think of my future in order to set myself up for stability and I visualize actions of the past to make judgments for how I should handle a situation. What I no longer do is obsess over finding fulfillment in the future, needlessly worry over unchangeable actions of the past, fear potential negative futures which often are mirages of my ego, or exist completely detached from the present. When you switch to a default state of “the now” you will find it much calmer to use time and thought to your advantage, rather than letting them consume you.
Part Five: Healing a Broken World
When you begin to realize the beauty of the world around you and perhaps come to the realization that you are not an individual, but rather a piece of a much greater whole, the world will be that much better off. We do not need to leave a huge impact on the planet, most huge changes made by individuals often end up with negative consequences. It is enough to perceive the intricacy around you, exist cohesively with nature and leave a positive impact on the individuals around you. Each of us is already changing the world whether we believe it or not.
Take your positive mindset and detachment from your ego and apply it to leave a smile on the faces of those around you. When someone discusses their world-shattering ambitions simply smile, wish them luck and perhaps share some wisdom with regards to how the world is already beautiful. I don’t write this in a condescending manner, rather, in a manner designed to spread the feeling of love and unity that is often lost in our society. It is true that our planet is facing huge challenges, but we will not solve them with more ambitious industry. We will overcome our difficulties and find peace by spending time with those we love, seeking to protect nature and existing harmoniously with everything around us.
“Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination.”
— Alan Watts
We are not individual organisms living within an environment. We are both organisms and the environment. We are not separate from nature, we are intimately intertwined with it. Treat everyone as if they are another part of you. Treat the planet as if it is a part of yourself. In making this shift in consciousness, changing your sense of individual identity and overcoming your ego through meditative practice, you will begin to help heal the planet and create a bright, beautiful future for humanity and every species on our dazzling, fascinating, and fragile world.
Part Six: The Eternal Dance of Senselessness
I want to bring up the quote from the very top of this story. As Alan Watts said, “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” We suffer by seeking permanence in an ever-changing, impermanent world. We drive ourselves to the brink of insanity by allowing our mind to fill itself with fear and anxiety over potential futures, without realizing that we have the power to create whatever future we would like. We take the world incredibly seriously, without realizing we exist within a playground of infinite possibilities.
We create reality. We determine the outcome of our future. We can choose to be fulfilled, find peace and enjoy the moment. And consequently, we also have the power to be deeply judgemental, angry, scared, alone and hateful.
Why choose to be unhappy and allow your ego to overtake your consciousness? The power to make a positive change, to create a brighter future and to heal the world is within all of us. We must simply choose to allow it to thrive, rather than smothering it out.
Practice meditation further and start to dive deeply into the realms of possibility that exist within your own consciousness. In the Western world, we honor our scientists and astronauts as heroes for pushing the boundaries of exterior knowledge. In ancient Tibetan culture, the cultural icons strove to explore the polar opposite; the “Psychonauts” were those brave enough to dive deeper into consciousness than anyone before them. These journeys were often fueled by conscious altering substances, years of deep meditative practice, or a mixture of both. The Psychonauts explored the realms after death and between rebirth. Whether you believe in the idea of reincarnation or not, there still exist many valuable lessons to be learned from such experiences.
I think a fitting end to this story is a story of an experience I had on one such journey. I achieved this state of mind after years of meditation and some help from nature. The veil of reality was pulled back and I witnessed what can only be described as an endless cycle of existence, a beautiful journey from life to death to rebirth. We exist within an eternal dance of senselessness created by an eternal universe. We are merely dancers, strung along by the flow of nature with the sole purpose of taking in the breathtaking view of creation and entertaining an eternally lonely universe.
I saw firsthand the yin and yang of the cosmos. I briefly understood (or thought I did, I was likely wrong) why there is something rather than nothing. I once read in a book by Stephen Hawking that all of the matter and energy in our universe adds up to a constant of zero. After this dive into my own consciousness, I finally understood how everything around me could come from “nothing.”
Imagine a wave on top of the ocean. This wave dips down into a trough, and at another segment, the wave rises up into a crest of equal proportion to the lowest point. If you were to add the negative dips from all the troughs to the positive increases from all the crests, you would end up with a straight line; you would end up with a total value of nothing. This principle is so simple but to me, it explains so much of the world around us.
We can see, touch and feel the universe around us, so something clearly exists. But yet mathematically we know that nothing exists. We are conscious beings and it is hard to believe that our intricate consciousness could arise from an inherently unconscious and dead universe, so it makes sense to assume that the entire universe is conscious or “alive” in some form. Imagine you are an eternal consciousness, a god of sorts. Why choose to exist as a straight line, as nothing, as pure boredom when you could choose to create an infinite reality?
By choosing to create everything around us, the universe must balance itself out with an equally infinite power of destruction. The yin and yang of life, the “crests and troughs of the wave” and the sum of all the matter around us being equal to nothing imply everything we see around us. Death implies life, nothing implies everything, sadness implies happiness, and destruction implies creation.
We exist as mere fragments of an eternal universe. I believe that by truly diving into the present moment we can merge with the consciousness that is at the core of both of our being, and the entire cosmos around us. At our core we are not made of atoms nor material, we are made of consciousness, or perhaps of nothing at all. The more I learn the more I realize I how much there is left to explore, question and understand.
Hopefully my attempt to share how I found fulfillment and my musings about reality was enjoyable for you to read.