The Nature of Ego in the Psychology of Happiness
I found this article on my computer. I don’t remember writing it – it says 1998 (this is June 2016) – but I kind of like it. The writing seems fairly cohesive and has a friendly tone, and I think it might be of interest or who knows, even useful, to someone new to a spiritual take on psychology such as what is now known as “The Three Principles” field, or has an interest in Buddhism and how it relates to everyday functioning as a person (with an “ego”), etc. At the time I’d been heavily influenced by a dream I’d had about innate natural peace: namely that it is our birthright, and that the only thing that takes us away from that is our imagination. After the dream I discovering the work of Richard Carlson (instant recognition of “Yes!” when I saw the title “You Can Be Happy No Matter What”), then Roger Mills from a footnote, George Pransky, and going to a “Psychology of Mind” conference in 1997 (what became Health Realization and the Three Principles) – all of whom were influenced by the enlightenment of Sydney Banks.
In any case I’m putting it out there and you can be the “judge”. I guess it was just my ego that didn’t think the article was good enough at the time, haha!
I want to talk about ego. I want to define ego simply as anything that takes you away from the moment. Any kind of thought process that takes you away from full awareness and living in the moment, being free, having your mind free, in the moment. So this pulling you away could include fearful thoughts, insecure thoughts, could include jealous thoughts, anything involving over-planning, worrying, or anger and resentment clung to, or desires leading to expectations not fulfilled.
What is ego? It’s not a thing, it’s not a thing in the sense of a psychological entity, it’s more like a habit pattern – something that’s always there – everyone has ego. So I am going to talk about ego in a sense different from a Freudian sense of ego. A Freudian sense of ego, is, as I understand it, a psychological structure of the adult, something that needs to be strengthened, more like the center of adult identity and action, it’s what you’re operating out of. But I want to talk about ego more like the Buddhist would talk about it, where ego is anything that is false to your true self. It’s an illusory kind of activity, mental activity leading to behavior (all behavior starts with thought – thought broadly defined).
Anytime you’re trying to prove something to someone – acting out of that kind of insecurity – that’s ego. So rather than something that makes you strong, ego is a limiting factor. It limits you in your happiness, it limits you in your ability to live in the moment, and experience enjoyment, love, all the richness that’s available within yourself, and that’s capable of being experienced here and now. The ego relates to externals, to what you think you want or need, or have to have from the external world, or what you need to sort of falsely create as a shell protect yourself , in your behavior, as in the example I gave earlier of trying to prove something to someone. Or ego can be the personality you pull out when we are feeling insecure – when we are frightened at some level around other people – we’ll put on a persona. If we’re not relaxed and letting ourselves be, letting ourselves flow, spontaneously, self-consciously, then we are acting out of ego.
There are countless examples of how ego can act. It’s endless. But there is only one example of perfect peace, and it cannot be described, only experienced. When you put ego aside, it’s very simple, it’s difficult to describe what it’s like. You cannot replace it with a verbal description. One can point to those states though that almost everyone is familiar with.
What we need to do to feel beautiful feelings is get beyond personality. Personality only darkens our spirits, causes us to despair in our loneliness, behind walls of our own creation.
Probably everyone has noticed how, when they are engaged in an activity they really enjoy, their mind works differently. Let’s say you are with a close friend you really trust, and you are not worried about how you are acting, you are not self-conscious, your ideas and behavior just flow from one moment to the next, there is no effort involved, and it’s not contrived. Things just happen naturally.
So, you don’t want to get rid of ego, in the sense that, through some effort, you try to get rid of this “thing” called ego. First of all, the effort would increase the strength of the ego, the effort itself is ego. Second of all, it isn’t exactly a thing – an object in the normal sense of the word – that you can push out or push aside. Maybe we could call it a “reaction pattern”.
So that points up another interesting aspect of ego. If it’s a reaction pattern, where does the pattern come from? Well it comes from the past, from memory. Now, everything is in the present. Everything that we experience is in the present, even if we are going over the past or thinking about the future, that is still mental activity in the present. The reality of the past is that it exists as thoughts in the present.
OK, so what are the nature of these thoughts? They are habits or patterns or memories that we’ve stored, and we’re putting them into place, we’re using them in the moment, but not in a new way. And so what would be different from that would be newly generated ideas which come along and are let go. We spontaneously generate new ideas and create new patterns in the moment – there is something generative or productive.
So the ego then is circular in the sense it’s using old habit patterns, old thoughts, old memories. It’s self-validating in the sense that you will perceive that as the reality and it will validate itself wherever you look outward, in a circular way.
Let’s see if I can explain this more clearly. Perhaps an example would help. Let’s look at a typical kind of insecurity. Let’s say someone believes they are not a very likable person or that people find them unattractive, and this is an idea, a fear – you could call it part of their ego – when they are around someone, their insecurity triggers fearful thoughts, and they act out of that in a way that validates it. That is their reality in the moment, according to how they are thinking. They will not perceive anything that does not correspond to that reality, to those thoughts – they will not perceive someone acting in a way that makes it evident that they like that person. They won’t be able to see that someone likes them. And they will act and generate behaviors that are less likable. So there is a sort of self-validating logic to it – or psycho-logic. It’s what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy as it were.
So all these ideas fit together. But what I want to talk about, and what you probably want to hear, is how do you get beyond ego? Well that’s a very interesting question. The Buddhists would say that it’s through meditation, and that kind of awareness, you see the illusory nature of ego.
I would say not through meditation but by being in a meditative state, and not by the rituals, techniques or effort of meditation per se. That sort of artifice – getting into all the trappings of meditation, schedules, the discipline, and what happens when you do that, or you don’t do it – either clinging to the rituals and schedules and disciplines, or reprimanding yourself if you don’t do it. That’s simply reinforcing ego. Now, some Buddhists would probably recognize this, but they would still it is as very hard work – you know, penetrating, cutting through ego.
But there is a paradox there. Letting go of ego is absolutely the simplest, easiest thing in the world. It is the nature of effortlessness: what we are talking about is a natural state of being – and how we get out of that into this way of reacting called ego. So you want to be careful about setting it up as something that you have to do to get in the future somewhere, or worrying about that you didn’t have in the past, or worrying about that you don’t have now.
Does a child have to meditate or worry about their ego?
The way around this seeming dilemma, or the way I want to suggest as a way of helping you, is to point you in a direction of deepening your understanding. Because by looking at your own experience and what happens in the present, reflecting on it, understanding your mind a little better, you can get a perspective. And furthermore, by pointing you in the direction of positive states of mind, and what that’s about, you can familiarizing yourself with that. The Taoists call it gathering Virtue.
That is the direction that will help you let go of ego: becoming more and more familiar and at ease, and having greater faith in that positive state of mind. And then it will just happen, without you even noticing or looking for it. You’ll start developing greater awareness, greater ability to live in the present, to let go of old patterns, get insight into yourself and your life and what’s going on. This will happen easily and naturally, with a higher level of understanding. Which is not to say that you won’t have moments, times, perhaps days when your psychological functioning isn’t as good. But you’ll always have a way back to peace and faith, and you’ll have a way forward – you’ll know, you won’t be as disturbed by your own thoughts – what I was calling ego in this essay. And you’ll have hope. I mean, everyone has moods and ups and owns, and an “interesting life” as the old Chinese curse about living in interesting times talks about. But you can learn from those. But above all, over time, you’ll make sense of things. You’ll see the psychological realm is not this superstitious, chaotic, scary realm. There is a way to comprehend, to understand what is going on.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I know the ultimate nature of mind. What I am talking about is understanding what is happening in the mind with thought and consciousness. I can talk about consciousness in some other essay. Mainly I was talking about thinking and ego – what kind of thinking patterns I’m calling ego. But the mind – or the Mind with a capital “M” – I don’t think anyone knows the nature of mind. Things come from Mind – it’s like the power source behind our thoughts, backing them up. You can speculate, give it a name, but I don’t think we understand where creativity and new patterns in life, and the energy of life comes from, except in material terms. We can explain, or describe realistically, material “energy” in physics. But the creativity of life and mind, and it’s beauty, is still a rather wonderful mystery. We can deepen our understanding of what we see going on, but we can’t explain it away. Like trying to explain the nature of love, these are big things, bigger than me, bigger than any individual – and bigger than ego. We can participate in them, but not capture them in our concepts.
So what I was doing here was taking the idea of ego and use that as a point around which to talk about conceptions of psychological functioning, or healthy and unhealthy psychological functioning, and pointing the reader in a positive direction.
One other thing about ego – or lack of ego rather – we don’t take our thoughts, our selves, or our selves based in thought, so seriously. We may witness ourselves acting in the world in a happy way, enjoying ourselves. But we don’t attach so much significance or seriousness to the “little” self. We experience a lighter sense of being, still rich and full and flowing along, but less acutely aware of being a center of the world. You see that your so-called personal problems are not that huge, not that significant in the overall scheme of things. The world looks different to you. Your perception changes drastically.
So, in short, when we step aside, or don’t let ego affect us negatively, we are more aware how thinking operates in our lives and don’t get caught up in it. We then have greater resources available to us from inside. We get fresh new thoughts, and beautiful feelings such as joy and gratitude. We can never step aside from our thoughts entirely, or we would be pure awareness without content. Leave that to the hard-core mystics.
But step aside from ego for a while and you uncover the ordinary peace and happiness that’s always waiting there. Isn’t that what we all need and want?
Ego: both positive and negative sense of self-importance (I’m so wonderful or I’m so bad – form of excitement, distraction, amplification, falseness).
Eric C. Platt
© June 1998