Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
There is this one thing that have the power to lift up humanity towards a peaceful and serene future. To save the world, and us with it, we often here a large amount of very dedicated people, each taking the problem from various angles: protecting nature, fixing the food system, gender equality, finance regulation, changing the economy, improving democracy, technological breakthrough, human rights and justice…
I confess, I am also part of these people. One among so many who “want to make the world a better place”. I myself believe that there is great potential in all these fields. In my search of the one field I should dedicate my life to in order to make the greatest impact, I often end up concluding that any angle is worth the taking.
But I think I have identified another field which could have an even bigger impact, and it goes to the very core of our human nature: the ego.
If everyone of us, and especially the decision makers of this world, manage to make peace with their ego, manage to have a certain “control” over their ego, then humanity can solve its most pressing local and global problems.
First, let us give a definition of ego.
The ego has different roles: it is the driver of our most basic survival instincts, it is the aspect of our identity that makes us feel separated or different from others, and it is the engine that fuels human emotions.
Fear. Someone who has no ego has no fear. Without ego, there is no “self” to lose. Fear is a response from the ego in a face of a perceived danger for self-protection.
Joy. I received a gift. I am happy. It “boosts my ego”. Without ego I don’t feel joy.
Anger or Hatred. Someone did something wrong to me. I feel offended and I develop anger or hatred. I want to kick this someone’s ass, or worse, kill him/her. This is still the ego behind these emotions.
Regret or Guilt. I did something wrong to someone. I feel bad, I regret, I want to beat myself up, or worse, kill myself.
Jealousy. Again, the ego fuels this emotion.
Hope. Pride. Frustration. Embarrassment. Annoyance. Affection… you name it.
Ego is part of human nature. It is part of us. It is tight to who we are. Ego is like the heart, if it stops, the engine of life in us stops.
So while we recognize that ego a very important for us, it comes with a lot of issues that now have escalated to pose major threats to our civilization. Because behind ego there is also the will to dominate, the crave for power, the thirst for recognition, murder, stress, suicides, and most of the verbal and physical violence that you can imagine.
Practically, with the definition I gave above, so much of what’s wrong with our society can be broken down to ego.
When corporations pollutes the environment, deforest, or mistreat animals, when bankers put the whole economy in danger, when politicians betray their people, when a government invades another for revenge or resources… there is the same mechanism inside every man and woman who form these big human structures (companies, governments, institutions…) which lead to such detrimental decisions. Put together, all this is threatening our civilization, and for many, our survival, on a global scale. At the very least, it undermines our ability to live together in peace and in respect of what allows us to live, the environment.
Given this definition, one can easily say: “So basically ego is what makes us who we are, it is our self, it is human nature. There is nothing we can do about it”.
After all, for example the fisherman, and thousands of others like him, who over-fishes and depletes the ocean needs money to survive on a daily basis, and without this activity he may end up miserable. His own survival instinct makes him take this decision. And as we saw above, it is ego behind survival instinct. What can we do about it, or should we even do something about it?
I am going to answer these questions, and I will show you that in this answer lies great potential of saving humanity.
If ego is part of our human nature, it is definitely not just our human nature. Ego doesn’t define us completely. We are more than just flesh and a sense of self created by the ego.
Does it mean that we should cancel the ego inside us? Of course not, it is impossible. It is like wanting to live without a heart.
No, what we can, however, is control it.
How to do that?
A human controls his ego by getting detached from it. There is a self inside us that is beyond ego. From this other self, that I will call transcendental self, we can observe our ego in action. And by this simple act of observing our ego, we can get detached from it, and that allows us to control it.
I am at a food market, and there is a big queue. The food is said to be the best at this food truck. I queue patiently and after 10 minutes, I have progressed only half way. Suddenly a group of people arrive, entirely skip the queue, and get close to the truck. I’m hungry and this is obviously rude and disrespectful.
There two kind of reactions: ego driven, and transcendental self driven.
Ego driven: Saying angrily: “Hey, get the hell out of here, there is a queue, it is not made for dogs, are you blind? Get to the queue!”. Or something of this kind.
Or not saying anything but thinking all the same, and doing so, hurting yourself.
Transcendental self driven: Saying smiling: “Excuse-me, maybe you haven’t seen but there is a queue and I, like other people, have been waiting for more than 10 minutes already. See? I think it would be nicer and more considerate to do the queue like everybody else. Do you mind?” Or something of this kind.
Or not saying anything and deciding not to care.
By experience you will realize that you have much more chances to obtain what you want if you keep your self-control. And, more importantly, this way, you can keep peace inside yourself, and around you.
Whenever you are not at peace inside yourself, it means that there is an emotion, well identified or not, that consumes you from the inside.
Biologists try to understand why some people live longer than others. But I don’t need to have studied biology to know that the answer is not to be found in biology. Or not entirely. I believe that the biggest driver for longevity is one’s ability to stay in peace with himself in any circumstance.
In this example, one has a “stomach reaction” his action are totally out of his own control, totally driven by his offended or disturbed ego. The other one, before reacting, sees his/her ego having negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or disappointment, and simply by observing them can decide to act in own best interest and those of others. He can act in order to preserve peace in himself, and conserve peace in his own environment.
This doesn’t mean letting things go when someone acts wrong with you. It doesn’t mean not reacting at all. It means seeing the offender beyond his mask, beyond his own ego, seeing the human conditioning in him that led him to behave this or that way. It also means seeing your own conditioning that pushes you to react this or that way. Doing this allows yourself to then act in the best, or better interest, for yourself and people around you, including your offender. It allows yourself to be compassionate for yourself and your offender.
In an extreme example, if a man kills your husband because he is jealous of him, you can see that his action is the direct result of his own uncontrolled, unobserved ego. If your reaction is to kill this man because he stole the love of your life, it will also be the action of your uncontrolled ego. As a result, maybe a member of this man’s family will kill you, or you will go to jail, but either way, it is bad for you. Either way, you don’t get to be in peace.
Also, even with an uncontrolled ego, you will not necessarily kill this man. However, hatred, sadness, desire of revenge, anger, will constantly bother you, and consume you from the inside. It is also not good for you, you also don’t get to be in peace.
But in such a situation, if you can get back to your transcendental-self, and see yourself having those negative emotions, these emotions suddenly have far less impact over you, and you can make more reasonable and peaceful decisions over what has just happened to you. Eventually, without needing to hurt this man, and without needing to hurt yourself with anger or hatred, you will be able to make these negative emotions disappear.
What is valid at the individual level, is also valid at the level of an entire society.
When a country declares war against another, the same mechanism applies because the decision makers are humans, and instead of feeling personally offended, they extend their sense ego to what they believe is theirs, their nation. “My nation has been attacked, we will kill those terrorists, they will have to pay for their act!”. The USA in 2001, and France in 2015, letting aside the geopolitical interests, have both responded in the most predictable way to those terrorist attacks: by hearing only their ego. However, war on terrorism, since its beginning, has only made it stronger. This is yet another proof that violence creates just more violence, and is never a solution. If George Bush and Francois Hollande had listened to their transcendental self, they would have understood that peace, if it’s peace they want, is never won by violence, aggression, or brutality, which are products of their uncontrolled ego.
The same way peace is maintained at the individual level by controlling negative emotions created by the ego, peace is maintained in a country, in a society, by controlling the negative emotions that a group of people collectively formulates when their ego is attacked by an external stimulus.
The same goes to multinational corporations which want to grow despite their already big size at any social and environmental cost. If the board of directors of these companies access their transcendental self, they will probably suddenly ask to themselves: “Grow? But why actually?”. Only ego can grow bigger and bigger indefinitely. But not companies, and especially not the resources available in limited quantities on our limited planet.
Now what about our fisherman who survives out of (over) fishing? Obviously, who would blame him? To this collective problem, this Tragedy of the Commons*, no solution can be provided at the individual level: a collective problem requires a collective solution. In finding a collective solution, I believe you can easily see the use of listening to the transcendental self. When the ego is calmed down (I want/need my part of the fish!) the mind gets clearer, and it becomes easier to cooperate with other humans towards a collective solution.
Now, let’s try to give a definition of this transcendental self so you may identify it.
The transcendental self is the self that is not correlated to our human body, to our survival instinct. As much as we have a ego-self that makes us feel separated from one another, we also have an equally important self that makes us feel fully united together. It is transcendental because it transcends the feeling of separateness and makes us feel part of a united whole. This self is extremely powerful as it is not vulnerable to external stimuli from the everyday life, whether positive or negative. It is the self that is always in peace, and that can appease those emotions experienced by the ego when confronted to positive or negative situations in the everyday life.
Some have never noticed this self in themselves, some get glimpse of it sometimes, and others try to stay always “in” it. In our society, external stimuli constantly trigger the ego, and learning to discover your transcendental self takes years, and some people never get to comprehend it. In fact, at the beginning, this is very scary: since we have always identified ourselves to our ego, suddenly getting detached from it feels similar to losing oneself. As we get the understanding of the illusion of our self that has been our ego, there is an unpleasant sensation of not knowing who we are anymore. However, once you have learned to observe your ego from your transcendental self, you realize that you are able to let go of all the negative emotions, and you therefore live a much happier life.
I’m not saying that ego is bad, and transcendental self is good.
Our complete identity is made up of these two components, and happiness relies on a balance between the two. What matters is the balance. If you are totally unaware of your transcendental self, and fully identify yourself with your ego, you will never be fully in control of your life, your peace, and your happiness. On the other hand, one who fully lives by his true-self, is not happy or unhappy, as he doesn’t experience emotions anymore. In Buddhism, this could be referred to as nirvana. However, in such state, you are totally disconnect from society, as humans relate to one another by their sense of separateness, which is triggered by the ego. Only when we feel separated from the other human beings, can we relate to one another as I, you, he, she, they, and feel connected to one another in a “we”.
Therefore, we should bless our ego for all the strength it gives us, and the ability to enjoy life. However, it is also the source of a great deal of problems, and with the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer, in a planet populated of almost 8 billion people, uncontrolled ego has more and more visible threatening effects on a global scale.
This is why it is critically important that everyone of us, and especially those that are in power of big institutions and corporations, learn to control their ego. Mechanically, the decisions taken will be more reasonable, more oriented towards the benefit of all. Because once you get to experience your transcendental self, you understand that hurting others means hurting yourself, and hurting yourself means hurting others too. It is also in the transcendental self that is to be found the source of unconditional love for everything and everyone, which allows us to be more compassionate towards others and caring for life. Equally, it is also in the transcendental self that fear disappears, which allows us to imagine solutions more easily and take action.
* The tragedy of the commons is a term to denote a situation where individuals acting independently and rationally according to each other’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole by depleting some common resource. Source: wikipedia.