The War on Ego

March 31st, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

The War on Ego seems to be gaining popularity in some spiritual circles. Within this context the ego is basically your identification with your physical life and all its trappings, including your name, your personal history, your career, your relationships, and your current life situation. The ego is how most people choose to identify themselves.

The War on Ego emphasizes that you don’t have to identify yourself with your ego. You can instead choose to identify yourself as a spiritual being having a temporary human experience. You could also move beyond that and identify yourself with pure oneness or consciousness, devoid of any particular individuality. With a little practice, states such as these can be experienced during meditation, but they can also arise spontaneously.

Because the egoless state of being can feel so elevated and joyful, some people choose to point fingers at the ego as the cause of all human suffering. They argue that the world would be a much better place if we could simply let go of ego identification and identify ourselves as pure God or Source energy instead… or perhaps relinquish individual identity altogether.

Although War on Ego has a positive intention behind it, in practice it’s rather misguided.

I agree that ego identification is a big problem for a lot of people. When you think your physical life is all you have, you tend to become very attached to it. Protecting, defending, and securing your physical identity occupies a significant part of your time, energy, and attention. If anyone interferes with the security of your physical life, they become a threat. This creates stress and often leads to some form of violence. Violence is the natural consequence of a posture of self-defense.

I disagree that the solution to ego-based problems is to denigrate, eliminate, or transcend the ego itself. The ego isn’t the problem. The ego serves a very useful function, and it’s a mistake to try to tune it out.

The irony is that those who suggest we must dissociate from the ego are still very much ego-associated themselves. They simply detach their egos from materialism and re-attach it to spiritualism. The identification with physical life becomes stronger than ever.

A Smarter Approach

Instead of trying to disidentify from the ego, we need to embrace the ego while merging it with a sense of oneness. We need to be aware of our individual identities while simultaneously developing an expanded sense of global consciousness. Then we need to make sure both of these levels of awareness are aligned.

Here’s an analogy to help you understand. Your physical body is a collection of individual cells that function well together. Your cells each have their own identities. You have heart cells, brain cells, skin cells, etc.

Now which is more important — the health of your cells or the health of your body? Can you possibly have one without the other?

If your cells see themselves as independent individuals with no sense of connection to a larger whole, free to do whatever they feel like, they won’t cooperate well enough to maintain the health of the body, and your body will die.

If your cells fail to see themselves as individuals and identify only with the larger body, they won’t take care of their individual needs well enough, so your cells will die, and your body will follow.

In order to maintain the health of the body, your cells must take care of their own individual needs while also doing what’s necessary to contribute to the greater good of the body. They must function well at multiple levels of awareness.

At the micro level, your heart cells must work together to keep your heart beating. Your blood cells must deliver nutrients to all the other cells. Your liver and kidneys must help eliminate toxins. All the cells must work together to keep the body healthy.

At the macro level, the body must breathe air, drink water, and eat food. It must shelter itself from extremes of heat and cold. If it doesn’t do what’s necessary to keep its cells alive, the whole body dies. If the body smokes cigarettes or drinks alcohol, all the cells suffer for it, even though no individual cell can claim responsibility for making those decisions.

All human beings are individual cells in the larger body of humanity. For humanity to survive and thrive (either as physical or spiritual beings), we as individuals must align ourselves with the greatest good of all, but we must also tend to our individual needs. We need to function well at both levels of awareness.

Right now we find ourselves living as individual cells in a larger body that’s smoking and drinking. All the cells are suffering for it, but no single cell is to blame. That may not seem fair at the individual level, but it is what it is.

Global Awareness

What do you do when you realize the larger body you inhabit has gotten off track? The solution is to develop an awareness of how thoughts and behaviors at the individual level affect thoughts and behaviors at the global level. If you can live constructively as an individual, and if you can influence enough of the other cells to make similar changes, you’ll have a positive impact on shifting the larger body to more constructive behaviors — behaviors that serve the health of the body as well as the health of all the cells.

There needn’t be any conflict between the individual ego level of awareness and the highest spiritual thinking. If you can recognize that you’re part of a larger body (however you define it), then it stands to reason that the health of the body and the health of its component parts cannot be in conflict.

In other words there can be no conflict between selfish behavior and selfless behavior. If you look at this from the right level of awareness, both mindsets have to point in the same direction.

There are many human beings today who recognize that the larger body of humanity has gotten off track and is currently working against its own health. Our global organs are fighting with each other instead of working cooperatively. We’re essentially living in a body riddled with cancer. This is getting the attention of more and more individual cells. More and more cells are having the thought, “We need to do something about this.”

The problem is that most of the cells are still apathetic or disempowered. At best they only care about their lives as individual cells, but they fail to assume responsibility for the health of the larger body. Consequently, they make the problem worse. Through inaction they perpetuate the problem conditions. By living unconsciously they essentially work towards the death of the body.

Beyond Individuality

The War on Ego is a sick body concluding that its illness is caused by its own cells acting too selfishly. In reality the problem is something entirely different. You could say that the problem is that the cells aren’t acting selfishly enough, and on a certain level that’s true; however, the real problem is that the cells aren’t aware enough to realize what it means to act in their own best interests. They can’t see that they’re making self-destructive choices. They don’t realize their own health can only be improved by working for the health of the whole body. No cell can maintain its own health for long in a body that isn’t healthy.

Individual cells struggle with problems at the individual level, not realizing that these problems are arising at the level of the whole body. For example, if you have a health problem such as cancer or diabetes, you may struggle with it at the individual level. You do what you can to heal your body, and you enlist others to help you. But on the global level, we’re collectively creating the conditions that give rise to such problems, and we as individuals will continue to be afflicted by such problems as long as we keep creating those conditions. If you have a health problem, the fault is not entirely your own, even if it was an individually preventable problem. The larger cause is that you’re living in a world that promotes such diseases, both socially and environmentally.

The cure to such problems can’t be found at the individual level. You can’t permanently cure cancer in your own body while continuing to bathe in cancer soup. You can’t achieve the most fulfilling relationships while living in a society that encourages isolation and withdrawal. You can’t enjoy the most fulfilling career in a world that values profit ahead of human beings. You’re always bathing in the global soup.

Achieving Alignment

Have you ever felt the presence of the larger body of humanity in your life? Do you find that when you do things that work against the greater good, strong resistance appears, your results are sabotaged, and life feels like trying to run uphill on sand? Similarly, do you find that when you align yourself with the greater good, the larger body mysteriously provides you with extra help and assistance?

I’ve definitely felt like there’s a larger body working behind the scenes in my life. When I’ve done things that worked against others, I’ve been blocked. But when I align what I’m doing with what I honestly believe will have a positive impact on the larger global community (even if it’s a very small impact), it feels like unseen forces help me out. Other “cells” appear to assist me, extra resources fall into my lap unexpectedly, or I enjoy unusually good luck.

The motivation for my actions can be totally ego-driven and selfish, but as long as they’re also aligned with helping others, the larger body loves to lend a hand.

When I set new goals or begin new projects, I think hard about making sure they’re aligned with helping both myself and others. I don’t see myself as a selfish person or a selfless person. I think both of those extremes are mistakes. I favor the path where selfishness and selflessness are aligned, so when I help others, I’m simultaneously helping myself, and vice versa.

If you think about it, this is really the only sustainable approach in the long run. When you behave selfishly at the expense of others, you create resistance and lose a lot of help and support. If you sacrifice your own needs to help others, eventually you have to stop helping people in order to handle the personal problems that have accumulated due to neglect. But if you make more careful choices, aiming for the sweet spot where serving yourself and others are aligned, you gain the best of both worlds. This is a very sustainable way of living. You help others and they help you. The individuals win, and the larger body wins too.

Negotiating a Peace Treaty

Much like the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, the War on Ego will fail because it’s misguided. The ego isn’t bad or evil. The ego is an important component of physical life. Instead of dropping the ego, we need to supplement it with a sense of global consciousness. We as individuals all need to assume responsibility for the health of the larger body.

I believe that the best thing I can do as an individual is to infect lots of other people with a sense of global consciousness. A goodly number of people today are developing (or have already developed) this sense, but as a percentage of the whole, it’s still pretty low. I’d put it at well below one percent. Not everyone has to gain this sense, however. We just need enough of a critical mass to turn things in a more positive direction.

I find this to be an exciting mission that gives my life a very motivating purpose that I can’t achieve at the individual level. Living just for myself seems boring and pointless. There’s really nothing I can do as an individual that excites me as much as having a positive impact on the larger body of humanity.

I’m not an egoless person. In fact, I made a conscious choice not to abandon my ego. Transcending the ego isn’t a practical choice for most people, and it doesn’t serve the greater good anyway. I concluded it was better to embrace the ego and take full advantage of it, so I wrapped my ego around the idea of serving others. Consequently, when I do things that “feed my ego,” such as posting new articles, writing a book, or giving speeches, I also end up helping people. And when I do things to help people, it feeds my ego. After doing this for a few years now, I have to admit that it works disgustingly well.

Instead of trying to abandon your ego, why not give it something more significant to sink its teeth into? Set your ego upon a global-level goal that really inspires you — the kind of goal that stirs your soul. Integrating your physical life into your identity isn’t a bad thing if your physical identity and your spiritual identity are aligned.

The main caution is that you have to stay focused on the overlap between your individual good and the good of humanity. This takes a bit of practice because it’s a different way of thinking about life than most people are taught. We’re encouraged to think about how our actions affect the people closest to us but not the entire body of humanity. There is an effect though, and it does make a difference.

Apathy Is Murder

If you find your life riddled with problems, and you seem to experience an unreasonable or unfair amount of resistance when trying to build momentum, consider that the culprit may be that you’re working against the larger body of humanity. If you’re living as a parasite, it’s reasonable to expect the larger body to treat you as such.

If you think your actions are neutral, they’re actually negative because there is no neutral. When you’re in a negative soup as we find ourselves today, apathy is murder. If you don’t care what happens to humanity, then from humanity’s perspective, you aren’t a particularly good cell to have in this body. Consequently, you can’t expect the larger body to help you out; it would be more reasonable to expect it to isolate, marginalize, and starve you of resources, so as to prevent you from doing too much damage. Why would it send more resources your way, when you’d only use them to further spread the disease of apathy?

Treat the larger body of humanity as your friend and ally, and it will respond in kind. It’s a lot more conscious than you realize.


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