Update: 344 of your fellow adventurers are now enrolled in Stature, our new character sculpting deep dive. How would you like to grow your character for 2020 and beyond? Join us for this epic journey!
There’s a notion that’s been spread around the spiritual side of the self-help field that suggests one of our primary aims in life should be ego-less enlightenment, a state where we achieve near-perfect inner peace, where we’re one with everything but attached to nothing, and where nothing in the physical world can knock us off balance.
This creates some personal challenges for me because whenever I write about anything remotely spiritual in nature (and sometimes even when I don’t), some readers assume I’m one of the guys promoting this same sort of ideal. Then they question why my behavior doesn’t seem consistent with it.
My behavior isn’t consistent with the pursuit of ego-less enlightenment because I have no interest in that path. If other people find value in it, that’s their choice, but I find other paths of development to be much more practical and fulfilling, both for myself and for others I’ve observed over the years.
Do you really want to kill your ego?
Do you even want to weaken it?
In this case I’m using the word ego to refer to your physical world identity, mainly your personality and sense of self. I’m not referring to ego in the sense of being arrogant, such as when people say, “So-and-so has a big ego.”
Many spiritual seekers claim it’s wise to weaken the ego as much as possible. The ones who really go all out with this idea give away all their possessions, shave their heads, and spend their days meditating and doing chores, striving to burn away any last bits of attachment to their previous identities.
But most people who claim to pursue this path have mixed feelings about it, so they hold themselves in a state of limbo. They can’t get themselves to progress on the ego-empowering path, so they don’t take strong steps to advance in their careers or make much more money — that would be too ego-based for their spiritual beliefs. On the other hand, they can’t get themselves to relinquish all attachment to their identities and their stuff, so they strive to get by with a sense of minimalism. But they’re never really satisfied living in this halfway space, so quite often their “spiritual practice” devolves into attacking others they believe are more ego-based than they are. It temporarily makes them feel better about themselves.
Often the people stuck in this middle place maintain careers with pseudo-spiritual associations such as being a healer, massage therapist, yoga instructor, tarot card reader, astrologer, etc., but the one thing they usually have in common is that they’re borderline broke most of the time.
This is a very half-assed approach to enlightenment. From what I’ve observed in those who attempt it, it just doesn’t work. It leads to long-term stagnation. You can find whole communities of bloggers like this, and they seem to spend much of their time writing posts that express frustration and judgment at everything they dislike about the world. Meanwhile, they do nothing tangible to make the world any better.
You may want to question whether or not you really want to weaken your ego. Is that truly a wise idea? Sure it’s a popular piece of religious dogma, but is it really how you want to live? Does it even make sense?
Building a stronger ego
Instead of weakening your ego, let me suggest an alternative approach that works really well for me, one that will allow you to avoid stagnation… not to mention bitter blogger syndrome.
Build an even stronger ego.
Your ego is your character, an important part of your human avatar. If you try to weaken your ego, you’re simply weakening your character. Do you really want to devolve into a sidelined NPC (non-player character)? Or would you rather build out a really strong character with well-defined attributes?
How does it serve you — or anyone else — to play the game of life with a weak character? Are you really doing much good by checking out from life and cocooning yourself in a mini-monastery?
Instead of trying to weaken your ego, consider what good you might achieve with it instead. How would you like to develop your character during your time here on earth?
Let me offer you some ideas to get you thinking…
Honesty – See how honest and open you can make your character. Be honest in your dealings with others. Stop pretending and hiding who you are. Share yourself openly with the world.
Courage – Continually push yourself to face your fears instead of shrinking from them. This will give your character more options.
Exploration – Experiment. Learn by trial and error. Step into the unknown and learn by doing. Develop an ego that loves to dive in and explore new things.
Service – Tune your ego in the direction of serving others, such that the stronger your ego becomes, the more you push yourself to help people. Make service to others part of your identity.
Acceptance – When you accept yourself as having a strong ego, you’ll be more willing to accept other strong people into your life as well instead of feeling you need to attack the strong in order to justify your own weakness.
Discipline – Develop an ego that identifies itself with good habits like regular exercise and solid productivity.
Connection – Develop your social skills, so you can connect with others easily. Learn how to surround your ego with social support that helps to refine your positive character qualities while chipping away at your unwanted attributes.
Notice that since these are character qualities, they can’t be taken away from you. You may lose your possessions, job, relationships, etc., but your character qualities are yours to keep.
Intelligence, not enlightenment
My gold standard for conscious living isn’t enlightenment. It’s intelligence.
In this case I define intelligent living as having three main components:
1) Developing a progressively more accurate model of reality and living in accordance with it.
If you’re living intelligently, then as a general rule, you should find that life becomes progressively easier and your results get measurably better as your mental model of reality gradually becomes more accurate.
When you encounter a spiritual teacher who can’t pay his/her electric bill, I’d say something is off.
2) Deliberately engineering your social environment to actively support you in fulfilling your desires.
We humans are very social creatures. Your environment plays a huge role in your development. Unfortunately most of us find ourselves with rather unsupportive social circles when we try to stretch and grow. We have the power to change that, however. We can drop the connections that don’t support our continued development and invite new connections that do. This is a significant growth accelerator.
It isn’t intelligent to remain stuck with an unsupportive social circle. Place your loyalty not with your pity posse but with your highest vision of yourself, and surround yourself with people who can help you support that vision. The first step is to say no to connections with those people who reject your vision. Hang out with people who will help you develop a strong, positive, service-oriented ego, not a frustrated one.
Don’t become obsessed with trying to transcend your feelings towards people who consistently bring you down. Just drop the nay-sayers and move on. Saying “I’m done with you” once can be more effective than having to say “I forgive you” a dozen more times. This creates the space where new connections can come into your life, the kind that will have you saying, “Thank you so much!” dozens of times instead.
When you’re living intelligently, you won’t settle for social connections that drain you. You’ll consciously build ample social support and resources for pursuing your goals and fulfilling your desires. You will notice that over time, your life becomes increasingly abundant.
3) Getting stronger.
Intelligence seeks its own improvement.
If you’re on a path of intelligent living, you should find your character growing increasingly capable. You should see yourself progressively building courage and overcoming more and more fears such as fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, and fear of success. You’ll learn to stop giving your power away and take your foot off the brake pedal.
Engage with life
Checking out from life and trying to pursue ego-less enlightenment may be popular in certain spiritual circles, but it’s not a path I recommend, especially after witnessing the long-term results of many of the practitioners, not to mention the behind-the-scenes inconsistencies of certain proponents. It’s a path that can feel comforting at first because it gives you permission to avoid many of your fears instead of facing them. You can shrink away from life instead of boldly pushing yourself. You don’t have to stand out much. You can simply sit still and quiet your mind. There are many benefits to meditation of course, but don’t let the practice turn into escapism.
I think you’ll find it much more beneficial to relate to life on the basis of ego development as opposed to ego destruction.
Ego destruction is slow suicide. It’s yet another version of giving your power away. As long as “become ego-less” remains on your spiritual to-do list, you can use it to distract yourself from facing the real life challenges that scare you… like stretching yourself to go out and make a real difference in the world instead of escaping into the land of make-believe enlightenment.
Having a strong ego is not in conflict with inner peace. Inner peace doesn’t mean being passive. You can be quite active and engaged with life and still feel very peaceful and centered on your path.
Part of the reason ego-less living has so many people pushing it is that it’s a control strategy. People with strong egos are harder to control. If a religious leader wants to be surrounded by a bunch of loyal followers, it’s much easier to do that while encouraging all the followers to shed their egos. Then standing up to the leader can be called out as an act of ego and therefore something that the culture itself will repress, thereby keeping the leader in charge. However, this structure stunts the leader’s growth as well if the leader must pretend to be upholding the same ego-less standard that’s being preached to the followers.
Own your character
Again, having a strong ego doesn’t mean putting yourself above others. But it’s perfectly fine to take complete ownership of your character and express your pleasure with what you’ve developed so far. That’s much better than being secretly ashamed of your character, isn’t it?
There are limitless ways to grow your character, and where you take your character’s development is for you to decide. But when you catch yourself criticizing others for the choices they’ve made, consider that perhaps you’re giving your power away to them because you aren’t satisfied with the character development choices you’ve been making. Stop fussing over other people’s egos, and direct your attention back on your own to see where you need to improve.
When done consciously it can be fun to develop your character. You can shop from a vast menu of new skills to learn and character attributes to develop. Do you want to build a character who’s very brave? Very physical? Very social? Very musical? The choice is yours. You can even dress up your avatar with a little extra bling if you’d like.
When I blogged about fashion a few months ago, I saw comments from a few people on Twitter and Facebook to the effect of, Well, Steve… this is a rather ego-driven pursuit. And I thought, Well of course it is! Is that supposed to be a bad thing???
I’ve been writing this post from my hotel room in Puerto Rico. I’m here for a weeklong leadership retreat for the Transformational Leadership Council. When I got in late last night, I exchanged hugs with about a dozen TLC members in the lobby. Several of them gushed over how much they liked my new hair. By making a small change to my avatar, it created a fun shift in the way people relate to me, even people who already know me. But prior to making this change, I was one of those guys who could criticize others for fussing over their appearance. It took me a while to realize that I was giving my power away to others so as to avoid taking full ownership of my own avatar’s appearance.
It’s very easy to give our power away and use it to feed criticism of others. It’s much more challenging — but a lot more beneficial — to channel our power into creating what we desire, including the myriad ways we can develop our characters’ potential.
Are you taking full ownership of your character? Where do you catch yourself criticizing others for being too ego-driven? What does that say about the character attributes you’ve been refusing to develop in yourself? Are you bothered by people who are super confident, very focused, very attractive, financially abundant, successful in relationships, super healthy, etc? Stop giving your power away to other people’s egos, and reclaim 100% responsibility for developing those aspects of your own character. It will take time to be sure, but you won’t get there faster by succumbing to denial.
Even though your truest identity is the consciousness behind your ego and not the ego itself, that doesn’t invalidate the reasons for building a strong and capable ego as your primary means of interacting with the physical world. An underdeveloped ego won’t do your consciousness much good anyway; a weak ego will only limit the range of experiences that are possible for you, thereby stunting your conscious growth. So don’t be so quick to buy into the notion that ego-less enlightenment is an intelligent spiritual ideal. Consider that building a stronger ego may be the more intelligent, heart-centered choice for you.