Human beings commonly associate their very identity and substance as a person with their beliefs about various issues. Such association constitutes a false conception of self (the ego – noting that we are using the Eastern conception of the term here), in contrast to the true self (the indwelling Spirit), which is eternal and independent of changing physical, mental and emotional states.
We see the exact same patterns of behaviour occurring across humanity. Once someone has identified with an ideology they will go to great lengths to sustain that belief system, even in light of overwhelming evidence, which falsifies that ideology. It doesn’t matter whether it is religion and philosophy, politics and economics, racial or national identity or support of a football team or car manufacturer, the ego will refuse to see the weaknesses in the source of its identity, and will seek to diminish those that it sees in opposition to its ideology.
Whilst egoic thinking leads various people to believe that those that differ from them are suffering from a dysfunction of which they themselves are exempt, the reality is that the very same subconscious processes motivate people at opposite ends of ideological disputes. Hence, when attempting to promote progress in various fields we are not simply faced with the task of making the case for our perspective. Rather, we must face the ego of those that have identified with an opposing position. Hence, if we expect others to be willing to change beliefs which they hold sacred (whether religious or not), we must demonstrate a willingness to do the same when necessary.
The Latin word “ego” became popular in the English language as the translation of Sigmund Freud’s conception of “I” (as part of his three-part conception of self), though the meaning of the term has largely been expanded in everyday use. Many people are using it as an English translation for the Sanskrit word Ahamkara, and that is effectively how I will be using it in this article.
In its Eastern definition, the ego is the false self that cohabits the human being along with the indwelling Spirit (Atman in Sanskrit). The ego is our temporary sense of identity that the mind creates through association and attachment to various features of our life. Not knowing that we have an indwelling and immortal Spirit within us, we believe that our very sense of identity is dependent upon fragile and temporary structures, and hence we naturally seek to defend these structures. If our belief system is threatened then we feel threatened, and our response reveals that we believe that our very existence is at stake.
Human beings identify with various things in an attempt to increase the ego’s perception of itself, and this often involves diminishing others in return. The ego seems to think that it must drag others down in order to uplift itself, and in doing so it creates suffering for all. Hence, the ego will seek to only see the strengths of whatever it is identifying with (even to the point of seeing strengths that aren’t actually there), whilst refusing to acknowledge its own weaknesses. Likewise, it often refuses to see the strengths of those it views as opponents, and will seek to highlight, exaggerate or even invent flaws in those it opposes.
We see the very same egoic behaviour at play throughout human existence, from various forms of human interaction and relationships, to the interplay of religious, political, racial and national identities. The ego continually causes conflict, creates drama and causes suffering in many forms. Under the misguided belief that there is a finite amount of life force to be shared between living things, it behaves as if it needs to steal energy from others to be nourished. The ego sabotages relationships, causing all sort of dysfunctional interactions on the basis of various subconscious urges.
In the case of religion, the ego drives followers of various faiths to completely identify with their religious beliefs; to the point that they are willing to see those outside their sect as evil. Egoic thinking drives believers to refuse to accept evidence and logic that refutes their sacred beliefs, and leads to them developing all manner of defence mechanisms to hold their ground in face of information that should lead to a reasonable and intelligent person changing their opinion.
Likewise, in the field of politics, the ego drives people to identify with one side of the political spectrum, and to perceive those on the other side as being responsible for all the ills of their nation, or the world. Politics concerns various issues where there are complementary truths that need to be balanced. People on both sides of the spectrum take their identification as primary in their political beliefs, and fail to consider individual topics on their own merits. Hence we see both the left and right fail to find the right balance in complex topics where multiple factors need to be considered. Rather people on the left frequently always take the same side on every issue regardless of the specific details of the case. Likewise, those on the right do exactly the same. Hence both the left and right see each other as responsible for all the ills of society.
What irony that the very same personality dysfunction is at the heart of both extreme ends! Whilst the precise ideology that those on the left and right have identified with is different, the core dysfunction is the same. Again, the same is true in regards to conservative follows of different faiths. What irony that conservative Christians and Muslims are both operating from the very same core psychological processes, despite seeing each other as being at the opposite ends of eternity!
When I first started out as a writer I had this naïve idea that human beings were rational creatures, and that all one had to do was present an argument properly, well reasoned with reference to evidence and human beings would change their opinions. Unfortunately the reality is that the ego is incredibly skilled at holding its ground and avoiding letting go of the beliefs that it identifies with. Hence, human beings do not usually change their beliefs when they encounter evidence that rebuts them. Rather, they jump through flaming hoops and adopt all sorts of logical fallacies; often simply resorting to insulting those they see as their opponents in order to avoid facing the possibility that their opponent may be correct.
Human beings need to remember that we are capable of changing our opinions. If we expect others to do so, then the first thing to do would be to demonstrate it ourselves. There is an old saying that goes something like: “If you wish to create peace in the world, start with yourself”. I can understand if many people think that this is just a copout or that it is selfish, like it is suggesting that people simply focus on making themselves happy rather than fighting for the things that really matter in life. The truth however is that if we wish others to overcome their individual egos, and if we wish humanity at large to overcome large-scale collective egos (such as religious or political organizations, or national identities), then we ourselves need to lead by example by overcoming our own egos and finding real peace within ourselves. Peace really does start within.
Finding inner-peace doesn’t have to mean that you don’t stand up for what is good and real. Rather, finding peace first will mean that when you encounter resistance you wont take it personally, and won’t let your own ego sabotage the legitimate cause for which you are standing for. We cannot expect others to stop identifying with their philosophical and political ideologies if we ourselves are unable to transcend our own personality defects. Hence, we must lead by example by honestly seeking truth wherever it lies, and being willing to change our views when presented with reliable evidence and solid logic to the contrary.
The irony is that human beings fear that we will become less if we let go of the things that we have identified with. The truth however is that the exact opposite is true. In giving up a drop of water we gain the ocean. Whilst human beings frequently go from one egoic identification to another, the release of a false identity brings the opportunity to discover our true eternal nature. When we silence the incessant mental chatter and dis-identify from the voice within our heads we realise that we are not our opinions, beliefs, skills, habits nor preferences, nor is our true identity to be found within our flesh and blood. Rather, inner silence brings forth the indwelling Spirit, and with it comes unspeakable joy that is not dependent upon external circumstances, and hence need not come and go due to circumstances beyond our control. Rather, the inner peace that comes with true presence can be felt permanently, if we choose to cultivate it and transcend the ego.
I am a big fan of Eckhart Tolle’s writing. His books are not interesting in the traditional sense; he is not a captivating writer, nor a particularly charismatic speaker. He is however a very good spiritual teacher and he is utterly brilliant at highlighting the human condition. His insights into human behaviour are essentially spot-on, and for that reason I suggest that “The Power Of Now” and “A New Earth” are essential reading for everyone. They are books that should be read over and over again; not because they are captivating, but because they are true, and they can assist in probably the most significant transformation that anybody can undergo.