Such sweet and intoxicating scent of ego

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow, Russia 

If you are a writer, you know when a story will write itself.
            Such a moment came after reading a passage from Tom Rachman's fascinating true-to-life novel about predicaments of the newspaper industry, The Imperfectionists. I noted at once that a story is being written in my head and would be put to paper with my favorite Faber-Castel pencil.
            So this is how it goes... A reporter is sent to interview a once well-known author. His assignment is to prepare an obituary about her as she is getting on with age and the facts about her life are sparse. Reflecting on her own encounter with death knocking-in, she thinks aloud describing the absurdity of ambition, and yet remaining in its thrall.
            "It's like being a slave all your life, then learning one day that you never had a master, and returning to work all the same. Can you imagine a force in the universe greater than this? Not in my universe. You know, even from the earliest childhood it dominated me. I longed for achievements, to be influential - that, in particular. To sway people. This has been my religion: the belief that I deserve attention, that they are wrong not to listen, that those who dispute me are fools. Yet, no matter what I achieve, the world lives on, impertinent, indifferent - I know all this, but I can't get it through my head. It is why, I suppose, I agreed to talk to you. To this day, I'll pursue any folly to make the rest of you shut up and listen to me, as you should have from the start!"
            And she continues, "Here is a fact: nothing in all civilization has been as productive as ludicrous ambition. Whatever it's ills, nothing has created more. Cathedrals, sonatas, encyclopedias: love of God was not behind them, nor love of life. But the love of man to be worshipped by man."
            What she describes can be viewed as a slice of our common folly. My folly certainly fits into this picture.
            My boss had an uncanny way of bringing me back to earth from my inflated opinion of myself. A few years ago there was an encounter that registered itself among the experiences of life, but needed to be recalled back, reclaimed.
            My chest was bursting as I shared with him what happened, and how elated I was to be recognized.
            "Aren't we wonderful," he said, and walked away.
            It was a moment to forget, I thought in an instant.
            A treasure throve of life's experiences gave birth to that memory as I read the words - "... I deserve attention."
            Frankly, I admit to creating lots of madness in my own life, as I pursued ambition and praise. So, from time to time a lesson comes, and is also often forgotten in the fog of pursuing fleeting praise.           
            Bob Edwards, once an NPR radio host, remarked that what he did on the radio was not about him. He satisfies his ego by the very fact that he is on the radio already, he commented in conversation with another radio personality, Diane Rehm.
            "I'm a minimalist. And in the show, you know, especially "Morning Edition," doing NPR news, it wasn't about me, it was about my guests," he told Rehm. "My guests were super so I wanted to hear more of them. You know, I had enough ego satisfaction just to be hosting the program. That did it for me. I didn't need to talk."
            The wisdom others teach you, I reflected, as I listened to Edwards.
            It's never easy to sober up from intoxication with one's ego. A question lingers on: How can one remain on an auto-pilot firmly set to being useful for the sake of goodness and for the sake of others? Just be, do good, and the meaning of it all will be with those who encounter your life?
            This post stopped writing itself three days ago. Then, true to my enjoyment of twists and turns in life, I began writing its closing sentences. I got stuck in the process.
            Then at one bend I took, a thought appeared. Stop! - it shouted at me. Let the piece write itself.
            In an avalanche of verbiage, it is much useful to acknowledge those people in your life who disagreed with you. They are saying that you don't have all the answers. You are just as well not having them, either.
            A masterpiece in life is decided in the encounter with others. They will tell you when they see it. 
            In the words of the Bible, “Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.” – 1 Peter 2:11 The Message

Strasbourg Cathedral, France


  1. The egos that quest for power, recognition, fame, someone to listen to their divine wisdom - those are easy to spot.

    However, there are the spiritual materialists who proclaim authenticity, integrity and emotional or superior spiritual clarity that are the ones to watch for - for they collect not the riches of this world, but the souls of the free men and women those who listen to them.

    I have seen, heard and studied with people who loved to hear themselves talk. The ones that were the biggest snakes were the ones who talked the most about the fact they found out they had an ego, and how amazingly liberating it was to become aware of it. More so, they started talking about all the wonderful ways they found to beat the ego, subdue it, torture it, make it wrong, justify it or to be more free of it, castigate it and lock it up - not realizing that in fact it was the ego (having been found) that wanted to talk about itself some more.

    Through accepting itself as "bad and wrong", it continued to recruit the host in narcissistic self-loathing for its own self-amusement. What's more, to make their ego feel better they go around trying to convince you that you should do this too!

    Through this they collect agreement, head nodding, furrowed brows and chins, and additional approval "See how much more enlightened and wise this person is".

    There is nothing besides the voice in my head and the voice in your head. Under that is the soul.

    To the voice in your head and my head (ego):

    Brilliant! Bravo! Kudos for such astute observations! You should really get this published! Self-admonishment and humility will look good. More people should read this. In fact, I hope "X" person is reading this. They really need to hear it.

    And to the soul:

    Less talk, more non-action, more self-care, care for others, time outside, stillness and peace through non-doing.

    Breathe. Take in, never keeping, let go. Be. Repeat.


    Lao Zhu writes in the Tao Te Ching as follows:

    "Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
    All can know good as good only because there is evil.
    Therefore having and not having arise together.
    Difficult and easy complement each other.
    Long and short contrast each other;
    High and low rest upon each other;
    Front and back follow one another.
    Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
    The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
    Creating, yet not possessing,
    Working, yet not taking credit.
    Work is done, then forgotten.
    Therefore it lasts forever." (Ch 2).

    "Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
    Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
    Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
    The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
    If people lack knowledge and desire, then intellectuals will not try to interfere.
    If nothing is done, then all will be well." (Ch 3).

    ... "More words count less" ... (Ch 5)

    "In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
    In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
    Less and less is done
    Until non-action is achieved.
    When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
    The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
    It cannot be ruled by interfering" (Ch 48)


    I was asked today by my new acupuncturist: "Who would you be if you weren't burdened by all that you've chosen to accumulate around yourself?"

    Good question.

  2. You are talking about "spiritual materialists," a concept seemingly contradictory in itself. Yet ...

    I read up on the opposite of pride, ego, and what not. What I meant by "ego" in my initial post is centered on "self-importance," bordering on this inflated feeling of pride in one's superiority to others (as one definition states). It is a bit to the right, , of self consciousness of one's own identity.

    Among the easily recognizable opposites of this self-importance or pride is a virtue of humility. In the words of Andre Comte-Sponville, a French writer-philosopher, "Humility is a humble virtue, so much so that it even doubts its own virtuousness: to pride oneself on one's own humility is to lack it." He continues, "Humility is the virtue of the man who knows he is not God." Here is a topic worthy of exploration!

    Actually, saints are not known for their egos. The wise don't shout about it. Pascal was critical of philosophers for their arrogance, Comte-Sponville cites, some of whom "have taken the idea of their divinity quite seriously."

    Surrounded by a self-delusion of grandeur, we camouflage home-made views as truth. But how will my ego react to truth, when it contradicts the very virtue of humility. "Being humble means loving the truth and submitting to it," Comte-Sponville adds.

    Will I ever be able to love truth to a point of rejecting my interpretations of it? A hurt ego is a messy situation to encounter and watch.

    There is a story in the New Testament (Gospel of Luke 18:9-14) about the taxman and the Pharisee. Though it is usually used to portray humility vs. pride, it illustrates also other values. The Message version, which aims to be reading text, the story ends in this way: "If you walk around with your nose in the air, you are going to end up flat on your face, but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself."

    I guess you can also walk around with your nose in the air and be further away from exercising pride. Likewise, a sanctimonious hypocrite, looks pious and yet, is full of ego.

    What a worthy comment you cite from Lao Zhu:

    "In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
    In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
    Less and less is done
    Until non-action is achieved.
    When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
    The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
    It cannot be ruled by interfering."

    Plenty to reflect on and to engage in a meaningful sorting out what needs to go, and what should stay. But even that, will it serve one's ego? Or should one even care?

    Being aware that one is held by the Divine Hand, as one walks through life among sinners and saints, is at once a beginning and an end one may be yearning to experience.

  3. When one is tempted to sort through what should stay and what should go, one is always going to use human, dualistic, value-judgement-based criteria - criteria that assume one can hold on to anything at all for anything but a moment, and that to do so is desirable. This is in essence still dualistic and robs one of peace through constant judgment and discernment of experience in a vain attempt to perfect it, or one's reaction to it.

    "I must be better. I have these virtues to aspire to and cultivate that I don't have now. I should be humble, I shouldn't judge. I should be nice, I shouldn't be bad. I should invent new possibilities for being. I should care, or I shouldn't care."

    Who's the "I" that is speaking, and where are those decisions coming from? Who's ideas?

    Lao Zhu teaches us to let go of trying to sort the world into Yin/Yang, Good/Bad, Worthy/Unworthy, That which should be held/That which should be discarded - for poignancy is gained in allowing people, things, life, seasons - to simply be, flow into one another - and through so doing, gain ultimate love for, appreciation of, and completeness with life and with oneself.

    Not-caring leads to apathy, caring leads to desire. If we are divine then caring or not caring is irrelevant. We simply are, and dance with all these things without judging ourselves or others.

    Then, as Steve Jobs put it - we live by our intuition - by the trust that is within us that we are acting as we should be already without the need for modification against anyone's standards - perhaps not even our own standards (given his being fired for example) - but live into our destiny.

    Destiny not born of serendipity or fate - but one that is created through simply aligning ourselves with the will of Heaven.

    This is what Lao Zhu means by "When nothing is done, nothing is left undone". We stop interfering in life with our judgments. We stop interfering in our own evolution. Less and less is done, every day some new judgment or conclusion about ourselves and others is dropped.


    As far spiritual materialists - I define those as collectors of piety or spiritual virtue in order to use collective spiritual accomplishments (dogmas, belief systems, acquired stages or states of personal development, credentials, soap boxes, titles) to judge others as inferior, less spiritual, not as connected with God or self and therefore inferior to themselves. These people walk around with pride in their accomplishments as if they are stating "I am sooo much more enlightened than you".

    Now the catch is - we all strive to be greater than ourselves, and through so doing we compare our progress to the progress of others - hoping that one day we will arrive at sage-hood after we have gone beyond where others have gone. This is also spiritual materialism. We "acquire" spirituality as though it is a commodity.

    The thing that is interesting to observe about a sage is that they have stopped acquisition. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go - only pure being.

    This is also why many belief systems (Buddhism and Taoism, etc) talk about enlightenment as a 'state of being' that happens in the 'now', the present moment - and not an 'event' in the future - something you can post-pone, delay, or some day acquire.

    Salvation in the future is irrelevant if it doesn't release you fully from suffering NOW.