By: David Edwards
It is said that God plays a joke on every new-born, whispering:
‘You are the special one!’
The joke quickly wears thin when we start running up against the seven billion other people on the planet who all know that they are ‘the special one’. Deep ego wounds are received every time we fall short; when she chooses him over us. When our best friend gets the grades but we don’t. When we get to the final interview, but no further.
If the ultimate physical battle is to continue breathing, the ego’s ‘life-and-death’ struggle is to be ‘special’ rather than ‘a loser’. This is why we fight to defend even the most trivial argument as if our lives depended on it. The pain of the ego – as though in its death throes – has children (and adults!) hurling themselves to the floor and writhing in agony.
‘Specialness’ cannot be established as permanent fact, it can only be indicated, temporarily. Small victories and defeats are therefore invested with great symbolic significance. Coming first in an exam is a sign that we are ‘bright’ (born with a better bulb), even ‘gifted’ (blessed by the Fates, or a benevolent God, to have a good memory). On the other hand, losing a game of ping-pong is a doom-laden sign that we are ‘useless’ at sports, a lesser physical specimen, even a withered branch of the evolutionary tree.
We spend our lives trying to defend ourselves against this feeling, to avoid it; to show that, while we may be inferior in this way, we are certainly superior in that way: ‘Who else around here can say that they have…?’
In the struggle to feel superior rather than inferior, we will sacrifice anything, even life itself, for attention, praise, applause. We will climb mountains, career ladders, pop charts. We will write blogs, books, songs, screenplays just so our ego can cock a leg and ‘make a mark’. We think we want money, but the money makes us ‘special’. We think we want sex, but the ‘conquests’ make us ‘somebody’. We think we want beauty, but we want the beauty ‘they’ want. The towering Rolls Royce trumpets our ‘achievement’. The celebrity is a ‘star’ glittering in the firmament far above mere worldly mortals.
All of this involves playing a double game with others. After all, they can only ‘look up’ to us from ‘below’. We require their complicity in our self-promotion at their expense. No surprise, then, that even the deepest admiration comes with a hidden price tag – the ‘lower’ will have their revenge. The writer Robert Pirsig commented of his fans:
‘They love you for being what they all want to be, but they hate you for being what they are not.’ (Quoted, Tim Adams, ‘Zen and the art of Robert Pirsig,’ The Observer, November 19, 2006)
The Indian mystic Osho added some detail:
‘When somebody respects you, he feels insulted deep down – deep down he has become inferior to you. So how can he forgive? He cannot. Someday the accounts will have to be put right. When he bowed down and touched your feet, that very moment a deep wound happened within him: he was lower than you. Now he will have to prove that he is not. Someday he will prove that he is higher than you.’ (Osho, When The Shoe Fits, Rebel Publishing, 1997, p.63)
Sometimes the accounts are settled immediately. As I was writing this, a reader – himself an author – wrote to us at Media Lens:
‘I am a devotee of what you guys do, and enjoy almost every Alert – though I would prefer if some were shorter!’
In deference to this phenomenon, celebrities are required to affect deep humility: ‘stars’ can get away with being ‘famous’ as long as they don’t rub it in. It’s fine for a tennis champ to lift the Wimbledon trophy – just let him try lifting a guitar and playing rock star! The reflexive response: ‘God, that’s awful!’ But we add with incredulity: ‘Just how much adoration does one man need?’ This is our ego talking.
By contrast, warm applause greets veteran ‘stars’ willing to disown their earlier triumphs. The music produced by the surviving members of rock band Led Zeppelin was coolly received by critics until singer Robert Plant declared himself utterly done with the Zeppelin albatross and his own ‘Rock God’ status. He told one interviewer:
‘I can’t blame anybody for hating Led Zeppelin. If you absolutely hated “Stairway To Heaven,” nobody can blame you for that because it was, um… so pompous.’
Plant’s subsequent album of duets with bluegrass-country singer Alison Krauss was garlanded with praise and awards. It was a matter of taste, but critics seemed as impressed by Plant’s self-inflicted rock deicide as they were by his music.
Osho made the interesting leap from this kind of reaction to explaining why it is that we tend to dismember, poison, crucify, and even ignore, the Buddhas who appear among us (Osho may himself have been fatally poisoned by the US government). It is hard but doable to accept the superior ping-pong opponent. Try digesting the claim that someone has transcended all ignorance and suffering, and will be worshipped for thousands of years.
As a counter-argument, we might respond that people clearly have no problem worshipping Enlightened masters who may or may not have lived 2,000 or 5,000 years ago. But that’s the point: the distance is so great that they do not seem like real people with whom our egos need to compete. We are bowing down to an archetype, an ideal. A gleaming golden statue is not insulting to our ‘specialness’.
On the other hand, many devotees of Buddha or Jesus would find it impossible to believe that the flesh and blood human being standing before them was of the same spiritual stature. This Buddha seems far too much like us – he lives, breathes, sweats, farts as we do (Eckhart Tolle seems to have a particular problem with burping!). How can he possibly be Enlightened? He’s so… human. Imagine how we’d react if we encountered some vagabond with a few stragglers – ‘disciples’! – sitting at the side of some London street claiming to be ‘The Enlightened One’, ‘The son of God’. How could we accept such a claim when doing so makes a nonsense of the message whispered in our ear at birth?
The claim to Enlightenment is deeply insulting, not least to the common-or-garden priest with his deep psychological and economic investment in his ‘special’ place among his ‘flock’. No wonder that Buddhas tend to be given a very hard time. Even WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange – who is to professional journalism what Jesus was to orthodox religion, the embarrassingly real thing – has been targeted with bitter hatred by journalists.
Writing To Bieber
Twitter and Facebook have been cunningly designed to exploit our need to feel ‘special’. To be ‘retweeted’, ‘favourited’ and ‘followed’ on Twitter subtly suckles our ego, generating quiet, short-lived satisfaction. Other users who have 100,000 or 1,000,000, or – God help us! – 20,000,000 ‘followers’, seriously challenge the idea that we are ‘the one’. Negative rationalisations quickly gather, like white blood cells, to attack ideational pathogens threatening the ego: ‘Bloated windbag! He’s got a million followers but only because he’s on the telly.’
To have one or two followers is to feel like someone drinking alone in a pub. We approach the retweet ‘stars’ humbly, heads bowed, hoping to garner more followers and enhance our self-esteem: ‘Hi @justinbieber…’ oblivious to the fact that, all the while, our bellies are sliding along the floor. They look down at us past long, well-followed noses.
The fact that our Facebook comments can be ‘liked’ (or not!) by our ‘friends’ degrades every post into an act of begging. Users secretly yearn for their funny, smart, touchingly profound messages to generate comment, to be ‘liked’. And the ego is such a magpie, such an attention slut: we post a funny video clip someone posted somewhere else and feel that we deserve the credit – not just for posting it, but for the video itself! All we have done is cut and paste a link, but part of us takes credit for the creativity and humour of the video.
We are again playing the double game, this time with close friends: we want them to affirm our ‘specialness’ among them. And again, the required response is deep humility: ‘I’m just throwing this stuff out there. Ignore me!’ Nothing could be further from the truth of how we value our writing and its reception – our slavering egos demand ‘appreciation’.
Are we really ‘the special one’? The smart comment that everyone ‘liked’ proves it! This is the latest version of the pub fixture who knows he seems ‘ordinary’ but who reveals to us, with a conspiratorial wink, that he has seen this, been that, met the other. The desired response: ‘You’re a dark horse, aren’t you?!’
Thanks to dozens or hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’, everybody’s inner showman now has an audience – we can all sip tiny drops of ‘celebrity’ nectar. In this cosmos of 200 billion galaxies, each containing 200 billion stars, the abysmal walls of insignificance can be sprinkled with the fairy dust of ‘special’. It’s not much but it feels good. This is how we obscure the unconquerable reality that our names are written, not even in sand, but in water.
And our egos are cruel in their hunger: approval from the familiar fan is taken for granted, dismissed. We seek new, ever more exalted appreciation. Now, if only that famous comedian with 1 million followers, or the film star with 10 million, retweeted us – that would be something! (Curiously, as I was working on this cogitation today, the comedian Frankie Boyle mentioned Media Lens in a tweet. Boyle has 1,147,874 followers, but only because he’s on the telly.)
As discussed, this is no harmless hobby; it is a death struggle for the ego. We will risk our lives to feel the ‘specialness’ we desire. And it is not that we have any illusions about fulfilment. There is no thought of a permanent solution, of arrival – all we have ever known is craving, temporary satisfaction, and more craving. This is why Buddhists call us eternally ‘migrating beings’, ‘wanderers’.
The ultimate problem is that the ego, the idea that we are ‘special’, is a fiction. Because it is a non-existential, thought-based, imagined phenomenon it cannot be satisfied. How can we permanently fulfil that which does not exist? Like any addiction, the more we feed it, the needier, more uncomfortable and poisonous it becomes. We need more of the drug to bring the high we initially felt from a single retweet.
‘My Mother Was Right!’ – Spiritual Egotism
Like the best mysticism, the best comedy skewers the grandiose delusions of ego. This is a central theme of the series The Office. David Brent, manager of an anonymous paper merchant buried in a Slough industrial estate, tells a docusoap film crew about the time he worked with the band Texas:
‘We’re both good in our own fields. I’m sure Texas couldn’t run and manage a successful paper merchants. I couldn’t do what-, well, I could do what they do, and I think they knew that, even back then. Probably what spurred them on.’
The great appeal of comedy is that it revels, with full awareness, in the unconscious obsession with being ‘special’. We are laughing at Brent’s pompous self-delusion, but Ricky Gervais, the writer and actor behind Brent, is also laughing at us – he knows we can see ourselves in Brent. In truth, we are laughing with Gervais at ourselves. He punctures our painfully swollen egos and helps us breathe more easily.
The target of much Monty Python humour is the absurd presumption of class superiority. The TV interviewer who elicits blustering outrage in his guest by first calling him ‘Sir Edward’, then ‘Edward’, then ‘Eddie baby’, highlights the craving to be treated as a dignitary.
Some critics have misinterpreted Seinfeld as a cruel celebration of the ‘Me-generation’, with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer ditching all moral principles in pursuit of self-interest. But in fact the show delights in exposing the mayhem created by the fanatically self-interested ego (Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David, has continued in similar vein with his series Curb Your Enthusiasm). After an uncharacteristically selfless act of generosity, Jerry thinks to himself:
‘I am such a great guy. Who else would’ve gone through the trouble of helping this poor immigrant? I am special. My mother was right.’
It is a hilarious moment but it highlights a serious point: nothing feeds our sense of ‘specialness’ like evidence that we are unusually kind and compassionate. It is a problem Buddhist teachers all too often fail to flag with their newly-recruited Western followers. If it is an obvious sign of ego sickness to desire to conquer the world, what to say of those who seek to save the world? Both aspirations are rooted in the ego’s fantastic over-estimation of the significance of the self.
After I published my first book, I encountered quite a few celebrity writers, journalists and activists. I discovered that some of the planet’s most difficult and arrogant people have devoted their lives to ‘making the world a better place’. They claim to be driven by compassion, but their harshness and hatred of criticism (as though their very souls have been scalded) suggest otherwise. Yes, they want to change the world, but their ego’s concern is to be a recognised ‘mover and shaker’, to be seen and remembered as ‘important’.
This helps explain the hostility Media Lens quite often encounters from journalists, particularly those who view themselves as courageous truth-tellers. No matter how polite and rational our emails, they erupt at evidence that they have been less honest than their egos would like to believe. They throw themselves to the virtual floor, rage at us, wallow in self-pity, before finally responding more reasonably. Some of them are clearly haunted by our criticism, sometimes for years (we have occasionally been amazed when high-profile journalists have written to us to complain about something we had written about them four or five years earlier in a long-forgotten media alert that reached a few thousand people).
Their problem is that they want to be corporate media celebrities, which means they have to obey the unwritten rules of what can and cannot be said inside a corporation. But they also want to be seen, and to see themselves, as courageously honest whistleblowers. The ego really is engaged in a life-and-death struggle, and we are perceived almost as assassins, as Stalinists persecuting all who stray from our ‘party line’.
By contrast, the egos I met in my brief business career – openly pursuing money, promotion, a nicer house – were sometimes less weeded gardens, some of them sweetly innocent by the standards of some ‘greens’ and ‘leftists’.
After all, the materialist ego is comparatively straight forward; it is not pretending to be virtuous. Its ‘sins’ are openly displayed, even celebrated. The ethical or spiritual ego, on the other hand, has a big investment in hiding from its own and other people’s awareness. If we are ‘extraordinary’ because we are so ‘good’, then we cannot admit to egotistical motives that contradict the ‘selflessness’ that makes us ‘special’. Criticism hitting this psychological fault line will provoke apoplectic outrage: ‘I’ve devoted my life to helping others and all you can do is carp!’ Ricky Gervais spoofed this wonderfully here.
How dare anyone criticise the saintly figure that ‘everyone knows’ is devoted to helping others? A serious problem, as we discovered, is that criticising the ‘hero’ opens us to the accusation that we are obstructing his or her efforts to do good, that we are actually harming the people they are trying to help! Are we mad? The case of the alleged paedophile BBC presenter Jimmy Savile appears to be an astonishing example of how a vocal commitment to ‘compassion’ can act as a kind of force field protecting the worst sociopaths from detection and criticism. As the Buddhist writer Alan Watts said so well:
‘The goody-goodies are the thieves of virtue.’
Tony Blair, the thief of Baghdad, is another example.
The infection of the spiritual ego is hidden deep inside individuals and societies where it festers and becomes ever more poisonous. It is easy to understand how a population dominated by a religion devoted to ‘compassion’ could become utterly disempowered by an elite protected from all dissent. In some societies the idea of karma compounds the problem: people are trained to believe that a single bad thought about the ‘Enlightened beings’ ruling them will annihilate all their ‘positive karma’, guaranteeing eons of suffering in hell. How could any mere mortal work for political change without thinking a single negative thought about people presiding over extreme oppression?
So how can we discern the spiritual egotist from the genuinely compassionate? Comedy fans already know the answer. The ego is above all characterised by seriousness and self-control – it demands respect and admiration. It is constantly fearful that a tiny slip will expose the self-seeking reality. The egotist feels uncomfortable and vulnerable in the presence of self-ridicule and humour. How cringe-making it is to see the celebrity ego – so comfortable when angrily hammering the table about serious issues – bewildered and lost as people start joking and laughing.
Egotists set out to produce ‘historic’, ‘world-changing’ results. The compassionate do not take themselves that seriously; mostly they are having fun, even as they bring astonishing benefits to the people around them. Chinese Buddhas are not pictured as serious people; they sit with fat bellies, roaring with laughter. It is a nice irony that the best definition of an Enlightened person is someone who simply knows that he or she is completely ordinary. Osho said:
‘Someone asked Suzuki about his teacher: “What was exceptional in your teacher, Suzuki?” Suzuki was a Zen master, so he said, “The only thing I will never forget is this, that I have never seen a man who thought himself so ordinary. He was just ordinary, and that is the most extraordinary thing, because every ordinary mind thinks he is exceptional, extraordinary.”’
It makes sense that we cannot try to be ordinary; we can only learn the futility of our ceaseless efforts to be extraordinary. Every effort we make to be ‘special’ – though it might be specially kind, compassionate, politically progressive – is commandeered by the ego that is the deepest cause of suffering. We can only learn to see the pointlessness of trying to be something other than that which we are – ordinary. When we understand that there is in fact nothing to achieve and nowhere to go – because all paths lead to ego – ‘the spring comes and the grass grows by itself’.
A question remains, of course: if escape in ‘success’ is futile, what are we to do with the wounds of ego: with the dread of insignificance, the dissatisfaction and endless craving for more attention? Is there a way of responding to emotional pain that does not bring yet more chaos to ourselves and the world?