By David Edwards
There is an emptiness at the core of our being. The ego’s great task is to fill that emptiness with evidence that we are ‘someone’ rather than ‘nobody’, that we are ‘special’. But no matter how hard we try, our achievements continue to fall and vanish into the void.
Praise and applause made us ‘special’ yesterday. But if, today, no-one emails us with, ‘Dear beautiful Media Lens people, I just want to tell you again how much you move us who read you, and how deep and enduring is our love and admiration for you’ (Email to Media Lens, April 12, 2003), the feeling quickly decays.
We know we are not the same person who received yesterday’s applause. So the feeling of ‘specialness’ is like a plate spinning atop a pole – we have to keep shaking the pole or the plate will fall and break (or so we imagine). And we know that failure and disappointment invariably seem to lie in wait for even ‘The Greatest’.
In 1984, John McEnroe lost his temper and threw away a chance to win the French Open tennis tournament. But McEnroe is considered one of the ‘greats’ – he was world number one, having terminated the career of the legendary Bjorn Borg – so it couldn’t possibly matter to him. He writes in his autobiography:
‘Sometimes it still keeps me up nights. It’s even tough for me now to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match.’ (McEnroe, Serious, Hachette Digital, 2008, p.152)
But why the angst?
‘I had two Wimbledons and three Opens. A French title, followed by my third Wimbledon, would have given me that final, complete thing that I don’t have now – a legitimate claim as possibly the greatest player of all time.’
However high, the ego aims higher – something is always missing, lacking, incomplete. The achievements of even the greatest tennis player will seem to be overshadowed by those of the greatest golf player, which will not compare with the greatest artistic or literary talent. And forget mere sport and art, what about people who take control of whole countries and change the course of history?
Lenin, we learn, was deeply ashamed of his short legs and tiny feet, which had the unfortunate habit of dangling off chairs. Stalin, the ‘steel’ Tsar of Soviet ‘Communism’ – the man who crushed Hitler – wore boots with ‘built-up heels because he was extremely conscious of his short stature’, historian Anthony Beevor notes. Stalin also ‘avoided brighter lights wherever possible because they showed up the pockmarks on his face’. (Beevor, Berlin, Penguin Books, 2007, p.150)
History tells of the guard who helped Alexander The Great adjust a picture on a wall that was a little too high for the diminutive world-conqueror, saying: ‘Sir, whenever you want to do such a thing just tell me. I am a bigger man than you.’
Alexander snapped back: ‘Bigger? No! Taller – but bigger? No!’
Offended even by the sight of loftier soldiers, the tyrant’s ego felt lower, inferior – in that way at least.
And what is a mere politician or warrior compared to a towering giant of science like Newton, Einstein… or Cox?
Clearly, all of this is measured against others. We are more successful, smarter, better looking, wealthier and funnier, or not, as compared to everyone else. And so we are engaged in an endless competition to increase, and to prevent others from decreasing, our sense that ‘I am the special one.’
In Libertas, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote:
‘The natural state of men, before they entered into society, was a mere war, and that not simply, but a war of all men against all men.’
This turned out to be anthropological nonsense. Ironically though, it does describe the ‘unnatural’ state of men after they ‘entered into society’. For we are all engaged in a Perpetual War of all egos against all egos. As ever, the rogue Indian mystic Osho saw the significance:
‘The other cannot be the friend, the other is the enemy. In his very being the other, he is your enemy.
‘Some are more inimical, some less, but the other remains the enemy. Who is a friend? The least of the enemies, really, nothing else. The friend is one who is least inimical towards you and the enemy is one who is least friendly towards you, but they stand in a queue. The friend stands nearer, the enemy further away, but they all are enemies. The other cannot be a friend. It is impossible, because with the other there is bound to be competition, jealousy, struggle… Buddha has friends, you have enemies.’ (Osho, The Book Of Nothing – Hsin Hsin Ming, Osho World, 1983, p.143)
So who are these frienemies, the people we call ‘friends’?
‘You like a person because he helps your ego. You like a girl because she says you are the perfect man. I once overheard two young lovers. They were sitting near the sea and big waves were rolling. And the boy said, “Roll on, beautiful waves! Roll on, bigger and bigger and bigger!” And they became bigger and bigger and bigger.
‘And the girl said, “Wonderful! The sea obeys you!”
‘You will like this person. And if somebody helps your ego, you are ready to help his or her ego in the bargain.’ (p.110)
Friends stay friends when they are careful to reinforce our sense of ‘specialness’. Prima donnas who contravene this unwritten rule, heavily prioritising their own egos, do not remain friends for long: ‘Likes the sound of his own voice, doesn’t he?’ ‘Bit full of herself, isn’t she?’
When friendship’s ego-bolstering is perceived to have been betrayed, volcanoes erupt. The ultimate relationship nightmare is understood to involve our partner sleeping with our best friend behind our back. An ego hit received from an enemy is bearable – like jumping from cold air into a cold bath. From a close friend, a primary source of ego reassurance, it is like jumping from a sauna into an ice pool. Friends who engage the ‘specialness’ thrust-reverser mid-flight do so with catastrophic results.
Naturally enough, then, ‘success’ has a devastating impact on these carefully maintained treaties of mutual ego cooperation. As the novelist Gore Vidal famously commented: ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.’ McEnroe describes life at home after his first big success at Wimbledon:
‘But from the moment I got back, the people I had grown up with wouldn’t let me feel the same, or so I thought. Suddenly I was Somebody, while they were still nobodies… My friends weren’t quite sure how to handle it and neither was I.’ (p.64)
Strictly speaking, the friend who becomes a ‘star’ ceases to be a friend, becoming instead someone who holds a mirror to our relative lack of ‘specialness’. Technical term: ‘enemy’. No matter how much a ‘successful’ friend might try to limit the collateral damage, heads will continue to shake in dismay. Just looking at him or her is a knife to the heart of ‘specialness’, in direct contravention of friendship’s first commandment: Thou shalt reinforce my ego.
And so the lottery winner cannot win. If he showers his friends with generosity, he is reviled for ‘flashing his money about’. Alternatively, she is spurned as a miser unwilling to share her good fortune: ‘Didn’t buy a round all night!’ Desperate to claw back some scraps of ‘specialness’, the ego will imply or openly state: ‘I may not have won the lottery. But if I did, I’d remember who my friends were.’ The heads nodding in agreement indicate the emergency resuscitation and reinflation of ego.
Unable to tolerate the adjustment from feeling more or less ‘equal’ to feeling ‘inferior’, the ego will search for any excuse to justify rejection – an undignified sulk being far preferable to the revolting spectacle of the friend’s ‘success’.
A Spanish joke tells of a man who goes into a bar. The barman greets him with the comment:
‘Pancho and Pablo were just in here slagging you off.’
The victim frowns: ‘Strange, I don’t recall doing either of them a favour.’
It is true that people fall in love with kindness and generosity. But the ego will become wild-eyed if it is made to feel inferior. Thus, a thousand TV and movie characters snarl: ‘I don’t want your pity!’ After all, if you are helping me, you have some resource, capacity or talent I do not have. Stop patronising me with your unconditional kindness!
Buddhists sometimes fail to recognise that, beneath their beaming smiles, egos may writhe in agony, like vampires exposed to sunlight. And they sometimes fail to realise that their own egos delight in exactly this reaction! Some people throw polite words and smiles in our face like acid.
Egoic Bingeing – The Ballad of Bon Scott
As Osho noted, romantic ‘love’ and ego-enhancement are intimate bedfellows. A Don Juan who sleeps with numerous partners makes a powerful statement (literally, to his friends) about his ‘specialness’, especially when the ‘conquests’ ‘belong’ to others. If the average woman sleeps with just seven men in her lifetime, the fact that Don is found sufficiently attractive to be one of them suggests he is ‘not like other guys’. The bedpost ‘score’ is a notch of hard data indicating that he really is ‘superior’ to others.
Promiscuity, then, is about far more than a crude desire for sexual release. A great deal of the motivation actually involves pleasuring the engorged ego. In the first flush of infatuation both parties lavish praise on one another: ‘I never thought I’d meet someone like you.’ ‘You’re so easy to talk to.’ Or as Woody Allen lampooned: ‘You have the most… eyes I’ve ever seen on any person.’
Don Juan, not unreasonably, enjoys this ego bath as much as he dislikes what generally follows. If, after a few short weeks or months, we remain ‘the most extraordinary person’ our partner has ever met, it is likely because we are incapable even of cleaning the bath properly! Again, the ego thrust-reversal – worshiped as a god one day, berated as a failed skivvy the next – is a bitter draught indeed.
In his autobiography, comedian Frankie Boyle writes:
‘I sometimes wonder if anybody really has principles or if they’re all just chasing different kinds of sex.’ (Boyle, My Shit Life So Far, HarperCollins, 2010, p.72)
The point is well made. But behind the sexual chase lies the hunt for ego-enhancement. If the pornography industry is anything to go by, sexual gratification is often a form of egoic bingeing. Consider, after all, the evident enthusiasm for what might be called one-way pleasure acts – often more like acts of punishment – which are clearly perceived as demeaning and so raise the ego correspondingly ‘high’. When AC/DC’s Bon Scott crooned, ‘I let you do things to me I’d let no other woman do,’ the mind boggled. The significance for Scott’s ego, however, was not in doubt.
The appeal is not primarily rooted in a desire to dominate or harm. Rather, the concern is fundamentally self-centred: to feel ‘special’, to protect the ego from feelings of insignificance and inferiority.
From this perspective, outrage over racism and sexism can be seen to contain hidden ironies. The racist ego, of course, raises itself ‘up’ by doing others ‘down’ on the basis of skin colour and assorted items of anthropological gossip. But the problem is that almost all of us view ourselves as more valuable and important than everyone else. Indeed, this near-universal selfism is precisely the root of the racism and sexism we abhor in others, but which in fact are symptoms of the ego we devotedly serve in ourselves. Ironically, anti-racists typically perceive themselves to be of a far higher moral and intellectual order than ‘fascist scum’ who hate ‘Pakis’. For anti-racists, indeed, racists are often moral ‘Pakis’.
The idea that anyone is racially superior to anyone else is deluded. But so is the near-universal aspiration to ‘superiority’ and ‘specialness’ trained into children from the youngest age. Ambition and ‘achievement’ are fed intravenously at infant, primary, secondary school, and college, through stars, grades, streaming and endless comparison with others. In an earlier Cogitation, I recalled my own feelings of desolation when, at about 12-years-old, I fared much worse than my close friends in our end of term exams. I felt I was an imposter, a fraud who didn’t belong among them.
As discussed in Part One, a prime way of feeling ‘special’ is to view ourselves as kinder, more compassionate, more aware than others. Even as we grimly shake our heads at ‘them’, our ego is dancing a jig, delighted to feel more highly evolved than American ‘rednecks’ and corporate ‘drones’.
And so one of the reasons why what we call ‘dissent’ has achieved so much less than expected is that it is often not, in fact, dissent at all. At least, it is not in opposition to the lead author of history’s nightmare – the ego with its craving to be ‘special’. As we will see later, it is possible to question the rationality and meaning of all such labels, and to drop these delusions altogether.
The Ego’s Wall Of ‘Noise’
So what is the relationship between the desire to be ‘special’ and psychological ill-being?
Consider, first, that this ambition generates a fantastic quantity of mental activity. The trained dread of ‘inferiority’ drills a bore-hole deep into our souls tapping a kind of geothermal source of pain that powers endless, toxic chain-thinking.
After all, our evaluation of ourselves is a mere thought, one based on our assessment of the evidence supplied by interactions with the people around us. Wiggling the pole to keep the ‘specialness’ plate aloft requires constant mind activity plotting, planning, assessing, and above all ‘achieving’. This relentless ‘thought chatter’ has an enormous and rarely discussed impact on our happiness.
Indicatively, I learned early that I could either do my homework or listen to music, but I could not do both. When I was aware of the music, I got no work done. When I got down to work, thirty minutes of music could pass without my noticing a single song.
This was a simple example of how concentrated thought shuts out the world around us: we become oblivious to external sights, sounds, people, nature. Even more problematic, thinking cuts us off from our own feelings bulldozed far from awareness by blades of compacted thought (the great appeal of workaholism).
Or consider the way dream fragments linger in our memory when we first wake up in the morning. If we immediately focus on the fragments, take hold of a few threads, we can reach back and remember the whole dream. But if we engage our thinking mind before remembering – if we recall a conversation or start planning the day ahead – the dream instantly evaporates. No matter how hard we try, we can often remember nothing at all. Again, this indicates the power of thinking to shut down awareness.
The implications are clear: to habitually engage in compulsive thinking is to reside, perhaps for decades, in a mind-created version of the world that we mistake for the real thing, from which we are in fact isolated by a wall of mental ‘noise’.
If this sounds like a good definition of what it means to be asleep, then we can understand why an ‘enlightened’ individual is called ‘Buddha’, which simply means ‘The Awakened one’. A Buddha is not some kind of God, as many people imagine, but someone fully awake in the present moment rather than lost in thought.
The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell commented:
‘People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.’
But why would we not be able to experience being alive right now? Because our obsession with being ‘special’, with ‘achieving’, drives relentless mind activity that drowns out the world outside and our emotions inside.
Long after I realised that I could not simultaneously listen to music and write, I discovered that when I focus on the present moment – a painful or happy emotion in my chest, my breathing, a bird singing, a child playing, the sound of someone turning the pages of a book – thought subsides and a subtle feeling of joy, or bliss, arises. I also noticed that when my mind starts chattering again, the bliss dissipates exactly as if clouds had drifted across the sun.
Happiness does not somehow reside in birdsong, or in the light shining from a child’s eye. The great mystic understanding has always been that happiness resides inside, clear and bright, but is almost always obscured by a thick smog of thought generated in the doomed attempt to find happiness outside, notably in being ‘special’.
And so almost everyone is racing at full speed away from a happiness that they already possess but which they ignore because they have more important things to do! It is said that after Bodhidharma became enlightened, he laughed continuously for seven days. Asked to explain the laughter, he replied:
‘I am laughing because the whole thing was ridiculous… The whole effort was sheer absurdity, ridiculous! I am laughing at myself and I am laughing at the whole world, because people are trying to do something which need not be done at all. People are trying hard, and the harder they try the more difficult it becomes. Their very effort is the barrier!’ (Osho, The Goose Is Out, Osho World, 1982, p.130)
But surely the ego-serving mind at least delivers a version of happiness in moments when a desire is satisfied. Author Richard Carlson explains the misunderstanding:
‘Sometimes you might feel a moment or two of happiness right after getting something you want. Contrary to popular opinion, however, this is not because your desire was fulfilled, but because you took your attention off what you didn’t have. The moment you switch gears and return your focus of attention to something else you want, or don’t have, you will lose your sense of well-being and feel discontent. Your mind will again begin searching for something outside itself to gain satisfaction – perpetuating the cycle of unhappiness.’ (Carlson, You Can Be Happy No Matter What, Mobius, 1999, p.157)
So even when we ‘achieve’, it is not that ‘success’ makes us happy. Rather, the mind’s misery-making is momentarily paused, allowing happiness to shine through.
Thus, dissatisfaction is our inevitable lot gnawing away at our soul and planet. Focused on what we haven’t got, hungry for a real experience of life, we struggle through blizzards of thought to wage a war of mass consumption on the megastores. But we find no happiness even in the immensity of our greed, because we are searching for the answer in the wrong place. The point is made in a story featuring the great spiritual clown, Mullah Nasruddin:
‘One night some of Nasruddin’s friends came upon him crawling around on his hands and knees searching for something beneath a lamppost. When they asked him what he was looking for, he told them that he had lost the key to his house. They all got down to help him look, but without any success. Finally, one of them asked Nasruddin where exactly he had lost the key. Nasruddin replied, “In the house.”
‘”Then why,” his friends asked, “are you looking under the lamppost?”
‘Nasruddin replied, “Because there’s more light here.”‘ (Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking The Heart of Wisdom – The Path of Insight Meditation, Shambhala, 1987, p.95)
Our city centres are ablaze with this same light, gleaming from shops and bars, from shiny gadgets – all promising happiness outside. Desperate for respite as we crawl and fail in our search, we numb the pain with intoxication – drink, drugs, egoic bingeing – only to find our problems the same or worse in the morning. Or we try to pierce the numbness, the ‘miserable ease’, with ever more extreme thrills, sensationalism, violence (the vast bloodbath that is modern ‘entertainment’).
And it is not just a matter of buying more. As discussed, the idea of becoming ‘more’ – more ‘important’, ‘famous’, ‘compassionate’ – is much more interesting than wherever we happen to be here and now. Alas, no matter how far we travel, we will always arrive at boredom, because we are always fundamentally in the same place: our thought-trapped heads.
I am not of course denying that rational thought is a wonderful tool. But compulsive thinking can be a terrible problem, even a kind of curse. What else has us tossing and turning at night, reaching for the bottle, the doctor, the tranquiliser?