Egolessness: Escaping the Prison of First Person
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” - Albert Einstein
If there is one inconvertible fact of life, it's this: we are all here for the same exact reason - to live, to breathe, to be.
Despite our human tendency to classify and confine ourselves to small factions and associations, we all share in the most fundamental kinship: we are all human.
When you see yourself as separate from the whole, you drive a wedge between you and everyone else. You trick yourself into believing you are priority over the rest. Deluded by self-importance, you become absorbed in your individual interests and fulfillment. You forget you are of the collective.
The Buddha talked about this idea of no-self. Don’t be fooled by the term. It doesn’t mean you are unimportant or pretend or that you should have no personality at all. It is a realization that you are not bound to the small and shallow pool of yourself, but you are a part of something much greater and more expansive than you even know.
No-self is an understanding that you are not separate from the whole, but that you are indeed a part of the whole. It is a realization that you are connected to everything and everyone in the universe. You have a unique and distinct experience, and that actually connects you to every other being who has their own individual and unparalleled experience.
No-self does not mean you are insignificant; in fact, it is the opposite. You are something great because you are of the cosmos - because you are part of the grander universe - not because of your individual accomplishments. Alone, you are a very tiny and temporary portion of greatness. But when you see yourself as a part of the whole, you see how monumental your existence is.
The Prison of the First Person
It’s easy to be fooled into self-importance.
You have your own story.You see the world through your own two eyes. You understand life through your collection of personal experiences and your personal participation.
So, naturally you see yourself as separate, distinct and definite. You interpret situations based on your side of given engagements, interactions and emotions. Stuck in this first person point of view, you become confined to your individual experiences: likes and dislikes, cravings and aversions, fears and excitement. Your limit your participation in life to the small circle of people relevant to your life - family, friends, even foes. You care only as far as your involvement. Consumed in your job, your issues, your arguments, your pride, your entitlement, you become absurdly important in your own mind. Your mind revolves around you, leading you to forget how small you are in the grand scheme of things.
This idea of yourself as solid and isolated from the rest of the world is a problem because you become overly important in your own mind. You feel justified being annoyed by anything. You feel justified being embarrassed, in charge, more important, more knowledgeable or more qualified than other people. How could almighty you not get what you want or what you worked for?
It creates a sense of entitlement. You feel okay fulfilling your needs even at the cost of others. You rationalize texting or putting on make up while driving, even if it risks the safety of others. You rationalize speeding or weaving lanes because YOU need to be somewhere, even though everyone else does also! Then you feel angry and irritated when someone cuts YOU off or holds YOU up on the road, in the grocery store, at the coffee shop, at a doctor's office, etc.
You try to avoid any inconvenience or discomfort. Driving an extra ten miles to avoid 5 minutes of traffic or driving 2 blocks just to avoid the rain. Because why should you be subject to the doldrums of real life? You should never have to be bored or troubled!
When you take yourself so seriously and see your involvement in the world so narrowly, you become protective over your little bubble of existence: your identity. You get defensive when your identity or understandings are threatened. Opposing ideas and alternative solutions seem menacing. Your ego feels the need not to just prove your point, but to conquer or cut off anyone who disagrees, disputes or threatens your identity, opinions and beliefs. Instead of embracing new information as an opportunity for growth, you shut down and defend your existing knowledge. It becomes you vs. the world. And when everyone is living life this way, it creates a really hostile environment.
But it isn’t you against the world. It isn’t you against your boss, or your mother-in-law, or your co-worker, or your friend, or your enemy. You have a beating heart and breathing lungs just like them - just like the person next to you, across the room from you, even across the world. All just human.
You live in a world where “personal branding” is everything.
On one hand, it’s how you identify. It’s how you communicate and connect with the world around you. On the other hand, it’s how you distinguish yourself and set yourself apart from the rest.
In a world already so segmented by race or religion or region or gender, personal branding further pushes us to distinguish ourselves from everyone else. How can I stand out from the rest? How can I make myself more appealing than even those in the same field as me?
All of this association actually generates more dissociation.
You identify with a small circle of people who think like you, look like you, live near you. You surround yourself with those who have similar beliefs to you. You feel different and distant from people who do NOT share these same affiliations. Further, you feel the need to be recognized WITHIN your group or association. You want to be different, seen, special. So you go on trying to foster your separateness.
Overcoming Your Ego
Awareness: To overcome your ego, obviously you have to be aware of it.
You have to realize when the I and me and my take over your mind and your perception of reality. Be aware when you start to take your life too seriously. Observe when you put your importance above everyone else’s. Recognize when you put separation between you and anyone else and when it become you vs. another.
Empathy: Use every human encounter as an opportunity to connect with others. Family, friends, people you love, people you can’t stand, people you don’t even know - use them to practice. Try to see the world from their eyes. You’ll never know their exact experience or understanding, but you may expand your own.
It’s important to remember that we each see the world through our own glasses. We each have our own understandings, as well as our own ignorance. Rather than using other’s misperceptions or ignorances as fuel for your vanity and importance, use it to generate compassion. Let it soften you and remind you of your own ignorances (whether you know them or not), because you can be sure someone else will see yours.
LIGHTEN UP: Life is only as severe and disciplined as we make it. Your job, your projects, your due dates, your drama can only cause you as much stress as you allow them to. They can only take up as much space in your life as you allow them to. Reality is much simpler than the drama you succumb to. All you can do is exactly what you can do right now. What is, is. Yes, you have bills to pay and deadlines to meet, but that is not your life. Your life is the breath in your lungs and your beating heart. You don’t have to accomplish anything or even be anyone. Let that comfort you. Let it soften you.