THE POOR Ol’ EGO GETS A BUM RAP in the hands of pop psychologists and Zen Buddhists but, like, where would we be without it? Or, better—who would we be without it? It is probably too important in the make-up of the Western personality due to our authoritarian religions and many of our philosophies, and it is definitely over-stimulated in our consumer culture, but it’s fun having an ego!
Needles to say, for this essay I am not delving into the depths of Freudianism and the many labyrinthine entanglements that are possible. For this essay, here is a reasonable working definition of ego:
“The ego is the organized part of the personality structure that includes defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions.
Conscious awareness resides in the ego, although not all of the operations of the ego are conscious.
The deepest meaning of ignorance is the believing in, identifying with, and clinging to the ego, which is nothing.
Originally, Freud used the word ego to mean a sense of self, but later revised it to mean a set of psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory.
The ego separates out what is real. It helps us to organize our thoughts and make sense of them and the world around us.” (Wikipedia)
From there to here: egotism is “the feeling or belief that you are better, more important, more talented, etc., than other people.” (Merriam-Webster)
And egoism has two definitions: “a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action,” and “excessive concern for oneself with or without exaggerated feelings of self-importance.” (Merriam-Webster)
Both are essentially negative.
Two examples of ego-less Zan-inspired art, then and now: an untitled landscape in the splashed-ink style by Sesshū Tōyō from (1420–1506), and “Thought On Bamboo” by contemporary artist Marie Taylor. Do we really want to give up the millions of pieces adorning the walls of galleries around the world to have to look at this all day long? 1
Your ego is yours so make of it what you will
But even a f*cked-up ego can be fun if you are willing to play with it, observe it as part and parcel of who and what you are—but be willing to accept that it’s just that: a part, and not necessarily a necessary part!
In Zen Buddhism, meditation and practice can assist one to transcend the ego and know/be directly one with the universe/world.
“The feeling of a separate ‘I,’ which we call ego-consciousness, is directly related to the strength of ignorance, greed, and hatred. The deepest meaning of ignorance is the believing in, identifying with and clinging to the ego, which as we have seen, is nothing but an illusive mental phenomenon. But because of this strong clinging to ego-consciousness, attachment/desire, anger/hatred arise and repeatedly gain strength.” (Maithri)
And why am I mentioning the ego (your ego) and where I am I taking this?
Let’s go to heaven in a car
Early this morning, I opened up my Big Geek Daddy newsletter and checked out the Videos of the Day. There was one called Corvette Heaven. Opening the video I was greeted with this blurb:
“Corvette Heaven is a wonderfully creative short video about a young boy who falls in love with a Corvette and spends the rest of his life pursuing his dream car. I’m sure that more than one boy has dreamed of owning a Corvette when they are a man but sometimes life just gets in the way. Having a goal in life to dream about is always worthwhile especially if it comes true in time for you to enjoy it.”
This sparked a memory of things I hadn’t thought about in years, and I already knew that I was going to write this essay.
This is about as tasteful a plug for a product that I could ask for from any ad agency in the world. And the sight of the beautiful red Vette made me flashback to my youth in the early ’60s when my brother Charles and I were hooked on Aurora Model Motoring HO slot-cars! 2
If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.
Needless to say, Charles and I had different tastes in cars: his favorite models were the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevy Corvette, while mine was the Buick Riviera and the Jaguar XKE.
As this was the first half of the 1960s, I remember that the Aurora cars were all early ’60s models.
This transferred to Real Life, where I do believe that Charles’s like of the T-Bird and the ‘Vette and mine for the Riviera (the 1963 model with the two scoops on each side) and the X model carried over.
So it was that Charles liked the Cardinals and Stan “The Man” Musial, while I liked the Phillies and Ted “Teddy Ballgame” Williams. (Yes, he was more consistent than I).
Liking different things was a part of sibling rivalry, although we didn’t know the term or the concept at that age. We just lived it out.
Which is fine: just as young males (of which I was once and often considered) begin defining their selves (their “I”) by breaking away from and rebelling against their fathers, so too do male siblings unconsciously define themselves by differentiating their wants/tastes/opinions from their siblings—especially their brothers.
He liked DC Comics and the Justice League of America and Murphy Anderson and Joe Kubert and Hawkman; I liked Marvel and the Avengers and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Spiderman.
Hell, we probably had different tastes in clothes, but we were guys and didn’t notice or much care there!
We also differed in our taste in rock & roll, especially on one BIG issue: I have been a lifelong devotee of Elvis Presley since I was about 5-years old. Charles hated Elvis. Of course.
Here are a few more differences:
When the British Invasion happened in 1964, Charles picked the Beatles and I went with the Dave Clark 5 and the Kinks.
In 1966, he was into Donovan and I was into Dylan.
The extent of sibling rivalry
This seems most excellent, yes? Two brothers with differing tastes but both with great taste! What an amazing collection we must have had between us, right?
Part of the differentiation process required that I hate what he dug and vice versa. And we did: I rooted for the Cardinals to lose, the Beatles to lose whatever the hell magic they seemed to have, I refused to see the worth in DC comics, yada yoda blah blah. 3
Fortunately, we both grew out of this but the need was there and also, fortunately, that is the extent of the rivalry. Other siblings have seen the needs of the underdeveloped ego turn childhood rivalry into lifelong adult animosity.
He liked Peanut Butter Kandy Cakes; I preferred Butterscotch Krimpets (but we both liked them with RC Cola).
There is nothing to transcend
And this could go on and on so I will cut myself off by noting that which all Buddhists know:
There is no ego,
therefore there is no I,
therefore there is nothing to transcend.
But there is an artificial construct called “identity” wrapped around this mortal coil and it can be a hoot if you play with it instead of being defined exclusively by it.
It’s your ego, have fun with it because remember this: you’re born before you know and you’re dead even sooner …
FEATURED IMAGE: I found the image at the top of this page accompanying “Hacking Happiness with Brain-Machine-Interfaces?” by Thijs Pepping on the SogetiLabs website. The artist was not credited. As a caption, Pepping used a quote from Emerson W. Pugh: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
1 That’s an attempt at irony.
2 We started out with the vibrator models and quickly moved up to the Thunderjets! I remember that the older guys at Dick’s Hobby Shop where we raced who ‘knew’ these things referred to the older cars as “reed” models, but I don’t remember what that means and I’m not going to look it up just because!
3 As I was to find out decades later when Charles was dying in the ER and I was living in the ICU waiting room, we had very similar tastes in women …