To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. – Dogen(13th century)
In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that the basic problem with humanity is egocentricism or egoism, the placing of the idea of “me” and “mine” as the centerpoint of what is principally to exclusively significant in a person’s life. Egoism expresses itself in relationship with all that is not me and mine in a manner that ranges from appreciative consumption, to disregard, to exploitation, to outright hostility and wanton destruction. It is an approach to life that says happiness is achieved by maximizing what me and mine can get out of life without serious consideration or concern for the cost to all else, and it also makes us blind to seeing the patterns of interconnections and interdependence that actually make life work. Seeing egoism as a problem, however, is actually not new at all; it is at the heart of any true spiritual tradition, and Buddhism makes a very particular point of noting egoism as the source of human suffering, importantly not only for others, but for ourselves, and points out It is a very counterproductive strategy for life.
In American culture, however, this notion of egoism as a problem is very new and very radical for we are a culture built on the celebration of the individual and the individual’s “pursuit of happiness,” a very egoistic notion (not that happiness is egoistic, but “pursuing” happiness creates an egoistic purpose to life that can become terribly distorted). After all, we are a nation built not only on many noble ideals and great industry, but on genocide of the native inhabitants, enslavement of an imported racial population, despoiling the environment and the extermination of many native species in our pursuit of happiness. Our economy is based in conspicuous consumption and exploitation of resources and labor, all to enhance status and wealth for those favorably positioned in this zero sum game. We seem to be unable to address seriously a growing climate-change crisis caused in significant part by our great industry and appetite for consumption because of what seems to be an addiction to this egoism. Egoism could well be considered the dark side of the American personality.
Increasingly, however, there is growing understanding of the problems brought by this addiction and the counterproductivity of egoic consumerism as the way to sustainable well-being and happiness. There is a dawning awareness that while a certain level of material security is important in keeping us out of unhappiness, increasing amounts of ego-feeding materialism seems to have the opposite effect, and ancient spiritual traditions that offer this warning are being found to have much to say about our modern psychological health and even continued societal viability.
Egoism blinds us to the realization that life really only has meaning and functions best in the experience of its interconnections, in appreciative loving and caring relationship, happiness best generated when we are free of self-centeredness, instead immersed in life with all its “myriad things,” including, of course, the people around us, focusing on their well-being and happiness. All the terrible things that humans do that can elicit the question, “Why do people do such things?” can be answered with the word egoism, the hopelessly small idea we have of a self that is always desperate to make more of itself, generally at the expense of the myriad things of the world including other people. Experiencing self in ego leaves us alone and small in the world and ego keeps attempting to build itself up by using, abusing, consuming, and tearing everything and everyone that is not “me” or “mine” down. Ego is, of course, quite blind to all of this, defending its right to self-interest, and is also quite paranoid in that it projects its own predatory and competitive nature onto everyone else and onto Nature, and since it is really only an idea of a person, it is hopelessly inadequate at realizing fulfillment.
Zen, and all mystical spiritual traditions, instruct us that fulfillment can only be realized, as the word fulfillment suggests, through full-filling, but not a full-filling through the material aspects of life, but rather, the spiritual, and spiritual full-filling cannot happen when our minds are already filled with the story of the striving and anxious “me.” The sense of full-filled can only happen when we are empty of the egoic story of the dissatisfied “me” and rather, our sense of self is in the world, the myriad things, the morning sun, the wind in the trees, this simple household chore, the happiness of the person in front of us. To be happy is not in the using and consuming of the myriad things, but, as Dogen advises, by being actualized through them, that is, being filled by our sense of connection with the myriad things, self having been forgotten.
This having been said, it is important to understand that ego in itself is not the problem, nor is ego bad. This is a mistake often made by those on the spiritual path. Ego certainly is not to be eradicated; it cannot be eradicated, for it is an essential capacity of any living organism. It is a necessary element of an organism functioning in the world, identifying and meeting its needs, of being a manifested object interacting with manifested objects. The squirrels and birds engaged in their squirrel and bird activities are fulfilling their needs as organisms and doing what is needed to fulfill their squirrel-ness and bird-ness. This is squirrel and bird ego in action.
With human-beings, however, to fulfill our human-beingness is quite more complicated, for our human-beingness is not only in meeting biological needs, but psychological needs as well. To be writing these words and communicating to the reader is a very high-level function of the ego that creates these mind-objects called words and employs the invention of writing and word-processing with a computer, and fulfills the desire to communicate ideas to the reader who wants to experience these ideas. We are fulfilling an essential need of human-ness, to explore concepts and grow conceptually. This is all activity of ego that is healthy, necessary and good, even spiritual, for it is about connecting and valuing.
Likewise, to have a sense of a spiritual journey and to make the choice to understand what that journey is and make the necessary commitments to engage and follow the spiritual path is human ego in its healthiest manifestation. After-all, no other creature needs to create a spiritual life. To pursue a spiritual path, however, motivated by the idea that it is attractive in its mysteriousness, and that its mystery makes me a “better” person, even a more interesting person to others, or because there may be intriguing rituals and philosophical ideas that somehow imbue me with some specialness, is a misapplication of ego. This is egoism, not fundamentally different from wanting to be a physician because of the status and wealth the profession offers, not because of the pull to healing, an important manifestation of selfless service.
No, the problem is not ego; it is egoism, the misplacement of this natural psychological function into our identity, and placing ego expression and gratification as the purpose of life when egoism actually deprives life of meaning for it stands as an impediment to experiencing the connections and wonder of life, that which actually gives life meaning. Egoism sets humans upon a frantic and fruitless search for meaning in ever more egoic pursuits, seeking security through acquisitions, status, power and the diminishment of others, all in a fruitless attempt to acquire personal fulfillment. These are all impossible strategies for it is like drinking sea water to quench our thirst; it only makes us thirstier and sickens us.
Egoism is what is behind racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, and religious and political tribalism, people finding identity and meaning in identification with collective egos that can function very destructively in the world. In its most malignant form, it is what drives criminality, sociopathy and psychopathy, the making more of “me” by victimizing others. In its most mundane expression, it is in everyday conversational gossip or holding judgmental opinions of others which when examined closely, are about elevating ourself through the diminishment of others. Egoism can even be expressed through the sincere study and practice of religion and religion’s rebellious cousin, spiritual practices, when such practices are about feeding into the need to be part of an exclusive community or for enhancing one’s aura of specialness. It is even in the diminishment of everyday experience into restlessness and boredom, elevating our own importance above the commonplace and ordinary.
In a very important way, egoism represents what is metaphorically expressed as “The Devil” in Western religious culture. It is that which entices and seduces us into destructive behavior, in diminishing the sacredness of life, all life, in favor of the elevation of me and mine. If the origin of sin is, as Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel describes, in “the denial of the sublime wonder of life,” it is egoism that whispers these denials, these diminishments in our ear. To find happiness, to find true sanity and fulfillment, it is quite clear, we must follow Dogen’s advice and forget ourselves. We must be actualized and filled wondrously by the myriad things, by Life in all its miraculous interconnections, complexity, perfection and balance.