As a high school senior, I am in the process of creating my college applications. I am curating my life- school, sports, employment, even writing- in a list of activities, to be sent to college admissions offices across the country. Once my application is distributed, I will wait, and wait, and wait in agony for an acceptance or rejection letter to arrive in my inbox.
All the world’s a stage, it seems. My activities, aside from writing, are so intrinsically tied up in the need to impress colleges that sometimes I forget whether or not I enjoy things for the inherent value, or for the potential future payoff of acceptance at an elite institution. I do not like to live this way, in the college-centered scramble for greatness. Luckily, the college process will be over in a few months, but this does bring up the bigger question: when does resume building and achievement end? Certainly not once you arrive in college, because then it moves on to the job hunt; then the promotion hunt; then the hunt for scope, influence, fame, or intellectual acclaim. There is always something more for the ego to aspire to, to grasp for in the ever-looming future.
I am a huge supporter of the ideas of Buddhism and individuals like Eckhart Tolle, who describe the notion of Beingness as opposed to being possessed by the ego. The ego is all of the things that we identify with, all of our accomplishments and insecurities and dreams and traits bound up in one contiguous identity. The ego never stops wanting and craving more, for the ego is perpetually insecure: it is impermanent, due to our mortality, and is constantly searching for some way to stamp its mark on the world. It wants permanence. This is the human struggle.
I believe this truth on so many levels, and intellectually I want to live my life in pursuit of Beingness, shed from the burden of the ego. Yet lately, I’ve been finding myself repeating quite a different mantra to myself: Once I do ____, then I will just be.
I am in the grip of what I would like to call an “ego threshold.” I am motivated by a constant belief that if I can only achieve a certain level of greatness in my life, whether it be publishing a book or making a novel scientific discovery, then I will be able to relinquish my ego. I want my ego to be satisfied before I escape from its control. I want a baseline level of security in my identity and influence on the world before I reject the need for an illusion of permanence. I look at the great authors and thinkers of the ages, and say to myself: “Once I do something great, like them, then I will never want for more. Then I will Be.”
But how flawed this logic is! It is a trick of the ego, this pretense of satisfaction. Because, no matter what I do accomplish, there will be more to do. The ego will convince me, yet again, that I have not reached that threshold level of greatness. The threshold is, in fact, not a threshold at all: it is a bar that is constantly rising, buoyed by our previous accomplishments to higher and higher levels. We can never reach a threshold for our egos, because our egos are built on the idea that enough is never enough.
I do not claim to have a perfect fix for this enigma, for despite my rational understanding of the ego, it still manages to stress me out and force me into action. Perhaps only time, and the experience of the ephemeral joy and the quick letdown of egoic happiness, will allow me to fully grasp the need to fully let go of the ego. But for now, I am happy to have realized that my “ego threshold” is no more than flawed logic. For a long time, I have operated under the guise that Beingness comes once the ego has been properly dealt with and satisfied. If our ego was a bear, we could feed it and be free from its threat for a while. But bears get hungry again. The ego gets hungry again. If we feed the ego and indulge it, it will come back hungry for more food to fuel its mission. If we refuse to feed it, the ego’s stomach will shrink, and it will die.
The death of the ego strikes me as a sad thought, but in truth, it is liberation. Life is a journey through the process of recognizing that the ego can and must die, someday. We can choose to let it die when our bodies die, and spend our lives in struggle with it. We can also choose to let the ego die during our lifetime, or at least let its importance wane. It is possible to live without a living ego, without an identity complex fueling us with insecurity. This way of living is called enlightenment. I hope someday to attain it, even if only a sliver of it. I know it will be a constant process of recognizing the ego within, recognizing its justifications and excuses, recognizing illusory thresholds and negotiations. Luckily, letting go of the ego does not require any brute strength or intellectual training or prodigal willpower. It only takes awareness, compassion, and surrender to the truth of life: we are all temporary, but our energy- the energy of the universe- lives on and on. If we can tap into this, and recognize the importance of unlimited, infinite energy, and our true nature as a part of it, then we have recognized the crux of a life fully lived. Putting this into practice, then, is the true work of a lifetime.
What “tricks” have you recognized yourself playing, in the name of your ego? Do you also find that a threshold exists, and what happens when you achieve the threshold? Is there any lasting peace when you are motivated by accomplishment? How does work and aspiration fit into your life, into your Beingness?