The ego, or egoic mind, is a dangerous thing. It wants to maximize positions of power, minimize positions of weakness and protect itself from attacks. It is the reason we entrench ourselves in our positions and try to “win” arguments instead of acknowledging that the other person has good points. It is the reason we all rationalize our decisions so we are always “right”. Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
delves into a variety of topics for improving thought and life. While a little new-agey for many, has some really great insight on our inner dialogues, egoic mind and trying to reduce the chatter and live in the now. Highly recommended. The interpersonal relationship aspect of the ego is very interesting as we so often listen with the intention to fortress our thoughts or to gather more ammunition to attack the other person’s ego. Instead of having hurt feelings from criticism (attacks by the other person’s ego) we should think like Judo (“The Gentle Way”) and diffuse that negative energy, not take the attack personally, and respond with calmness back. It’s hard to think like this and to de-power the ego, but the ego is just a shield and not who we really are.
Because the ego wants to stay in positions of power, being humble is hard for it. To admit that you don’t have skill or knowledge in something is a tough pill for the ego to handle, so trying new things is difficult for the ego. The irony is that new skills, once achieved, bring make the ego even stronger and strengthens its own self-importance further. How many of us have avoided starting something, or quit shortly after starting something, because we were either afraid (of failure, of sucking, of being the worst out of the group) or because it was “too hard”? I know I have.
Every time you put yourself out there, humbly, at some new activity and lay out a plan for improvement you reduce the ego’s power. But be honest, sucking at some new endeavor, even for the long-term benefit, sucks in the short term. The opposite of ego is humility and that is the light that will guide you to becoming a better version of yourself. It’s probably no surprise to you that I’ve been a reader of the Tao Te Ching for over 15 years. Part of Chapter 22 of Lao Tzu’s text reads:
Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain;
Have much and be confused.
Accept that you’re a humble, empty vessel for whatever you want to be better at. Guitar, improved body, a new language, a martial art, and realize you are years if not a lifetime away from being an expert in said discipline and just keep going.
It takes guts to put yourself out there for any new endeavor. To walk into a guitar shop with the intention of purchasing a guitar when you don’t know the difference between a treble cleft and a bass guitar. To go to that first yoga class when you’re about as flexible as a steel girder. To purchase that beer making kit when your only experience has been drinking and appreciating beer. It takes initiative to start but the ability to be a humble beginner to build inertia. An example: when I started going to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes I was certainly apprehensive, a manifestation of my fear. As a former wrestler, I still held on to some ego (as I thought my past grappling skills would easily translate) which made getting schooled by everyone a little (or a lot) bitter for me. As I came to understand and accept I was the lowest of the white belts I embraced this role and opened up my mind to learning. I was still nervous every class all the way to the end (I did this for about 18 months before my life situation prevented me from continuing my membership) as I had to continuously conquer my fear (my ego) and put myself in a position of weakness so that I could one day grow strong.
Even though I don’t do BJJ anymore, I still have that slight feeling of fear, of apprehension, as I approach the start of any race, a match, or every hard Crossfit workout even alone in my home gym. I know I’m about to go to a place that is difficult and I ALWAYS get that flight or fight response (and need to poop) just before the clock is about to start. While today, even when going against others, I only compete against myself, but that’s a tough opponent. Once in the moment of competition itself, I am usually calmer, and once through the event and satisfied by a lesson learned, with another brick in that wall of improvement and am satisfied that I once again conquered that fear of failure, of sucking, and made myself minutely better compared to before.
I strongly think it’s good for ourselves to continually put ourselves into places we’re uncomfortable with, where we’re in a position of weakness and not strength. Being humble and having humility seems to be becoming more and more difficult in today’s world with the constant positive affirmations for no real reasons that are now constantly received through social media (that’s another post altogether). Competition itself is something that has so many positive aspects, even if the results are not what you hope for. It establishes goals, desire and inner will, perseverance and determination, coping skills and builds integrity. The social aspects gained as well are very positive, even if you’re more introverted, it puts you in a group with like minded individuals which will have a positive impact compared to the blobs of boring that most people are today.
So let go, just a little, of the ego; conquer those fears and work towards new skills even if they start slowly. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.