This is the spectre… of EGO!
My first post on this topic examined how one’s ego can drive one into potentially violent situations for no good reason. Hopefully anyone who reads these posts will have the strength of character to recognise their own ego in some of the examples given, and strive to bring it further under the control of their better nature. Because we are all controlled by our ego at times, and our best defence (as is the case across the board) is an awareness that this is happening.
However, the ego has many faces, and bleeds into one’s life with great subtlety and wearing many insidious disguises. In this post I shall examine some of the less obvious ways that one’s ego can interfere with one’s pursuit of safety and security, and look at the consequences of leaving it to run unchecked.
How can one be fully aware of one’s own ego, when the ego’s raison-d’etre is to conceal itself?
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So you’re not the type of person to talk your way into a fight, you’ve never been grossly inconsiderate of others on public transport and you’re more than willing to give up your right of way to avoid potential conflicts with others. Great! You must be without ego then, Right?
Do you enjoy driving your car very fast? Use your mobile phone while driving, even on a hands-free? Perhaps you drink alcohol before driving? Drink to excess at all? Do you smoke tobacco or other recreational narcotics? Do you ride your bicycle along busy main roads? Do you eat unhealthily? Do you practice unsafe sex?
If any of the above are true of you, don’t take this as some kind of negative accusation; we all have flaws. And these are flawed behaviours and beliefs, demonstrably so. They will all increase your odds of injury or death. But because you yourself engage in these practices, their flawed nature is concealed from you by default.
Ah, if only every flawed individual was wandering around fully consciously aware of his or her flaws. Because then they might at least have a chance of correcting those flaws. But the most insidious flaws hide themselves from us in this way: personal flaws, unnecessarily risky behaviours and false beliefs can be universally traced back to a point at which one made a decision based solely on ego, and not on any facts or evidence available to one at the time. And the ego protects itself from all attacks… even when the attacker is one’s own common sense.
Here in my car…
Let’s take the first example on the list of flaws above, an uncontroversial one. Let’s suppose that someone occasionally enjoys going fast in their car. Many do. But why do they enjoy it? Merely the rush of going fast? The feeling of having a powerful machine at their control? Well, okay, but does that sensation really outweigh the risk? In fact, is that sensation really worth even a tiny fraction of the risk of death, disability or financial ruin that can result from a car accident?
Of course not. And it’s a serious risk. For various political reasons, right-wing activists often claim that excessive speed is an insignificant factor, or only causes a handful of accidents. But in fact, the available data from US (source 1, 2) and UK sources (source 1, 2) shows that driving too fast for the conditions at hand- whether illegal or legal- is a contributing facter in a quarter to a third of fatal auto accidents. And even if your speed had nothing to do with how the accident was caused, the result of the accident could be much worse than it would otherwise have been had you not been travelling as fast. e.g: suppose a child leaps out in front of your car as you’re driving along in a 30mph limit zone, with no warning whatsoever. Well, if you happened to be travelling at 30mph you may injure the child badly, but their chances of survival would be significantly higher than if you were travelling illegally fast at 40mph. A famous advert in the UK starkly elucidated this simple equation.
But an astonishing number of drivers simply ignore 30mph limit signs (if they think they can get away with it). And why? to shave a couple of minutes off their journey time? Perhaps because it just feels so darned slow travelling at 30mph? Are these reasons good enough to outweigh the risks of speeding in urban areas?
No, the real reason that drivers feel justified in speeding is this: They secretly believe that they’re somehow special drivers. Extra-skilled drivers to whom bad things won’t happen, because of their super expert driving skills. Sometimes people believe this so secretly, they don’t even realise it themselves.
Newsflash: Unless you’ve actually done special driving training, e.g: advanced driving courses, driving instructor’s courses or police driving courses, you’re not a special, expert driver. You’re just some joe-schmo with a god-complex.
You’d keep that in mind at all times when driving a car (which is, let’s face it, a very heavy, fast-moving death machine) if you weren’t being ruled by your ego.
Let’s take another example, the smoking example. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but anyone who states anything like “Pah! My granddaddy smoked fifty cigs a day for ninety-five years and never got lung cancer” is living in cloud-cuckoo land, for obvious reasons. It’s not that you’ll contract lung cancer each time you smoke a cigarette. It’s that each cigarette you smoke increases the odds that your lungs will rot.
But WHY are these muppets living in cloud-cuckoo land? Because, secretly, their ego is whispering in their ear: “we’re too special to get lung cancer. we’re the special one and we’ll never die… nor spend years on oxygen from chronic lung disease”. That’s why.
Threaten someone with IMMEDIATE death, e.g: with a gun or with a knife, and they’ll be willing to do anything to save their life. In fact, most people will do anything to claw back even minutes more life, let alone years. But the spectre of eventual disease and death is remote enough that the ego can disguise it from us, and lead us into temptations like nicotine and alcohol.
Get your fix
So how do you make things better? By taking a long, hard look at yourself, that’s how. And it doesn’t even matter so much which method you choose to use; buddhist meditation, a sweat lodge, psychotherapy, keeping a diary, heck, talking to your mum might do it. The point is that the ego is like a vampire. It doesn’t like sunlight; sunlight will kill it.
Try this: When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself why you’re about to do whatever it is that you do in the morning. Do you slap on some makeup? Do your hair? Eat some cereal? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is there a good reason for doing it? Is it motivated by vanity? Is it the healthy thing to do?
How about when you leave for work (if you work)? Do you cycle or run to work? If not, why not? What’s the reason for taking your car or paying for public transportation? Do you really live so far away from your job that you need to take two buses and a train to get there, when it would be cheaper, healthier and- if you do it right- safer to cycle? Hell, it might even be quicker, once you’ve factored in the bad traffic.
It’s dinner time. Why are you eating that pizza? It costs ten pounds all by itself, and it’s about as wholesome as Andrew Lloyd Webber looks. Seriously, what’s the deal? You know that while all the sugars and empty calories might make you feel good for an hour or so, they’ll depress you later. When you’re on the bathroom scales, for instance.
You can take this further. Much further, and much deeper. You can ask yourself questions like: “Why am I taking my difficult day at work out on my loving wife/husband, when I know that it won’t solve my problems, it won’t make me feel any better and it sure as hell won’t improve the state of my relationship?”
If the martial arts should teach us one lesson and one lesson only, it should be this: If there’s a problem, most of the time one’s own ego is the only real barrier to solving it. That’s true whether you’re talking your way out of a fight on the street, or not ordering that pizza on a boring Tuesday night. It’s all the same.
Admit to yourself that the only sure-fire way to win is to stack the deck in your favour, by doing the most advantageous thing at the right time. That means that you shouldn’t kill yourself by increments. Don’t allow your ego to increase your chances of death, injury or illness at ANY time. Be as ruthless in destroying your own ego as you would be against the most vicious attacker. If you wish to learn to defend yourself, start by learning to defend yourself from yourself.
Then, and only then, you’ll be a real martial artist. Because- in truth- the real enemy is the enemy within.