You were whole and at peace once. Then people criticized, ridiculed, or placed expectations on you.
Since your true self wasn’t “good” enough, you created another “self” that you hoped would be more acceptable. You “performed” in order to be loved, accepted, or “successful.” You competed in athletics, or used cosmetics/clothing/bodybuilding to make yourself physically attractive, or studied/cheated for exams, or showed off your possessions/accomplishments, or accumulated money, or acted “cool”, or joined groups, or put others down (to make yourself look better by comparison). You’ve perpetuated this “self” for decades. Since the things that compose it are not you, it is, by definition, a false self (also called ego).
You are not “wrong” or “bad” for having an ego. It is your way of avoiding the pain of non-acceptance. It is self-defense. And you know what? We’ve all done it.
Because it’s not real, a lot of time and energy must be invested in the ego in order to keep up the façade. You see, anything real exists on its own and needs no outside help; anything false disappears as soon as upkeep stops. This is why losing a game, failing an exam, making a mistake, not getting a desired item, or not being as pretty/rich/cool as someone else causes pain: the ego that we have tried so desperately to upkeep disappears. Our mental fabrication is exposed as a fraud. We live in fear of this happening, which is why we fear loss, failure, lack, and inferiority. We think and scheme to prevent these “calamities”, so we cannot enjoy the present because we’re calculating how to use it to improve our future.
As painful as this burdensome ego is, we insist on carrying it. Why? Because we’ve invested a lot of time and effort in it. We have wealth to hold onto, a reputation to uphold, ideas to maintain. We believe that these are all we have — indeed, all we are — so we accept the worry, regret, anger and frustration as the “cost of doing business”, the price we have to pay for our material wealth, social status, etc.
The upkeep of the false self is nothing short of slavery. It is a daily chore. Our reputation, wealth, etc are not joys but compulsions. Do we really own them, or do they own us?
We might attempt to become happier by “improving” ourselves: we join a gym, buy a new wardrobe, take a class, learn how to paint, go on a diet, or whatever. These activities can bring health and/or enjoyment, but if they’re done only to increase our or others’ opinion of us, we are merely exacerbating the ego problem. How can adding to the false self – the very thing that’s making us miserable – make us happier? The best it can give us is temporary relief via either gratifying or distracting us from the ego. Seeing bigger muscles or nicer clothing in the mirror gratifies the ego. Focusing on exercise, painting, or studying makes us forget the ego. However, after the activity is over, the painful thoughts and feelings generated by the false self will start again, and we will feel miserable when we’re not looking in the mirror or exercising or learning or painting.
The only way to stop the agony is to shed the false self.
This is easier said than done, of course. Egoic thoughts are bad habits that have built up momentum over decades, so you won’t be able to stop them overnight. Could you ride a bike or drive a car or throw a basketball through a hoop the first time you tried? No. It took time, practice, and diligence. Well, so does living free of the false self.
Each day, spend a few minutes letting go of thoughts. It might seem impossible at first. Eventually you will be able to quiet your mind for a few seconds before thoughts creep back in. As the days go by your “thoughtless” gaps will grow longer. These gaps are the real you experiencing being.
In your everyday life, whenever you find yourself resenting someone or worrying that you won’t get something you want, stop and ask yourself:
“Is he/she really that bad?”
“Is worrying going to help me get what I want?”
“Do I really need this thing that I want?”
“Do I want to keep torturing myself with these painful thoughts?”
Over the course of months/years the bad habit of ego will lose momentum and weaken because you will no longer be feeding it. You will see that your ego has been nothing more than a huge, painful illusion. You will no longer carry this burden. You will feel free, clean, and light. You will see things as they are. What a great feeling!