Dao Du Jour, Day 69: In Defense of the Ego

Chapter 69:

“There is no greater misfortune

than underestimating your enemy.

Underestimating your enemy

means thinking that he is evil.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

The ego gets a bad rap. One of the articles of faith in progressive spirituality, the background of our wellness and self-help culture, is that the ego is the main villain in the drama of our lives. It’s encapsulated in a book you’ve probably seen at airport bookstores, Ryan Holiday’s best-seller, The Ego is the Enemy. When we remark of someone that he or she “has no ego,” it’s taken as one of the greatest compliments.

But we often forget what the word actually means: it’s Latin for “I.” It may be that our culture is so fixated on transcending the ego that we forget to get to know it well in the first place. As the modern Buddhist saying goes, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.

The inverse of the quote from the Daodejing above is that overestimating your self means thinking that you are good. But the mirror image of this is underestimating yourself and thinking you are evil, and overestimating your enemy and thinking he is good. Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan likes to say that we lean in one of two directions: arrogant or insecure.

Draw a circle on a piece of paper. This first circle is your self. The space outside the first circle is other people and the world. Now draw a slightly smaller circle inside of the first one, and a slightly larger circle outside of it. The small circle is leaning insecure; the ego is too small. The large circle is leaning arrogant; the ego is too big. The smaller the margin between your ego and your self, the more in touch with reality you are. As with many things in life, our guide here is Goldilocks.

When we say that someone has “no ego,” what we are really saying is that they have a healthy one. We really mean that we can’t see their ego because it is so seamlessly integrated with the world around them; their sense of self tracks the actual border between themselves and others. You know where they stand because they know where they stand. I have a colleague who I love to describe as “a place where the universe opens.” Something about people like that attracts us because they seem more awake and aware and in touch with reality–because they are. We are not so much attracted to them as through them. There’s a queer satisfaction from just being in their presence, an intuitive sense of fit that stands out from the default background of brokenness through which most of us usually stumble. They glide through life like a fish through water, free from self-consciousness yet mindful of their effect on those around them. They see something we don’t because their sight is not as refracted through the warped prisms of ego, and they want us to see it too. They draw us into their space because they have properly and precisely drawn the border between themselves and the world around them.

It’s curious that we talk about people having a big ego or no ego, but rarely that they have a small one. Small egos are just as dangerous than big ones because they cast big shadows. If you don’t own up to your self, your shadow is going to own you, and your shadow is going to be precisely proportional to the space between your shrunken ego and your self. If you try to make yourself smaller than you are, cramming your energy into a confined space, you’re eventually going to explode. If Goldilocks sits in the baby chair, it’s going to break. In some ways, big egos are easier to handle since they are more overt–assholes are easy to spot. But the small egos are subtler and harder to detect because they pretend that they don’t shit. If you don’t admit you have an asshole, you’re going to be an asshole; to others, if you have a big ego, or to yourself, if you have a small ego.

In reality, of course, we are all in different degrees of brokenness, trying to triangulate between our egos and the world to find the sweet spot of our authentic self. You have an asshole. You have an ego. The more you come to terms with that, the fewer internal and external enemies you’ll have. The goal is not to be rid of flaws, but to order your broken bits into a unique mosaic to let the light beyond you shine through you and help others order their own.

As Kegan also put it, either you feast on your shadow, or you starve on your ego. The thicker the walls of the ego, the more fuel there is for transformation. It is not by accident that, as the saying goes, the greatest saints are often the greatest sinners.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”