I have been contemplating a lot lately on the role of the ego. According to both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, the ego is a trap. It is a source of limitation, an anchor that drags us down.
This seems to be antithetical to the philosophy of the West at first glance. It would seem that our culture is one that embraces individuality at the cost of all other aspects of life and that our role is to serve and fashion the ego. This, however, would be a grave misinterpretation of even the most fundamental classical philosophers.
In the Allegory of the Cave, from his dialogue the Republic, Plato describes the construct of the cave. It is an image that suggests the context within which we humans may live. It could be cultural in that the ideas that shape our outlook are the walls of the cave itself. The choice is ours to live within the constraints of the cave or to dare to venture out. The cave represents a sense of safety, a space in which we can reside that will be beyond the reproach of harm – or so we think. Plato warns that to dwell in the cave is to live within a dimly lit world of half-truths; it is to live within darkness. Yet, the choice to do so is ours. It is courage and even a sense of adventure that may compel us to draw ourselves out.
Perhaps. The remedy, Plato states, is education. The goal of education is transformation – we are no longer satisfied with dwelling within the confines of the cave but find comfort in moving outside and beyond its trappings. This would also seem to indicate that the ego functions much like the cave – it is an old, familiar haunt that provides us with a sense of stability in a world filled with fear and uncertainty. Yet, this is false. Our inability to move beyond the cave also means we will not grow and when something fails to grow anymore it is essentially dead.
This relates to concepts of the ego being a cul-de-sac in both Buddhism and Taoism in that the ego limits growth; the ego is the great inhibitor. As Lao Tzu once said, “When I let go of who I am I become what I might be.” The ego limits potentiality. By choosing to stay where you are and only to voyage around the familiar, living within our echo chambers, we are not daring to expand our horizons beyond the immediate. We are denying ourselves of the great potentiality that lays all around us. The universe is teeming with opportunity and potential, we just have to be attuned to it. In denying ourselves this chance and this experience, and instead only choosing to stay close to our ego, we are denying our own growth. This is also perhaps the mystery behind wu wei in Taoism and allowing ourselves to be like water and flow through our experiences.
Both the mystical Western traditions and the philosophies of the East, found in Buddhism and Taoism, require one to meditate in order to still the mind. The endless chatter that resides in the mortal mind is a distractor and it is also the very reinforcer of the ego itself. If we can still this chatter from time to time, as the Greeks would say attain hesychia, then we can stop serving the ego but instead become masters over ourselves. In this way we can truly embrace the wisdom found in Plato’s maxim, “know thyself” (gnothi seauton or temet nosce in Latin). To be aware of the ego is to be aware of one’s own current limitations. Being aware is not the same as serving it. In order to move beyond our own current limitations, we need to be open towards changing and channeling new experiences into our lives. This is the heart and purpose of education and perhaps, what Plato was warning about in the Allegory of the Cave.
I found this message reinforced in all places the latest Marvel movie, Dr. Strange. In his journey, Dr. Steven Strange goes from world-renowned neurosurgeon to mystic. It is through his stubborn nature that he achieves this as he cannot let go of the fact that he can no longer use his hands like he once could, being affected by a horrible car accident that took away the use of his hands for surgery. His search for a cure leads him to the mysteries of Tibet and there he meets his master who teaches him in the mystical arts. The parallels to reality are not far off as there are mystics living at the roof of the world who are dedicated to the mystical arts that are based on Buddhist principals that do go into the realm of legend. At the core of the teachings, in the film, was the recognition of the role of the ego and how it can play a negative role when not in balance. It is interesting to note how popular culture can offer a form of initiation if one is willing, and attuned, to seeing it.