I’ve been interested in Buddhism since I was about 15. It encourages a really peaceful, friendly outlook, and I think it’s cool. I’m not completely convinced by all aspects, like reincarnation or whether Enlightenment can take you to another spiritual plane, but I generally reckon it’s a force for good and also it offers some interesting insights into the human condition. One insight I’ve been pondering recently is one of Buddhism’s central tenets; cessation of striving.
What this really means is to break free from the ego. Ego in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean having a whacking great ego, or being arrogant, boastful and generally obnoxious, although these are some traits of an uncontrolled ego. Rather, in Buddhist thought, ego is the part of you attached to the superficial. It’s primarily concerned with the transient, constantly hankering for the material. We tend to believe attaining these impermanent things, whether they are a bigger car, a better paid job, or hollywood straight teeth, will make us happy. That if we satisfy the ego, we’ll be content.
What Buddhism says is the opposite; that actually ego makes us unhappy, because striving for these things is fruitless. We become overly attached to our desires, and their constant ebbs and flows cause us suffering. Once we give in to our desires, the end result may entertain us for a while but the impact will eventually fade, and we’ll start to long for something else. This unquenchable thirst for gratification from the outside world will never end as long as we remain at the mercy of our egos.
A question you might be asking yourself now is: how on earth do I ignore my ego? Western society puts a huge onus on personal achievement, which is, more often than not, intrinsically linked to transient things like wealth and fame. How often do we hear of rags-to-riches tales, of a child with a poor and troubled upbringing rising up to have an incredibly profitable career? You just have to watch two seconds of X Factor to see tearful teens claiming that fame is their only chance to prove their worth. Lord Alan Sugar never misses an opportunity to regale tales about his humble beginnings working on a market stall in East London. We view this as the benchmark for success.
Yes, it’s true we constantly desire things we probably don’t need, like the latest video game or those swanky limited edition trainers, but once we get them aren’t we reasonable fulfilled? Don’t they make us happy, even if only for a short time? Seeing as life flies by all too quickly, shouldn’t we squeeze as much pleasure from the little inconsequential things as possible?
I guess the answer is; sure, go ahead. Enjoy GTA or the sick hi-tops and don’t feel guilty about enjoying them. Just remember (a) not to over-indulge. Not to let your desire for those things consume you, to the extent that you become unhappy if you can’t get them or they fail to live up to expectations. And (b), those fleeting thrills are just the ego gaining a little bit of satisfaction. They’re not satisfying you on a base level and by relying on those things, according to Buddhist teachings, you’re seriously limiting your potential for happiness.
There are various solutions to the problem. Buddhism’s answer is twofold. One is to become more aware of your inner self, via meditation, so we’ll start to realise that thoughts and desires come and go like ocean waves. It’d be, frankly, ridiculous if we spent all day at the beach getting worked up over each individual wave – “OMG I love this wave, this is my favourite wave EVER, so tall and graceful, I hope it never…. ohhhh” – and so getting over-attached to thoughts and desires is equally as pointless. Their other suggestion to avoid being overrun by our ego is by fostering compassion for other living creatures. Compassion is the ego’s kryptonite; it’s alien to everything the ego stands for such as competition, lust, greed, and guilt.
I’d like to put forward a couple of everyday suggestions of my own on how to tame the ego. The first is to really appreciate, no, cherish our connections with other people. Don’t forget our bonds with friends and family, and make sure we’re aware how central they are to our happiness. Remember how much an afternoon spent reminiscing with an old friend trumps a day spent browsing for a new iPhone. The second is to make sure we’re fully in sync with our true nature. If you have a creative urge, go with it; paint, write, build, design, sing. If you love looking after animals; volunteer at a pet shelter, be around them as much as possible. If you like to entertain; socialise as much as you can, act, tell stories. If you love to compete; play sports on the weekend, join a club. Satisfying these urges has nothing to with ego but rather our true self, and as such our fulfilment from them is much more complete.
Now you might be asking, what’s the point of all this? I’m fine with my cheap thrills, thanks very much. Looking at it on a bigger scale, much of the suffering and happiness throughout the world is caused by egos striving and straining for cheap thrills. Dictators desperately clutching onto the last remnants of their power by lashing out at citizens are doing so because those cheap thrills have now consumed their entire being; power has become their reason to live. Celebrities check into rehab every other day with some kind of addiction to a drug meant to fill the void left by their 15 seconds of fame. People lie, steal, fight, bitch, bully, and manipulate all the time in service to an unchecked ego.
A world filled with people free from the demands of their ego would be a calmer, more social, ecologically-friendly, forgiving and accepting place. People would enter into interactions with no prejudices or ulterior motives. No-one would be too attached to what they own, there’d be a great sense of share and share alike. Society would become a selfless one, the rich would give what they don’t truly need to the poor. Wealth would be spread around, as would wisdom and knowledge. People would take greater care for the environment, having realised that the lives of all sentient beings are equally temporary. Pride would be replaced with compassion, insecurity with self-belief. All in all, it’d be pretty damn awesome.
To sum up, I’m not saying you should deny yourself material thrills. A bit of harmless fun is just that, harmless. Just don’t let the yearnings of your ego overwhelm everything else, and try to always keep in mind what’s truly valuable to you.