So you’re not religious, you don’t believe in going to heaven or hell when you die, you know that God is not some white bearded man directing everything from his computer. You understand that there is something out there, but you’re not going to join some fluffy hippy cult. You want practical steps that don’t hinder your everyday life, but make it easier and happier. Well read on because this is about you!
A few simple observations to start with:
We believe that we are what we think, yet sometimes we do things that we never thought we would do
We desire and have a vision of peace, yet the world gets more violent.
We spend more on security, yet we are more at risk
We try to unite, but end up more divided than when we started.The world seems to be against us!
Can we explain why the world seems like such a difficult place to live? I’m going to take you through a journey into and hopefully out of your mind – because that is where the difficulty arises…
We are taught little, if anything, about how we think or who we are (a university education can fine-tune our thinking and processes, but it doesn’t show us how or when to think). Yet, for thousands of years, this topic has been addressed by people such as Gautama Buddha, Aristotle and Jesus Christ. It is crazy that in this age of knowledge, we know so little about ourselves, and we are not encouraged to delve deeply because if we do, it might be too painful to handle.
Your automatic reaction is probably, “sure I know who I am. My name is Jeremiah Franklin, I’m 21 years old and am studying marketing and commerce and, yeah, I dunno what else to say really.” Is that all you are? A bunch of labels – a name, age, gender, occupation, likes, dislikes etc? These are a representation of what you do and your life situation, not who you are.
These labels collectively make up your ego. The ego is best thought of as your thinking gone out of control. The ability to think is an immensely useful tool, but with no training in how to use it, it takes over. It becomes our ego. It becomes who we think we are. A huge proportion of the global population are overrun by their own thinking. What sets you apart from your thinking is that you are the being that observes your thinking. You can notice that you are busy thinking. This is important because once you make this distinction you can control your thinking, instead of it controlling you!
The ego has the following attributes: It consists of chronic ‘thinking’ that takes us away from being present, takes us into the fabricated worries or hopes of the future or dwells on the past.
In effect, we lose our awareness of the present moment by uncontrolled thinking. It is resistant to change. It tells you that you are separate from everyone else, disconnected. It creates an unstable identity that constantly needs attention, creates ‘status anxiety’ and will do anything to maintain its labels.
Now back to the labels that supposedly describe who you are.
These labels are who you are to the ego, your identity. But that doesn’t tell you anything about yourself, because if you suddenly lost your name or age, you still exist! The ego creates these labels and tells us that they are who you are, what makes you different to everyone else. This is an illusion that makes us feel attached to these labels, and when someone criticises a label (“you think you’re so cool with your big spoiler”), you think it is an act against who you are, but it is actually just an act against your labels, your thinking, your ego. When people don’t distinguish themselves from their thinking, they then act out what their ego tells them, they get revenge, and the situation escalates. This is a vicious cycle that explains why we (the observing presence) desire peace, but our ego gets the better of us and society gets more violent, more insecure, more abusive, more defensive.
This is destructive thinking and will hinder you from finding happiness. When we seek happiness through material wealth, we rarely find it. “I’ll be stoked when I get the latest cellphone, or if I get a better car,” you think. But it is a trick of the ego – you don’t suddenly become wonderfully happy when you get the latest phone. Moderate happiness may last a wee while, but is soon replaced by the desire for the next item. This is because the ego goes about finding happiness the wrong way. It seeks happiness in the future. In reality, happiness can only be found now! When you experience happiness in the present, every step of your life can become joyful.
That means in those moments of boredom (when you’re sitting in a lecture), when you want to be doing something else, just stop, notice your thinking of wanting to be somewhere else. Realise you can’t be anywhere or anytime other than now and accept it. This brings peace. You immediately realise that, most likely, you don’t have any worries right now (because they are all worries of the future) and so you can be at peace. Perhaps the peace we can find by living like this is the heaven that Jesus was actually talking about. It is at least a taste of the enlightenment that the Buddha teaches. The beauty of it is that you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything other than simply enjoy the present moment. What’s better, it doesn’t even require thinking!
So the world might be against your ego, but it is not against you. Your ego may be having the worst day of its life, but at least you are still alive. This is a realisation which is so profound, yet so simple: that you are not your ego, you are that presence that can observe your ego and you can therefore begin to disassociate with the negativity that the ego brings.
Three steps to finding peace in even the trickiest of situations by breaking free from your ego:
Notice your thinking. Accept that you are thinking. Ask yourself whether thinking about a future event is necessary now? Be aware of how you are thinking. When it serves no purpose other than a distraction from the present, bring your attention to your body.Inhabit your body. This is the easiest way to bring you into the present moment. Thinking occurs in your head, yet we consist of billions of cells. Can you feel the life that inhabits your body, not just your head? How do your toes feel? Notice your breathing. Accept your present situation. That is, that you are here now and that is that. If you don’t like your present moment, then take the necessary steps to get out of that situation. Otherwise, practise acceptance and enjoy whatever you are doing. Accept what others are doing, as you walk down the street, notice how your ego automatically judges people. Stop judging the people by noticing your thinking. See how it can suddenly dissolve fear?
When you practise these together, you find understanding for people that do ‘bad’ things to you because they are consumed by their ego. They are not acting consciously. By being conscious you see this deep insight and do not seek revenge. Rather you show understanding for this person. They are no longer your enemy. The aim becomes to share this simple happiness with them too.A great awakening is occurring around the world. People are waking up from their unconscious struggle through life. When faced with so many potential crises (climate change, war and pollution), we need to be less ego-driven and more conscious than ever so that we can collaboratively tackle these crises and turn them around. That is our great challenge. Can we do it? That, my friends, is up to you and me! If you want to discover more about yourself, I suggest reading Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, A New Earth or Thich Nhat Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.
Or for something a little more theoretical, try Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything. I owe many of the ideas in this article to these authors, my parents and Biame Network (http://www.biamenetwork.net/). Make use of the free meditation classes run by the Counselling Support Services.