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The Ego Death

After The Ego Death
After The Ego Death

The most painful death is the ego death. It requires you to take stock of who you are and what you believe in and make a conscious effort to destroy the fundamental constructs of your mental models about the world.

But what is the ego?

Unlike the Freudian definition – which situated the ego as a third of your personality makeup, I am referring to the ego as your sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

You form your ego by engaging and interacting with the world around you and getting feedback. When you explore interests and ideas and hold on to whatever works, you are reinforcing your ego.

Death by the ego describes a situation where you let your previously held judgments about the world dominate your present ones in the face of all evidence and reason. Successfully killing your ego is when the opposite happens – when you take a step back and reassess the path you’ve chosen to take, and decide to exterminate the paradigms that have provided you with self-esteem.

Consciousness can only exist through continual recognition of the unconscious, just as everything that lives must pass through many deaths. – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconcious, Jung 

The Paradigm Shift

A paradigm is a model of how you see the world. Most things conform to that model. When something unexpected happens, your paradigm is challenged, and you may be forced to alter it to make sense of the world again.

You usually adopt a paradigm that resonates with you and plan your life experiences to be consistent with it. This model may not represent what you truly want or how you really think  but it is your best approximation. When things are going well, there is no reason to change it. When things aren’t going well, it’s time to pause and think.

The subtle trick that life plays on you is that paradigms differ from each other to the extent to which they are able to manifest into behavioral patterns throughout your life. Some mental models are better for the long term than for the short, others are better for your professional life than for your romantic life, and a few are better for your character development rather than your social flourishing.

You may think that your mental model today needs to be the ‘right’ model – the correct way of processing reality. But this is a harmful way of going about it because your mental model will inevitably change. And so, to think about your model as an absolute truth undermines your ability to develop. You will be intentionally blind yourself to facts that betray your model.

Flexibility is key to defeating your previous paradigms and identities.

Therefore the consummation of forming an army is to arrive at formlessness. Victory in war is not repetitious, but adapts its form endlessly…. A military force has no constant formation, water has no constant shape: The ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius. (Sun-tzu, fourth century B.C.)

The Provisional Model

But you still need to have a mental model – even if it’s not accurate. You need to have a singular set of beliefs for a given time in to be able to test it against the evidence that life will present to you. This will allow you to test new ideas and ways of living.

A dangerous thing to do is to have no set of beliefs at all because that precludes the possibility of testing and iteration. It is also dangerous to hold on too tightly to one way of seeing the world. In the same way that it is necessary to kill your persona, it is necessary to destroy your paradigms. 

You will feel emotionally attached to old paradigms because they define your identity. You used that identity to connect with other people, and create goals, and make decisions. It is understandable that you are apprehensive about disrupting your previous models of reality.

To sustain short-term stability, you will try to deny yourself the opportunity to properly analyse the reasons for doing something. Until one day, circumstances force you to take an honest look at what you believe in and wonder whether there is another way – a better way.

These are when the ego deaths – that are fundamental to growth – occur. It is wisest to try out competing mental models and see what works best for you. Sparta won the great war against Athens, but with time, Athenian culture and economics corrupted the Spartans, who were not used to a life outside the strict confines of warfare preparation. The Spartans were not taught about politics or money, they had no education in the arts. This allowed the Athenians to overwhelm the Spartans. Even though Sparta was tougher militarily, its failure to adapt led to its downfall.

There is obviously a presupposition here. Namely, that the “right” mental model is not “right” for everyone. You should never be either a democrat or a republican, a liberal or conservative, a believer or an atheist, a pessimist or an optimist, a capitalist or a communist, you should aim to be each for a certain time and take note of your experience. Otherwise, you will constrain yourself to an ideological prison that conceals reality from you. This is why it is fundamentally dangerous to fall for the traps of confirmation bias and other cognitive fallacies. 

If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it

There is a wide spectrum of beliefs and ideas that exist. However, there is a more important truth, and probably the only one that matters, and that is the most functional or pragmatic one. In other words, what are the beliefs and ideas that are helping you move closer towards your goals.

If you were born in a conservative household and you adopted those values as you got older, and you noticed that those very values helped you achieve what you wanted, you will cling to them more, and you will want others to share your beliefs too so that you can validate your experience. And if instead you adopted more liberal values, you will recreate a self-reinforcing reality for these values that will only strengthen them. To avoid this ideological trap, it is useful to take a step back.

Your ego will depend on how others see you – it will be difficult to signal to others your change of heart. Such behavior will undermine your credibility and will likely lead to ridicule and criticism.

Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you. Jesus Christ, Matthew 7:6

After-all, if you cannot have consistent beliefs, if you cannot maintain the same values that helped you in your previous victory, then how can you be relied upon?

But instead of falsely identifying with this self-image to preserve your reputation and self-esteem, adopt a dual identity. You can experiment with different positions in private, while making minimal changes to the points of view you express to others. You won’t have to bullshit yourself, and at the same time, your reputation won’t take a beating.

Societal beliefs feeds your mental models with much hubris. To live in harmony with other members of a social group, you need to sculpt your beliefs to look like theirs as much as possible. Inconsistencies will only lead to conflict. And instead of arrogantly believing that you can sway the crowd to see things your way, it is better not to disrupt the peace. At least at first. If you want to make a point, do so through your actions, not through your words. If you want to stand for truth, then stand for it, but don’t advertise it. Live truthfully and your values will be self-evident.

If you feel irritated by the absurd remarks of two people whose conversation you happen to overhear, you should imagine that you are listening to the dialogue of two fools in a comedy. The man who comes into the world with the notion that he is really going to instruct it in matters of the highest importance, may thank his stars if he escapes with a whole skin. – ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

But as you adopt the positions of the group superficially, be careful not to get too comfortable with these beliefs as it will be tempting and even comforting to do so. This is quite useful to establish harmony with those around you but detrimental to your own growth and understanding in the long run.

As you regularly rid yourself of your previous identities, you will be murdering your ego, and refusing to believe yourself to be a supreme person who knows everything. This healthy shedding of old skin is a powerful force against arrogance. As the ideologues will feel content with the narrow perspectives they have taken for granted and feel satiated with what they have already established – they will stagnate. And as you constantly seek new knowledge and adopt new paradigms, you will become wiser and more intelligent.

A Mindset for Paradigm Shifts

To take a stand against who you used to be is an arduous task. Most people are not ready to make that sacrifice because to do that, you need to grow up. As people engage in the competition of ideas and herd towards one team or the other, they fall in love with who they are. And like a child who refuses to see that Santa Claus isn’t real, they will refuse to see that neither are their identities.

That isn’t to say that there is an infinite set of viable beliefs, and therefore, none of them can be real, but that your inevitable development and growth will require you to change your beliefs. And since you have no choice but to do so, you will need to recognize that this change means that you cannot define yourself according to your beliefs. Those who do are manufacturing a fake, partial identity that – like a rental car – will only serve for a certain duration of their journey.

But to be able to accept this, you’ll need to learn to do two seemingly contradictory things. One, is to stop taking your thoughts and beliefs about the world so seriously. They are merely tools to help you go through the life, and they can be used as much against you as they can for you. Second, you must take your thoughts about the world very seriously. They are your only tools in life. You should be aware of their power to influence everything in your life and do what you can allow them to be of benefit to you, but never to trap you.

In other words, beliefs should never be considered as unchanging, permanent truths, and in that sense should be undermined. But they should also be carefully considered because they are all we have to be able to function properly in the world.

When you understand the limitations of your understanding, and how little of the bigger picture you truly see, it is futile to hold on to any belief for too long. Instead, it is better to try on beliefs and measure progress with the hope that somewhere along your life journey – you will be able to recognize which ones were the most beneficial to you.

Further Reading:

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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