Sigmund Freud wrote a book that changed the Western World: Das Unbehagen In Der Kultur. The English translation is “Civilization and it’s Discontents.” This, in my opinion, does not do justice to what he was trying to say. The German word, Das Unbehagen, is closer to what later came to be called existential angst. (Incidentally, angst is also a German word that has been incorporated into English, meaning fear. And it’s even more clearly understood in the phrases angst und druck, meaning “fear and pressure” and angst und bange, meaning “fear and anxiety.”)
The Aboriginal people who feel a kindred relationship with each other and the natural world describe the egoic nature of humankind as the “ trickster soul,” meaning that part of the soul that lives in disharmony with the creation and causes problems.
The ego is discontent and anxious for a number of reasons.
The Unhappy Ego
- Isolation. It feels separate from everyone else and everything else. It feels alone and vulnerable. It sees as other people as threatening and the world as a dangerous place. Ultimately, it sees itself as stranded in a dead world of inert atoms with the wrong people who are constantly doing the wrong things and making a bad situation even worse. In fact, it even questions why it is here in the first place as it feels a deep sense of alienation. As Blaise Pascal once said, “Who put me here? By whose command were this time and place allotted to me?”
- Voice in the head. The ego is rarely silent. Echart Tolle called this constant chattering, “voice in the head.” This running commentary is usually a litany of complaints about what happened, what is now happening that shouldn’t be happening, and what will happen if this current life crisis continues unchecked. As a result of this constant barrage of criticism, a person is often subjected to memory loops of unhappy and uncomfortable experiences even if the present moment happens to be benign and pleasant.
- Adaptation. Once the ego gets used to a person or an environment, it loses all interest in it, editing out most of the parts of it that are non-threatening and only focusing on aspects of it that might be problematic. This is why falling in love is such a delight. The other person is accepted with adoration because only their best aspects are apparent while their weaknesses appear negligible. But once familiarity sets in, then the ego only focuses on the problematic aspects of the other person. It edits out what it once considered fascinating. Similarly, when traveling to another country, every day is an adventure. Then, after a certain time, it too becomes familiar and far less interesting. The ego develops an indifference to what is known and loses touch with the radiant aliveness of other people and the shimmering beauty of the world.
- Frustration. The ego seeks various ways to escape its unhappiness. It pursues wealth and power, lusts after material things, aspires to be the best, and throws itself into hedonistic flings. But none of these things fill the emptiness within. In vain, it expects other people and the world to confirm its existence, but the world of form is incapable of giving it the lasting approval and complete satisfaction it seeks. It doesn’t matter how well it succeeds, it always feels like a failure; it doesn’t matter how much others love it, it always feels alone. The ego is always seeking but never finding. It is always expecting things to get better in the future but is always dismayed by how things turn out.
- Mortality. More than anything else, the ego hates the idea that it may cease to exist or transition to another dimension of reality where it will no longer be necessary. “The fear of death, says I.D. Yalom, a psychologist,” plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts us like nothing else; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness.”
My Personal Remedies for Discontent
Here are my five strategies or remedies I’m using to tame my ego so that I can reduce the volume of the voice in my head running a script that is contrary to my fondest intentions. I’ve come to realize that while mimicking the overtones of friendship, my ego is often fiendishly setting me up to for disappointment.
Expand My Weltanschauung
By reading the deep thoughts of some of the best writers, I’ve learned to think in a deeper way about the emerging issues in my life.
For instance, prior to this essay, I was grokking on the wisdom of Mark Edmundson, the author of “Why Read” and I came to the realization that I have done some amazing things in my life:
I’ve crossed the Mississippi River on a raft with Huckleberry Finn, attended Plato’s Academy, discussed the golden sadness of poetry in a library in Buenos Aires with Jorge Luis Borges, and time-traveled across all the ages of recorded history with William and Ariel Durant.
True, all these were vicarious adventures, but as far as my subconscious mind is concerned, I lived them, learned from them, and grew wiser because of them.
By immersing myself in the conceptual or imaginary adventures of others, I’ve expanded the way my ego experiences the world, debunking many of the ideas passed down from generations on how I should construct my reality. In the process, I learned to think for myself and escaped blind conformity to generational norms.
Accepting People And Circumstances
Over the years, I’ve learned to tolerate and hold back on many of my own excesses. I’ve also learned patience with other people’s nescience, remaining unperturbed when I knew that they were butchering facts and misinterpreting events.
This moderation has helped me get along with people, usually colleagues or acquaintances, whose views I sometimes find irksome, parochial, and even regressive. In other words, I have learned to play well with others.
It wasn’t always this way, but I’ve learned through time and error that people don’t care when they are wrong and rarely appreciate facts, figures, and rationality that challenge their entrenched view of how the world works.
I still speak my truth, but only those open-minded enough to entertain a new perspective.
Mediation has helped me develop my access to a deeper consciousness within me. While my ego is like an agitated bird that hops from one limb of a tree to another, there is another part of me that is still and silent and knows what is going on. Gradually, my anxious ego has learned to respect the other bird because of its patience and wisdom. When it speaks, my reality shifts for the better. In short, the superficial ego finds comfort in relying on a deeper consciousness to sort things out for the better.
Witnessing My Own Thinking
I have learned not to believe my own thoughts, to disidentify with the voice in my head when it is talking nonsense. By witnessing my own thoughts and by watching what is as it is rather than wanting it to be something else, my inner “amness” has built a relationship with the outer “isness” of the world. By befriending reality, I’ve learned to appreciate it’s subtle beauty and am less inclined to mistake my fantasies for possibilities.
Self-Expression As Will & Idea
Finally, I’ve learned that I am not powerless in life. My will and my vision have made it possible for me to manifest many good things. I know how to visualize; how to set goals, make plans, and take constructive action; and how to monitor my progress toward the desired outcome. This helps me mitigate living in distressful realities, which only serves to fuel the ego with tales of woe.
What do all these five practices have in common? They pull me out of my mind, my egoic thinking, and help me to be rational and proactive. Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” I’ve since concluded that “I am; therefore, I think.”