Have you heard the story of 99 coins? For the benefit of those who haven’t, here is a slightly abridged version of the story.
Once upon a time, there was a king who had all the wealth in the world and yet he was always very gloomy and unhappy. One day he came across a low earning servant who went about singing happily while doing his work. The envious king couldn’t resist asking how someone who had so little could be so content and happy. When asked, the servant replied that though he was only a servant, his family didn’t need much – all they needed was a roof to sleep under and warm food to fill their stomach. The king, unable to accept this simple explanation decided to subject the servant to a test. A bag full of 99 gold coins was left on the door of the servant. When the servant found the bag, he was delighted to see it was full of gold coins. He counted them once, twice and many times over till he was finally convinced that the bag contained only 99 coins. He couldn’t help wondering and worrying about what could have possibly happened to the 100th coin. He resolved to work harder than ever to earn the 100th coin and complete his collection. From that day onwards not only did he become overworked, distraught and grumpy, he also became reproachful of his family for not helping him earn the 100th coin. He became part of the 99club, which includes all of us who have enough to be happy and contented but view our life from the perspective of unmet needs and desires. We then set ourselves in the pursuit of yet another goal and say ‘Let me get that one thing and then I will be happy.’
Other than proving that money doesn’t buy happiness, this story also underlines how susceptible we are in today’s materialistic world to getting our happiness sucked out from inside us; the ‘dementors’ are everywhere and they don’t even show up as a big black cloud. In other words, there is no warning sign that could help us to avoid them before they suck the happiness and positive energy out of us.
So is it the external stimuli that upsets our equilibrium or is it the raw nerve that it finds within that unsettles us? Our reactions, both internal and external, are based on how our ego receives the external stimuli – does the Ego feel buoyed or does it feel threatened? My understanding of what emanates from the Ego increased substantially when I read ‘The New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle, the author of ‘The Power of Now’. According to the author, if I understood it correctly, all negative reaction is a manifestation of the Ego feeling threatened and then making us act in a way that it can be fed and strengthened. According to the author, when we complain, when we react, when we harbor resentment and grievances (to carry a grievance is to be in a permanent state of “against”), what we are doing unknowingly is, driven by our Ego, we want to prove ourselves right. In essence we want to prove others wrong. Here is an extract from the book – ‘There is nothing that strengthens the ego more than being right. Being right is identification with a mental position – a perspective, an opinion, a judgment, a story. For you to be right, of course you need someone else to be wrong, so the ego loves to make wrong in order to be right…Being right places you in a position of imagined moral superiority…It is that sense of moral superiority the ego craves and through which it enhances itself.’
So our ego continues to engage us in games with people and situations, sometimes making us the victim, sometime the persecutor and sometimes the rescuer. Each mental position giving us a high of being powerful in that moment but when the high recedes, it leaves in its wake a vacuum, which needs to be replaced by another high. And thus the continuous search for that one thing that will bestow the ‘happiness’ that we are constantly seeking. The purpose of Ego is identification and separation – creating an identity that is separate from others allows the Ego to inflate itself.
So what is ego really and what’s the downside?
In the simplest sense, Ego is a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. In terms of psychoanalysis, it is that part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and creating a sense of personal identity.
The downside is that if we operate from the limited bandwidth of the Ego, we will be destined to remain discontented beings and plagued with self-inflicted stress. Ego, the culprit, can constantly come in the way of relationships, happiness, health and fulfillment. According to experts, the negative manifestation of the ego doesn’t allow us to discover the true beauty of relationships, our true identity, true intelligence or success in the truest sense. If you have been reflecting on some of the things I am referring to here, you would have identified with thoughts, people, situations, dreams, desires, actions, spoken words, which allowed you to be right, allowed you to feel superior in comparison but did not help you to get a result that was completely fulfilling. The unhelpful part of the Ego blocks away our potential to be uniquely ourselves. It constrains us either to our self-concept or to the world view about us and thus stops us from becoming the best we potentially can.
So does ego have any useful purpose at all?
I would like to think it does when it helps us reach for goals that seem impossible. It allows us to dream and imagine and work towards them. And this is the focus of my thoughts here. We know that if we were to stop operating from the filter of our Ego, there are many areas in our life that can improve substantially. My attention here is on how can we use our Ego i.e. our self-esteem in the most useful way when we are focusing on Bold, Hairy and Audacious Goals (BHAG) goals?
There are a couple of questions I would like you to consider. Are we ruining our present in the hope of a better more satisfactory future or are we enjoying the journey to that goal? Many a times when we are working towards a stretchy goal, we imagine that on reaching the destination, we will be thrilled. However only when we do reach the destination, it dawns on us that now it’s all over, the real fun was actually pursuing the goal. A lot of our ‘after win’ happiness comes from how we have been (how we have conducted ourself) on the journey to the goal. Is everyone around us partaking that success or are we on our own because in our zeal to reach the destination we tread on many toes, alienated many people and now there isn’t anyone to celebrate the success with.
There are a few things that each one of us can do to avoid an egotistical journey and create a more authentic and enjoyable path when pursuing our goals, desires and dreams:
- Know the real reason, why you are pursuing that goal. Is it to prove your worth, is it to show the world how great you are, or is it to prove you are right? Is it emanating from a deep and true desire that connects to your heartfelt need to achieve something? What exactly is the payoff you are looking for?
- Observe your journey – Are you enjoying pursuing this, or is it causing needless stress? Is there something you can do to enjoy the pursuit as much as the actual achievement of the goal? Can you make it worth more to all the people involved? Can you ensure that whether or not the goal is achieved, there is something that everyone gets out of it – like learning, relationships, a joy of being involved in a purpose?
- Take the wide-angle view – What you are doing today, will this have relevance in the long term? How important is it for your future goals? Is there something that you are missing out, something important by focusing on what’s right in front of your eyes? If you looked back from 5 years from now, what advice would you give yourself? Is there something in that advice that if you applied, it would make you feel more in control and less on edge?
- What is your internal GPS saying – As per Stephen Covey, our conscience is our internal guiding system. It tells us when we are not aligned to our innermost values and beliefs. Sometimes, if we don’t pause to evaluate, we may squash our conscience in the moment and live to regret it. The way to go beyond your ego is by checking our superficial reasons for our actions.
- How can you course correct? – If you find yourself wanting in any of the above areas, then it is time to redirect yourself. If you were driving on a road and due to your inattention, the car went over the divider, you would immediately redirect yourself, isn’t it? So when we pause to evaluate and consider the current reality from the perspective of a long term view, we can know where our path is leading. That perspective can help redirect us to the right path. Start making changes, subtle or forthright that make you feel in equilibrium again.
A lot has been said and written about how to find that elusive happiness in life. I have come to believe that ‘happiness’ is not a goal, it is a way of being. We can get lost if we allow our ‘Ego’ to dictate our actions. For us to know that we are operating from what’s most important to us and not from the place of being right and others wrong, we need to take a pause and evaluate where our path is leading us and then find the path less trodden, a path very unique to us. We need to make choices with a wisdom that transcends the limited awareness which is a result of being in the grip of our ‘Ego’.
Next time you want to go looking for that 100th coin, take a moment to remind yourself of these beautiful lines by Viktor E. Frankl –