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Lions Roar : March 2018
Building a Better Self? It sounds like a good thing to do, but psychiatrist and Buddhist teacher MARK EPSTEIN says you should resist ego’s endless demands for self-improvement. EGO IS THE ONE AFFLICTION we all have in common. Because of our understandable efforts to be bigger, better, smarter, stronger, richer, or more attrac- tive, we are shadowed by a nagging sense of weariness and self-doubt. Our very efforts at self-improvement orient us in an unsustainable direction since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. We want our lives to be better but we are hamstrung in our approach. Disappointment is the inevitable conse- quence of endless ambition, and bitterness a common refrain when things do not work out. Dreams are a good window into this. They hurl us into situations in which we feel stuck, exposed, embarrassed, or humiliated, feelings we do our best to keep at bay during our waking hours. Our disturbing dreams are trying to tell us something, however. The ego is not an innocent bystander. While it claims to have our own best interests at heart, in its relentless pursuit of attention and power it undermines the very goals it sets out to achieve. The ego needs our help. If we want a more satisfying existence, we have to teach it to loosen its grip. There are many things in life we can do nothing about—the circumstances of our childhoods; natural events in the outer world; the chaos and catastrophe of illness, accident, loss, and abuse—but there is one thing we can change. How we interact with our own egos is up to us. We get very little help with this in life. No one really teaches us how to be with ourselves in a constructive way. There is a lot of encouragement in our culture for developing a stronger sense of self. Self- love, self-esteem, self-confidence, and the ability to aggressively get one’s needs met are all that most people subscribe to. As important as these accomplishments may be, however, they are not enough to guar- antee well-being. People with a strong sense of self still suffer. They may look like they have it all together, but they cannot relax without drinking or taking drugs. They cannot unwind, give affec- tion, improvise, create, or sympathize with others if they are steadfastly focused only on themselves. Simply building up the ego leaves a person stranded. The most important events in our lives, from falling in love to giving birth to facing death, all require the ego to let go. This is not something the ego knows how to do. But there is no reason for the untutored ego to hold sway over our lives, no reason for a permanently self- ish agenda to be our bottom line. The very ego whose fears and attachments ILLUSTRATIONBYPATHDOC/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM HOT OFF THE PRESS LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2018 75