The Prince of Lies

Chapter 2, Part 2

Confronted with a life that seems out of control, people everywhere fall back on the Prince of Lies to guide them toward happiness. That would be our own personal demon, the ego.

Vintage cover of 1984 by George Orwell

The ego is our very own Thought Police

“Ego” is an ambiguous term with conflicting meanings. Its original, psychoanalytic meaning referred to a very useful part of the mind that mediates among the animalistic instincts of the id, the moralistic values of the superego or conscience, and the demands of the environment. Later the popular notion of ego evolved into a conceited and inflated sense of self. The Buddhist meaning differs from both these concepts by characterizing the ego as a bad attitude that leads only to unhappiness.

As a Western Buddhist nun and author, the Venerable Thubten Chodron, explained the Tibetan Buddhist definition of ego, “It could refer to either the self-grasping ignorance which is the root of cyclic existence [making the same mistakes over and over again] or the self-centered attitude which prevents us from developing impartial love, compassion, and altruism for all sentient beings.”

When I write about ego, I’m referring to this Buddhist interpretation; a self-absorbed, self-seeking, but self-destructive disposition. The ego speaks by commandeering one’s inner voice. Our egos not only misread reality, but then lead us down the garden path with constant, wrongheaded, negative feedback in the form of our internal dialogue. The only antidote is training ourselves to correct the ego’s false logic as it happens, a solution I will detail in my chapter on True Thought. Otherwise, our inner voice, as we talk to ourselves second by second, becomes the medium for the human ego broadcasting misinformation. It’s our very own Ministry of Propaganda. Our very own Thought Police.

Here’s an example. In the most telling scene of the film “Sylvia,” about the brilliant but deeply depressed poet, Sylvia Plath, she desperately sought aid and comfort from a kindly neighbor just before she committed suicide in 1963. By now, Sylvia had alienated and driven away her husband, British poet Edward Hughes, with her jealous rages about his literary success and the affairs she imagined him having. In effect, her rages became self-fulfilling prophecies when he got fed up with her jealousy and left her for another woman.

“It’s all my fault,” she told the neighbor. “It’s all my fault, it’s all my fault. All I could think of was what would happen if somebody took him away from me. You see? If you fear something enough, you can make it happen. That woman, I conjured her. I invented her. Do you understand?”

Sylvia Plath’s jealousy and fear, in fact, were fabricated by her own ego, whispering sweet nothings in her ear. In the end, she suffered death by ego.

Sylvia Plath as Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath as Sylvia Plath

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath

We’re all Sylvia Plath. We’re all driven by ego. Listening to its lies, we conjure much of our existence one fear, one anxiety, one frustration, one expectation, one disappointment at a time. We unconsciously write the scenes in our lives with our self-promoting, self-absorbed, but self-defeating internal discourse. This is the destructive medium of Sylvia Plath and most other unhappy people on earth. Being rational creatures, we are able to ration out an infinite number of bad decisions with brilliant rationalizations.

How do we each form such a bad attitude? The field of psychology tells us that during childhood we each try to handle life’s challenges through the formation of an artificial personality, a persona, based on the early conditioning chiseled into each individual by experience and our distorted perception of it.

Psychologist Karen Horney called the process of forming a personality “the comprehensive neurotic solution.” Words to live by. As Horney wrote in her landmark 1950 book, Neurosis and Human Growth, this faux personality attempts to be “a solution not only for a particular conflict but one that implicitly promises to satisfy all the inner needs…” This personality, this superimposed self-image, this persona, is our answer for coping with a tough life. Our answer for coping with the first noble truth of Buddhism, that “life is suffering.”

My own persona, for example, was dredged up during my troubled youth under the wanton eye of a paranoid stepfather. In desperation, I developed my own touched-up self-image in the darkroom of the ego. My persona demanded that I be, not only a gifted sprinter, but the most gifted sprinter in a big land noted for gifted sprinters. It insisted that I be a talented poet and writer, destined for fame in a country over-populated with poets and writers who believe they are destined for fame. It told me I had to be witty, I must be a magnet for women, and that adventure, travel, exploration, and escape were the means for me to find happiness and meaning.

Like most people, I fabricated a self-image that was a blueprint for failure. Then, like most people, I listened to my own inner harangue, the wagging tongue of my ego, constantly reminding me about all the disappointment, frustration, doubt, disillusionment, regret, dissatisfaction, and discontent I ought to be feeling for failing to live up to my totally unrealistic self-image.

Buddhists refer to this kind of negative conditioning as “samsara,” or the “cycle of endless grasping,” which essentially makes life work like a perpetual treadmill. Samsara conditions us to repeat our mistakes ad infinitum.

If you want to find out if you’ve designed your own blueprint for failure, read the next section.