Ego and Purity
“We suffer because we don’t know who and what we really are. We suffer because of our identification with ego.”
| Eckhard Tolle
After a year of long waiting, I was finally able to see my wonderful parents again. What struck me most and amazed me was their purity. At the center of their being is joy, sharing joy with others and making others feel good in their presence. There is no ego to be seen, no striving for something greater, no desire, just honest, open interest, love, and joy. I believe that this is the main reason for them living a happy life. In our noisy world, we lost the ability to be pure. We forgot to see who we really are and we suffer because we identify with our ego rather than with our pure self. In this blog article, I would like to first look into ego, characterize it and search for ways to liberate ourselves from it. Then, I’ll look into purity as a state resulting from liberating the ego. Above all, I am interested in whether I can let go of the ego and transfer this purity into my art, let it shine from within without having an intention to create a future return on investment.
What is Ego?
“Ego is our identification with form, ideas, status, talents, and even events.”
| Eckhard Tolle
The ego has a long history. Looking at it from a Darwinistic perspective, one could potentially argue that ego has been the reason for mankind to survive and overcome challenges in human history. Ego is a survivor’s instinct. It is an individual’s sense of self-esteem and self-importance to adjust behavior in order to survive or gain an advantage. In psychology, the ego is a representation of our personality, our identity with what we consider to be our self. In Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, the ego mediates between our animalistic instincts as well as hidden memories and morality. According to Freud, our ego has been modified by the direct impact of the external world. The ego puts the desires of our instinct into perspective, considers social realities and norms, and anticipates societal consequences of our behavior. In the end, the ego strives to reduce tensions, seeks pleasure, and avoids pain. It is a decision-support system we draw from to balance our instincts with morality and human values. Following Freud’s theory, balancing instincts, ego, and morality results in a healthy mental state. In sum, our ego gives us our identity and balances different demands in our minds. So where’s the problem with the ego?
The ego provides us this identity often through its attachment to a person, objects, personal qualities, social status, or even spiritual affiliations (Tolle 2021):
- A person we feel attached to often enhances our ego, for example when we are dating a beautiful person, have access to famous V.I.P.s or are related to a specific person with power and influence. What’s the person you are attached to that you build your identity partly on?
- Objects we possess make statements and create signals of who we are: a large or medium format camera, a geared-panning tripod head, the newest electronic gadgets, expensive outdoor equipment that let us survive any threatening situation in the outer world. Eckhart Tolle called these objects “identity enhancers”. How many do you have?
- Qualities we may have learned or adopted also impact our identity: Having several university diplomas, being called a master of photography, having earned several international photography awards, published books, presented at major conferences, being invited to famous podcasts, journal interviews… We can often find out these qualities by looking at what people say about themselves. What are your qualities that “make” you? Try finishing the sentence: I am…
- The social status we earned through our aforementioned qualities, birthright, heritage, influence, and power, access to scarce resources or people, money, or professional success further influences our identity. Even owning large followership on social media makes us feel special. What’s your social status and where does it come from?
- Spiritual affiliation to philosophies, religions, or culture also creates an identity that prohibits us to see other alternatives, spiritual philosophies, and paradigms. The attachment to one spiritual group often causes a perception that everything done within this group’s norms is appropriate and right, and everything not in accordance with the spiritual group is wrong. Our attachments cause our judgment of what is right and what is wrong. Do you belong to any of such groups?
These identifications often cause an unhappy life, because they are rooted in the “can be” and not in the “what is”. Even if we let go of certain things, our ego is already searching and reaching out for new possibilities to attach and identify with, because we feel that we are not enough. Helen Schucman argued in her book “A Course in Miracles” that “The dictum of the ego is, seek, but do not find.” In consequence, the ego doesn’t stop seeking out and the potential future is always important for our current ego. This permanent seeking mode is the reason our mind sometimes seems to go crazy and that our only wish seems to be escaping this rush. Thus, how can we liberate ourselves from the ego, from that steady seeking mode?
How Can We Escape the Ego?
“The ego only lives in past and future. When you are present in this moment, there is no past or future, there is only now.”
| Eckhart Tolle
We may often recognize that we are doing things that we don’t want to do. For example, we binge-watch YouTube videos, scan through Instagram posts, reply to all emails in our inbox, or be with someone we do not enjoy being with. Why are we doing this? In the end, we always feel bad and complain about not having enough time for the important things in life. Very often, our ego is the driver and is seeking-out out opportunities to receive some immediate positive feedback, collect the rewards, and avoid a painful path of thinking or creating something by ourselves. It is exactly this pattern that social media platforms used in their gamification endeavors to make us psychologically addicted to these platforms, to return, engage and foster their own traffic and return on the advertisement. Often we are angry about our own behavior because we have fallen into the trap again and give in willy-nilly. At the same time, we feel driven and have difficulties stopping that permanent seeking mode. How can we liberate ourselves from our ego?
There might be two possible paths. We either slowly let go of the attachments described above, one after another. Through this approach, we detach ourselves from dependencies and recreate our perceived self through deeper meaning. Or, we train ourselves in mindfulness and presence. As Eckhart Tolle said in his book The Power of Now “The ego only lives in past and future. When you are present in this moment, there is no past or future, there is only now.”
We all have recognized these moments already in our lives. Sometimes, we describe them as states of flow or deep happiness. Maybe they happened during meeting your partner for the very first time, the birth of your child, or even when being behind your camera out there in nature. However, we often feel that these moments happened, because external events appeared to us, rather than us choosing these moments to happen. What can we actively do to cause a state of flow?
In earlier blog articles, I wrote about Stillness, Unassuming, The Study of Wonder, and The Four Agreements. They all deal with different facets of reaching this state of presence or flow. As such, I am just pointing to these articles here, rather than repeating myself too often. You may hopefully find ideas and exercises in these articles supporting you in finding presence.
Let us assume you found these exercises interesting and have started practicing them. What can you gain from it? Well, not every situation in life should be rationalized by anticipated gains. What can be better than feeling inner peace, being once with yourself, finding your true self, and be just happy with the life you have and share your joy with others?
However, I believe, your artistic work will significantly profit from your presence. As you get closer to your origin, your authentic self, you will become more original. You’ll become pure.
What is Purity?
“He who loves with purity considers not the gift of the lover, but the love of the giver.”
| Thomas à Kempis
Purity is a natural state. While some individuals may perceive it as desirable and idealize it as an attribute, I would personally not link it to any gain nor value it at all. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines purity as “the state of not being mixed with anything else”. When we were born, we were given a DNA mixture from our parents, but we are unmixed from any external influence. I like this notion of being “unmixed”. It involves the idea that we don’t add any extra ingredients, eliminate all noise to focus on being pure. Sometimes, I wonder how who I was in that pure state? What have I done in life to become the person I am today? How close or how far am I from my original pure state in different phases of my life?
Just out of curiosity, I created a portfolio of photographs of which I believe that mirror moments in my life, in which I was completely present. For now, I put them all into an own portfolio that I called Meraki. This word is Greek and it means to do something with a pure soul, love, and creativity putting the essence of yourself into your work. Absolute devotion and undivided attention. Many of these photographs, I still very much love. For me, there is a strong correlation between being present in a moment, and creating impactful photographs.
Right now, I may not be there. I might never be there, but I am on a path and excited to see where it guides me to.
Being reunited with my family felt great. It felt effortless. We all enjoyed every second we had together, we enjoyed ourselves. It was a moment of no egos and a lot of presence. Thankful!
Figure 1: An overview of some photographs from my portfolio Meraki
Freud, S. (1920): Beyond the pleasure principle. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII (1923–1925): The Ego and the Id and Other Works, pp. 1-64.
Freud, S. (1923): The ego and the id. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX (1923–1925): The Ego and the Id and Other Works, pp. 1-66.
Schucman, Helen (1976): A Course in Miracles, part and two, Viking – Foundation for Inner Peace, combined ed. 2008.
Tolle, Eckhart (2020): The Power of Now. A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Hodder Paperbacks, 1st ed. 2001.
Tolle, Eckhart (2021): Why do we suffer?, http://tolleteachings.com/why-do-we-suffer.html.