Consider human nature as we know it and witness it in action every day. The following 10 character traits [it would be easy to come up with many others] are indicative of the way we have evolved over many thousands of years. In fact, it’s probably true that if we were not this way historically, we would not have survived and gone on to perpetuate others just like ourselves. Imagine a species that may have existed a million years ago that was totally selfless, and motivated only by kindness and love of humankind. How long do you think it would have survived in that environment: 200 years, 20 years, two years, two months, two weeks, two days, two hours, two minutes?
We see that these character traits represent our more primitive, primordial side—that side of our nature whose main purpose was to ensure our physical survival in earlier times. At the same time, we need to understand that some of these same character traits serve a useful purpose and can be the basis for good today. Here are the 10 characteristics:
The 10 primordial human traits
We are all ambitious. We want to advance—be more, do more, have more and better, whether wealth, fame, or respect.
We are all opportunistic. We tend to take advantage of situations to further our own self-interest.
We are all stubborn. We are obstinate; we refuse to listen or comply, preferring to stick with the status quo.
We are all ignorant. We don’t know all there is to know about any one thing in particular or about most things in general, and never will. Hence, each of us lives our life in a huge void of uncertainty. We don’t know who we are, why we’re here, where we came from, or where we’re going. It’s no wonder, then, that we live according to something we are not.
We are all greedy. We have an excessive, even compulsive, desire to have or acquire; we want more than we need or deserve.
We are all lazy. We have a tendency to put in the least effort to get the most results.
We are all fearful. We have a preoccupation, a concern, a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or agitation, sometimes even terror, relating to danger, evil, or pain, whether imaginary or real.
We are all selfish. We put our own interests first, well ahead of others, to an extent that is neither fair nor right nor moral.
We are all vain. We have and project an excessively high regard for ourselves: our ideas, our opinions, our abilities, our appearance, our possessions, and so on.
We are all vengeful. We want to return an injury for an injury by inflicting punishment and pain on others for what they have done to us.
If you are offended by this list, as some might be, just ask yourself: “Have I ever exhibited this particular quality at least once in my life? Have I ever been ambitious, opportunistic, stubborn, ignorant, greedy, lazy, tearful, selfish, vain, or vengeful at least once?” I already know your answer. Now we both know that each of these qualities is in you [indeed, in varying degrees in everyone], whether you want to admit it or not.
Beyond selfish motives
So how could some of these characteristics serve us and be the basis for good? How could they add to the collective wellness and benefit humankind? Well, you could he ambitious, opportunistic. and stubborn, and use these same characteristics to help others live healthier, longer, and more productive lives. Think of all the medical researchers who have spent years—sometimes their entire careers—to come up with clues for debilitating diseases such as diabetes, tuberculosis, and leprosy. Or inventors—where would our society be today without modern telecommunications and transportation equipment and systems? Whether modern agricultural practices, new medical devices, or new materials, all were developed to serve a very real need (although in some cases, simple greed may have been a motivating factor as well). And characteristics such as ambition, opportunism. and stubbornness will continue to drive people to use their ingenuity, creativity, and innate intelligence to better the human condition.
When other, totally selfish motives are at play, however, you need to ask the question “Why?” Why have you exhibited many or all of these traits at one time or another in your life, albeit some more frequently and more passionately than others? Specifically, what is your personal pain story—your justification or rationalization for acting this way?
May I introduce to you—the ego! The ego’s power and influence over the way you think has been at work since the beginning of human history. Simply stated, it owns you, or at least it thinks it does. And most of us would have to readily agree because we haven’t seriously considered the possibility of something else as the driving force in our life.
For example, you think, feel, and do each day without really understanding the force or forces that are directing all of this; in many cases, you do whatever you do instinctively and just hope for the best. The ego represents an elaborate belief system that is in your genetic makeup, your DNA, that first and foremost has said to you and is still saying today, “Survive! Look out for number one! Nothing is more important than your personal safety, comfort, and welfare!” And survive both you and I did. But how much longer our species will survive in the way it is currently going about it is perhaps the more pressing question.
The ego’s rationale
To know you must survive implies you must be at risk. If you think you are at risk, you come to believe you must compete. [Sure, it’s a struggle, but what choice do you have?] In order to compete, you must be prepared to fight or flee. If you fight, you might lose; if you flee, you might be caught. Fear, then, is one of the main driving forces behind a lot of what you think, feel, and do.
After telling you to survive, the ego then directs you to move up the ladder to the next level and instructs you to:
- seek safety, security, and freedom from fear;
- seek acceptance, friendship, and love by associating and fraternizing with others;
- seek recognition, status, and self-respect; and finally
- prove to yourself and others that you are unique, capable, and worthy of high achievement.
Having gotten you this far, the ego tells you with great fanfare that you have finally “made” it; you are now on top of the world! And it takes full credit for getting you there! This scenario loosely describes Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human wants and needs as first postulated in his book Motivation and Personality (1954).
The ego in you is always focused on building up the ego for the ego’s sake (i.e., selfish concern for me) and is totally incapable of considering more altruistic pursuits (i.e., unselfish compassion for others). Its primary goals are twofold: self-aggrandizement and survival. This must be kept top of mind when considering how the ego works. In other words, it is enemy number one (in the sense that it wants to control and direct all your thoughts, feelings, and actions) and must be recognized as such.
Maslow’s ideas are usually depicted as part of a large pyramid with live distinct levels: Physiological needs are at the very bottom, rising to safety needs, social needs, self-esteem needs, and ending with self-actualization needs at the top. Maslow’s theory in this regard is central to helping us understand our basic desires and motives for wanting more in our life. In this regard, the key question we must always ask is: “What is my real motivation for wanting more?” Is it simple self-interest (selfishness) or society’s general welfare (selflessness)? Or can the former also lead to the latter? Hmmm. What do you think as it applies to what you are trying to accomplish in your life?
Later in life, Maslow postulated that his pyramid shouldn’t stop at self-actualization needs at the very top, that in fact there is another key factor he had unwittingly left out. This he called transcendence, meaning the spiritual level that transcends the purely physical world. Maslow’s transcendence level recognizes our natural desire to act morally and ethically with compassion, humility, empathy, kindness, tolerance, benevolence, and generosity. Without taking into account this spiritual or trans-egoic side to our nature, he felt we are simply living as instinct-driven animals or pre-programmed machines.
How the belief in separation arose
An important factor that initially gave credibility and power to the ego, and continues to do so today, is that you were born as a single entity. You discovered that you came in a certain “package” or container, so to speak: a body with finite walls that were made of soft, delicate skin. You arrived in this body very much separate from everything and everyone else. Quite quickly—in fact instantly—you also found yourself all alone. This, at a time when you were the youngest, weakest and most vulnerable, is a very scary realization indeed!
But it gets even worse. Your actual physicality—your physical form—allows you to use only physical sensors to perceive what you see as only a physical world. Now, as you look out and observe all that is going on around you, your separateness is confirmed: Yes, you are separate; yes, you are alone; yes, you are at risk; yes, you must compete; yes, you must fight; and yes, there is good reason to be afraid. (Yes, those train tracks do come together somewhere off in the distance!) We are all wired—7 billion-plus people—to think this way; we are all driven instinctively to want more and more out of life, and eventually get to the so-called “top.” Knowing this, should it be any surprise that there are so many problems in the world?
The ego evolved as a necessary survival mechanism for individual human beings during the long and arduous course of human history. And it did its job very well, at least for those of us who are here today. The irony is that now it has become more of a death wish. As such, we must find ways to overcome or transcend it, not just tame it or try to control it, as it now clearly threatens both our individual and collective selves.
As we humans develop more and more efficient and innovative ways of killing each other [i.e., IEDs, cluster bombs, and unmanned, missile carrying aerial drones], and more and more invasive ways of degrading, indeed raping, the planet [i.e., open-pit mining, clear-cutting forests, and bottom-trawling the ocean floor], there is an urgency today that has never been greater in history. Whether we are able to change our ways. to rise above our destructive nature, only time will tell. Many think it is already too late.
Our true nature
We have previously described the 10 character traits that are a product of the ego, or are at least closely connected to it. In contrast, consider other traits that are beyond the ego, in fact unknown to the ego, examples of what we will call supreme virtue. They are prime examples of our true Nature. It may be that we don’t see them on display in the world as often as we would like but when we do, we usually take special notice of them. [Here, the late Nelson Mandela comes to mind.] These traits or qualities go by such names as honor, respect, compassion, empathy, humility, honesty, truthfulness, virtue, courage, industriousness, justice, righteousness, fairness, generosity, service, responsibility, forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional love.
This list is by no means complete but it’s a good beginning. Let’s see what each of them means.
10 traits of supreme virtue
- Honor: A keen sense of right and wrong; adherence to actions and principles that are considered right.
- Respect: To feel or show honor or esteem for others; consider or treat others with deference or courtesy.
- Compassion: To feel sorrow or deep sympathy for the troubles or suffering of others, with an urge to help.
- Empathy: The projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another.
- Humility: The state or quality of being humble of mind or spirit; absence of pride or self-assertion.
- Honesty: Refraining from lying, cheating, or stealing; being truthful, trustworthy, and upright.
- Truthfulness: Sincerity, genuineness, honesty; the quality of being in accordance with experience, facts, or reality.
- Virtue: General moral excellence; right action, and thinking; goodness of character.
- Courage: The ability to face anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful; quality of being fearless or brave.
- Industriousness: The putting forth of earnest, steady effort; hardworking; diligent.
We now see how you can live authentically, meaning in a genuine and real way as opposed to a false and hypocritical way. You need only manifest the divine essence that is within you. To live authentically is to live in agreement with fact or actuality, in a manner that is consistent with who and what you are. When you are authentic, and only when you are authentic, can you be useful to a higher cause; in other words, play this game called life with much more insight, much more skill, and much more passion. This involves love: love of self, love of others, and love for all things, both animate and inanimate.
The only alternative is to stay trapped into trying to prove to the world that you are a “somebody,” indeed a special somebody. The irony is that you don’t even know who this somebody is that you are pretending to be. It’s like every day is Halloween and you don a different costume that you think best suits the occasion: “Hey, do you like me like this? No? Then how about this? Or this? Or this? Please, like some version or variation of me!”
- an actor, one who plays a part;
- a pretender; an imposter;
- a person who pretends to be what he is not;
- one who pretends to be better than he really is or pious, virtuous, etc., without really being so.
Are you living a lie?
When you live thinking you are a human being having an occasional spiritual experience, (for example, adopting virtuous behavior only when it suits you and the circumstances), you have to ask yourself, “Am I really what I pretend to be?” In other words, is being spiritual only a part-time job?” At a deep, subconscious level, you know you are not; you are living falsely, dishonestly, and inconsistently. In fact, you are living a lie.
Yes, a lie that you have been led to believe by authority figures, caretakers and well-wishers of all kinds who constantly told you to do this but do not do that; believe this but do not believe that; act like this but do not act like that; go to this church but do not go to that church; enjoy doing this but do not enjoy doing that, etc. And you have never seriously questioned all of their dictates. These people, after all, were much older and wiser than you, and supposedly had your best interests in mind; shouldn’t they know?
All professional actors live a lie when they perform on a stage and take on the persona of someone they are not. And it is an extremely difficult and stressful undertaking, to which most would readily attest. Now consider spending all of your waking moment pretending you are someone you know you are not. This results in a serious case of cognitive dissonance: You are aware there is a disconnect. You say to yourself, “I don’t like this game; I’m not very good at playing this game; I don’t want to continue playing this game.” You show your displeasure by resorting to the usual primitive behaviors that result from disappointment, frustration, and anger: you lash out, you criticize, and you complain. Yes, you demonstrate all the usual mean-mindedness, even invectiveness, that is indicative of the fact that you are not happy.
Happiness isn’t a by-product
Everyday happiness is defined as having, showing, or causing a feeling of great pleasure, contentment, joy, or gratification. And for many, to be happy is the primary purpose of life. But real, authentic happiness is not fleeting, nor is it something that can be had indirectly. Rather it is the result of a deep knowing that comes from being and doing what is in accordance with who and what you are. It’s when you are in a state of continuous validation of your very essence, living as your true Self.
In other words, authentic happiness is not a by-product of something else. You cannot buy it, steal it, eat it, drink it, or touch it as an entity in its own right as many thieves, con artists, fast food addicts, alcoholics, drug addicts, and sex addicts would have you believe. It can be had only directly, with no strings attached. Happiness is an energy and a force, and not a result of anything physical in the world. You can never hope to put your hands around it, caress it and say, “Wow! Look: I finally have this thing called happiness.”
Here is a keen observation by popular American singer and comedian Margaret Young (1891–1969): “Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the exact reverse: You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.”
Consider these words by Lama Surya Das in his book Awakening the Buddha Within (1997) about how to move beyond your first impulse, the ego: “As you walk the inner path of awakening, recognize that it is most definitely a heroic journey. You must be prepared to make sacrifices, and yes, you must be prepared to change. Just as a caterpillar must shed its familiar cocoon in order to become a butterfly and fly, you must be willing to change and shed the hard armor of self-centered egotism. As compelling as the inner journey is, it can be difficult because it brings you face to face with reality. It brings you face-to-face with who you really are.”
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