An excerpt from the book Death and dying in Buddhism
Death is the ultimate threat to ego. Upon death of the physical body, the ego also dies. The body likely doesn’t even know it’s alive, but the ego knows of its own existence and (to borrow a few words from Dylan Thomas) will not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The ego has built itself from constant activity and it’s ramparts reinforced with bustle. The ego likes to keep busy … the ego loves to keep busy. It’s always active, reacting with zeal to aversion, attachment, greed and hatred. The more appreciable our level of aversion and desire, the more alive we feel and the more tangible the ego seems. Who hasn’t enjoyed a good rant against a local or national politician? The greater the rant, the more alive the ego feels. The more greed or hatred we feel, the greater the substance of the ego. It simply thrives on these moments.
Unfortunately for ego, our desires cannot all be satisfied. We are like “hungry ghosts” that have enormous stomaches, but constricted throats that can never pass enough food to satisfy the hunger we feel. We always want more; more food, more money, a larger house, a bigger car, faster internet, better relationship, kinder spouse, etc. It never ends. This greed feeds ego, which in turn generates more greed. The objects of desire, aversion, hatred and greed, are, in themselves, not important. They are only scapegoats, excuses for the ego to be active and relevant.
The ego will come up with all sorts of reasons to justify the desire it creates around “needing” any given object and will overlay a veneer of logic on the reasoning. “IF we’re going on vacation this year, THEN we need a new car so the kids have more room and can watch their DVDs in the rear seats.” IF>THEN. Every want, need, desire, repulsion, aversion, hatred or preference will, upon questioning, have a logical reason for being, even if it’s, “Just because.” After all, not only does the ego want to exist, but it doesn’t want to appear foolish or ignorant. It wants, at least, to appear informed.
When we look around on any given weekend during the warmer months, we see dozens of garage, lawn or yard sales. We see people getting rid of things, things that are rarely broken, or worn out, but things which have been used only slightly, infrequently or not at all. Much of this is the ego hard at work again, making room in the closets, attics, basements and garages so that it can once again get back to work at being busy acquiring more things – “Better” things, “faster” things, “lighter” things, “more efficient” things.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” is what ego is all about, and of course, the commercial activity of businesses love that!
Advertising takes full advantage of the weakness ego has for activity. Ads play right to our ego and that’s why advertising works so well, as it stimulates the ego to activity. Ads present products or services that we haven’t even thought of yet! It stimulates our ego to develop a sense of “need” around these things and ego, once it gets its teeth into something, won’t let go until its runs the body ragged trying to get it.
All this ego activity, while building itself up, also causes a lot of suffering for us humans. As mentioned earlier, we can’t possibly acquire everything ego wants and so we suffer. We can’t possibly get everything we “deserve,” so we suffer. We can’t possibly avoid everything ego wants to shy away from, so we suffer. We suffer a lot at the hands of our ego and the stronger it is, the more the suffering.
So how do we control our ego? How do we ease our suffering? Ego, under constant threat from inactivity does not want to face death, for of course, that’s the ultimate inactivity. Our ego is so afraid of death that it will do anything, literally, anything to avoid it. It will run from the law, steal, lie, cheat, harm others and even kill if it perceives a major threat.
If it was only going to prison for a crime, ego would cause us to run and hide, for in prison, there are few things to acquire and the ego is left spinning it’s wheels. When we put people in prison, deny people their “freedom” for committing a crime, we are really denying them opportunity for their ego to run rampant.
In a sense, that seems to be what a monastery is about, self imposed denial of ego. In a monastery men and women have sought out a way to limit the temptations that ego is so attracted to. By limiting exposure to “worldly things and ideas,” ego calms down, loosens its grip and allows the individual to better see things as they are.
Death, of course, is what ego fears the most for that is the ultimate in being idle. There’s no acquiring, running, attaching, hating, loving. There’s nothing for ego to do and for the ego, that’s terrifying. For the ego, that is death. With ego so terrified of death, it transfers that fear to our conscious minds. It makes us aware of its fear so that we develop a fear of demise to protect ego. We learn to do everything within our power to avoid death until the last possible moment, all to protect the cowering ego.
Read more at Death and Dying in Buddhism.