Curiosity Killed the Ego

by on December 21st, 2014
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This is the ninth of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapter ten. To find out more or to ask to be part of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.


In Chapter Ten Pema Chödrön introduces the traditional Buddhist instruction of The Three Marks of Existence. These three truths are impermanence, suffering and egolessness.

1. Impermanence. This is the nature of things. She writes, “Impermanence is the goodness of reality”. It is good not because something else is bad, but because it is what is. It’s goodness is experienced when we experiment with fully accepting it. The cold of winter is no better or worse then the heat of summer or the cool of fall that it follows; the birth of spring is no better or worse than the dying of autumn or winter’s death. Decades before I knew anything about mindfulness I expressed my experience of the dilemma of preferring one moment over the other in a song I wrote the autumn that I was 19:

The eastern sky is dark and grey

There’s blue sky in the west

I turned my back to the setting sun

I just had to look away

‘Cause the sun caught hold of an amber tree

And set its leaves on fire

I knew right then I could stand all day

Just to fill my heart’s desire

autumn tree 

But it was much too cold to stay too long

And the sun would soon be gone, and

I had to run to find a pen

Before I lost this song

I sometimes wonder what it would be like

If I had nowhere else to go

But to stand outside while the seasons changed

The gold leaves into snow.

In one sense I was mindful. I was awake enough to see the fleeting beauty of light on a tree. For an instance it felt timeless, like I could stand all day. But I grasped at it. My very desire to write this song was an attempt to capture a moment that could not be sustained. But I wondered “what it would be like is I had nowhere else to go”. If being inside where it was warm was no better than standing in the cold, if being with my girlfriend was no better than being alone, if I accepted that the autumn that I loved was no better than the winter that I feared. We miss the fullness of the present moment. So our entire life at risk of being an endless series of anticipating the next thing, whether it is with dread or enthusiasm makes no difference. We miss the present moment for the next. Or conversely, when we feel joy, we dread the moment being over. The first taste of chocolate cake is so exquisite or that first drink or scotch is so warm and full of well-being that we chase after it. But it has already passed. All we get by chasing is being overstuffed or intoxicated. What if instead we took delight in the taste and let it go rather than despair the passing. “Somehow, in the process of trying to deny that things are always changing, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life”, Pema observes. When we recognize impermanence as impermanence this is when curiosity comes in. When we are free to be curious we explore the world as it is; we experiment with it intelligently and cheerfully like a infant experimenting with a toy—poking it, tasting it. “This”, she tells us, “is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention.”

2. Suffering. It seems to me that Pema Chödrön is telling us that in and of itself, in it’s pure form suffering is okay. Intrinsically bound with joy, suffering and joy pass from one into the other of their own momentum. The kind of suffering that is not okay is our suffering that “is based so much on our fear of impermanence”. We can accept suffering knowing that it will pass and we can participate in joy without clinging because we know that even as it passes it will return. Pema threw out a nugget of wisdom, on which she did not elaborate when she wrote, “Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward”. I think I could go on and on about this (fortunately for you I won’t). I will say that if we could accomplish the lessening of our association of pain with punishment and pleasure as reward—so imbedded in our instincts and emphasized in our culture—this alone would reduce much of our unnecessary suffering. Using incentives to elicit certain behaviors in others, or punishment to extinguish undesirable behaviors are in essence attempts to control others. The dharma is an alternative to teaching through control. It is experimenting with a different way of perceiving and responding to the world. It is a fostering of curiosity about existence, fostering the freedom to see the world as it really is unhinged from preconceived ideas. In short, when one experiences suffering as reward and punishment one is being controlled; when one experiences suffering as just one aspect of existence, one is free. We are free to experience suffering and joy as a union. Joy lends itself to the experience of expansiveness, while suffering lends itself to being humble. Joy without suffering can lead to grandiosity and arrogance. Suffering without joy can lead to despair.

3. Egolessness. In common use the word ego is a pejorative. It means, for example, self-importance. In western psychology there is the concept of healthy ego. Our ego is the fruit of the maturing of our personality and is what roots us in reality. In Freudian psychology, ego is the integration of our socialization of our parents (superego) and the playfully creative, but selfish child within (id). But there is also the concept of an inflated-ego, an aspect of narcissism, where the id is out of balance. As such, inflated-ego is similar to the common usage of ego. I believe that ego, as Pema Chödrön uses it, is more akin to inflated-ego. To be egoless, then, it to be free of narcissism and self-centeredness. Sometimes we naively think that self-centered people who look out for themselves have an unfair advantage. But if we think about it carefully self-centeredness, which we all are inclined toward, fosters the grasping of pleasure and pushing away of suffering, only to create more suffering. Another way of seeing it is that ego is separateness and egolessness is unity. To be a distinct self and to focus on and defend my self is a lonely place of alienation. And if I see myself at the center of life, when I am at the end of my life, the whole world is coming to an end—so it is a great calamity. If I am egoless, the world continues to exist and it’s not really such a big deal.

4. The 4th Mark of Existence: Peace. This is the 4th of three marks! (Things are always in flux.) Perhaps peace can be seen as the fruit of the three marks. Pema describes peace as “the well-being that comes when we can see the infinite pairs of opposites as complementary. If there is beauty, there must be ugliness…Wisdom and ignorance cannot be separated. This is an old truth—one that men and women like ourselves have been discovering for a long time. Cultivating moment-to-moment curiosity, we just might find that day by day this kind of peace dawns on us…”


Before the exercise go through the 3 + 1 marks. Write down a few keywords and sparse notes, no more than can written on an index card. This can be done at a separate time for your sit.

Settle yourself in for your seated practice. Spend a few moments as you typically practice.

Eventually, glance at your notes for impermanence. Express your desire to expand and be fully empty so that you can accept the reality of the impermanence of things, and to let go of your desire for permanence. Spend a few moments sitting with this.

Do this each for suffering and egolessness.

Finally, sit a few moments in peace, in the unity of opposites as if you have already fully accepted this.



Link to online discussion:  DISCUSSION    If your not already member and would like to be, contact me at




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