AIΩN AΓΩN: Ego Death, Eternal Struggle, and Becoming Human

Today marks my return from my longest hiatus since I really started writing for MasterSelf in November of 2017- I’ve been on vacation for a month. That being said, I’m back with a vengeance and we’re going to get into probably the most important concept for mindset that I’ve come up with so far: AIΩN AΓΩN (AION AGON)- which means Eternal Struggle (we’ll get into a more complex translation in a bit, but that’s basically the gist). This is a concept that, when mastered, will change the way that you look at adversity, conflict, and challenge. Along the way, we’re going to tie it into the concepts of ego death, Saṃsāra, Zeno’s Paradoxes, the Gom Jabbar, and more. Buckle up and let’s get it.

Let’s start with some definitions and get that out of the way. If you’re not familiar with the meaning of AIΩN, you should check out the two part series I wrote on that. For a quick refresher, Aion is the Greek god of mythic time, which could potentially be interpreted as cyclical time. The word also means “an age or span of time,” which is where we get the words aeon/eon from. An aion is a very long time.

The second word, AΓΩN, means struggle or contest (like an athletic competition). This is where we get the words protagonist, antagonist, agonist, and, interestingly, agony. Now, we tend to think of agony as pure pain, but in the context of the word’s origin, it should be looked at as more of a productive pain, a suffering in the pursuit of something greater.

This is a critical distinction.

So often in life, we seek to avoid pain, discomfort, and conflict. If you look from a bird’s eye view, most religions are centered around the question of why we suffer, and they all attempt to prescribe some sort of system of behaviors that will alleviate said suffering, whether in this life or an afterlife. This is the natural instinct of all animals- avoid pain, pursue pleasure.

We, however, are not animals.

There is a scene from the very beginning of the (magnificent, highest level of recommendation) book Dune that demonstrates this exceptionally well. In the book, there is a test that is administered with a box and a needle (called the Gom Jabbar)- it’s a test for humanity. The person to be tested places their hand in the box, and the person who tests them holds the needle near their neck (which is so poisonous that it kills instantly upon puncture). The test is as follows:

“If you withdraw your hand from the box you die. This is the only rule. Keep your hand in the box and live. Withdraw it and die…  You will feel pain in this hand within the box. Pain. But! Withdraw the hand and I’ll touch your neck with my gom jabbar – the death so swift it’s like the fall of the headsman’s axe. Withdraw your hand and the gom jabbar takes you. Understand?”

“What’s in the box?”

“Pain… You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“To determine if you’re human. Be silent.”

As I said before, it is the nature of animals to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is our nature, and a tried and true survival mechanism. However, the nature of the world today is now at odds with our own, and the desire for us to seek pleasure and avoid pain has led us to weakness, sickness, and ignorance of our health, as well as an ignorance of what we’re truly capable of.

While in modern times, athleticism is out of the ordinary, for the vast majority of human history, it was the norm. We had to run, fight, hunt, kill, climb, evade, track, throw and more, all at a moment’s notice. Lions don’t take five minutes to stretch and warm up when a gazelle shows up, and neither did humans. However, we’re no longer beholden to the threat of imminent death or starvation, so the environmental stressors that brought out the best within us are long gone.

We’re reduced to animals. We’ve built a soft, safe world that gives us almost everything we need- food, water, shelter, security, structure, and order. However, there are a few things that cannot be provided, but must be sought. Coincidentally, those are the most critical- we need meaning, challenge, risk, and adversity to truly transcend our animal nature.

We require struggle.

That, in itself, is no supremely difficult thing to grasp. Most people have some level of understanding of the fact that it’s important to do challenging things, even if they don’t do them. The true difficulty arises when you make the transition from seeing struggle as a temporary state to accepting eternal struggle as the constant reality of life- to welcome and embrace AIΩN AΓΩN.

This is where our pal Zeno comes in.

Zeno of Elea was a Greek philosopher from around 2500 years ago, most notable for his paradoxes. Those are worth looking into in and of themselves, but I’m going to focus on one in particular here- the Dichotomy paradox.

Imagine you’re running a mile. Before you can go a mile, you have to go half a mile, right? Now you’re halfway, so before you can get to the end, you have to cover half of the remaining distance, and so on. Because there are increasingly small halves, Zeno’s paradox suggests that you can never actually get anywhere because you have to get halfway there first.

Now, unless you’ve never moved in your life, you understand that this is fundamentally wrong. However, that’s not really the point of Zeno’s paradoxes, they’re more of logic puzzles that poke holes in our understanding of movement. Again, we’re not going too deep into this, but they’re worth checking out further on your own time.

I spent a while thinking about this one, and my answer is as follows-

If you can only get halfway to your target distance, then you have to decide to go farther than where you’re actually trying to get. If your actual goal is a mile, aim for two, and you’ll get there in the first half.

This may seem really abstract (and it is), but the point isn’t so much the paradox as the underlying principle- you need to commit to going further. You can beat the paradox by continually moving the goalposts further and further away.

Delayed gratification, but forever.

Now, let’s talk about ego death. There’s an experience that has been described in very similar ways in almost every mystic tradition, as well as in Jungian psychology, and as a state brought on by psychedelic experiences. I’ll clarify that this is a purely subjective experience that cannot be explained in words- if you haven’t experienced it, you won’t understand it, and if you have, I don’t need to explain it. That being said, for the sake of this, I’ll attempt as good of an explanation as I can muster, because it has some value outside of the experience as a learning tool.

If you’re familiar with the site, you’ll know I distinguish between the petty ego (thoughts-beliefs-feelings-opinions-ideas) and the Ego Proper (the core personality). Because of this, I’ll also distinguish between what I propose as two forms of ego death, greater and lesser.

(If at any point you don’t understand what I’m saying in the next paragraph, skip it and move on. This is like trying to explain what a color looks like to a blind person, so it’s inevitably going to be confusing.)

Greater ego death is a profound loss of the separation of individual identity- this is a mystical state that is not standard consciousness. This is caused by high doses of psychedelics, as well as extreme practices like extended meditation, fasting, Yogic disciplines, and other avenues that mysticism explores. Greater ego death is the dissolution of the barrier between the Ego Proper and the True Self- this is the point where one ceases to identify solely with the limited identity of their personality and instead realizes the nature of pure consciousness as the core of experience. As far as I have concluded in my limited experience, it is not possible (or practical, even if you could) to maintain this state for more than short spans of time, because you wouldn’t be able to function in the world. This seems to be the goal of most mystical practice, but I think it’s simply the completion of the inner work to internalize the identification with consciousness as superior to identification with the transitory nature of the Ego.

Now for the practical one- lesser ego death.

Lesser ego death is the death of the petty ego. This is something that is much easier to explain, and it’s something everyone will experience in life. As I said, the petty ego is your thoughts-feelings-beliefs-opinions-ideas. These are all temporary things- you are not your thoughts, because your thoughts change and you’re still there. However, as I’ve touched on many times here before, we are attached to these parts of the petty ego, meaning we believe that these parts of the petty ego are us.

This is why people get mad when you say they have a dumb idea, or disagree with their political beliefs- because they cannot tell the difference between themself and their thoughts-feelings-beliefs-opinions-ideas.

Petty ego death is what comes from cognitive dissonance if you don’t avoid it.

Let’s say I believe the Earth is flat- because if there was ever a dumb idea, that’s it. Now, because of the nature of ideas like that, it’s impossible to just believe the Earth is flat- you have to have an entire complex of things to maintain that belief. If it’s flat, there has to be a conspiracy to keep that knowledge secret, as well as some deeper meaning to why people care, and all that good stuff. This all develops what we’ll call ego investment, which is the amount of our identity that is built on certain things being true or false. The more parts of your identity you have built on thoughts-feelings-beliefs-opinions-ideas, the more ego investments you have.

Imagine you save up your whole life and buy a million dollar house. Technically, your net worth is a million bucks, but if that house gets destroyed (disregard insurance here), you’re decimated. That’s similar to how ego investments work- when your concept of who you are is invested in a big, encompassing, ideological worldview, it’s almost impossible to let go of your attachment to it without it decimating who you think you are. This is how cults get you- they start off with normal stuff and gradually introduce the crazy as you go, until eventually you’re ten years and millions of dollars in… and they tell you about Xenu.

Now, imagine how hard it would be to be super invested in something like that and then to find out it’s not true. Because you don’t know the difference between yourself and those belief-attachments, your brain will interpret it as actually dying, and when someone threatens these beliefs, your brain treats it as an actual threat on your life. This is why people kill spiritual leaders a lot of the time. The people who do the killing will never admit that, though, because the cognitive dissonance will force them to deny it.

What does this have to do with AIΩN AΓΩN?

You need to make the conscious choice to pursue the Truth. The flip side of pursuing Truth is that it means you’re simultaneously moving away from untruth. More simply, you have to break the attachments to these things (the petty ego) that aren’t you, which means willingly pursuing lesser ego death.

This is why they say “the Truth hurts.”

The process is extremely unpleasant, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that our modern world is structured for us to avoid thinking about or dealing with. However, because we aren’t animals, we have to welcome and embrace the struggle that comes with this pursuit of Truth, because the alternative is real death.

For example, let’s say I eat a high-carb diet and follow the conventional “wisdom” that we should eat three meals a day (which I personally did for most of my life). It’s pretty obvious, based on obesity rates and the rise of diabetes and heart disease, that this is a dumb belief. However, carbs (and sugar) are delicious and addictive, and in this scenario, I have a mental attachment to the belief (provided by the culture) that this is the right way to eat. For me to change my eating habits, not only do I have to stop eating carbs, I also have to realize that to continue doing so is literally poisoning myself. Because eliminating carbs from the diet is hard, this is a good example of voluntarily choosing struggle.

Now, let’s get to another important point- one that I only recently understood, and perhaps the most essential to understanding the true meaning of AIΩN AΓΩN.

Continuing the carb metaphor, most people look at a change in diet as a temporary thing that one has to do for a while before they can go back to doing the bad thing they were doing before. This is why most people cannot diet, because they haven’t addressed the root of their addiction, they just temporarily ignored it. Bringing back Zeno- if their target is to lose 20 pounds, even if they do that, they’re likely to backpedal if they succeed.

What we need to do is aim past our target.

What we need to do is welcome and embrace the struggle.

In this lens, the dietary change isn’t something we do to get to a goal weight, and it’s not something we get to cheat on. It’s the understanding and acceptance of the fact that the struggle is eternal. You don’t get to work until you’re 65 and retire- you need to do what you love and do it until it kills you. You don’t get to just go on a diet for a month- you’re going to change it forever.

You don’t get to do things that are hard now for the hopes that the future will be easy-

You accept that this state of difficulty is permanent, and you make yourself want it.

This is the true meaning of AIΩN AΓΩNeternal struggle.

Every time you encounter weakness in yourself, every time you want things to be easier, or to give up, you have to reject that voice of cowardice and double down- because this is the true nature of the world. To live is to suffer, and while life is also many other things, there is no version of this world without suffering- and that is a good thing. This is where all the religions got it wrong- there is no escape from this but death, and if you want to live, you need to accept and embrace this fact.

When you do, you are free.

However, in my experience, this is not as easy as just saying, “oh, okay, I get it, fact accepted.” This is a decision you will have to make over and over and over again. Remember when I said AIΩN could be interpreted as “cyclical time?” That’s because AIΩN AΓΩN isn’t just a single struggle for eternity, it’s the continuous cycle of struggle that you must continue to conquer, again and again.

French philosopher Albert Camus (notable for being one of the only philosophers who didn’t look like a complete dork) wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus that deals with similar themes. Sisyphus is a Greek king who, in the myth, is punished eternally by having to roll a boulder up a hill that gets increasingly steep, so that when he gets very close to the top, it falls back down again. Camus concludes the book with “The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I must say, I love the sentiment of that statement, but my version is a bit different. I’ll argue that Sisyphus represents the hedonic treadmill, which is the psychological observation that extremely good or bad things actually don’t really impact our overall happiness level very much in the long term. Think about the last time you aced a test, or got a promotion- it’s cool for a few days, maybe, then you’re back to where you were.

At first, this is pretty depressing- what’s the point in achieving if we’re not going to be any happier for it? However, what we have to do is change our perspective from being outcome oriented (focusing on an “end-goal,” like happiness) to being process oriented (focusing on the challenge itself). This is where you get the cliche, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

The only improvement I’d make to Camus’ scenario is this-

If Sisyphus embraced AIΩN AΓΩN, he’d ask for a bigger rock each time.

Now, there’s one more thing I’m going to tie into this before we bring it home. In the eastern traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and the others that follow), there is a concept called Saṃsāra, which means “wandering” or “world,” as in the world of cycles and change. Traditionally, the eastern traditions have the escape from Saṃsāra and it’s cycle of death and rebirth (karma) as a goal. This is all predicated on the idea that life is suffering and suffering is something to be escaped.

If you’ve caught the drift of this article, you’ll have guessed what the next thing I’m going to say is.

It is my belief that we must choose to accept, welcome, and embrace Saṃsāra- that to do so is to accept, welcome, and embrace AIΩN AΓΩN. So many of the people in this world believe that life is bad, and they spend their days longing for deliverance, an afterlife, a savior, or some other escape from the realities of this world. Because of these denials of the fundamental nature of being, we have grown sick and soft, and the corruption of ignorance has spread through our lives like a plague. Until we accept that struggle is not only normal, but ideal, we will continue to waste away and destroy this world and ourselves.

To deny the reality of AIΩN AΓΩN is not to be free from struggle, it is to let the world choose what struggles you will face. If you ignore the struggle of health, you will soon receive the struggle of illness. If you deny the struggle that comes when you seek knowledge of Self, you will continue to face blindly the struggle of the repeated deaths of the petty ego.

If you refuse the struggle for Truth, you will meet firsthand the infinite struggle that comes with the numb embrace of ignorance.

What so many do not realize is this:

The struggle you choose makes you stronger.

The struggle that you do not face destroys you.

Run to it or from it, but in time, you will meet the fight- the choice you face is whether or not it will be on your terms.

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