The biggest obstacle to happiness is the ego

The Biggest Obstacle to Happiness

This particular obstacle often operates in such a subtle manner, often escaping our attention. Yet, if you don’t acquire the skill to identify and manage it effectively, the attainment of unconditional happiness becomes entirely unachievable.

I have yet to meet a person who does not fall victim to this enormous roadblock. Furthermore, what complicates matters more is that, paradoxically, you perceive this element to be part of who you are.

Identifying with a process

As you’re reading along, try and think about what it is we’re talking about here.

Developing unconditional happiness fully depends on your perception of the world and how the mind operates in the midst of all of it. Your views and perceptions of the world are the base from which your thoughts arise. We take these thoughts so incredibly personal and mistake them for who we are, but they simply arise due to a process.

The type of thoughts that are generated say a lot about the mind itself. Understanding this process will be a major focus of the articles on this website. But we can’t dive in straight away without understanding a few other things first.

Sometimes I throw in some small teasers of what’s to come, because there are so many factors that play a role when it comes to developing the right understanding of the mind and how it perceives the world.

By all means, focus on the present concept but also keep in mind this is only part of the whole picture. Things will become clearer and clearer as we move forward one step at a time.

The difference between “knowing” and wisdom

The obstacle we’re going to explore in this article often overestimates “itself” and “thinks” it already knows enough. It’s not necessarily complicated, but it does require time to explain properly.

My job is to express these concepts in a clear and comprehensive manner and present them in a logical sequence.

Compare it to primary school math. You can’t start off with multiplication. Addition is an absolute essential that needs to precede it. Consequently, you can’t speak about exponentiation without speaking about multiplication.

Anyway, I take my duty seriously and I hope I can articulate myself clearly to get the main concepts across. In the end, it’s not about the words themselves but about how you perceive the world through all your senses. That “feeling” is sometimes hard to describe and even people with the same level of understanding may not be equally adept in explaining these, sometimes, intricate issues. 

Regarding our obstacle, I have dropped a few clues. It may be rather obvious what I’m talking about by now, or perhaps not yet. But the goal here is for you to actively think about it, rather than to wait for an answer to come your way. Thinking in the right way is crucial.

Nowadays, in the mindfulness community, thoughts are often perceived as obstacles. And so, sometimes people are encouraged to “stop” thinking altogether.

This is extremely unfortunate. I will address this issue in future articles as well. Thinking itself is not the problem, thinking about the things that don’t matter is the problem. It is that type of thinking, or clutter, that, now or later, creates tension, dissatisfaction, and misery.

Thinking about the “right” things, lead directly to unconditional happiness because they lead to an understanding of the truth, which is none other than wisdom.

Wisdom is an understanding of the reality of the true nature of the mind, the true nature of this world, or the things that lead to understanding that reality. I’m using the word “right” only in reference to the above. Life also requires practical thinking to complete daily tasks at home and at work. 

I already know

There’s one type of thought that often emerges, especially in the context of this topic. It is the single most devastating thought that makes it impossible to move forward on the path to true happiness. It is much worse than just “clutter.” It would be better to engage in clutter than to engage with this thought and mistake it for who you are. What thought am I talking about?

I (already) know.

I’ll give you some examples soon of the context I’m talking about. I’m not asking whether or not you know what’s the capital city of Germany or other random trivia facts. I’m talking about happiness. And not just any happiness. Not the kind of happiness you feel when your expectations get temporarily fulfilled.

“I know” can also be described as being part of the “ego.” So, ultimately, the ego is the biggest obstacle on the road to happiness.

The “I know” only represents a part of the ego, but it is the part I wish to focus on here so you know what to be on the lookout for and why the ego will always keep you in the dark.

Before we proceed, let me offer an analogy that clarifies how the ego operates when it perceives it knows the truth.

The mountain analogy

On the border of Tibet and Nepal, lies the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. For an enthusiastic mountain climber aiming to conquer Everest for the first time, extensive research and preparation are a given.

If you were to inquire whether they are familiar with Everest, their response would undoubtedly be a confident “Yes, I know.” However, despite their knowledge, they’ve yet to witness the mountain firsthand.

When they finally behold Everest for the very first time, their comprehension may remain unchanged, but now they sense the reality of what they’ve learned. As they draw nearer and approach the mountain’s base, that feeling intensifies. To the query, “Do you know Mt. Everest?” their “I know” response gains more profundity.

Now, they don’t just know the facts; they have a genuine connection to complement their knowledge. Still, they’re still lacking the experience of scaling the mountain or even stepping onto its slopes. Only someone who has been there can truly know.

A mountain serves as an excellent metaphor for the way our understanding can evolve. Starting with merely hearing about the mountain represents the surface level of knowing. Then, setting eyes on the mountain in person adds a touch more depth to that knowledge.

However, it’s when you begin your journey up the mountain that your level of “knowing” truly begins to expand, with every step along the way.

It becomes clear that the phrase “I know” lacks substantial meaning without the appropriate context. Now, let’s explore how this concept translates to the lab of life.

Can comforting words solve the problem?

Imagine you’re caught in a conflict with someone that’s been eating away at you. It nags at your thoughts. Seeking solace, you sit down with a trusted friend and spill the details. Naturally, your friend steps in, offering words of encouragement or advice to guide you through.

Sometimes, they might even tap into a bit of psychology, saying, “Don’t take it personally. What they said reflects them, not you.” You nod, you get it. You “know” it’s true. They have good intentions and that’s a wonderful thing.

Yet, here’s the twist:

when that very friend finds themselves entangled in a similar situation, you or someone else might offer the same advice. It might soothe them momentarily, but does it really resolve the core issue, for either of you?

Does it provide an everlasting shield against offense or distress caused by others?

No, you can’t stop yourself from feeling offended, hurt, or bothered by what other people do.

“Let it go”

girl letting go of a balloon

Now, consider a recurring conflict that keeps resurfacing. Each time it emerges, you feel compelled to dissect it anew. Your friend, attempting to alleviate your burden, chimes in:

Just let it go.

It’s a phrase you’re very familiar with and something that encompasses a sense of truth, yet both you and your friend find yourselves grappling with how to truly “let go.”

As a result, that same situation, or a similar one, has an uncanny way of revisiting you, like a persistent ghost from the past.

To draw a parallel with our mountain analogy, in all these instances, your ascent up the mountain hasn’t genuinely started yet, or perhaps you’ve merely reached its base.

Now, let’s reimagine the same scenarios with a new twist.

Let’s suppose your friend has actually scaled the mountain’s slopes, attaining a profound level of understanding and insight. Their advice becomes more practical, more impactful, and capable of addressing the root cause of the issue.

As mentioned in the previous articles, epiphanies seldom occur in an instant; they typically require time to blossom. Similar to the mountaineer, who didn’t just go uphill all of a sudden but invested considerable time in preparation. When they finally arrived at the base, the ascent was a natural progression.

While your friend is there for you, there’s a chance they’ll reiterate certain points from time to time. They might express the same sentiments using varied words, alternate phrases, and a range of examples—yet it all boils down to the same essence.

The process of understanding often demands revisiting the same concepts multiple times until the understanding sinks in and alters our perception.

Imagine a goalkeeper for a moment. To prevent a ball from finding the net, he must leap in all directions—left, right, up, high, low, near, and far. Practicing by leaping only to one side wouldn’t suffice. He recognizes the necessity of jumping, but to enhance his effectiveness, he must learn to leap in every conceivable direction.

When he identifies a weakness in his leftward jump, he dedicates attention to refining that skill, repeating the practice numerous times. This analogy parallels our mental journey. We too must reflect and contemplate, exploring multiple angles—left, right, up, down, far, and near. This extensive exploration broadens our perspective and deepens our perception.

Ultimately, there comes a juncture where it’s inconsequential whether we’re leaping straight up, veering to the near right, or extending far left. At this point, our perception has attained considerable depth, and our mind remains composed when confronted with challenges.

The danger of the ego

It is right here where the danger lurks.

As you hear the same things, you are starting to develop an intellectual understanding of the issue at hand. The intellectual understanding is merely a superficial knowledge. The ego has the tendency to misuse that knowledge (and misinterpret it) for the sake of self-preservation.

The concept of self-preservation and ego is one of the deeper concepts that you’ll eventually need to comprehend more deeply. 

We don’t have to go that far right now. First, you need to understand the possible manifestations of an ensuing egoic response. When you hear the same thing, yet you haven’t understood it enough for you to make a difference, the “I know” can sneak right in.

Be careful when that happens. When you say “I know,” you stop yourself from moving forward. In the case of our mountaineer, it would be analogous to them saying. “Okay, I’ve arrived at the mountain. I’ve talked to a few Sherpas and now I know how to get to Everest Base Camp (approximately 17,600 feet, or 5,364 meters above sea level).”

Next thing, he leaves the site and goes back home again, thinking he’s seen it all.

Ignorant of ignorance

If you believe that you know how to “let go” and not be affected by external events, but you still find yourself emotionally impacted by how others perceive, talk about, and treat you, then it indicates that your understanding is not yet profound.

In simpler terms, there is room for your understanding, or wisdom, to deepen. Thus, when we expand our wisdom, our state of “not knowing” or ignorance diminishes. Ignorance here refers to a lack of wisdom.

Wisdom encompasses the knowledge that allows us to perceive the true nature of our mind and how to cultivate unconditional happiness. The easiest possible way to phrase this would be:

Wisdom is “knowing” how to be happy.

It involves recognizing the thought patterns that are obstacles and learning how to nurture the patterns that foster genuine happiness.

Ignorance, in this context, signifies a lack of insight into how the mind truly functions and how to attain that happiness. The easiest way to phrase this would be:

Ignorance is not knowing how to be truly happy.

The complexity lies in the fact that ignorance obstructs the ability to see beyond this ignorance. Put differently, we could also state that ignorance is being unaware of one’s own ignorance.

This is why, irrespective of your progress along this journey, it is always beneficial to remind yourself to maintain an open-minded and humble attitude.

When ignorance decreases and wisdom increases one has gained a lot more insight into happiness. It may seem ironic then that the “I know” actually starts decreasing. In fact, one actually becomes much more aware of any ignorance that is remaining. It seems ironic, but it actually makes a lot of sense. That’s because when ignorance weakens, so does the ego.

Ego is a product of ignorance

logs burning in a fire

If the ego prevents you from increasing your wisdom, thus preventing you from developing unconditional happiness, then we could come to the conclusion that any egoic response arises from ignorance.

It is a product of ignorance.

By not recognizing when your ego is having the upper hand, you are developing your ignorance and going in the direction that is the exact opposite of your deepest desire. Because you, like everyone else, ultimately strive for true happiness.

As long as the ego is a part of our lives, it’s completely normal for it to show up from time to time. So, don’t worry, everyone faces this challenge. But just because it’s a common experience doesn’t mean you should let it take control. If you don’t learn how to recognize it, you’re essentially feeding into its power and taking one step back.

Imagine every time you catch yourself in an ego-driven thought or action and choose not to get wrapped up in it, you’re like a firefighter refusing to add more logs to a blaze. That’s a personal victory. However, don’t expect the fire to die down instantly.

It keeps burning the logs already in the fire pit. But the good news is that as you become more aware, you add fewer logs, leading to a gradual decrease in the fire’s size over time. It’s like an old firewood pile getting used up – the fire naturally becomes weaker.

What to do when you spot the ego?

There are two things to realize here. The first one is that by simply spotting the ego, or ignorance, you have become aware of (your) ignorance. That is the same as saying you’re cultivating your wisdom. You have become aware of what’s going on, thus you are bringing in the “knowing.”

So, the act of becoming aware is a significant step forward. These instances of clarity might start off brief – lasting just moments or seconds – before ignorance resurfaces, but they will increase as you practice becoming aware of them. 

The second point to grasp is that this process can sometimes trigger doubt. 

How does this happen? 

Because knowledge, or wisdom, arises when you perceive what’s happening, but then ignorance creeps back in. During those moments of ignorance, you start identifying with the thoughts that emerge from it, leading to feelings of doubt.

However, the emergence of doubt signifies progress. It means that previously—because you identified with thoughts of ignorance—you believed you had a grasp on the situation or knowledge, whereas in reality, you did not.

Regardless of whether doubt surfaces or not, a series of impactful questions and actions can help accelerate the growth of wisdom and the diminishing of ignorance.


The “I know” tendency reveals itself in certain ways, and there’s a more common way it shows up compared to another. The less frequent way is more directly linked to enhancing your wisdom on the path to finding unconditional happiness. It might only arise when you’re reading an article like this or practicing one of the exercises.

Of course, this assumes (perhaps incorrectly) that discussions about unconditional happiness aren’t a regular occurrence for you. While happiness is a common topic, it often revolves around seeking something external to fulfill our needs.

On the other hand, the more frequent version of “I know” also hampers your progress because it still keeps you in the cycle of cultivating ignorance. This is why we’re going to divide this section into two exercises. First, we’ll delve into an exercise aimed at addressing the common manifestation of “I know.”

Exercise A

Imagine you’re engaged in a conversation with someone, discussing a topic you’re quite familiar with. While this scenario can unfold at any time, it’s particularly likely when the other person begins explaining something you already have a grasp of. Whether you truly understand the topic or simply believe you do, the actual level of understanding isn’t the main focus here.

What matters is that the ego tends to react sensitively in most cases. As a result, you might catch yourself thinking, “I know, I know.” If this thought carries enough weight, you’ll verbalize it by letting the other know that you’re already familiar with the information.

The first step to take becoming aware of what’s happening. The mind is such that (unconscious) thoughts always precede speech. Speech can follow up lightning fast, though. Just think about when your mind needs to move at a faster rate like when you have to speak.

Occasionally, in more passive situations, a larger gap exists between thoughts and speech. This becomes particularly noticeable when you’re engaged in active listening. During such instances, it’s easier to observe your thoughts.

So, let’s say the “I know” thought emerges. All you need to do is recognize it. There’s no requirement for further action. Just acknowledge, “Oh, there’s the ‘I know’ thought.” It’s worth noting that you don’t possess direct control over its appearance; it arises spontaneously on its own. It arises, though, based on a sensory input you received, whether that was in the immediate or distant past.

Secondly, you have the opportunity to observe the feeling it carries along with it. Whenever a thought emerges, it brings along an accompanying emotion. While many emotions are neutral in nature, the arrival of the “I know” thought comes with a certain “charge.” This emotion can take on various forms, relating to feelings of inferiority, superiority, or equality.

For example, you could feel that you know it better than the other person. Now you almost feel insulted when they start explaining to you how things work.

That’s related to superiority. Inferiority can manifest through the need to prove yourself. Then, you’re more likely to make an effort to show the other what you know. On the other hand, the equality version of your ego is more nuanced. You perceive yourself neither as better nor worse than the other person, expecting to be treated as equals. In situations where the other person appears condescending or superior while explaining things, it can trigger this type of ego. 

These are the primary variations, but there are subtle nuances as well. It’s important not to dwell too much on any one of these variations. I’m offering these examples so you can have a notion of what to keep an eye out for. Simply observe the emotion you’re experiencing – that’s sufficient. We’ll explore this topic in greater depth in the future.

Thirdly, when you have observed that feeling, notice how your mind tries to project that onto the other person. For example, if you feel some slight agitation, notice how the ego holds the other party responsible. It could be that they have the best intentions, yet, you can’t even perceive the goodness of that act in that moment. This showcases the extent to which your perception becomes distorted when ignorance takes the reins.

The final two steps might be a little bit more challenging to implement in “the heat of the moment,” but you can always reflect on them later. Keep in mind that you’re engaging in practice, and perfection isn’t feasible when dealing with a mind influenced by ignorance. Be gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing your best at any given instance.

When you start projecting any kind of agitation onto the other, notice how it accompanies a feeling of unhappiness or discontentment. You don’t wish to feel that but you can’t stop that feeling from arising and neither can you stop feeling from blaming the other person for that feeling. “You” have given away your happiness.

Of course, changing that is what this entire site is about, so it would be impossible to give a simple solution for that. Simply be aware that “you” have given away your happiness. I use quotation marks here to point to the fact that there is no initial control over this process. This is vital to understand; it wasn’t a conscious choice, because every choice you make is made in the name of happiness. It’s a result of ignorance. Recognizing this truth is actually a significant step toward grasping the magnitude of the issue caused by ignorance. Identifying this marks another step forward.

The final step in this process might prove to be the most challenging of them all. When you find yourself wanting to reply, asserting that you know, and you’ve navigated through all the preceding steps, make an effort to refrain from responding altogether. Yes, it’s as “simple” as that.

Choose not to utter any words, and if necessary, a simple nod will suffice. You’ll observe that if the urge to respond persists, and you maintain your silence, the emotion present in that moment will likely intensify. As it does, continue to introspect and revisit the steps. 

Realize that the ego and, thus, ignorance, make it completely impossible to develop a happiness that is independent on other things. That realization is your cultivation of wisdom.

Please do take this sensibly. If your boss inquires about something which you already know, and the situation requires you to inform them, then by all means, please do so. Don’t get yourself into unnecessary conflicts.

There are many ways the ego manifests. For instance, a common occurrence is when you feel like explaining or justifying yourself after somebody has made an embarrassing comment about you. Keep coming along this journey and we’ll explore other manifestations along with other aspects of wisdom that we need to develop to move closer to our goal.

Summary exercise A

  1. Recognize the “I know.”
  2. Observe the feeling that accompanies “I know.”
  3. Observe the tendency of the mind to project that feeling onto the other party.
  4. Observe that you can’t stop that uneasy feeling from arising. Be aware that, because of ignorance, your happiness is now given away.
  5. Don’t respond, and simply acknowledge the response you’re getting. Keep reflecting on the previous steps.

Exercise B

While the previous exercise pertains to a more commonly experienced scenario, the journey toward cultivating unconditional happiness inevitably brings you face to face with the alternate form of the “I know.” Despite its close resemblance, this specific version of “I know” can pose a more direct hindrance to your happiness. It has the potential to impede the development of your wisdom concerning the concepts that demand a certain level of understanding.

Imagine it as gazing at a mountain slope without actually ascending it, presuming you understand how it feels like to be up there. The truth is, you can’t truly grasp the view and the experience from up there. In a worse scenario, you might even believe you’re on the slope when, in reality, you’re not.

I don’t know your personal circumstances, your environment, and what information you’re exposed to, so I think it might be easier to apply this exercise to one of the articles or exercises presented on this website. I fully realize that by focusing on the content here that I may be perceived as arrogant, which, if so, would be funny and ironic considering the topic of ego we’re exploring. 

Allow me to emphasize the following point: I only have an interest in developing an understanding of the truth. That truth alters the perception of the mind so that it becomes aware it has been seeking happiness in the places where happiness cannot be ultimately found and kept according to one’s wishes. I will be the first one to admit, that I haven’t reached the finish line yet.

However, my perception has changed to such an extent that the happiness I have developed, free from conditions, can never be taken away from me. Further developing it fully is just a matter of time by further applying the same concepts I’m trying to teach others. Anyone I know who has understood these concepts, some of them more deeply than me, can confidently say the same thing.

So, I can confidently speak about this topic and will do my best to allow others to also develop that perception. I made it my life’s mission so rest assured I will try my hardest. I think it is your right. Once that perception is developed (and you’ll unmistakably recognize this transformation by the way the world seems to have shifted), you don’t need any help anymore.

Help would speed up your progress, but you could do it on your own if necessary, because now you view the world in a different light; You comprehend that the world cannot provide what it doesn’t have in the first place—both happiness and unhappiness. The ever-hopeful expectations you’ve carried in a burdensome backpack all along will dissipate, falling to the ground, leaving you feeling light and serene as never before.

To get to the exercise, it also revolves around the issue of “I know.” If you are not sure whether a certain concept I share is true, then please don’t use this as the object of the exercise. Only when you know it’s true, or have verified it to some extent can you apply the exercise. 

Perhaps you spotted the “I know” while reading this particular article or perhaps one of the other ones. It doesn’t really matter. A potential thought that could arise while doing an exercise could be:

Okay, I don’t really feel like doing this exercise anymore. It’s boring and, besides, I know it now, I get it.”

Or perhaps you’re reading and a thought comes in such as:

“Yes, I already know this. You don’t have to keep repeating stuff.”  

I consistently emphasize the importance of not blindly accepting what I say. Having a certain level of trust can be valuable only if it encourages you to contemplate the concepts and put practices into action – actions that aid you in scrutinizing the validity of my statements. Verification is essential. But now I ask of you to apply that same principle to your own set of beliefs.

We need to start steering away from personal opinions and beliefs and aim to develop knowledge of the truth, or wisdom. Who utters these words is irrelevant. It doesn’t represent “my truth” or anyone else’s. Rather, it’s a reflection of how the mind functions and how nature operates. Additionally, the truth should remain consistent and subject to verification after we systematically and logically dissect it.

Going back to the idea of your potential response: if you think you already understand the concept, you can confirm this by asking yourself these simple questions:

Is this particular issue still able to affect me? 

Can external events still affect my happiness?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you haven’t fully internalized the concept at hand. That also automatically means that your happiness is still tied to external factors. And the moment those factors align in a way that you don’t like, you feel unhappy. You can’t stop that.

In other words, it is simply the ego that is at the base of those thoughts. And egos keep you in the dark, or in ignorance. This means it would be beneficial to still reflect on the concepts and apply any exercise to your own life experiences.

Summary exercise B

  1. Spot the “I know.”
  2. Verify whether you truly know by asking yourself the question(s):
  • Is this particular issue still able to affect me? 
  • Can external events still affect my happiness?
  1. Reflect on the questions and the answers as objectively as you can.

Don’t fall for this trap

This exercise may seem simple enough. It’s actually not complicated at all, but the nuances involved are so easily overlooked. I can’t emphasize this enough. From my experience, when it comes to this particular subject, many people perceive things to be rather black and white. Either you know something or you don’t.

This especially becomes clear in the next articles where we’re going to dissect the mind more deeply. Although intellectually you may realize that various levels of understanding exist, be careful not to fall for this trap. It will trap you and, if you’re not careful, you won’t ever get out of this trap.

What is this trap?

You think you understand and know what’s going on …

and then you never consider it again

As if it’s just another useless trivia fact. Then, guaranteed, thinking patterns remain the same and happiness is still perceived to be in the same place where it has always supposedly been; in people, situations, and objects.

Such a shame.

That is why asking yourself the questions above is so essential.

Don’t force yourself

If you answer these questions with yes that doesn’t mean that you should push yourself to continue the exercise or to delve deeper into understanding something. Forcing these actions would be fruitless and counterproductive. Convincing the mind to adopt a belief is impossible through force. As I mentioned, it all centers on personal verification. 

This is the only approach that can truly lead to changes in your viewpoints and perceptions. If you feel too much resistance, be aware of what’s going on and realize it’s the ego influencing your perception. Simply catching that is enough for now.

It would be more effective to focus on what you find least resistant and revisit the other issue at a later time.


Developing the right perception of genuine, unconditional happiness takes time. It requires patience and careful reflection.

Anytime the thought pattern of “I know” arises, and you don’t catch it, you’re preventing yourself from developing your understanding and wisdom. After all, someone who “knows it already,” is not motivated to explore something more deeply.

The ego—a product of ignorance—is such a huge obstacle because it stops you from moving forward.

When the ego arises, you believe you know enough, yet are still affected by all the ups and downs of life because you still seek happiness in external things. As soon as things don’t go your way, you’re unhappy. Ironically, that’s a sign that you do NOT know.

The ego is so incredibly subtle and treacherous. That’s exactly why it’s so important you learn to ask yourself some critical questions in order to spot it:

  • If I truly know this, then this particular issue should not be able to affect me any longer. Is that really the case?
  • Can external events still affect my happiness?

Once you start spotting it, you’re becoming more aware of the issue. Along with that, you’re effectively reducing ignorance. After all, ignorance is a lack of knowing or understanding.
And as a result, you’re building up your wisdom and moving closer to unconditional happiness.

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