Ego Thinks, Therefore, Ego Is
An ancient parable tells of a group of blind men that were given the task of defining an elephant by touch alone. The first grasped only the foot and stated that an elephant was like a pillar. The second clutched the tail and declared that an elephant was like a piece of rope. The third felt the trunk and suggested that an elephant was like a waterspout. The parable reveals how easy it is to miss the totality of an object when we examine it from our limited subjective viewpoint.
The concept of the Ego is akin to the elephant. Since its introduction into popular culture at the turn of the 19th century the concept of the Ego has expanded to include a multitude of definitions, each depending on the definer’s point of view.
I use the term Ego a great deal in my writing. As such, I feel it is high time to clarify what the Ego means to me. Like the blind men of the opening parable, my definition of the Ego represents my own limited perspective and not an absolute definition.
“Ego” literally means “I” in Latin. The term Ego, in the psychoanalytic sense, was not actually made popular by Freud but by his German-English translator who chose the word to approximate the German word for “I”: Ich.
When I use the word Ego I think of a callus surrounding raw awareness, the true Self.
In his book, “The Untethered Soul,” Michael Singer describes our true identities as being separate from our thoughts. The Self is the raw awareness that hears our thoughts, while thoughts are merely the pistons of the Ego engine (Tolle, 1999).
When we are born, we enjoy unobstructed awareness. We commune directly with the present moment. But the world is a threatening place and our needs are not always met. The scar of the Ego begins to develop when the world does not align with our desires.
Let’s use a couple examples to illustrate the mechanisms of the Ego. Of note, the following examples of the Ego’s reaction to a given situation are purely hypothetical. There are an infinite number of interpretations of a single event, depending entirely on the individual’s experience of the circumstances.
Let us begin with the hypothetical situation of a baby’s unanswered cries. If our parents repeatedly ignore our cries, the exposed nerve endings of raw awareness may be irritated. The irritation triggers a signal that mobilizes our immune system to begin the scarification process. The first layer of Ego scar tissue is laid down when we subconsciously explain the lack of parental response by concluding that we are not worthy of love.
Or maybe our parents get a divorce. The supercharged emotions and dramatic shift in living circumstances create a wound that the Ego attempts to fill. And maybe the Ego scabs over the wound with the explanation that intimacy is something to be feared.
The Ego does not solve the problem of our unanswered cry or troubling divorce but it does provide an explanation. Meaning is nearly as important as oxygen to the human species, so this explanation momentarily soothes the hurt of our undefended awareness. As I mentioned before, the number of Ego explanations for a single situation is nearly limitless, thus a divorce or an unanswered cry can create an infinite variety of scars depending on the individual.
Our Ego continues to build layer after layer of explanatory defenses to accord with the outside world and before long we create a character structure. A character structure is the pattern of Ego explanations that develop into mechanistic reactions to the outside world. In our previous example of divorce, our character structure may cause us to run from a relationship when we feel that we are becoming too intimate.
I must clarify that a character structure is not a personality. I believe the love, joy, and humor of a personality emanates from the seat of raw awareness and not the scar of the Ego. If we transcend the Ego, we are not left hollow and without character. Quite the contrary, if we transcend the scar of the Ego we are left with unadulterated love, joy, and humor.
A further complication that must be examined is the unconscious nature of the Ego. Until now I have made it sound like the Ego works in a linear and rational manner. The reader may be tempted to conclude that with enough conscious attention she could diagram the Ego’s patterns and break free. But the Ego is crafty. It sits so close to the seat of awareness, the true Self, that it is mistaken for a part of it. But the Ego is a separate entity from the Self. To borrow an analogy from Buddhist literature, the Ego is like the reflection of the moon in a body of water: the Ego appears to be part of the Self but is only a reflection of our environment. The Self is the still water beneath the Ego’s reflection.
Well, remember how I said that meaning is nearly as important as oxygen to humanity? Developing an understanding of what Ego is can provide us with the tools to transcend it.
The first tool is the realization that our anxiety, fear, and sadness are a product of the scar-like Ego. These Ego-emotions are separate from our fundamental awareness, our true Self.
The second tool is what I call the Mountaintop Perspective. Instead of being lost in the feelings of the Ego we can climb to the summit of the Self and see beyond our immediate feeling state. We can see that our current feeling state is only one patch on a nearly infinite landscape of possibilities.
The final tool makes use of the first two. The separation of Self and Ego combined with the ability to see Ego’s feeling states as transitory reveals a constant at the center: fundamental awareness. The true Self is a fundamental awareness that can ride out any of the Ego’s emotional turmoil.
These tools show us that the Ego is a reactionary rather than primary process. The Ego is a reflex and nothing more. We may not be able to stop the reactions of the Ego, but we can certainly attempt to direct our awareness elsewhere.
I do not want to suggest that directing one’s awareness beyond the Ego is an easy thing to do. The Ego is the gravitational force of the mind: its pull is constant and subtle. But through willful effort we can learn to tame the Ego.
I am still but a blind man in a room with a massively large concept. I want to reiterate that my definition of the Ego should only be used as a means to understand my writing. If the definition helps the reader beyond this meager purpose, then I am thrilled.
The Ego is not something that must be destroyed. The Ego is like a jacket for the Self: it insulates us from the harsher elements. But like a jacket, the Ego must be removed at the end of the day lest we suffocate within its embrace.