The word “ego” is in my experience a very misunderstood word. People generally have a very different, and very surface level, understanding of this word when they use it in everyday language. Take for instance the phrase: “That guy has a big ego”, which is commonly said of someone who puts a lot of emphasize on himself, is loud or angry, extravagant, careless or outrageous. However, the true meaning of ego goes a lot deeper than simply the characteristics of a certain type of personality.
The following describes ego more precisely:
“Ego” refers to identification with form-objects, such as thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, beliefs, opinions or any other observable phenomenon within reach of mind-body consciousness.
This will sound like complete gibberish to anyone who has not spent time carefully investigating this properly – so let us now go through the investigation that I have gone through.
In the following I will encourage this kind of investigation (by you!) by providing a few simple instructions that you are encouraged to follow, should you be among the group of people who see the above definition as gibberish!
Please note that ego cannot be understood through mere intellectualization. Just like you cannot intellectualize your experience of a thought, a feeling, a sight, or any other sensory impression at all. Yes, you may know that photons with a certain wavelength create the impression you have of seeing a certain colour, let's say red - but the photons themselves are not the impression. They are not red! Neither is the whole system of mechanisms behind seeing; the photon's contact with your retina, the electric signals sent to your brain, the source of the photons and so forth.. These are not your impression. These are not red! They are simply associated phenomena that give rise to your experience of seeing red. This is why ego can only be understood with thorough contemplation and meditation!
If you are in doubt about this being true – try to describe any sensory impression you want to a person that hasn’t had the same experience. Try to explain how salt tastes to a person that hasn’t had salt! You naming the chemical formula for salt, or any extensive chemistry will not help. Neither will an explanation of how nerves in the tongue send signals to the brain. Absolutely nothing can explain it, except offering the other person salt – simple, really! But impossible to think up! The same applies to experiencing the nature of ego. When you do, you will understand. Hence the following instructions.
Much ego is created with identification with our inner, mental voice. We use it to think, contemplate, and narrate our lives with it. If you are identified with this, you will consider this voice as “you, thinking”. But it is not you. You are simply aware of it. If you really believe that this voice is you, thinking, then you must have some control over it?
- Close your eyes immediately after reading this instruction and hold back your inner mental voice for one minute straight – no thinking, no narrating, no NOTHING! And for all in the world: Do NOT think of a blue elephant at any time during the next minute! You may close your eyes now. Begin meditating.
OK, so you are not in control, at least not enough to stop thinking for a few seconds. Try as many times as you like, convince yourself that this is true. Next instruction is ready when you are:
- This time you are gonna let your mind free. Do not try to hold anything back and do not try to think of anything in particular. Just let whatever comes up by itself come up. Close your eyes and ‘listen’ to this for one minute with your eyes closed. Start meditating once again.
As you will have discovered, the mind doesn’t need “you” to keep running. It’s an automatic process. You weren’t able to stop it by force, and when you let it loose it just kept going freely by itself, just like it did when you tried to stop it! What is the big difference, you may wonder. Whether you “actively try to think”, or just sit back and watch what the mind comes up with all by itself seems to not be all to different, does it?
- You may still feel like it is “you” that thinks. It is not, and I want you to experience this directly for yourself. I want you to sharpen your attention as much as you can to the inner mental voice. ‘Listen’ carefully. You will try to notice the very first split second before a thought appears in your head. You will be trying to sense what exactly it is that you do, when “you” think. Are you flexing a brain muscle somewhere? Are you somehow browsing through a selection of possible thoughts and then choosing one to pop up in your mind? Are you making the thought? How? YOU tell me what YOU do, if anything. Right before you ‘hear’ a thought, there will be quiet. See what goes on in this stillness, what you are doing. But be alert! The stillness will be very short lasting before another thought arrives. Take at least one minute for this meditation and try what I instructed at least 5-10 times.
This exercise, when done effectively, will demonstrate very clearly, that thinking is not a process that we have any control over whatsoever. It is a completely 100 % automated process.
Now, what we do with the thoughts, that’s another thing! And that doesn’t have to be automated. But this is a topic for a whole other post. For now, let’s focus on the fact that the production of thoughts itself is as automatic as your beating heart, your digesting intestines, the functioning of your brain neurons, your functioning inner organs, your immune system, your regeneration of cells, your growing hair and nails, the wetting of your mouth with saliva, the wetting of your eyes, and most of the times even your breath!
(Now, the breath is something which can both be automated and controlled – but this is also a biiig topic for another time!)
Just like your body does all these tonnes of other things automatically, so does it produce thoughts. You are most likely not identified with the naturally occurring process of your hair growing. That would just be weird, right? And what about the blood flowing in your veins? These things are not “you”, right?
What if you went around town, telling people: “Yeah I pump my blood around my cardiovascular system. That is my doing. I do it.” Normally we don’t say that and we don’t feel that that is the case (and you would be more weird than me!). And more accurately; we are not identified with our blood flow system!
But most people are identified with their thoughts – WHY?!
This identification doesn’t make sense, which will be clear to you if you have observed your thoughts sufficiently. The instructions above can help and is a good place to start, but it may take a lot of practice before you can really see it. This is not a scenario where I can simply offer you salt for you to taste. You have to dig for this flavor for yourself so hang in there, pal!
If you can see how we falsely identify with our thoughts, then voila! You have experienced how ego works!
Remember, ego is identification with form-objects in general, not just thoughts! Identification with thought is ego. Identification with our feelings is ego. Identification with our body or anything else is ego. Any of these other things can be taken as objects and meditated upon in a similar manner as the instructions given above, with focus on our thoughts.
“Why would I do that?”, you may ask. Because false identification sucks and getting rid of it is super freeing and awesome and it is the aim of practically any spiritual teaching in the world, i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, you name it! Of course, it is not the sole aim, but a pretty major and important one.
The choice is yours. And remember…(with this little lyric that I wrote, specifically for you):
Don't take my word for all of this and be lazy you gotta see for yourself that I ain't crazy! maybe you will though, but maybe maybe you can see - oh baby! That your identification with form is what's crazy! By making just a small implementation And starting to prioritize some daily meditation You can get your shovel under this investigation - You can start to have a big ego-revelation! Take all of your world and apply a separation To each phenomena of identification Simple awareness of every physical sensation Provides what you need for your ego-evaporation!
Should you feel inspired to take up a meditation habit, I recommend Vipassana meditation. Pretty much any other type of meditation will not help you much with this, I reckon. Good luck!