There are numerous definitions of ego which are often contradictory. All tend to agree that ego means self, but whether it is the true self or a mask we wear depends on the definition. The following definition is a distillation of the perspective held by people such as Ram Das, Alan Watts, Carl Jung, Joeseph Campbell, Stanislav Grof, Echart Tolle and others. It is related to the practice of vipassana meditation. It is not the same as the definition of the id, ego and super-ego put forward by Sigmund Freud.
Perhaps the clearest voice in defining this model has been Eckhart Tolle, who suggests that ego feeds on separation in four major ways: by defining our identity more clearly, by engaging in conflict, by dividing everything we encounter into separate categories, specifically ranking and hierarchy. The fourth definition is that ego is the voice in our head. Our internal monologue.
We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness – Thich Nat Hanh
Defining the boundary of our identity
Ego wants an ever more clearly defined boundary between self and others. ‘This is me and outside this bubble is everything else.’
So it feeds on anything that defines our identity as unique and separate. Every time we hit ‘like’ on Facebook, it feeds our ego. ‘No-one else int he world likes the exact same combination of books, movies, music articles, videos.’ ‘I am completely unique and separate from everyone else.’
As soon as we start to perceive ourselves as above others this is ego getting fed. We are not equal to them, we are above them this is separation. This is the most common definition of ego – when someone is being egotistical. But it also works the other way around. As soon as we start to see ourselves as below others we are not equal to them and this is separation, this is ego food. ‘Poor me, I’m not worthy, they are so much better than me, they are above me. etc.’ All ego food.
I am on one side, you are on the other. More separation. We’ve all met people who love to argue, almost compulsively. Their ego is in control and looking for any excuse to get fed through conflict.
The fact is that we live in a world where everything is separate. You’re reading this at your computer at a separate time to when I am writing it at my computer. We are separated by time and distance. You are separate from your computer and your chair. and so on. So ego is our tool for dealing with the fact that we live in a world full of division and separation and we need to make decisions. We need to divide in order to decide. We need to assess whether any given situation is good for us or bad for us.
Ego gives us judgment and therefore logic and reason. In this way I see ego like a tool. Something like a computer or calculator.
We are more than our minds
Another way of looking at ego is that it is the internal monologue. It is our own voice in our head. A powerful thing to consider is that when we finally get our thoughts to stop, we don’t suddenly cease to exist. We simply observe without labeling things as this and not that. More judgment. It is the fact that this space where there is silent observation without any kind of judgment exists that shows us that we are more than just our thinking mind. Who is witnessing when the mind is completely silent? One might call this our true self. So ego is our identity, but pure presence without judgment is a deeper level of who we really are.
Another name for this ‘true self’ is higher awareness.
It’s a bit of a paradox that there is a division between ego and higher awareness. Ego is over here and higher awareness os over there.Higher implies above, isn’t that ranking and therefore more ego food? The truth is that this is just a way to explain it so the ego can understand it. It can be a bit uncomfortable, but this touches the very heart of the matter. We may need to learn to accept paradox.
The Tao of Paradox
What if paradox is at the heart of existence? Physical reality is undeniably built on separation… but there is also an underlying unity which exists at the same time even though these concepts seems to contradict.
In Hindu teachings they say that the atman is the brahman. The individuated self is the unified field of oneness, the totality of all existence.
In Taoist teachings there is the tai chi, which is the yin-yang of duality and separation, but it exists within the wu chi, the oceanic oneness of all existence.
In North American traditions they call it omateo in lakota language. the universe is divided but also whole.
The Analogy of the Body
Consider the human body. We each have a body. our body is one whole. one body. but if we look under a microscope it’s actially billions of separate cells and trillions of microbiome living together as a community.
Being lost in ego is like cells being lost in the idea that each cell is completely separate and that’s the only reality.
A healthier cell is aware they are separate beings. but at the same time, they are also aware that they are part of the one body and in a sense, they are the body.
This is higher awareness and ego working in harmony.
So when we witness without judgment we are observing reality without dividing and deciding. We are just allowing it to be what it is. This is the state of perception that helps us wake to more awareness of the interconnectedness of all things and the underlying oneness, where there is actually no separation at all.
But We Need Our Ego!
We can’t just meditate on the oneness for our whole lives. We came here to engage with the world. A useful Myth is that we came here to experience separation land, so constantly meditating on the oneness can be a form of avoidance.
So we can start by oscillating. Exercising judgment, making decisions, ranking, defining our identity more clearly etc. We can then shift to the perception where we simply observe and don’t make any judgment. In this state, the ultimate oneness of existence becomes ever more clear to us.
So we can oscillate back and forth by having a daily practice of deep listening and stillness in nature, meditation, yoga, chi gung, whatever.
The objective over time is to be able to walk in the world able to make judgments but not get lost in the ‘optical delusion of consciousness’ as Einstein put it, that all there is is separation.
The Analogy of the Lucid Dream
In a sense, it’s a bit like how if we become lucid in a dream, when we are aware we are in a dream as we are dreaming it, we can also fall back to sleep and go back to it being a regular dream.
A daily practice helps us remain lucid in our daily life until we no longer need to oscillate, but we can do it in parallel. We can observe without judgment, with the compassionate acceptance of the witness, and we can also make decisions and judgments as needed. When judgment is no longer our only mode of perception and we can do both judgment on one level and equanimous acceptance of what is on another level, judgment gets upgraded to discernment.
Not Enough Ego Can Be Just as Problematic as Too Much
Too little ego results in derealisation and depersonalisation which in essence means little or no awareness of boundaries between oneself and the rest of the universe. For a great example of this kind of ego dissolution check out Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight below.
On the other hand, too much ego leaves us lost in the ‘optical delusion’ of separation as Einstein put it, where we believe only in the perspective that everything is separate from everything else.
For more on this perspective, I suggest reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and A New Earth.