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Nature of the Ego

This ego, which is but a ghost without a form of its own, comes into being by taking hold of a form; keeping hold of the form and enjoying sense-objects, it waxes greatly in strength: if the truth of it be sought, it will run away.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Reality in Fourty Verses

This is a topic which I have been wanting to revisit for a while, now. I first posted about the ego back in 2009 in a post, one of my most popular ever by statistics, called “In Defense of the Ego”. Even at the time of that posting, however, my understanding of the topic was shifting dramatically. In fact, said understanding went through such flux that I made that post private until I sorted the whole thing out at least a little better. While I in no way claim to have become enlightened, I think that I at least see quite a bit better where certain teachings come from, what they mean, and why they are correct. So, while I am about to largely contradict my three-years-ago self, I have unblocked the original post; if you please, go back and read it with my blessings.

I still agree with my former self that New Age and New Thought teachers largely misunderstand the ego, its place, and what ought to be done about it, but at that time I misunderstood the teachings of the East, especially of India (Hinduism) and those teachings which arose from India (that is, Buddhism). I made the mistake of accepting the Western misinterpretations for the teachings themselves. In point of fact, the Buddhist and Hindu teachings are much more sober and sophisticated than I had believed.

The ego is, of itself, simply that part of the soul, psyche, or ruach which declares, “I”; the word “ego” is, after all, only the Latin word “I”. In the advaita-vāda, it is taught that the ego is, in a sense, the root of the individual soul or personality because the ego is what declares “I, I” concerning the body, the body’s characteristics, such things as personal preferences and tastes, and the whole bag of goodies which we call “personality”. The ego is the trick or illusion of identifying with these things, individually or together makes little difference. It is, then, no less egotistical to identify oneself with one’s charitableness than with one’s good looks and, quite surprising to many, it is still no less egotistical to identify with one’s collective affiliations. Patriotism and sectarianism, just because they require identification with multiple other egos, does not in any way transcend ego but merely makes it as large, powerful, and impenetrable as the group with which it identifies.

If the ego is the root of the personal soul, it sprouts from the seed of the Intellect. To those familiar with the Scholastic, esoteric, and metaphysical definition of Intellect, this may come as a surprise; after all, the Intellect is—far from being one’s individual property or identity—quite transpersonal and Universal in nature and orientation. René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon even go so far as to identifyātma with Intellect. There isn’t space within the present topic to enter into all of the subtleties, here, or the how/how-not why/why-not of this analogy (which Guénon and Schuon definitely intended such identification to be, given the limitations of language in this subject matter), but suffice it to say that Intellect is to the Absolute as the moon is to the sun, and that the individual mind is to Intellect as a mirror to the moon; this analogy, like all analogies, is not perfect, but it gives us the sense that Intellect reflects the Light of Wisdom into the darkness of ignorance in a form which does not blind the unprepared; this Light is apprehended even indirectly, however, through the agency of the mind of the individual, more or less perfectly depending upon the polish and cleanliness of each mind. The capacity of the mind to discern the Intellect depends upon the degree to which it has identified itself with Intellect, and the revelations which we receive into our minds from Intellect come by way of the highest mental faculty of intuition.

Returning to our main topic, Intellect serves as the ego’s seed insofar as Intellect is the root of the sense of “I”; in the case of Intellect, though, this “I” is Universal and beyond any actual object of identification. It is, in short, pure subjectivity without any object. The ego is, paradoxically, both the source of object-identificationand this object-identification itself. As explained above, ego is the mere statement of “I am that,” pointing toward any given transitory object or event. Thus, it is ego which says, “I am this body,” and equally it is ego which says, “I am a fan of that sports team”, and again it is the ego which says, “I am feeling pain.”

The esoteric cosmologies of Genesis, the Secret Book of John, the Vedas, and others, teach us that this process is both intensely personal and terrifyingly cosmic. Thus, we see in the classic Gnostic myth of the Fall of Sophia a very clear retelling of this process in the form of a divine tragedy: Wisdom (Intellect-as-reflection) suddenly falls into a mis-identification or self-misunderstanding which produces the twisted creator-god.  The limitations of language do not permit the story to say that this demiurge is both the misunderstanding and its result, though the Valentinian Gospel of Truth attempts to get this point across by the seeming autogenesis of “Forgetfulness” out of “Error”; the great ambiguity, of course, is how and why did the perfect and pristine Wisdom-Intellect make such a blunder in the first place, and why did the Father-Absolute permit it? No Scripture, to my knowledge, attempts to give a firm answer to this question, though the Masters who have said anything on it at all have largely demured by reminding us that the “why” is of no importance and will answer itself by way of Realization/enlightenment. The fact that this process creates both the cosmic illusion of a trap and the individual delusion trapped within it is a great clue as to the means of escape, as well as the motive behind teachings that every individual’s enlightenment, salvation, or liberation is an event of cosmic importance.

The ego (and, by extension, the demiurge) is thus less of a villain and more of an antihero. There seems to be no intention on the part of any Master that we should hate it, in a passionate or emotional sense, but rather that we should hold dispassion toward it. If strong language like “hatred” or “revulsion” are applied to it, it is only in the ends of emphasizing what our proper relationship with it should be: not identification.

We are brought, then, to the two complementary ways given of “dealing with” the ego, once and for all. I will use, for examples of these two perspectives, a Master and His student.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi often taught that the goal is to “kill” or destroy the ego; one of His students, a Westerner called Paul Brunton, preferred to speak of transcending it or learning to ignore it. Though perhaps confusing, at first, the point is, in fact, the same in either case, though worded differently. The Maharshi Himself taught, on many recorded occasions, the same notion that the ego is not to be assaulted with passion, but rather simply ignored. If we like, we may combine the two languages and say that the ego, rather than being slain, is simply allowed to die as if by exposure to the elements.

We may liken the method to using the ego’s method against it, or even using the ego itself, against itself. Recall that the ego is simply the identification, “I”, with some object. Tracing it, bit by bit, back to its source, we gradually (or, in some quite extraordinary cases—such as that of the Maharshi Himself—all of a sudden) train our minds to identify “I” with higher and higher, or more and more inward, objects. Advaita-vāda gives these object-stages the title of “veils” or “sheathes” and names five of them: gross body, the vital body, the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the causal body. Most of us, most of the time, identify with some combination of the gross body, vital body, and emotional mind; the first goal, then, is to first realize that “I am not this body”, and so to loosen identification with the gross and vital bodies. Once this has occurred to some appreciable degree, we enter upon the task of identifying with the rational mind and its capacity to discriminate between truth and falsehood; this discriminative capacity of vijnana is aided greatly by dispassionate action (karma yoga), unitive devotion (bhakti yoga), and meditation on Scripture and teaching (nididhyāsana), along with exercise in mental concentration (dhyāna), all of these being methods of (among other important reasons for them all) opening one’s mind up to greater and greater clarity of intuition. In other words, the mind is itself purified and re-identified with Intellect.

All of these stages, in a sense, turn ego around on itself. They trick it into working for the proper Master, turning from one object-identification to another, subtler, one, thus “transcending” it; they rob it of its illegitimate force by simply ignoring its false authority and “allowing it to die”. They “slay” the ego with the sword of discrimination (between True and false), “drown” it in the Divine Ocean, and “cremate” it in the Fire of Truth. These are all different ways of expressing the same meaning by placing emphasis on a different part of the subjective experience of the process; at times, it is quite a painful process, and so we say that it is like death by fire; sometimes it is panic-inducing and stressful followed by subsidence, and then we call it drowning; yet again, we sometimes feel beset upon by our own emotions and thoughts, and then we call it combat, war, a duel; sometimes it is a calm subdual, and so we say that the ego has simply passed away in its sleep. And, yet, until the final curtain, in point of fact and in personal experience, the ego hangs on throughout (however submerged, scorched, or sliced up, at times) as both the lock and the key to the whole problem of wrong identification.

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