Clarifying “I, the Ego”

Yesterday's Communion Spot

Yesterday’s Communion Spot


September 28, 2015 11:07 AM

Jerry left a great comment on the various definitions of “ego” this morning and I replied with my own definition. Since my reply is in the comments and could be easily overlooked, I’ve added it below. This is really a key component to any “school” of spirituality, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to highlight my definition of ego (and if you follow any teacher, it’s probably a good idea to get them to pin down what they mean by “ego”). 

What I mean by ego is not the Freudian definition (“the organized part of the personality structure which includes conscious awareness,”) nor the Buddhist definition (“a collection of mental events”).

What I mean by ego (the personal self) is, “Taking one’s thoughts personally.”

That’s my experience at least. When I take my thoughts personally, I suffer. When I gained access to the Witness, I experienced the observation of my thoughts and thus didn’t take them personally (I felt separated from them). I still slip, and it is when I slip that I suffer.

And since I don’t like to suffer, nor do I like to see others suffer, I talk negatively about the “ego” (taking thoughts personally).

Hope this helps clarify things.

Further Thought: Reading my definition above (the bolded text), I see that my definition of “ego” isn’t so much a thing as a perspective. This is probably why I call it the ego level—it is a time in our lives (and that time could last a lifetime) when we take our thoughts personally.

Looked at it this way, you could say that all the levels of the map are simply perspectives (perspectives brought about by new insights or experiences).

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5 thoughts on “Clarifying “I, the Ego”

  1. This is important territory, and I’m glad it’s being discussed.

    People use the word “ego” as if it has a single meaning. However, a closer examination reveals there are different things the word can indicate, different aspects of a person that can be called “ego.” Some of them are problematic, tending toward bondage and suffering and needing to be cleared away. And some of them are healthy and necessary for a human life. That is true no matter how spiritual , awakened or enlightened that life may become.

    In Sanskrit, there are two words that are often translated as “ego.” They are ahamkara and asmita. If you look them up in a Sanskrit dictionary, you’ll find they are often translated the same, referring to the part of oneself that underlies arrogance, competitiveness, insecurity, vanity, all the bad things that give ego its bad reputation.

    However, in some definitions, there’s a clear difference between ahamkara and asmita.

    Ahamkara refers to the basic sense of “I and mine,” the little “me” that allows us to function as human beings, be oriented in the world and carry on with life.

    Ahamkara functions by associating itself with, identifying itself as, various things: I am a man of a certain age, with these experiences, these talents, these relationships, these responsibilities, etc. Those associations and identifications that ahamkara creates are, in and of themselves, benign as regards awakening or enlightenment.

    In this sense, ahamkara might be referred to as “functional ego,” which naturally must survive awakening to allow the awakened one to function in a human form. This is similar to Freud’s definition of ego in the sense that it serves a rational and necessary function in the personality. However, it is different in that Freud abandoned the definition of ego as a sense of the individual “me,” and used it to mean a set of psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, etc. (according to Wikipedia).

    Asmita, on the other hand, is the overlay of impressions, conditionings and habits that color and distort how the ego functions in a personality. If ahamkara can be referred to as functional ego, then asmita can be called “dysfunctional ego.”

    Asmita thins out as awakening deepens. The sense is, “There is less and less of me, and more and more of God/Tao/Her.” Because subjectively the two components of ego, functional and dysfunctional, ahamkara and asmita, are closely associated, the subjective sense is simply that the ego is thinning out.

    That sense may lead to the seemingly logical conclusion that “When there is nothing left of me, there will be everything of God/Tao/Her.” It may lead to a conviction that the ego must be slain, once and for all and entirely, for awakening to be complete.

    That sense, that ego must be annihilated, is itself an ego attachment. If you challenge it, some will react with surprising intensity in defense of their conviction. Paradoxically, it is often the people who are most pure of heart, with little remaining of what we would call ego, who are most at ease with the fact that some remnant of ego does endure.

    The purpose of ego is to take things up and let them go so one may carry on a life in the world. (And of course, its role is to identify with the body, protect the body, so life will be maintained for as long as it serves a purpose.)

    As awakening deepens and the dysfunctional aspects are burned away, the ego becomes mature. It becomes accustomed, not only to its purpose of taking things up, but also of LETTING THINGS GO.

    Because the ego doesn’t only grasp. It also lets go, even though it experiences a sense of dying with each letting go. That little ego death happens because the ego functions by identifying with things. When that identity is released in the process of letting go of whatever thing, the ego may feel threatened or even that it is dying.

    When one is awake to Pure Consciousness at the true center, the ego discovers it can let go and not be annihilated, even though it still feels a death with each letting go. It arises again when it is called to serve its purpose in taking up the next thing for the personality to become engaged with.

    Rather than being annihilated once and for all, the ego, transformed and transmuted, but still functioning as ego, has a role to play as the whole person becomes enlightened. It transitions from being dominant, imagining itself to be the center, and it begins to function in service to the true Center.

    Ego is able to serve the greater whole by becoming malleable, by learning to participate in transformation instead of resisting. It becomes effective, not only in the taking up, but also in the letting go part of the transaction. The ego becomes the sacrificial offering in a Holy Eucharist that is taking place always and endlessly in every soul.

    So it seems to me, there may be an over-emphasis on getting rid of ego, of the annihilation of ego as a hallmark of awakening. There may be times when ego seems completely absent, and other times when it seems more active, depending on where one might be in any given cycle of taking up and letting go.

    To my way of seeing this, the important piece is the awakening to infinite Pure Consciousness.

    The impact of that awakening on the functioning of ego is revolutionary, in that it changes forever the position of ego in the structure of the person. In time, as that awakening deepens and matures, it transforms the ego from a source of suffering and an adversary in the process of liberation, to a participant in the ongoing process of transformation that is the nature of an awakened life.

    So the ego ceases to be an issue at all. However thinned out, it is still there nonetheless, participating in its purpose of taking up and letting go, of holding material within the sphere of attention and thereby creating a mechanism for activity in the world, but it’s just another part of the personality, to be observed with benevolence from the standpoint of a Totality that transcends and at the same time includes every aspect of individuality.

    • It’s an interesting theory, Jerry—of the ego being composed of two components—but I don’t see any evidence for it.

      What I do experience is the “True Center” (I like that term), which is what, up until the Witness level, would often get confused and identify with ego, or personal story, or past or roles.

      After the Witness level, I would often call this True Center, me-whatever-that-is, because it seemed to be a constant, yet have few definable properties. This True Center, as you pointed out to me a few months back, is required for TaoGodHer to manifest as a human being and was the “solution” to the Mystic’s Dilemma (trying to surrender all of my Self to TaoGodHer).

      That True Center sounds a lot like what you are calling ahamkara—almost a pure, untainted form of the individual before it gets “painted over” with identifying with, well, with anything. And this is my experience (all the evidence I have). But (and I’m not saying you disagree), this True Center (me-whatever-that-is) is not TaoGodHer, but a single thread of TaoGodHer manifest as a human/Soul combination. In other words, me-whatever-that-is am not God but am composed completely of God.

      We might be saying the same thing and I’m just misunderstanding the difference between True Center and ahamkara (I don’t see a difference but you seem to be saying they are different). Either way, we’re probably close enough. As you know, I’m not one to trust theories without evidence and frankly, at this level, there’s little more to go on than individuals relating their first-hand experiences, something (living people that can be questioned) often seem reluctant to do for whatever reason (that’s just my thing).

  2. Thanks for this response, Wayne.

    Here are a couple of things:

    You wrote, “That True Center sounds a lot like what you are calling ahamkara—almost a pure, untainted form of the individual before it gets “painted over” with identifying with, well, with anything. And this is my experience (all the evidence I have). But (and I’m not saying you disagree), this True Center (me-whatever-that-is) is not TaoGodHer, but a single thread of TaoGodHer manifest as a human/Soul combination. In other words, me-whatever-that-is am not God but am composed completely of God.”

    Yes, that’s very close to my own view.

    Regarding evidence …

    There’s a natural, and pretty universal, tendency to look at any set of circumstances with particular preconceptions and expectations. What one sees will naturally reflect what one is looking for, expecting to see, or in the best scenario, what one is open to seeing.

    Looking for and expecting to see one thing or another is a conditioned response, which we might associate with the dysfunctional aspect of ego, which we can call asmita.

    On the other hand, being open to seeing whatever is, is an unconditioned response, which we might associate with what we are calling ahamkara, or functional ego. That openness is “beginner’s mind” in the terminology of Zen. True beginner’s mind is said to be characteristic of a mature awakening.

    A place to look for evidence is in the personalities of realized persons, to whatever extent we may be able to explore them.

    There was a time when I believed in an egoless perfection of the most enlightened. However, based on evidence I’ve observed and studied over four decades, I came to the same conclusion as our friend Adyashanti, who said, “If you’re looking for a perfect teacher, pick a dead one.” He was referring to the fact that mythologies about enlightenment tend not to quite match the realities of actual, living, awakened, enlightened individuals.

    They all have quirks and foibles, some have obvious weaknesses, which we might attribute to the ever thinning residue of asmita, and they all have personalities, motivations and a sense of individual identity.

    When such “ego associations,” however lightly they may be carried, facilitate service and benefit themselves and humanity, we might attribute them to the underlying, benevolent side of ego, which may be called ahamkara.

    Another way this might be understood is that before awakening, ego dominates. After awakening has matured, ego, having shed its arrogance, no longer dominates and only serves.

    I believe there is ample evidence for this, if one is open to releasing preconception and seeing it.

    (And of course, keep in mind, many people interchange the terms ahamkara and asmita indiscrininately, without acknowledging the subtle, but important distinctions.)

  3. Hi You two!

    Very, Very fascinating conversation. From my expierence it seems that if we move slower through “the stages” and we are open we may find “sub-levels” or nuances that are often overlooked by others who just woke up. I have similiar expierence as Jerry with a dysfunctional ego vs. a functional one. However when that gets cleared and integrated there comes forth something i call “essential self” (because i read that phrase and i like it). This may be the same as what you call “true center”. It is that me free from identification with thoughts, emos and body but does carry some qualities like joy, compassion, peace etc. (unaffected by the external world). This comes with witnessing, but witnessing can also happen without integration of the dysf. ego.
    What i like about this exploration is that it shows that there is so much more going than just the “you are no-one” babble from the non-dual fundamentalists.
    The questions you ask Wayne ring as very good ones in my ear. Just recently i came upon a teacher called anadi and though he is not really my type he does raise some really deep questions about self-realization, enlightenement etc. that no one is asking and he has maped out some of it.

    Much love to both of you!

  4. The evidence regarding the nature of “ego” is easier to see if we recognize that ego is not a noun but a verb (as pointed out by AnnCornell in Jerry’s original comment). “Egoity” is a process analogous to gravity. Gravity is what we call the tendency of centers of mass to attract each other. Etoity is the tendency for the unfathomable intelligence of life to establish homeostasis (stability) in systems. We can observe evidence of this at every level: the tight bonds of subatomic particles, the maintenance of a stable number of electrons in atoms, the conglomeration of atoms into stable molecules, the formation of functionally stable organs from molecules, and the survival of a human made of organs. Homeostasis at all levels is achieved by the constant process of pulling in what is needed and pushing away what is harmful (ie, protection). This agrees with Jerry’s statement that “The purpose (action) of ego is to take things up and let them go so we may carry on a life in the world.” The evidence for this action is observable in the moment as breathing, heart beating, taking in food/water and elimination. But at the level of organizational complexity where thoughts become possible (ie, humans), this action begins to apply to protecting thought patterns. Homeostasis here becomes the “ego” as we “take our thoughts personally”. Why and how this happens is described in minute detail in Buddhist and Hindu literature. The suffering associated with egoity happens when we fail to distinguish real needs from desires; the fundamental desire being that things should be other than what they are, because things are never other than what they are. Thus, “thinning out” of the ego equates to dropping the urge to protect thought structures.

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