There remains a lot of confusion about what the ego is. That’s because when we are ego-identified, it can be a very tricky concept to grasp.
Most people operate from the belief that they really are their egos. This is backwards, and when you’re stepping straight out of a highly egocentric culture (i.e., much of the Western world), it can feel a bit jarring. That’s because the ego is actually your false self. Even more sneakily, it is made up of everything you’ve been conditioned to believe you are.
The whole thing is pretty neat, but at first, it can be pretty scary.
So, at some moment (maybe after some LSD or heavy meditation or nothing at all), you might snap into the realization that who and what you’ve always thought you were is false. To put it mildly, this is not a comfortable thing to face. This is the bottom falling out. This is the gut-wrenching “is anything real?” question. This is a void opening up where your brainstem once was. You may be certain that you are losing your mind, and because you are mind-identified, you will panic at this.
It happened to me at work when I was ringing a guy up for coffee. I couldn’t remember if I had given him the cup or his change; all I knew was that I immediately had to text a couple friends and my then-husband from the employee bathroom: “I’m losing my shit.” “You married a crazy woman.” I took some deep breaths and surveyed my face in the mirror to see what in the hell this thing even was that seemed to be generating these horrific thoughts. I finished that shift by the grace of God, and still very, very unsettled. (I wish I could say it didn’t get worse, but that would be dishonest.)
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we weren’t so ego-identified as a culture, all of this would be no big deal, I wouldn’t have to write this stuff, and there would be no reason for said psychological trauma.
If this happens to you—and you haven’t landed in a psychiatric facility—try to remember that all discomfort actually arises from your ego in its attempts to protect itself. Your true self knows nothing of discomfort. In order to continue to have a human experience, your ego does need to stay intact, but it doesn’t need to freak out in order to do so. However, because we’re woefully uneducated on the ego, most people do freak out a little, at least.
This moment is an irresistible catalyst for personal/spiritual growth, in part because it is so disorienting. From here you’ll likely go scrambling for comfort and find it nowhere: No one will understand what is happening to you, and this of course will make it seem worse. Unless you are surrounded by some very spiritually aware people, you will not even feel safe in your own head until you read a few books and/or peruse several posts on the Internet like this. And even though it can be extremely frightening (particularly if you didn’t go looking for it), you will come to see your ego’s collapse as one of the most important experiences of your life.
That’s because understanding the ego and its tricks helps you to be more grounded, more joyful, and able to truly empathize with others. Suddenly you don’t have to take yourself so seriously. Most of the stuff you were ever concerned with was ego-stuff, and ego-stuff is ultimately false. What a relief! There is unfathomable bliss underneath the rubble of false identifications. Also, understanding the ego’s ways also gives you the power to change which aspects of it you want to express on a regular basis. Read: Understanding the ego helps you come into your ever-present, incredible power.
Most importantly, “ego” is not a bad word, nor is it a thing we strive to “get rid of.” This seems to be a common misunderstanding when people are first starting to learn spiritual terms. In order to live at our highest potentials, aligned with Truth, we only need to see the ego for what it is: An illusion. We may want our unconscious egos to go away, but we can still have loving, awesome egos rooted in the awareness that we are not really them.
From this understanding we can go on to create a nice illusory ego, or a not so nice one. At the level of consciousness required to see the ego as illusory, everyone chooses to be nice.
Okay, so it’s fake, but what is it?
The ego is window dressing. It’s the details which cumulatively make you who you think you are: Things like your job, your age, race, nationality—even more, it’s every story about what has “happened” to you. It’s a collection of nouns and adjectives and stories that, when taken together, create a “person.” Let’s use my ego for an example. My ego is…
- A human being. That’s right—in reality, you’re not even a human being. This is only offensive to those egos who are heavily identified with being human. Of course, almost all of us are. Most of us are still stuck believing that being human is what divines us with “worth.” This is false, but, I digress.
- An author.
- An American.
- The daughter of a drug addict.
- Many, many other things.
You can replace these details with anything and come up with a brand new configuration of human: Man, lawyer, French, bisexual, son of a failed ballerina. Gender-fluid, barista, Canadian, pansexual, child of a rich doctor. These are just the surface traits—gender, job, nationality, sexual preference, parental occupation. At best, we have described weak characters of people. So what happens when we add more?
There are plenty of other things that make up the ego: one’s sense of humor, the things that have happened to him/her, their level of introversion/extraversion, etc. And these are the things we tend to “really” believe we are.
It’s interesting that we believe this, especially because so many of us have watched our loved ones suffer from dementia and become totally different people. There are also those who incur serious brain damage and have dramatic personality changes. We still call these people by their names, and we don’t deny them their personal histories. I’m curious to know what it is that holds the image of such individuals together (for us) after such unfortunate events. I don’t think it’s wrong to continue seeing them as the people once they were, but highlighting this digs a little further at the root of who we “are.”
Anyway. If we’re heavily identified with our personalities and/or mental patterns—as we tend to be—we will define ourselves by such aspects, but the deeper aspects aren’t your true self, either.
All of these things are part of the ego, which is not to say they are bad. It’s just that they don’t hold up in reality.
I’d like to finish this post with a metaphor:
Imagine yourself as a balloon, filled to capacity with air. If you’re ego-identified, you think that the entirety of who you are is that thin layer of rubber. And yes, for now, part of “you” is that thin layer of rubber, but that’s definitely not the thing which gives you your form. In death, you’re popped; in an ego collapse, you’re momentarily deflated.
In reality, you are the air. When you die, your consciousness expands into the universal consciousness as soon as your ego-shell is gone. You become the rest of the air as well. So where does your personal soul end and another’s begin? In death, there is no personal soul. There is no separation, and all is one.
This is where higher consciousness always leads.