The ego is the most misunderstood and underappreciated concept in the history of human evolution. This word gets thrown about casually all the time. Many people believe they have a hold on this notion, and perhaps they do on an intellectual level. However, intellectual understanding is not what we are after on the path. This is because intellectual understanding will not free you or reintroduce you to the Self.
As I’ve said, I once loved deep philosophical discourse—or rather it felt “deep” because the mind was busy tying itself into ever-tightening knots. The depths of ourselves are not actually known until the egoic mind begins to thin. All of my conversations occurred while the core questions, “Who is speaking? Who even are we?” went ignored and/or unanswered. Intellectual conversations carry on like this all the time.
The reason for such misunderstanding is because 99% of what we hear, think, and talk about comes from the ego itself. In this post I am going to refer to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave* and compare it to the experience of living inside the egoic identity versus seeing through it and to the Self.
*The Wikipedia link says that the allegory is about “the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature.” But the allegory is not about education in terms of mental knowledge or accumulation of worldly facts. One with a Ph.D in theology is no closer to Truth than a farmer who dropped out of high school.
The allegory is about self-knowledge. It is about the way we can come to know true reality as opposed to what most of us accept as “reality” without looking very far inward. The allegory has survived for so long in the collective consciousness precisely because it is about the egoic mind, not “education” in the modern sense.
Most often, when we say we understand ourselves or others, it is ego talking about ego. Here we are still in the cave, theorizing about the light outside rather than just walking out into it. If we once had a spiritual experience, we might be remembering what it was like to be out there for a split second: Spacious, peaceful, open, clear. It is much rarer for one to walk outside the cave and never look back. I would like to see it become much less rare.
And it is almost only the “bad” human qualities we attribute to ego. We think it only means arrogance, greed, hot-headedness, and an inflated sense of importance. And while these traits surely do stem from an unexamined ego, they alone are not an accurate description of what an “ego” is or its effects on the being.
Here is the simplest description of your ego: It’s your false identity. It is a construct (truly just a thought) made up of personal history, belief systems, and group affiliations. It is a collection of labels and stories that have been assigned to you since (or even before) birth. You have taken on these labels and stories unconsciously, and believe they are what “you” are.
This falseness—something that is a clever lie—is driving nearly all of our thoughts and actions in this world. Do we understand now how the world has gotten into the shape it is in? We live upon it while believing unquestioningly in a huge lie. This lie is so obvious it goes overlooked all the time.
Just for fun, pay close attention to the next new person you meet. Most of the time, if you ask them about themselves, they will launch right into their ego-story: “I am John, I work at a pharmacy, I have a dog, etc.” Or just ask someone “who are you?” Again, it will almost always be about personal history, personal relationships, their profession, interests, etc. Straight away, they are speaking from their ego. It is rare for someone to go “off-script.” The ego is what we are usually talking about when we use the word “I:” It is “ourselves” as particular individuals. These small stories represent the cave we are all living in.
What is the origin of this cave, this ego-identity?
It is conditioning, through and through. Everything you believe about yourself is the result of conditioning. This is easy to unravel: The body you were born with did not come with a name. Your parents gave you one, and slowly conditioned you to respond to this name. We are all conditioned to believe we are smart or stupid, worthy or unworthy. We are conditioned to believe that certain self-expressions are acceptable and others must be suppressed; we are conditioned to believe all kinds of things like “money equals safety,” “nations are real,” and “a partner will make you happy.”
Consciously conditioning another person to believe something is negatively called “brainwashing.” But even if we “reject” all beliefs, we will find that this root construct—this false “I”—will happily latch on to the belief that “it is a person with no beliefs.”
If you take yourself to be any kind of person at all, you are missing the Truth of your Self.
Sometimes we read or hear truthful statements about the ego and dismiss them: “I’ve heard all this already; I understand all that,” etc… Well, what are we trying to defend, then? What is the source of our restlessness and lack of ease? Why do we continue to chase experiences and live in unpleasant life situations? Why do we find it so difficult to sit quietly in peace?
Once this “false one” is unmasked—once we walk in out into the sun from the cave—the struggles naturally come to an end. Because we are not separate from one another, it is true that the whole world is uplifted when even one being makes it out.
But I don’t want it to seem so hard! There is actually no cave or ego to “get out of.” See this and you will know freedom right now. And you do not have to sacrifice everything in your life to look within. I am of the belief that most realized beings move towards lives of simplicity because silence just becomes preferable to conditioned chatter and noise. However, peace is still an inner experience everywhere they go. Living from the Truth, a sage is also capable of having relationships and jobs and other “normal” life situations, but many don’t. These things are often a kind of energetic drain.
The main difference is that they have seen who they are, truly and doubtlessly, and allow life to unfold before them. There is no fixed “person” within them. They tend to radiate peace and stillness, but are capable of any unabashed expression—yes, even anger and sorrow. They are simply not identified with their emotions.
As far as getting free, it isn’t very helpful to “think about” the ego-identity. When we think about the ego from the ego, it is tantamount to painstakingly wandering around the cave, taking inventory of its nooks and crannies: “Ah yes, here is the water drip; here is the crack in the cave wall; here is the rock where I stubbed my toe…”
We are also fascinated with the projections on the walls, always discussing them and pointing at them. The obsessiveness over worldly “stuff” is truly silly. You are given no aerial view this way, and no idea about how beautiful it is outside.
To see the ego in its entirety, we must start to make steps towards its exit. If we are lucky and our minds are ripe, our efforts will fruit in no time. We will run right to the edge of the cave and into the sunlight to find that none of those projections were real in the first place. From this position, it will seem bizarre how steadfastly most human beings fight to remain inside of it.
However, it seems that most of us prefer to live in the hallway towards the exit of the cave: We want the imagined safety and familiarity of the cave (the cherished personal identity) and an open free life in the sun.
My friends, this is not possible. It is the work of the egoic mind to convince you the cave is safer. The exact opposite is true: In no time at all, the cave is going to collapse and crumble in on you, so why waste another moment inside of it? The desire to have both can easily create many lifetimes of discord for you.
The true way to live is in complete freedom from the egoic mind. This is also the way our culture goes about transforming into one that is actually healthy and responsible in the long run. Our way of life in the egoic hivemind is much like a snake eating its own tail. It may seem tasty and interesting until we see, with horror, what is happening. Only then will we say, with shock, “my God, what have I been doing?!”
Perhaps the Self is realized right then.
The question is, will we realize these things?