Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

Illusion of Ego

Left-click for MP3 audio stream, right-click to download

What is it in us that blocks our connection with the spiritual depths? If heaven is real, why am I not in contact with it? All religions and paths address this central question, under a variety of names, the most common today in the West being “ego.” The term ego, in this context, alludes to our deeply ingrained self-referential, self-seeking disposition, our well-hidden and highly adaptable attitude that life revolves around me and mine. Ego cuts us off from other people, from Nature, from God, from our authentic self, from our true responsibility, and from fulfilling our destiny. Our ego is the great usurper. It focuses on our local independence, falsely presuming it to be a global independence. The ego convinces us that we are truly separate beings with ultimately separate will, having no inherent connection with other people or with God.

Our ego installs us at the center of the universe, separate from all and enslaved by time. Dwelling on our past history, our conditioning, our grudges, our manufactured identity, our personality, or on our future hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, desires, and pressures, ego creates a constant torrent of mental structures, each of which proclaim “This is me.” In childhood we become so involved and enamored with the growing arsenal of our ego, that we unquestioningly assume it is who we are. That insidious assumption constitutes the ego's iron grip on us.

This ego, this false pretender, whenever it arises grabs the seat of honor at the core of our being. It purports to speak for the whole of us, even though our various parts lack integration. It adopts the voice and desires of whatever part of us pushes itself temporarily to the top of the heap. So for example, our ego, under the influence of one part of us, “decides” to do something, but later under the influence of another part, we find ourselves doing just the opposite. I may think “I am going to quit smoking tomorrow.” But tomorrow my hand, not caring what my mind thought yesterday, reaches for a cigarette. The pretender to the throne does not bear the royal seal, does not have the power it ascribes to itself.

Why is it that the ego, or separate self, produces such a major difficulty in the spiritual path, indeed THE major difficulty? The answer can be found in the subtlety of the place occupied by ego and I. That place is not readily visible, even to our inner eye. It lies in the realm of Will, more interior than all our thought, emotion, and sensory experience, more interior than our awareness or consciousness itself, more interior than our mind. Ego and I reside in the place of who we are, that in us which chooses and decides, or abdicates choosing and deciding. A thought that says, “I will …,” masquerades as the source of decision. When this does represent an actual decision, the true source is will itself. Our will, however, usurped by the self-centered ego, an aberration of will, enters into a wrong and self-referential mode of working. Our true I, our true will, does not act by force, but rather by the cooperative assent of our various parts.. The uncooperative ego can thus come and stand in the place of the I, hiding and splitting off our authentic I from the rest of us. Under the influence of ego, we believe ourselves to be our own source. It turns out that, although we are indeed our own source, that very source is the Source of All.

Religions and paths portray the nature of our egoism and how to deal with it in one of two quite distinct modes. Usually, and to our misfortune, the ways reify and solidify ego into a something, an enemy, which must be overcome, which must die, which inherently resides in our tainted nature, which must be purified. True enough. One cannot argue with the accumulated wisdom of great religions. For our modern culture, though, the notion that our ego must die seems frightening. More importantly, the notion that we harbor inherent spiritual taints gets interpreted by our self-bashing, insecure psychology to mean that we are bad, or at least inadequate — something that we in the West are often trained to believe from childhood on. We believe we are not good enough. So we don the knowledge of being corrupt to our core as a mantle of supposed wisdom, and flock to those that teach it. Then the religious teaching about egoism simply gets co-opted by the self-denigrating side of our ego, eagerly adopted and accepted as yet another weakness. We hang our heads and beat our breasts and feel the better (or worse) for it. Unfortunately, all this only strengthens our egoism and leads us into an endless cycle, akin to a dog chasing its tail.

Casting our ego as the enemy in a holy war and winning that battle is an exceedingly difficult proposition, primarily because the ego proves to be a most subtle adversary. In fact, the ego will even join the battle against itself. It will take it on and say “this is wonderful, I’m going to battle against ego, I will become free, I will be wonderful, I will be better than I am now, and I will be better than other people, because I will be a highly evolved spiritual being.” Pretense, for example, cannot solve the problem of egoism. Acting humble does not make us humble. Non-egoism cannot be added on from the outside: it must be subtracted from us, from within.

The ego happily joins our forces in the great battle. As an enemy, it infiltrates our lines, wearing our own uniform, its soldiers and officers indistinguishable from ours. How does one fight a battle against such a devious and resourceful enemy? For most of us, it comes to nothing but another heap of suffering as we merely fight ourselves in the name of spirituality and sink more deeply than ever into the morass of self-centeredness. Only the rarest of souls find a way through this conundrum.

An alternative, but also traditional view casts ego in an entirely different perspective, not as an enemy, but as an illusion, and invites us to see our ego for what it is: an empty, ephemeral sham, a hall of mirrors, a self-referential and insubstantial web. The rise of Buddhism in the West is, in no small part, due to this kinder yet no less incisive and perhaps more tractable formulation of the problem of egoism.

Our belief in our ego, or separate self, is to a large extent learned from society. All the people around us labor under a self-centered perspective on life, which naturally devolves to impressionable children. Repeatedly shining the light of awareness directly on this sense of separateness gradually disperses it.  But i f we look carefully for our ego, for this separate self that we think we are, we shall not find it.

Am I my body? I can control my body, I can be aware of my body, and my awareness is greater than my body. So I am probably not my body.

Am I my feelings? I can be aware of my feelings and have some rudimentary influence on them, so I am probably not my feelings.

Am I my thoughts? My thoughts claim the title of I, thinking “I think,” “I am hungry.” But that “I” is just a thought, having no more substance than any other thought. It fools me though, this thought “I.” I believe in it. I believe it refers to something real and substantial, to the real me. But if I look at it clearly, I see it as only a thought with no real referent. At best, I may have a vague idea that I am some combination of my thoughts, feelings, and body. Again it proves empty to the insightful observer.

Am I my knowledge and experience, my habits and desires, my style - in short, my personality? But I can see all this at work in myself. And clearly, the one who sees seems closer to me than this whole complex of acquired patterns and inherited predispositions that I call my personality. So no, I am not my personality. I need my personality because only through it can I function in life, but I also need to remember that this personality is not who I am.

How about my awareness? Am I my awareness? Two problems here. First, I have some control over what I am aware of. So there must be something deeper. Second, the deeper I go into awareness, the less it is centered in me, so how can that be me as a separate entity, as an ego?

How about my attention?  How about that in me that decides, my will? This is the subtlest of all. Yet again, the deeper I look into my will, the less it is centered in me, and the more it opens beyond me.

So wherever we look, we do not find this self, this separate person that takes our name, this self-important actor on the stage of our life. The more we engage in spiritual inner work, the more carefully and persistently we are able look into ourselves, and the more this once-compelling ego, this self disappears. Or perhaps we see that it never existed to begin with. Gradually, our belief in our ego assumes a porous quality, which rather than cutting us off from others, merely clouds our relationships intermittently. This separate self never was. Our devotion to it shrivels and we are left to truly be ourselves, to play our unique role in the larger story of our common life. When moments come in which we fall back into that trance of selfness, we feel uncomfortable, like in a shoe that no longer fits, and we let it go.

Our ego, this illusory pattern, however, endures with remarkable resilience and persistence. Complete freedom from ego comes only at a very high station of spiritual development, something to which we may aspire and work for with diligence. The best approach lies somewhere between the two outlined above. Seeing and letting go can only work insofar as we are able to see. The depth and subtlety of our seeing must increase. For this, efforts of various kinds are necessary. These efforts may include grappling with some of the propensities of our separate self. Doing so can illumine the tentacles of egoism, while creating energy for seeing more. Only we must not have the idea that such struggles will, by themselves, reform our recalcitrant self-centeredness. A project of reform by force is doomed to fail. Efforts at reform can only be useful to the extent that they help us to see. Sensing the energy body and working at presence also help us see. And seeing, it is said, leads to liberation: liberation from the illusion of the ego and into the freedom of interconnectedness.


About Inner Frontier                                    Send us email 

Copyright © 2001 - 2023 Joseph Naft. All rights reserved.