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What is the Ego, Anyway?

“The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” ~Carl Jung

Imagine just having been born.

You don’t know anything. You’ve never experienced anything.

But suddenly there is light, and chaos. You’re exposed, and cold. Blurry shapes are moving all around you. Sounds strike you with an edge much sharper they ever had in the womb. The whole scene is bright and loud, and the shapes move so quickly.

There is so much happening. It is all completely alien and extremely intense. It’s upsetting. You cry.

Among other things, you are seeing what you will later learn to call faces. But they are not faces yet. They are shapes, with a pattern that will soon become familiar to you.

You are hearing what you will later be told are voices. One of them is already very familiar to you. You will be told to call it “Mommy.”

The one thing you are certainly not aware of, is you. You are aware of all these shapes and sounds and feelings, but you aren’t perceiving them as happening to you or to anyone else. You are only aware that they are happening.

How will you ever make sense of it all?

Luckily, you are human (though you’re not aware of that yet) and human minds have the power of association. Without even trying, you begin to associate certain shapes and sounds with certain thoughts. You associate your mother’s voice with comfort. Your mother’s voice becomes comfort. You might associate the dark with sleepiness, maybe loneliness too. You might associate bathtime with fun, or horror, depending on what happens emotionally during your bathtimes.

Associations like this accumulate. From experience, X makes you expect Y. Then X begins to symbolize Y. Eventually X may become indistinguishable from Y. You’ll keep adding them over time.

This is handy for sorting out the chaos around you. You can tell, for example, that the thing with the warm hands and soothing voice is usually good news for you. It’s a simple association. This is the primary tool you’ll use to make sense of the whirling scenes around you.

You are still only looking outwards, and it has not yet occurred to you to inquire as to what is doing the looking. After all, the entirety of existence — every shape, sound, character and story — appears to be there, somewhere outwards. You don’t yet have a reason to contemplate what is at the center of all this action.

Over the first few years of your life, you will be taught that certain shapes and thoughts and sensations are you. When you look down, you’ll notice several appendages extending away from your point of view, which you will be taught are your body and your arms and your legs.

At this point, there is still nothing to suggest that there is any boundary between you and the world around you. The feet you see when you look down are just things “out there”, no more you or yours than the floor beneath them.

But those words the adults use: “you” and “yours,” for which you learn to substitute “me” and “mine”, will eventually trigger you to assign a special status to certain things.

They tell you the red book is yours, and the blue book is not yours.

The things you’ve vested with this special status begin to carry extra weight, emotionally speaking. To lose the red book is much worse than losing the blue book, because the red book was “yours.”

Through all your interactions with other people, you begin to build a concept of what is at the center of all of this stuff happening: a person, kind of like the people you’ve come to know in your life. They don’t look like you though; from your point of view they are arranged quite differently. You wouldn’t suspect, for example, that you have, hidden from your immediate view, a face like the ones you’ve seen on others.

The worst association of all

The most devastating turn of events happens nearly the same way for almost everyone. You are looking in a mirror, marveling at the child on the other side of the glass, when your parent says, “That’s you.”

At first it makes no sense, because they are pointing at the toddler in the mirror, not at you. And that familiar toddler, the occasional friend of yours… where is he when you’re not in front of the mirror? He never seems to make an appearance anywhere else.

Your parents are quite stubborn about calling him “you,” even though that’s your nickname, and eventually you do take their word for it. Above all else you’ve already learned that your parents know better than you, and you gradually digest this unlikely-sounding claim like any other.

As you get older, you will associate more and more worldly things with you. Your clothes. Your toys. Your friends. Your room. Your house. A bit of you seems to be invested everywhere. There is a lot to worry about, because your fate seems to depend, at least a little, on the fate of each of these objects too.

But it gets heavier. Along with those, you begin to identify with intangible things which also carry this special, extra-sensitive status.

Your turn. Your idea. Your way. Your problem. Your fault.

By this time, you will have no doubts whatsoever that the image in the mirror is you. Now the collection of thoughts and objects with that special status has a clear appearance and a compelling storyline, and you become hopelessly preoccupied with tending to it.

That figure in the mirror, disappointingly tiny compared to the 360-degree world you were preoccupied with before, becomes the most important part of the scenery to deal with. You begin to associate your history and your traits with it: how smart it is, what it is good at and bad at, what it deserves, what it fears, what it hopes for, where it has been and where it is going.

It’s all you really have. God forbid anything will happen to it.

By this time you are completely convinced that this image and its story comprise the entirety of who you are. There is nothing outside of it.

baby looking in mirror

Steering the story

And ever after, anything that happens to that image, and the story that goes with it, is happening to you. When the story goes how you want, the image gains something. It looks better. When it disappoints, the image loses something, and you don’t like it as much.

Because this face and this story allegedly comprise the entirety of who you are, the importance of steering this storyline and its vulnerable little hero grips you with the most dire seriousness.

Even though most of what happens to it is beyond your control, you find it absolutely imperative that the image and its story become something you like. At this, you mustn’t fail.

But the story always seems to be deviating from its ideal path, and it will always feel like something is wrong, or at least in danger of going wrong. Something that is supposed to happen hasn’t happened yet, or something has happened that wasn’t supposed to.

For all our skill in manipulating the story, deep down we know circumstances could crush us at any time. But we do our best to steer it towards a storyline we can accept.  We feel a constant need to make adjustments, to secure a future that will fulfill this most important of all needs.

This is the game we learn to play, and it’s very, very hard to win.

You are never what you think you are

The face in the mirror, and the haphazard story we associate with it, is the ego.

In other words, the ego is what you think you are.

The ego is often defined as “a false sense of self,” but I think that’s misleading. It implies that there is an accurate way of thinking of who you are, and an inaccurate way. Bad self-esteem and good self-esteem. But who’s to say if your image is right or not? Self-esteem is ego, whether your self-thoughts comfort you or horrify you.

How could our thoughts even possibly pin down who we are? How could our notoriously fickle, free-associating monkey minds ever come up with an meaningful estimation of what the combination our jobs, faces, body-types, relationships, capabilities, experiences, fears and desires actually mean? All that stuff is the content of your life; it’s the style, the flavor, but do all those details really add up to a person?

Of course not, because what we think of ourselves is constantly changing, not just day to day, but moment to moment, and mood to mood. At different times, I have thought of myself as anything from an insufferable loser, to a freaking genius, to a guy who can never quite get his shit together, to a guy who’s never had a serious problem in his life. What I think I am is so fickle and so dependent on moods and circumstances, that it can’t possibly be right — ever!

The ego is always just a big, seething grab-bag of thoughts that could be different at any time. But usually we don’t recognize that. Generally, in the colloquial way we talk about people, as in you and me, we’re referring to our egos — our acquired identities, based on the forms in our life.

That is to say, it’s completely normal in our society to confuse your ego for yourself. It has never even occurred to most people that they are not what they think they are.

This has enormous implications for the quality of our lives and our societies, too enormous to cover in the scope of this article. For now, suffice it to say that the worst of human behavior stems from this brutal mistake.

Clearly you can’t be your thoughts. After all, who would you be when you’re not thinking?

So what are you then? What’s left over? You know you’re not who you think you are, or at least who you think you are is only an undependable, highly circumstantial part of the whole story.

Remember, we didn’t have an ego when we were born. We accumulated it through making associations. So who — what– was doing that thinking and perceiving, before it was even aware of itself?

If you recall:

You are aware of all these shapes and sounds and feelings, but you aren’t perceiving them as happening to you or to anyone else. You are only aware that they are happening.

How do we get back there? Is it possible, after all the self-ascribing opinions we’ve taken on over the years? We need a way to see clearly what we were before the ego came along and said “Hey, I’m you.”

We can’t untangle this mess of thoughts with more thinking any better than we could clean a dirty floor with more dirt.

That’s where Douglas Harding’s work becomes particularly useful. Stay tuned.

Photo by jessicafm and milla.deet


girl in front of mirror

Jaky Astik August 16, 2010 at 1:49 am

The ‘I’ is the ego, I guess is what you mean to say. The ‘I’ and the characteristics we define it with is the ‘ego’. So, how do we get out of it? How do we just not bring ourself and our selfish ego in between our relationships, career, life and just ourselves too?! Constant affirmations maybe helpful. What say?

luis November 3, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Ego and I are the same thing, but we can change the intention of my actions in order to get over my ego, if every action i make a measurement of what i will gain, then ego is there, but if my action is by and for thinking in someone else that is not egoistic, that does n´t mean that we need to help everybody on the earth, but at least thinking that if i get a huge H2 Hummer i´ll pollute the earth by consuming or burning oils, then things start changing, don’t you think? Peace!

Deb Tankersley August 16, 2010 at 5:20 am

Very nice.

Kylie August 16, 2010 at 6:13 am

I am intrigued, excited and a little bit freaked out by the rabbit hole – so I’m definitely coming along..

Jeremy Ramsay August 16, 2010 at 7:21 am

Thanks for that David. Can’t wait for part two. Douglas Harding would have loved this post. You have laid out the most important idea there is in a clear and succinct manner. Those that haven’t come across it before may get a real ‘Eureka’ moment from reading it and I hope it spreads across the internet like wildfire. You should write a book, you really should. Those looking for real meaning in life need look no further! Peace is at hand. Thanks again.

David August 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I’m glad you’re here Jeremy. Knowing you’ve met Harding, I feel assured that at least somebody knows what I’m getting at here.

Jeremy Ramsay August 16, 2010 at 7:07 pm

I’m sure they will when you get them to look for themselves. It’s not something that can be grasped intellectually, I think. One has to actually see it, and what a shock when one does! it is, after all, staring one in the face. Looking forward to going down the rabbit hole with the rest of the series.

Lisis August 16, 2010 at 8:19 am

An acorn is, and is not, an oak tree. As conditions change over time (moisture, light, nutrients, etc.) the acorn changes. It grows, it adapts, it absorbs what it needs to become another self. But deep down, it’s still an acorn… and a tree… and compost for future trees.

My ego is the way I think of myself at any given time. I was a chubby (but adorable) baby, a precocious kid, a confused teen, an accomplished pilot, a driven career woman, a dedicated wife and momma… (this is how far I’ve gotten in my narrative). At any point, I could’ve chosen to see myself as something different, and then made decisions to support that “identity”.

The ego is a thespian, and the world is its stage.

Trish Scott August 16, 2010 at 10:41 am

Love this, “Now the collection of thoughts and objects with that special status has a clear appearance and a compelling storyline, and you BECOME HOPELESSLY PREOCCUPIED WITH TENDING TO IT.” Caps mine :)

I think you would love one of my favorite books, The Way of No Thinking by Kunihiro Yamate

Jonathan August 16, 2010 at 11:42 am

We take things very personally. The more tightly we hold self, the more problem. No self, well…[laughing]…no problem.

Master Hina-Tyana Dhamma Loka

Xiao Ma August 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm

You hit the nail on the head with this one! Thank you for putting into words what this monkey mind has, until now, had difficulty reconciling with :)

Keep up the awesome work.

Joy August 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Love, love, lovin’ this!

TSA August 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm

A baby mostly just perceives and later wanders around, exploring. As an adult, you have to make choices, plan, think of consequences … how do you do that in the no-obsessive-storyline mode? I haven’t been able to, so far.

P.S. I visit your blog often and like it a lot :)

David August 16, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Good question. We do need an ego. It has many practical uses, and we can’t avoid forming one. But being identified with it causes a load of problems. We can be concerned for it without being obsessed. I’ll show you how.

Adam September 30, 2010 at 12:56 am

“As an adult, you have to make choices, plan, think of consequences.”

It appears to me that, in the long run, people seem unable to make choices, make plans, and observe consequences. The result of a life lived thinking we’re some-thing.


Very nice posts on Harding. Harding really changed my life. I just found this site randomly and I like it much.

Adam October 1, 2010 at 1:37 am

To add to and clarify my first point. My experience is that those things are not completely “visible” except in hindsight. What I learned the hard way is that as long as I acted from a place of knowing or thoughts rather than present evidence choices and plans were made for me by situations and circumstances and I lived the consequence of those choices. I had little to do with it. Paradoxically, this insight helped me do my job much, much better with little thought and to ultimately get a glimpse of my true self.

Michael August 16, 2010 at 7:50 pm

I had not thought through the words you have written but of course it makes perfect sense. The ego is the image you project outwards (not the image perceived by others). However, that is just an image.

Your true identity lies beyond that projection. It is difficult to realise it because you will often describe it by comparing it to your ego. I can safely say that I have distinguished my ego from my being, though I do not fully comprehend my being yet. By constantly questioning my actions and thoughts, by thinking “why am I doing this?” or “why did I say that?” I have put those things into the ego box. Now I have to see what’s left, and that would be “me”.

And strangely enough, “me” is very much “all else.” For “me” does not seem to have a life of its own – it seems to share it with everything else. I thought I was synchronizing with my surroundings, but now I realise that I *am* my surroundings. Because when I silence my ego, all that is left is the moment. Time starts flowing normally. I feel every second pass and everything that passes in that second.

It makes all sense to me, perhaps I simply needed someone else to write it out first. And then it hit me – that if my “me” is everything else, then everyone else’s “me” must be everything else, and thus, we are all the same entity when you exclude the ego. Unite that shattered entity and you get, perhaps… God?

That would be an amusing theory. God created existence by shattering Himself into everything that exists. Ha, so God *was* the Big Bang. Strangely enough, it actually makes perfect sense to me. Perhaps my theory is right.

Though this was mostly a musing of my own, perhaps you would do sense of it. Surely I must not be the only one noticing this. Oh, but nevermind me. I seem to be growing elder much too soon. :)

Lauren February 13, 2012 at 11:33 pm

The idea of everything being one (being God) is a common spiritual idea, but something about the idea of God “being” the Big Bang shook this loose for me:

Imagine you’re the newborn baby described above, but you’re born into a void. None of the shapes, sounds, lights described, just dark, silence. You never would see your limbs, you never would see your reflection, you never would see another face and no other face would exist to say or insist upon the word “you”.

If everything is God, that would describe God before everything became what it is; fragmented. That would be the united God, and it would have no way of knowing itself. It had to split to have the opportunity to know itself as God. (related: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversations_with_God)

Perhaps this is why humans have to split further into ego and id. A human could not know itself as human without first knowing itself as separate from the things it sees, hears, feels. The split makes the reconciliation possible. Are we working to get back to where we started, but with a deeper understanding of where we started? Is this the point of a fragmented human and ultimately of a fragmented God?

Duska Woods March 25, 2014 at 7:34 am

Lauren, back to the field of Unity we all came from

Martin August 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

The blind man has faith. He believes that his thoughts reflect the world. In a way I think everyone is blind. How long did we believe the world was flat? We lived our lives believing we could fall off the edge of the world. We were blind to the fact the world was round. With each new discovery we have the chance to see more, to see better. But when you are blind, chances are you will be cautious to go where you haven’t been before? The mirror tricks us into believing we can see who we are, when all it is doing is reflecting light. A person’s power lies in original thought.

Angela August 16, 2010 at 10:25 pm

I will continue down this path with you, for sure, because you may have a new take on things. I have been reading, studying and observing humans for awhile now. I used to think I was a bit alien. I didn’t think I really fit in and I wondered why people were so wrapped up in their stories, fears and emotions. I am certainly guilty here too, but I know it. I realize when I am being silly or an ass or something unsavory to myself. I can step outside myself and observe.

I have practiced being in the now, not having thoughts, letting things pass, not worrying – but, I can’t just forget about everything. I need to look out for myself and my future, at least as much as I am in control of. I want to do things, go places, see people. I want to feel things. I want to love someone. I want to be loved.

When I was a little girl and every chance I get now, I lay in the grass and stare into space and it always puts me in my place. I am lucky to be here. I am lucky to be breathing. I am thankful for everything that I have and everyone that I know.

Here is what I am wondering…why do you feel that it is your duty to spread the word on this? When did you look in the mirror and say, “Hey! I am THAT guy in the mirror! That is who I am. What am I going to do about it?” I really like that about you. There is no fear in that. You are making people feel a lot less alien by getting better at being human.

Thanks for that.

David August 17, 2010 at 7:06 am

Hi Angela. I don’t recommend attempting to give up thinking or forgetting about everything. I don’t think that’s really possible, or necessary. There’s been a lot of talk these last few years that the ego is the enemy and we can’t be at peace unless we destroy it or grow out of it or somehow leave it behind. That’s not what I’m saying.

Here is what I am wondering…why do you feel that it is your duty to spread the word on this? When did you look in the mirror and say, “Hey! I am THAT guy in the mirror! That is who I am. What am I going to do about it?” I really like that about you. There is no fear in that. You are making people feel a lot less alien by getting better at being human.

My purpose with Raptitude is to share ways I’ve learned to improve quality of life. Douglas Harding’s methods have probably led to more insight and peace for me than anything else I’ve written about. I don’t feel it’s a duty. But I do think this series will leave some readers with an incredible new tool for living life. If I could give that to even a few people, it would be totally worthwhile, even if everyone else thinks I’m nuts.

Michael August 17, 2010 at 8:03 pm

It is not about rejecting your ego – it is about knowing that it is there and learning how to improve it.

To me, it feels as if I have two identities inside me – one that takes over when I am with others, with all its stereotypes and acquired behaviours and all of that silliness, and then there is me, this being that feels so much righter, that speaks loudly when alone, that can see the world through the eyes of a child, every movement and sound and colour fascinating it as if magical. This little child that feels all the troubles in life are so very little, that sees the obvious when no one else will, that is more interested in the universe around it than in petty problems that have no reason to even be.

I used to think that was some kind of voice of consciousness inside me, but now I realise that *is* me. This other social persona is just a construct. It is what others kept telling I was, but really am not. It’s just a puppet I built and others helped me build that speaks for me. To realise that has given me great peace but also great grief that I have let it take over my life with others. Everyone knows me for my ego, but not for what I really am. Being so used to the ego, also, it is hard to reveal one’s true self to others.

I see now, of course, the poison that the ego can be when you let it take over who you are. The most unfortunate of all, however, is that we all suffer from this. Perhaps the first step in improvement is to refine our persona by uniting the best the ego has learned or become with who we truly are. This is, of course, easier said than done.

jl August 18, 2010 at 4:10 am

I used to have this need to feel that everyone I met should see who I “really” was. I guess I wanted to be liked for “me” and forgot being myself. I alienated myself from people, cause it was only then i really found peace and led a kind of boring life there for a while, or not really, but life without any interactions with people can just take you to a certain point. I don’t think I reached that point, I wonder what it is…:) I got too turned on by life, maybe some other time. Anyhow, I don’t got that urge anymore. I manage to feel at peace around people, I have fun. I’m fine with them not seeing the “true” me because it’s not about me all the time. I don’t think we can have close relationships with all off the world but we can try. In the end we hopefully get a neat circle of close friends and lovers.

Angela August 17, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I know that you aren’t recommending anything, just sharing what you are understanding right now or what has helped you along the way. What I am saying is that it is really brilliant that you are compelled to spend time writing this blog because you want to share that with the collective “us.” It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. There is only understanding.

I have a tattoo on my shoulder blade that says “Live for the day.” It is the only one I have. I asked my parents for it when I was 16, but it was illegal for my age. I waited until I was 20 and I still wanted it. It reminds me of how decidedly open I was to life and all the opportunity ahead and it helps me remember to keep feeling that way. I grew up in a place where my way of thinking was quite the opposite of everyone else.

Clearly Composed August 16, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Compelling stuff. The third read through I actually quieted and stilled my mind long enough to see something that caused a little spark inside. Color me tuned…I want more please.

Avi August 17, 2010 at 12:07 am

David, have you read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? The most important plot element is the Mirror of Erised…
“I show not your face but your heart’s desire”

Uzma August 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

A coincidence it is, but this is exactly what I learned in my Yoga class today.. To simply observe the mind,to look at the nature of the thought – is it from memory, imagination, observance. .To loosen the grip the mind, the ego have on the seer. Its scary sometimes to begin a journey where the sense of self may change, evaporate, disintegrate, unify..but one continues on. Looking forward to your next posts. .

Suzanne August 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Having watched the video of Douglas Harding on that other post and not feeling enlightened by the part you mentioned, I thank you for this post. While reading it, I flip-flopped between “I don’t think that to be true” and “This part I do think to be correct”. I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on Douglas’ teachings and the way you’ve processed them.

While reading Angela’s comment, I felt like I was reading about myself for much of it. Kind of surreal to read about the way another person identifies themselves and for it to relate so strongly to how I view myself (in this very post). :-)

David August 17, 2010 at 6:21 pm

“I don’t think that to be true” and “This part I do think to be correct”.

This is what I like so much about Harding’s approach. Though the video was just a talk, the basis of his teachings involve personal experimentation, so there is no reason to agree with anything I say or anything he says. It’s not a matter of analyzing a certain stance or version of reality, it’s about testing assumptions. The experiments are very simple and I’ll share them over the next two posts. So nobody has to take anyone’s word for anything. I would not expect anyone to have a major revelation from watching that video, it was only intended as an introduction to Douglas.

Francis August 19, 2010 at 8:08 am

And down the Rabbit hole we go!

David… such a great post! Tangles in with the concepts I’ve been learning in my practical philosophy course on the concept of “who am I?”

Love your blog, can’t remember how I discovered you but glad I did!



David August 19, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Thanks Francis. Practical Philosophy sounds like a course I’d like.

Alex August 21, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I am intrigued by this series of posts so far and look forward to the next ones.

I recently finished “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman (for the 3rd time, admittedly). It runs along very similar lines to what Harding’s work is trying to get across.

I’m very curious to see where you’re going with this – definitely have me enraptured.

Eves August 29, 2010 at 12:07 am

As I was reading I got a bit….emotional? Not sure if that’s the right word but I definetely felt a bit of a stomach-flipping anxiety that I wasn’t expecting. I’ll keep going down that rabbit hole with you David, even if it’s with with one cowardly eye open!!

A September 15, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Nice article.Like the eg. of blue book and red book.
Just wanted to share
Good article.Enjoy :)

Henway September 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm

This reminds me of a quote I heard the other day:

“The mind always is trying to keep track of what chapter it’s in in the story of itself. Why not close the book. Burn the bookmark. End of story”.

I think there are a lot of negative patterns that arise when we have a strong sense of self. One of them I am dealing with at the moment is viewing someone else as “special”, and other people as less special. It creates disappointment and suffering when I can’t have that person who I deem as special. But the truth is everyone is the same essence.

sandy vogels July 9, 2011 at 10:31 am

Hi David
I just stumbled on your site and it is wonderful. I feel like I have met a true kindred spirit.
I was struck by this line in your post: After all, who would you be when you’re not thinking?, and was wondering if you know of Bryron Katie and her Work. I think you would resonate with it.
I am looking forward to catching up with all your writing, it is really marvelous. best sandy

Juan August 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm

hi all, my name is ego. But dont think i am bad, i am really good btw. i find this post very helpful and intriguing. keep it up ^^

Hayk September 3, 2011 at 9:56 am

Nice one David!

In East, ego is the absence of mind, or a manifestation of a burdening collective luggage of past thoughts, feelings and behavioral patterns.

Many have ego; few have mind.

Sandy Cann September 8, 2011 at 11:55 am

Ego is saddened by this knowing. Ego feels it has created a wasted life, missing the innocence, freedom, and wonder that was the gift in the beginning. This ego sees her granddaughter’s world become smaller everyday.
Another aspect of this ego is the lack of the ability to rejoin mankind.. a lack of the superficiality that seems to cement most relationships like cotton candy bonds. This ego wonders in a noisy room “What is everybody talking about, so avidly and demandingly, and why?” So this ego’s carrier sits quietly, but not totally uncomfortably, waiting and wondering if anyone can recognize her.

nrhatch September 8, 2011 at 9:18 pm

This reminds me of the very first post on Spirit Lights The Way . . . “We Are NOT The Labels We Wear.”


Anna Goldstein October 16, 2011 at 11:30 am

Well written explanation about how to understand what holds us back from our true self. It goes with that quote, “We see the world as we are.” Freeing our self from the ego allows us to see the world as it is.

Jay Em October 31, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Just a point to make…without an ego, nothing moves forward. It is only through our egoistic calculations that we are even able to move a muscle. The ego works both sides, it is there as a tool and like all tools, we have to learn how to manage it. Finding that method on how to manage ones own ego is the trick and is quite personal. Every action has an intention and a calculation….manage the intention, correctly direct the ego, make the proper calculation. The most important thing to do is stop and think on where you would like to drive your ego, your tool. Once you begin to understand how this valuable tool works, the intention behind every action will direct your tool to work in the right direction. Oh by the way, if you try to shed the ego, it will just grow larger:).

David October 31, 2011 at 8:31 pm

For sure, I don’t recommend trying to get rid of your ego, it isn’t possible anyway. It needs to be understood and managed, not cured or destroyed.

Betsy November 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Well stated. I agree that the ego is a tool we need to learn to utilize properly. Thanks for your comment.

Higinio Pintado November 1, 2011 at 6:01 pm

What is with these gurus that think they have uncover de sour or the key to be a better person, there is nothing more suspicions than a person making his profession out of teaching the other how to know them shelf. And there is nothing more dangerouse then a person with a certitude. But why people folow? Nobody will do the work for you that is a big illusion, the one in the Coran.

Sharon Vogiatzi December 9, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Love your thought-provoking writing.

Josh Shnayer January 3, 2012 at 8:44 pm

“The ego is always just a big, seething grab-bag of thoughts that could be different at any time.” — Speak for yourself, brother! If your ego is constantly being worked upon by society then it is merely a reflection of your own inconstancy-something part of your ego. It’s not an example of your ego failing you or needing to be managed. Your ego is the only thing you possess that cannot be taken by force- if you give it up willingly, than that is a mistake.

Seth Kaiser January 10, 2012 at 8:16 am

I agree, yet disagree. The ego may not be taken by force, but to give it up isn’t always a mistake. Sure you may feel that you lost part of yourself, but sometimes that jolt can truly wake you up. Not to mention the kind of things you can do if you don’t take into account actions that would quite possibly hurt that ego. There’s always good and bad. There’s more to it than just the view of “losing” something. You may even gain something from losing your ego. Take friends for example. You could gain or lose friends at any time. Your ego is the same. Its measured in amount and size. Not as one unit, but as a container with different amounts depending on the path you choose. If you want to gain some in exchange for losing something else or if you lose some to gain something else; that’s up to you. Everything has an exchange rate and nothing is free. The ego is a possesion, not something that is easily lost.

Elwin February 24, 2013 at 2:08 am

The error in thinking about the ego (IMHO) (MY Reality) is that the ego cannot be lost. the self cannot be gained or lost.
God (TAO) etc. is all in all. All means ALL.
Everything is the TAO. Not yours, not your ego.
So whats all the fuss about.
We (Matter) were maybe born with the big bang, or
not. Only the TAO knows, or does it??

Terri Anne North February 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Good response Lisis.
Fact is, this “process” continues throughout life, and much to my chagrin,
completely reverses itself before the end of life.

uncertain March 9, 2012 at 1:11 am

Please explain? Why are these fingers i see infront of me not really me?

David March 9, 2012 at 8:57 am

What I’m saying is what’s “you” is only what you’ve identified with. We identify strongly with our bodies, but it is still arbitrary what we consider to be ourselves. If you clip your fingernail, is it still you? What about thirty years down the road when it’s in a landfill? Still you? The dust in your room contains dead flakes of skin that were once part of your body. Are they still you? Our jobs, our possessions and our roles are also things we identify with as ourselves. But they change or disappear too. The only thing that remains constant throughout your life, is that you are aware of all these things. That awareness was there before you began to identify with all the passing things in your life, even before you identified with your body.

Da Young July 2, 2012 at 4:30 am

Hey David,
Great post. However, as I read your article I found myself wondering whether associating ourselves with the ego is really a “brutal mistake.” I don’t mean to put too much emphasis on semantics, but perhaps we need to associate with the ego in order to disassociate and then become awakened. I’m flirting with the theory that perhaps associating with the ego is just part of the process of becoming enlightened. Sure, maybe will get stuck in this “ego phase”, but without it, just like there is no space without form, perhaps there would be no awakening. I feel we shouldn’t animadvert on the ego, because like everything, the ego just is… it’s not bad or good. The more we label the association with the ego as the “brutal mistake” or the like, the more we associate with the judgmental ego. In some way, form and the ego are there so that there can be space and being.

David July 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm

“Brutal mistake” is a bit tongue in cheek. I do make it clear that associating with the ego is not avoidable. We all have to do it. But it is brutal, in terms of the amount of suffering it will cause, and it is a mistake, a judgment error. The idea isn’t to destroy the ego, just to be aware of what it is.

ashok August 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm

dear david,
i am compelled to make a comment here. any living thing has an idea that it is an individual. some eagles, if they are born twins, will kill the weaker one. sharks are known to do that in utero. knowing you are are a separate individual is innate. it is not learned.
however, having a false sense of what you want to appear before others is a learned behavior, hence failure and the suffering. If by ego, you mean that, then the solution is understanding what you really are and not trying to act a part. yes, you got it almost right here. cheers!

John August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am

That lovely picture you have up of yourself is ego :).

Vince December 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Has anyone ever heard of Tim Keller? I just read a short book of his called “The freedom of self-forgetfulness”. In it he adds the Christian perspective of dying to self. It’s much of what is discussed here with some great points about the meaning of it all. I think the ego has developed to epic proportions. We each have become the kings and queens of our own existence. We feel absolutely entitled to things once reserved for gods and political/societal royalty. Being served, fed, catered to, delivered to, massaged, stimulated, beautified and glorified. It was wrong for them and it’s wrong for us. And then when there is some break in our needs being fulfilled all hell breaks loose. For us “normal” folk it results in depression and frustration (and all that goes with that), and for celebrities it becomes…well, we’ve all seen what becomes of frustrated celebrities. Today some dude slammed his fist on a counter in a deli and walked out because his muffin took ten minutes to toast. That dude was me. Just keeping it real. I think our selfishness is unprecedented in human history and we are paying the price. Yes, it’s that serious.

david January 31, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Is there an assumption here that what we ‘really’ are is permanent and unchanging? I read all these texts along similar lines to this article that expresses the ego as a hindrance to the ‘reality’ of it all. IMO Da Young has touched apon a great point which is that perhaps we need to first become aware of an ego before we can work on loosening its grip on our lives. Look at all the biggest non-duality writers and speakers, they’ve all done phd’s and the like. In other words, they’re very intelligent beings who have been capable of making the distinction between what we ‘really’ are and are not. It almost seems that ‘enlightenment’ is much easier for those who are more intelligent. It’s clear that to reach this awareness, one must first realise it through thought.

Frank February 17, 2013 at 10:49 am

The illusory nature of the ego and the possibility to extinguish this illusion is the core teaching of Buddhism and especially the Zen practice.

Ashie February 22, 2013 at 11:18 am

If we never established an ego in the first place we would be
In such a natural state we wouldn’t need to seek enlightenment.
We would embody it. The ego is learned from our culture. To say we
Need to have a ego and to be aware of it in order to learn to ignore it
Baffles me. The ego is not necessary. Nor is it present in all culture.

Burak March 13, 2013 at 10:49 am

So nice chain of thoughts…

I believe that mostly (and delusionally), we assume existence of something that doesn’t exist in reality. That something is ego. In reality, to me, ego is almost like meridians: something that does not exist in reality. It’s only there for us to understand something else -nothing more.

Thanks for sharing David

Johnson March 25, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Wow…very inspirational article. Because of my past experiences with psychedelics, I can identify with every word of this article. On LSD, I experienced precisely the state of mind as the state of mind this article describes at the time of birth. No awareness of self as a seperate entity. THe comedown of the trip, when the sense of self is reassembling and meanings of things are re-integrating, is a window of oppurtunity for adjusting some of your self-views and world-views….it’s like re-experiencing being born and “growing up” (forming ideas) all over again, in a time lapse.

Ellen May 21, 2013 at 7:26 am

David, I just stumbled across your site, and am so enjoying your writing. You seem to have a wonderful gift of articulating in a way that makes things ‘click’ for me. This is the kind of gift that helps others like myself who are actively seeking, to grow…it helps the puzzle pieces to come together. I look forward to reading more! Thank you!:)

sheny May 28, 2013 at 2:03 am

i love someone a lot but am in a relation ship with some other guy. then the one whom i love told me that my ego stopped me from loving him is it true?

Sakina August 23, 2013 at 7:04 am

A very well written article and interesting discussion. According to Hume, the ego may be progressively expanded to include first family, then tribe or clan, then ones country and lastly the whole of humanity. A movement would therefore be made from “I”, “me” and “mine” to “we”, “us” and “our”. According to another view the ego can be disciplined and corrected through involvement in communal life. The antithesis to the ego is love. The ego desires to possess and dominate, whereas true love wants to surrender and give. What is needed today is a “revolution of the hearts”, a movement from individualism to an altruistic mode of living.

Noushka August 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Hey David,

just stumbled on your site the other day and am very intrigued and grateful for these amazing posts.
Reading this article was fascinating since this is the stuff thats been on my mind for a few years now.
It sort of reminds me of a German philosopher Rudolf Steiner who wrote about the concept of ‘pure experience’ a kind of going back to the beginning of how we saw things to be as new born human beings.
Here is an excerpt you might find interesting:
“Pure experience is the way reality appears to us when we encounter it to the complete exclusion of what we ourselves bring to it… At this level of consideration, the world appears to our minds as an absolutely flat surface; no part rises above any other; nothing has any distinctions. Until the spark of thinking strikes this surface, we do no perceive elevations and depressions; nothing appears above or below the other. With thinking, everything assumes a certain form; lines run from one form to another, and the whole becomes a integral harmony.”

José Antonio August 27, 2013 at 12:46 pm

What if we were able to see the world without taking it all personally?… Being able to see every situation without always worrying about the “me”, that always dissatisfied “me”, victimized “me”, incomplete “me”, rejected “me”, despised “me”… trying to care for an image.
What if we were able even to see the thoughts we call “our thoughts”, or the feelings and sensations we call “ours” as if they were part of the world, and nothing personal? This body we call “our body” just cares for itself. We don’t have to be there as an “I” to make all those things (thoughts, emotions, feelings…) happen.
I think life would be lighter like that.

Vincas September 29, 2013 at 4:16 am

Mind shifting…

Axel November 4, 2013 at 8:01 am

I got it :D!!! Wasn’t easy for me, but your entusiasm about it keept me going :)! It was ultimately coming back to your words in this article that did it for me, these specifically:
“How could our thoughts even possibly pin down who we are? How could our notoriously fickle, free-associating monkey minds ever come up with an meaningful estimation of what the combination our jobs, faces, body-types, relationships, capabilities, experiences, fears and desires actually mean? All that stuff is the content of your life; it’s the style, the flavor, but do all those details really add up to a person?”
Ofcourse not ;)
Thank you so much for this David!!

Will Kelly January 5, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Odd how Jesus Christ is not mentioned in any of the many comments I have read. “If the seed does not fall into the ground it remains a seed…?” “Unless a man be born again he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven..?” “The flesh (ego) wars against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh …?” Is that not what Jesus was preaching… the overthrow of the Ego, that self-righteous, programmed fear-driven, judgmental ego that was to crucify Him and that he knew would have to crucify Him because He had “overcome” it? Nothing new David in what you are saying but your explanation of the formation of the ego is deadly accurate in my view.

David Cain January 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm

I think you are absolutely right. You may appreciate:


Pedro June 6, 2014 at 3:46 pm

great article. this is the perfect sequel to the introduction of Douglas Harding.
After last week I’ve been investigating deeper and deeper into this.
I wanted to comment there is also a fascinating book about this topic and presented by Miguel Ruiz, “The four agreements”. It is also a beautiful explanation about the “dream” we live.

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