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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

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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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