This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
The Illusion of the Ego
So today we're going to be talking about the ego, specifically the illusion of the ego. But to understand this a little bit better, we need to talk about what the ego is. Poor ego gets a bad rap or we often talk about the word ego attached to meanings like megalomania or vanity. When you talk about someone who has an ego, it's usually with a negative connotation. But, strictly speaking, it is only a psychological term that was popularised by Freud meaning the conscious as opposed to the unconscious mind. It's the awareness of one's own identity and existence. It's the part of your identity that you consider yourself. With that definition in mind, what we're going to be talking about is essentially the sense of self. What is the sense of self? What am I? That's what we're going to be exploring today.
Our natural tendency is to view not just ourselves but others as permanent things. In the last podcast episode, we talked about the reality of impermanence and interdependence. And yet when we're thinking of the self, the sense of ego, generally we see ourselves as permanent fixed things. So, taking what we learned or talked about on the last episode, if everything is interdependent and everything is interconnected, then what are the implications for the sense of self?
Understanding that everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent is vital for having a proper understanding of the sense of self. Because, when it comes to the self, the sense of the ego that we feel, the tendency is to think backwards. We think of ourselves as independent of everything else and we tend to think of ourselves as permanent rather than impermanent; as an entity that exists independently of everything else and that goes on and on. When the reality is, as we saw on the last episode, everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent. So what does that mean for the sense of self? What is the ego? Well, as the title of this podcast episode implies, there is an illusion of ego. When we think of ourselves and others as independent and permanent, the tendency is to view ourselves and others as finished products rather than works in progress.
In Buddhism, we talk about the concept of no-self. The idea is that things have no intrinsic existence of their own. Take a moment and look down at your hands right now. They're probably holding your phone or on the keyboard or perhaps on the mouse or holding something. But look at them and ask yourself, "Are these hands really me?" What if you lost your hands in an accident, would you still be you? Of course, right? Now, look at your legs and ask the same questions. If I didn't have these legs, would I still be me? Then ask yourself what part of you is really you. I mean, what part of you, if removed, would make it so that you are no longer you? Take a minute to think about that. Is there any part of your body that, if it was gone, you would know with certainty that you are no longer you? Maybe you're thinking, "Well, it's my brain. My brain is what makes me who I am." Well, what specifically in your brain makes you you? Is it your personality, your memories, your abilities and skills?
Look at those for a second. Look at your personality. Does personality change over time? Can a traumatic brain injury change your personality? It sure can. If your personality would've changed due to a traumatic brain injury, would you still be you? Well, the answer is "absolutely". It might be you with a different personality than the you from before. It doesn't even have to be that drastic, though. Just think back to the you from ten to fifteen years ago and ask yourself if you're the same person. Compare the you from middle school to the you from high school and then to the you from college, the married you, the parent version of you. If you're like me, you're going to notice that all of those are different people and yet they're all you. Think of it like this: that's who I was back then; this is who I am now. So if your personality isn't you, then what is you? What about memories? What if you lost all your memories, would you still be you?
My grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years of life, when I'd go visit her, I had to remind her who I was, and often I had to remind her of who she was, her own name and where she was and where she was from. But even without her memory, she was still my grandma. Your memories are a precious part of you but they're not you. See, we often believe that our abilities and skills are what make us who we are. I consider myself a techy or a computer nerd, yet if I was stranded on an island for the rest of my life without any technology, I would still be me. I wouldn't be a techy or a computer nerd because I wouldn't have those things. Or consider a singer who loses their voice, or an artist who loses the ability to paint because they've lost their limbs, or a dancer or an athlete who becomes paralysed. You see where this is going?
The things that you think make you who you are end up only being parts of who you are but none of these things alone is you. It's like we talked about in the last podcast episode about the car. You can take the car apart and separate all of its components. You can take out the engine and ask what the car is and the answer is that you can take several parts of this together and you can start forming the idea of "car", but none of these parts alone can constitute the car. You are who you are because of everything that makes you who you are, and yet none of those things alone can be called you.
So how does the Buddhist concept of no-self apply in your everyday life? Why is this concept even useful? Well, consider this next time you're offended by something that someone says or does. Ask yourself, what part of me has really been offended? You'll soon discover that this concept of no-self can actually be an incredible tool for letting go of the ego because you'll discover that the ego is an illusion, because the ego isn't you. The sense of self that makes you think you are who you are is only a part of you, but it isn't you.
I think this concept is illustrated beautifully in a letter I received from a friend of mine. He says:
"My mother-in-law works at a dementia unit at a rest home in Australia. Today, we visited her at work and met some of the residents, each with a varying degree of this difficult, at times tragic, condition. The visit gave me much to reflect on between the challenges of getting old, the final phases of life and mortality itself. But one tiny thing in particular stuck with me. At the dining room, each member has a seat at a table. They use the same one every day, a routine crucial to a suffering memory. Still, they often forget which seat is theirs. To help them remember, each person's place at the table has a laminated page stuck to it. The page has their name and a set of pictures and photos that are meaningful to them.
For example, I met Patricia who told me, guided by the pictures, that she'd been travelling around Australia. I could also see from the pictures that she loved scones with jam and cream, and had some recent grandchildren. Each person's laminated placeholder was the same, 10 to 15 photos that reminded them of who they were. It was beautiful and somehow deeply sad: the thought that someday your life, however long and prosperous, might be distilled down to 10 photos that will define you.
I can't help but notice the kind of things these pictures were, too. Patricia had ninety-something years to her name. Ninety years of stuff that might have been on that page, all the accomplishments and the memories, the people and places, friends who came and went, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, love and hate, and boredom and anticipation, anxiety and calm, fear and peace. And at the end of it all, there were scones with jam and cream. Ten per cent of her photos were dedicated to that. Ten per cent of who she is. It struck me that, with the brevity of life, the constant coming and going of things, what remained in the end for these men and women was what they had loved. Sifting their past ninety years of age, most of what they thought was important is gone. The arguments and the hurts and the conversations and the judgements and the regrets, they're all faded or forgotten. Your friends might be gone, your bank balance definitely isn't going to be on that page and even the business you built doesn't photograph well, and it probably isn't that interesting anyway.
And there is a view of what you loved and you don't score more points if that thing is world peace when Patricia's thing is scones. If there are any points, you only score more by the intensity of your love, not by the object of it. What do you love? What pictures will tell your story in the end?"
This letter was very moving and very touching. My own grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years and months continued to deteriorate to the point where she didn't recognise who I was when I would come to visit her. Sometimes she thought I was my dad. Sometimes she would remember that I was one of her grandkids. And what's interesting is you take this concept of the mind and you think, "Well, my memories, that's who I am, the things that I remember and know or my personality." And what you'll find, like with this example with Patricia, is that even the things that we think are solid in terms of defining who we are, our memories, can be gone and yet that doesn't change who you are. Now you're just you without the memories that you had. So, again, I ask you to ponder on this question: what part of me is really me? What part of me is the essential self that I feel is so connected to the sense of ego? Because the conclusion should be that the ego is an illusion.
Much like this idea of a car. A car is real and it exists and at the same time it's an illusion because it doesn't exist independently of all the parts that allow it to exist. Well, the self is the same. We exist and we're experiencing life the way we're experiencing it, but we are a part of everything that allows us to exist. I like the way Alan Watts talks about this concept. He says, "You are something that the universe is doing in the same way that the wave is something that the whole ocean is doing". Now, the implications here of understanding that the ego is an illusion or the sense of self is an illusion are actually really powerful because when you realise that your sense of self is not independent of everything else and not permanent then you realise that you are interdependent with everything and impermanent just like everything on earth. So, what we essentially realise is that we are one with everything. That sense of self can become really strong when we're talking about things like religion, politics, sports, anything where we identify really strongly with the things that we like or don't like, the things we believe or don't believe, which reminds me of an experience I had while travelling in the Middle East.
My wife and I were doing a Mediterranean cruise and we had a tour guide in Israel who was showing us all of the key attractions and sites in and outside of Jerusalem. We had spent hours with him. He was telling us the Jewish perspective on the various sites we were visiting. And something that happened that I thought was interesting was that, when we crossed over to Bethlehem to see the sites, we had to switch tour guides because this was territory now controlled by Palestine and our Jewish tour guide couldn't go in there with us. We switched to a new bus and a new tour guide and as soon as we got in the bus we wanted to know if we were now getting the Muslim perspective. I remember asking, "So, what are you?" And he looked at me with a surprised look and said, "What do you mean what am I?" And we said, "Our tour guide on the first part of the tour was Jewish and it was interesting to get his perspective. So I was wondering what you are." And he laughed and he said, "Well, I'm a human being. A human being who lives in Bethlehem." Of course, what else could you be? And it made me realise in the months and years after that experience that we do tend to view each other through the labels that we use as if those were nouns. It doesn't matter what he believes. What he believes isn't who he is and what I was asking was "Who are you?" Anything that we add to that, we should add as an adjective, and that's fine because that's a description, but not as a noun because the noun has already established that you're a human being.
So it was a neat experience that stuck with me. And then, to develop that, I realised, well, courage ends up being the courage to be as we are, right here and right now; the courage to be free from attaching ourselves to anything or from chasing after others' acceptance and avoiding their rejection. The things that we think make us who we are prevent us from having the courage to just be what we are, to be what we are right now, and to recognise that what we are is works in progress. We tend to take snapshots of ourselves or snapshots of others like a Polaroid that's printed and, once I've interacted with you once, I've created an image of who you are but the problem is that's not who you are. A snapshot is a fixed thing. And as soon as I have it there, I've decided who you are without realising that who you are is constantly changing.
So, an image certainly isn't going to allow me to see the you that's constantly moving. So if I was able to see you without seeing that permanent image of who you are, then I would recognise that who you are is constantly changing and I would hope that you would recognise that who I am is constantly changing. And then this gets more complex because there's who you are and there's who I am, but what makes this even more complicated is that there is who you think I am and then there is who I think that you think that I am, and how we perceive blinds us to who we really are. We do this all the time with the people that we interact with. We give ourselves labels and then, as soon as we do that, as Kierkegaard says, "once you label me, you negate me". You don't give me the opportunity to see who I really am because there is already who you think I am.
Consider the way that we use labels in our society. We use these labels all the time. I'm a Republican. I'm a Democrat. I'm a Christian. I'm a Buddhist. I am dumb. I am smart. You know, we use these labels as if they were permanent things that make us who we are. But we, like everything else, exist because of causes and conditions. We are who we are because of the countless things that make us who we are. Like the cake, like the car. We inherit genetics from our parents, beliefs and ideas from our family and society, and these things are part of how we are, but they are not what we are. The problem with our labels is how we use them because, as I mentioned before, we tend to use these as nouns instead of adjectives.
So when I use a label like "I am a Buddhist" as a noun, then it separates me from everything that is not a Buddhist. It divides and separates. But now consider the label Buddhist as an adjective. It becomes a description of how I am, and the noun is me, which is human. I am a human being. That's all I really am, and I tend to view things through the Buddhist lens. That's different to trying to separate myself by using that as a noun to describe who I am because the reality is, no matter how hard I try, I can't be a Buddhist or a Christian or an anything. Because those things aren't things to be. We already are something. We're human.
So, when we learn to view our own labels and, perhaps more importantly, the labels that we assign to others as adjectives instead of nouns, it will be more like talking to someone and realising, "Okay, I'm wearing a blue shirt and you're wearing a red shirt". But the colour of the shirts that we wear doesn't make up who we are. It's just part of how we are at this specific moment in time, at this specific moment of being human. Try to start viewing labels, yours and others, as adjectives rather than nouns and see how that changes the way you view yourself and others.
And this doesn't just happen with people. It happens with everything. From the moment we're born, we acquire labels and concepts and stories and beliefs, and these things can form a tent around the way that we view things. It's removing this tent that allows us to see things as they really are, to see ourselves for who we really are. In Buddhism, this is taught as Buddha nature. Being able to understand who you are is in your true nature. And we do this with reality as well: when you can see things as they really are beyond the stories, and the meanings, and the concepts, and the labels that we attach to things, then that is awakening, that is enlightenment. It's learning to see things as they really area.
In the last podcast episode, I talked about Plato's allegory of the cave, and this concept is that we see shadows and we think that that shadow is the real thing. But we wouldn't know that because we exist in a world where what we're seeing are the shadows.
So the important lesson here is that we need to start learning to see things as they really are and to see ourselves as we really are and to understand that the sense of ego that we experience is an illusion because what I am is constantly changing, which could simply mean the way the cells of my body are changing or growing and dying, and the way that, physically, we're constantly changing. But every other aspect of me is changing as well, throughout my experience of being alive. My beliefs change; my personality can change; my memories are changing. We're constantly adding new ones, we're forgetting old ones. We're constantly changing and evolving. So that sense of self can really be examined and what you'll realise is that, just like the car, the self is the creation of everything that allows the self to exist but none of those things are independent of the causes and conditions that allow it to be that way.
Several months ago, I was hiking in Park City close to where I live with some friends who were visiting from Mexico, and, about half way into the hike, I noticed this curious tree with an odd bend in it. I took a picture of it to remind me of how I felt when I saw this crooked tree. When we look at trees, we see all sorts of trees. It doesn't matter if they're bent or straight, it they're oaks or pines, if they have bark or no bark. In most cases, what we see is just a tree being a tree. And we might even think, "How unique. I love that bend or that curve." We can start to imagine that maybe it wasn't getting enough light so it turned this way or it turned that way. Perhaps the strong wind or the weight of too much snow may have caused it to bend. Either way, we don't get caught up in the emotions of judgement. We simply appreciate the tree. Yet, when we look at humans, we lose all that. It's easy to judge and say you're too this or you're too that. We judge the shape of the leaves and the colour of the bark or whether or not it has bark and everything else about it. But what if we look at people the way we look at trees? What if we could appreciate people just the way they are without any judgement?
Understanding that this sense of self, this ego, is an illusion helps us to remove the meanings that we attach to people, that people are supposed to be this or that; it means that we can start to appreciate ourselves and others simply for being human. And when we can learn to see ourselves and others that way, it will be like when we look at trees. We simply appreciate the tree for just being a tree. There is no distinction of, well, this one is a bad tree because it's crooked and this one is a good tree because it's straight or silly things like that.
You can start to ask yourself this in various situations or circumstances in life. You know, next time you're offended by somebody who cut you off on the road, ask yourself: "What part of me is really mad? Why am I even mad about that?" Look for the causes and conditions of things. Because what you'll find is there is no independent permanent thing even if that thing is a sensation like anger. You can see it naturally arise, analyse it and then it's gone just like everything else in life. It's interdependent with the circumstances that allowed it to arise and it's impermanent because it finally goes. And when you can view it that way, suddenly it doesn't grip you quite as tightly as it used to. Explore this with your various emotions. Explore this concept of interdependence and impermanence with all the things that you think are part of who you are, your memories, your emotions, your personality, your skills and abilities. Explore all these things and see where that takes you. See how that makes you change the way you perceive the sense of self. Perhaps one of the conclusions you can draw is the sense of being connected with everything.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this in the teaching he gives where he's talking about his left hand and his right hand. He says: imagine you have a hammer in your right hand and your left hand is holding a nail. You put the nail in the piece of wood and the hammer slips and it hits your thumb and your first reaction is to drop the hammer. The right hand is going to take the thumb of the left hand and hold it and comfort it because it's experiencing pain. And, as it does this, the left hand is thinking, "As soon as this stops hurting, I'm going to pick up that hammer and I'm going to hit the right hand back." It doesn't think this way because it understands that it is one and the same, and it doesn't benefit the left hand to retaliate and make the right hand experience the same type of pain that the left hand is feeling. And this seems so simple when you're thinking about your hands. They are two separate things and yet, because of the understanding that it's all part of the same thing, you don't experience those types of thoughts.
Yet we do that with ourselves. Our sense of the self as being separate from others allows us to want to retaliate if someone does something that makes us hurt or upset. But you can study that and realise the nature of interdependence and the nature of impermanence allows me to get past those emotions and, realising this, you realise that it is of no benefit to turn around and inflict harm on the person who inflicted harm on you. This is the very foundation for starting to understand compassion and love and kindness which is going to be the topic of a future podcast episode.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to this episode here.