What Is The Ego?
I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle’s latest book “A New Earth” and it’s been very inspiring. This man is truly enlightened, and once you begin to delve into the book and his ideas, it becomes clear that there is a distinction between true spiritual leaders like himself & Dr Wayne Dyer, and the “motivational coaches” such as James Ray and others. The distinction I would make is that while Ray and others focus on helping you get what you want in your life, in a spiritual manner, Tolle is talking about a much deeper understanding of spirituality and the connection between yourself and the world and the rest of humanity. I’m not knocking one approach over the other – I’ve found a lot of Ray’s writing to be very helpful and motivational and for me, as I’m sure with others, it provides a gateway into a deeper spiritual life which Tolle & Dyer discuss in more depth.
One of the main concepts that Tolle discusses in the book, is the distinction between our ego, and our true self or spirit. In order to break it down, I hope I’m not butchering his concepts too much 😉
Most of us think we are our ego; that is, we think we are our thoughts/opinions/social labels. This is what I see as the “I think therefore I am” definition of self. I believe what Tolle is saying is more along the lines of “I think, and I am aware that I am thinking, therefore I am a consciousness beyond my thoughts.” Chew on that for a while…
Here’s another way to think about it:
ego & thought are to true self, what language is to anything it tries to describe.
Here’s what I mean.
When we learn to name and label things with words, we distance ourselves from the true nature of that thing, for the thing is not the word. The word is just a pointer or a description.
The Zen example of the finger pointing at the moon is a useful tool in understanding this. The finger that points at the moon is still just a finger. And in this way, words and language are just pointers, or fingers– not the thing, or the moon itself.
Whatever you can say about a thing still is not that thing in essence – rather it is just a description of it to help you conceptualize that thing intellectually. There’s a gap between the intellectual description and the real essence of it, which can only be experienced.
Likewise, all of our thoughts about our self are just pointers, concepts and descriptions. Anything you can say about yourself, any word or label you can give yourself is one level (at best) removed, it is just a describer, not the essence of you.
I am male, I am female, I am gay, I am straight, I am a banker, I am a musician, I am married, I am wealthy etc etc
All these things may be true, may be factual but they are not the totality of you.
You are what’s underneath all these labels and thoughts – for you would exist even if there were no language to describe you. This is your essence, your soul, your spirit, whatever you want to call it.
The labels are fine and serve a function to help us navigate life and communicate with each other.
But the problem is when we become attached to them and think that we ARE them. And that we think other people are labels they choose or labels we give them. We remove ourselves from understanding them. They are like cliff notes to their essence. The more you label, the further away you get from the truth. We meet people and instead of recognizing their spiritual consciousness (which admittedly is hard to do in a practical fashion), we ask what job they have, where they live, where they are from etc and make up instinctive rules about how we will treat them based upon that. Again, all those labels are fine until we believe that there is nothing more to that person besides those labels. Then we start to relate to each other in a superficial manner.
The movie Crash actually does a good job of deconstructing some of this as characters appear to be one thing that they are labeled by others (racist, sexist etc) and by the audience, but reveal themselves to have other layers in other situations which radically change our perception of them.
And here is the separation which most people do not even realize. We don’t realize that beyond all the labels, is a consciousness or spirit that is aware of the labeling and the thinking but is more than that. This is the spirit you access through meditation, or the absence of thought – through direct experience.
It can be an ‘aha’ moment to really recognize this. Even if you consider yourself to be conscious or spiritual (and those can just be more egoic labels), when you really really recognize the spirit in yourself, it’s extremely liberating. The key I think is to have more and more moments when this awareness is present.
I process so much through my intellect that sometimes I fool myself into thinking I really understand some of this, but once you’ve FELT it, that is true understanding.
The liberating part is that it empowers you to make better choices. For example, if you are angry about something – perhaps a noisy neighbor or a bad driver – once you recognize that the anger you feel is just a thought, a feeling, but that you can separate yourself from it, you then have the space to choose your reaction. You see that:
This is the situation – this person cut me off on the road
This is my instinct reaction – I feel angry
But then you recognize that is your reaction and you can stop it and say; well now I’m going to choose to react differently.
It took me a while to fully understand this but now I am trying to integrate the practice of such recognition into my daily life so that I might more fully act from my conscious self and not my egoic self.