It’s widely accepted by most people that our identity is “who we are“. Ask anyone “who are you?” (in a contemplative way I mean, not out of the blue) and they will likely answer with their name; indeed, names are the first details about a person’s identity that are exchanged when first introduced to others. Next might come a person’s occupation, or nationality, or age – the main elements that identify a person and might be requested on a form (or detailed in a newspaper if you got hit by a bus). While any of these stats might identify you, are any of these things who you really are? After all, you can change your name and most people change occupation at least once in their lives. Nationality is rather ambiguous if your parents are French and Italian, you were born in England, raised in Germany and now live in Spain. And as for age, what changes the day before and after your birthday and you’re a year older? Are you not the same person whether you are 37 or 38?
If you continue to think deeper about the question: “who am I?“, you may move on to naming personality traits (e.g. “I am outgoing”), or skills (e.g. “I play the piano”), or interests (e.g. “I love music”). But are any of these attributes who you are? After all, can’t they also change? If you continue to go deeper into the detail of your identity, you may start to consider your opinions (e.g. “I hate smoking”) or your beliefs (e.g. “I think today’s children are spoilt”). And, while it may be relatively easy to name opinions and beliefs about the outside world, it can get more uncomfortable considering the opinions and beliefs you hold about yourself, especially those that are more negative (e.g. “I’m so forgetful”). Our memories also form a major part of our identity – everything we experience and learn as we grow up forms everything we become as an adult: our personality, beliefs, attitudes, opinions, habits and mannerisms. Are “you” your memories?
“I think, therefore I am”
If we look at all of the features of who we think we are, two things might become apparent. First, they are all thoughts. If you don’t believe me, take a minute and consider any one of them… You’re thinking aren’t you! Everything you believe about the “you” who you see in the mirror, the “I” whose voice you hear in your head when you’re “thinking”, the “me” you refer to any time you talk about yourself – they are all just thoughts. Even memories are thoughts because you think about memories (remembering, recollecting, recalling are all forms of thinking). But, what exactly are thoughts? In neuroscience, a thought is described as a “mental representation”, which is formed (or electrochemically mediated) from information from the senses, emotions and experiences. Are “you” just a big bunch of thoughts? Do “you” stop being “you” when you stop thinking, are asleep or under anaesthetic? Of course not.
The second thing that becomes apparent is that all the thoughts generated by the mind about your identity involve the word “I” (or “my” or “me”). This comes from the belief that who you are is different and separate from everyone else, i.e. each and every person is a separate being with their own mind, body, intelligence and identity; an individual “I” with all their own beliefs, perspectives, opinions, personality traits, experiences, etc. This belief is that of the ego.
Also referred to as the “egoic mind”, it’s worth briefly highlighting the different definitions and interpretations of the word ego. The common conversational definition is simply “a person’s self-importance”. However, its overuse has led to ego (and the word “egotistical”) becoming known as a negative trait meaning arrogance or grandiosity (e.g. “he has such a big ego”). While self-importance, arrogance and grandiosity are indeed egoic traits, this more common definition of the ego is only part of a bigger picture. In psychology, the ego was defined by Sigmund Freud as being the part of our mind that balances our basic urges and unconscious primal needs with the conscious moral and idealistic standards of our reality. The spiritual view of the ego, as discussed here, is the part of the mind that functions only from the perspective of having an individual mind, body and intelligence that is separate from all others and the universe. The ego therefore creates an identity of “who you are”, but this is a false self, as it is just a mental construct of thoughts.
The ego is not necessarily something we need to destroy – it can serve us positively. When used appropriately, the ego can help us judge dangerous situations to protect us. It can help us to seek positive change and improve ourselves and our situation. The ego is the part of our minds that we can use to assess, calculate, reason and resolve. But much of humanity, without realising, allows the ego far more control over our mind, body and soul than we should and this “unconsciousness” causes a huge amount of suffering. The ego is not fit for the job of controlling everything we think, feel, imagine, remember, believe, say, and do. The ego’s perspective as being a separate self combined with its inherent need to seek pleasure, avoid pain, improve and succeed leads us down a path of inevitable and unnecessary suffering. When you are identified with the ego you are unconsciously allowing it to masquerade as “you”, but you can awaken from this “sleep” and become conscious.
The path to awakening can be instant or can take many lifetimes, but for most people one lifetime is more than enough to experience enough of a growth in consciousness that is still life-changing. Initially it can be helpful to gain a cognitive understanding of how the ego works, so you can start to recognise when the ego has taken the reigns of your mind and thoughts and begin to notice when the essence of your true self manifests itself. This encourages awareness, which is the first step to dis-identifying from the ego and being free.
When the ego is given complete control of your mind, you will likely live life thinking (a lot) and that thinking will usually manifest cognitively as “your mind’s voice”, which tends to talk incessantly. Ego-dictated thoughts are typically based in the past or the future, as the ego resists the present moment, and tend to take the form of negative judgement, be it of oneself or others, resistance, jealousy, defensiveness, boredom, worry, anger, resentment, or shame. There are plenty more to add to this list, but the common theme is that they are all negative and they will all undoubtedly involve the word “I”, “my” or “me”. Knowing this allows you to “ego-check” each thought as it pops into your mind and, if you spot any ego “hallmarks”, you can observe the thought from another position or perspective in the knowledge that you are not your ego. Sometimes it’s a feeling that comes first and you have to give some consideration to the thought that’s caused the feeling. Consider who is listening to your mind’s thoughts. The real you is the quiet observer of the ego’s thoughts. Your true self is the silent awareness behind thoughts. This consciousness is all around, in everyone and everything.
While dis-identification from the ego in reality literally just means moving away from the belief that your egoic mind is the real you, this is no easy task. Your ego not only believes with absolute certainty it is “you”, but because its very existence depends entirely on you having this same unquestionable belief, dis-identifying from the ego, to the ego, means death. The ego’s identity is vital to its very existence, so it will do anything to keep you believing its concept. Reinforcing and protecting identity is one of the main strategies the ego employs to keep you believing the illusion. If you are relatively new to the world of spirituality, an understanding of how and why the ego protects “your” identity can help to break down some barriers and start you moving toward a more conscious existence where awareness becomes a more effortless and more rewarding practice.
Dis-identifying From The Ego
Practise just being aware of your thoughts. This means just observing thoughts as they emerge from your mind, without judgement or resistance and without identifying with the thought or concluding any meaning or significance. Recognise any “ego hallmarks”, such as negativity, reference to “I”, “me” or “my” or thoughts being based in the past or future. In most cases, you will be surprised to notice thoughts with all three hallmarks, e.g. “I’m so bad at interviews, I’m not going to get this job” (negative, “I” and future!). The ego resists the present moment (the present moment does not feed the ego’s identity in the same way as the long past and infinite future), so just being in the present moment is an extremely challenging practice. This is one of the intentions of mindfulness and meditation: to bring complete focus to the body and the present moment. While meditation is enormously beneficial to consciousness, you have to be an extremely enlightened individual to remain in this state full-time. Most of us mere mortals are so identified with our egos that we never enter this state of being, or at best only experience mere fleeting moments, often without realising. Again, while new to spirituality and trying to gain an initial cognitive understanding of how the ego works, it can help to initially bring awareness to your thoughts in hindsight. Yes, this does mean considering the past, which is not where we want to be, but this is where most people start. Bringing conscious awareness to the heat of a present moment in any day-to-day interaction is likely impossible (for now) – egoic thinking is usually a deeply ingrained habit. Most of us unconsciously trust and obey the ego in a “sleep” on a kind of auto-pilot. Considering thought patterns in the recent past can be useful practice in the beginning while you learn to recognise egoic thoughts and embrace the new belief that you are not your ego.
Whenever you feel offended, resentful or hurt, consider the thought(s) behind the emotion(s). For example, you feel offended after a conversation with a colleague, who showed exaggerated surprise when you mentioned you’d applied for an internal vacancy that would mean a promotion. The feeling here is offence (you felt offended because you thought your colleague implied that you aren’t competent or experienced enough for a promotion). The ego usually then continues to pull at the thread of the initial thought by concocting an elaborate narrative with more negative, self-centred thoughts that reinforce the first (especially at night when you’re trying to sleep… we’ve all been there). Once you’ve pin-pointed the feeling, the question to ask is: what aspect of my identity is my ego trying to defend or reinforce? Here, you think the colleague has implied incompetence, which likely conflicts with your ego’s preference, which is competence. While most of us don’t take kindly to negative criticism and it’s normal and quite human to strive for competence, especially in our occupations, our egos are more reactive to the negative things it deems particularly unfavourable or shameful, the “sore points” that can “hit a nerve”. Sticking with this example, if you were brought up being told constantly you were rubbish at everything and that you’d never succeed, then competence is likely to be one of your ego’s “sore points”. In this situation, the default position of the ego is likely to habitually reinforce competence and fiercely defend incompetence. Reinforcing competence as part of your identity might manifest as boasting about your qualifications, or ensuring you always show yourself to take the lead in work meetings in front of your boss. Defending incompetence might reveal itself as hiding mistakes or deflecting blame, working out of hours, or feeling offended when colleagues imply you’re not fit for promotion.
In this particular example, different people will react differently. Some people may say nothing, but dwell on the situation later; some might act to counter any negative opinion spread by their colleague (either by working even harder to appear competent, or by encouraging other colleagues to believe the offending colleague is judgemental and jealous). Our egos can have us expending a huge amount of time and effort to “correct” what our egos tell us is a wrongly defined identity! This is just a single example of one feeling and one thought and look how complex and exhausting a situation can become. The point is, all the painful, contracted feelings come from ego-dictated thoughts trying to defend or reinforce the illusion of an identity, when you are not even your ego to begin with!
Let’s look at how this situation could pan out instead. Instead of resisting the feelings of offence, resentment and hurt and immediately identifying with the thoughts behind those feelings (i.e. “s/he’s implying I’m incompetent and not good enough for promotion!”), observe the emotions without resistance or judgement. Curiously and compassionately enquire as to what the ego is trying to defend or reinforce and see the thoughts for what they actually are: just thoughts. Remind yourself that you are not your ego. Your ego is just doing what it thinks it is supposed to do: protect you, solve problems and help you succeed. Consider too the ego of your colleague – s/he too likely feels incompetent (don’t we all) and is threatened by competence in other people. Release yourself from the suffering of trying to protect an identity that is just an illusion of the ego; it is futile, pointless and can only cause suffering. With practice, comments from a colleague that would normally cause you offence, have much less impact. As you become more familiar with the “hallmarks” of the ego and its identity, dis-identifying from the ego’s thoughts becomes more and more effortless; a new kind of auto-pilot. Once you experience the more peaceful alternative to the pain and suffering created by the ego, you appreciate and thrive in a new calm and content way of being. Eventually, with further practice, you recognise ego-dictated thoughts more quickly and rely less and less on analysing situations in hindsight, becoming less reactive “in the moment”.
The ego uses identity to create the illusion of your false self. Why waste your precious energy and create so much suffering so desperately trying to defend and reinforce an illusion? Seeing the ego for what it really is releases you from the pain and suffering of being in an ego-identified thinking state to the peace, contentment and joy of your true self.