In almost every nook and cranny of the spiritual field, you’ll hear the ego spoken about with contempt and sometimes it is plain demonized.
Many people carry the belief that the ego needs to be destroyed, muzzled, or even killed.
But do we need to destroy the ego? What is the ego, really? And furthermore, what can you learn about your own ego?
Table of contents
What is the Ego?
The ego is basically your identity, or who you think you are.
In other words, your ego is usually constructed of a name, a personality, and a story. Within this personal story is a collection of memories, beliefs, ideas, and sensations about “who you are,” “where you came from,” “what you’re good and bad at,” “what you’ve experienced,” and on, and on, and on, ad infinitum.
In the words of renowned spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle,
Ego is no more than this: identification with form, which primarily means thought forms.
When we identify with a thought or story in our head, the substance of the ego is born.
How Is the Ego Formed?
The ego is a veil between what you think you are and what you actually are. You live under the illusion of the mind, totally unaware that you are directed by a great big load of stories!— Isira Sananda
There are three main causes of our ego formation:
- Primal protection
- Social conditioning
- Psychological security
First is primal protection.
Without an ego, without being able to say “this is me” and “this isn’t me” how can we possibly stay alive?
For example, if you had no sense of self, there would be nothing stopping you from drowning, getting hit by a car, getting eaten by an animal, having a limb severed, and so forth. There would be no capacity to differentiate yourself from a bus, a knife, a lake, a road, and so on!
To protect ourselves, we need a sense of self or ego.
“But what about enlightened folk?” you may wonder. “They don’t need a sense of self and look how blissful they are!”
Here, the distinction needs to be made in the sense that those who experience spiritual enlightenment don’t lose their ego, they simply stop identifying with it. No ego at all would mean no ability to stay alive!
Second is our social conditioning.
Since childhood, we’re taught that we’re “separate” from others and life itself.
As we grow up, we’re taught to believe in and identify with the thoughts that run through our heads by those who model this behavior around us. We’re also taught to almost automatically adopt our family’s belief system and values, as well as society’s wider definition of “who we are” or “should be.”
As a result of being taught (or conditioned) to believe that we’re separate individuals, we experience fear and suffering. Instead of simply experiencing life in its pure simplicity and Wholeness, we filter life through our minds. And as we know, the mind loves to create division – it is inherently dualistic!
Third is psychological security.
As psychotherapist and author Matt Licata writes,
… ego is a process of dissociation and splitting of to use psychological jargon, in the attempt to prevent overwhelming anxiety from pouring into conscious awareness. Or, in more spiritual terminology, it is the attempt to keep us out of the otherwise naked reality of how open, unknown, and groundless our lives truly are, where anything could happen at any time.
Other than protecting our physical bodies, the ego also protects us psychologically. Like a shell that protects a chick, the ego keeps us contained and protected – and yet simultaneously trapped.
Imagine if a baby chick was left without a shell while its tender body was still forming. It wouldn’t fare well at all and would probably die within an hour (or less)!
In many ways, we’re the same. We need that shell of the ego while our Souls are still growing, evolving, maturing, and deepening. Like a chick that needs a shell in order to break through it, we need to first form an ego in order to then transcend it.
Not having some kind of ego structure would render the world a tremendously overwhelming place in which we would be paralyzed to do anything.
The Ego and Duality
A little earlier I mentioned the word “duality” and its connection with the ego.
But what is duality?
Duality is essentially the state of separation or twoness. Duality can only and ever exist through the mind, which itself is flawed, myopic, and limited in scope.
In essence, duality is the very substance of the ego.
In duality, we essentially “split” or divide life into words, ideas, beliefs, and concepts that ultimately limit and suffocate the present moment.
Examples of duality include filtering life through the lenses of “right/wrong,” “good/bad,” “pretty/ugly,” “holy/sinful,” “love/hate” etc.
How does duality harm us?
As a product of living in duality, we create untold amounts of suffering for ourselves because we’re no longer open to the endless vastness and Oneness of life.
Instead, our lives become centered around judgment, condemnation, and fear. And as a result, we alienate and destroy others who we perceive as being “bad,” “wrong,” and “sinful” to protect our ideas of what is “right” and “holy.”
The more deeply we’re entrenched in duality – the essential nature of the ego – the more we experience problems such as hatred, anger, depression, paranoia, anxiety, and many other hellish states of being like the Dark Night of the Soul.
Not only do we sever ourselves from others, but we’re cut off from ourselves as well. Anything within us that we perceive as being “evil/bad/wrong/sinful” we suppress, repress, and deny the existence of.
As a result of this repressed energy, our Shadow Selves (or our rejected inner “dark side”) grow more and more twisted, destructive, and depraved. Unless transformed through shadow work, this intense suffering is ultimately expressed in our relationships and the world at large.
When all is said and done, the fact is that our physical world is an expression of our collective internal torment. When separated from the fullness of the Oneness that is Life, our lives become an expression of our inner emptiness.
Simply taking a look at the violence, murder, poverty, greed, bigotry, mental illness, and environmental degradation around us reveals how profoundly lost we are as a race.
We’re lost because we have lost touch with the truth of who we are. We’re drowning in the ego.
The Folly of Demonizing the Ego
In light of what we’ve just discussed, it’s very easy to start believing that the ego is bad.
In fact, some spiritual teachers teach that the ego needs to be “destroyed.” But here’s the thing: this is just another trick of the mind!
I’ve heard so many people in the spiritual community condemn the ego and speak of it with such great resentment. However, the belief that our egos are “evil” or need to be “killed/destroyed” is just a reflection of the mind stuck in duality!
Only the ego wants to “kill” the ego!
In the words of Alan Watts,
Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! … When this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.
We need to understand on our spiritual awakening journeys that the ego isn’t “good” or “bad,” it’s a neutral force. Whether our ego causes joy or pain is all up to how it’s used.
The ego is a tool – it’s a biological, psychological, and social survival mechanism. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to function in this world. How else could we tell the difference between ourselves and the oncoming train or truck that’s headed our way? We need our egos to live in this physical body.
The ego is also crucial because it exists as a vehicle for our spiritual growth; methods such as yoga, catharsis, dancing, energy work, and meditation can serve as doorways through which we can remember and reclaim our True Nature.
We’ll explore how to approach the ego in a healthy and more illuminated way next.
Why the Ego Isn’t You
At some point on your spiritual path, you may have heard the expression: “the ego is an illusion.” But what does this mean?
The ego is an illusion, and therefore isn’t really “you,” because it is always changing and has no real solidity or objectivity.
In other words, how can anything within you that is subject to birth, change, and decay really be you?
Let’s try an experiment. Write down on a notepad or on your phone who “you” think you are. You can always stop reading and return back to reading this section after you’ve finished.
Take a break. Really. Do the experiment now.
Now that you’ve done the experiment, read over your words. Likely, you would have written something along the lines of, “I am Jane Doe. I’m a wife, mother, and friend. I’m a fighter, a dreamer, and a spiritual seeker. I am 38 years old, have three children, and am a skilled artist.”
See this description of you? This is your main personal story; the backdrop of your life, of who/what you think you are.
Why is the ego an illusion? The ego is an illusion because it is simply that: a story or narrative created in the mind.
Let’s use some self-inquiry and apply some questions to your statements about who you think you are:
- How can you be a name if it can easily be changed? You could have very well been born into a different family that named you something else.
- How can you be a body if it is constantly aging, changing, disintegrating, and can be replaced with other parts? Your red blood cells live for four months, your white blood cells live for more than a year, your skin cells live for 2-3 weeks … all cells within you are constantly dying and being renewed. How can you really be your body or looks?
- How can you be a personality when it is constantly fluctuating and transforming? Think back to your personality 5 years ago, then 15 years ago. Did you have the exact same personality that you do now?
- How can you be your emotions when they are constantly coming and going, ebbing and flowing? Not only that but do you really control your emotions? Where do they come from? Do you really plan or control them?
- How can you be your thoughts when they always changing? Not only that, but do you really control your thoughts? Where do they come from? Do you really plan or control them?
- How can you be your beliefs when what you believed 10-30 years ago isn’t what you believe today? Your beliefs are influenced by your conditioning, upbringing, and society … how can they be “you” or “yours”?
- How can you be your memories when they come, go, and even alter? Did you know that there is such a thing as “false memory”? When remembering the past, the mind has a tenuous and colored perception that is subject to change and alteration. How can your memories be you?
As we can see, everything that we unquestionably believe we are isn’t really us – it is frail, changeable, and in truth, lacking in solidity. So who or what really defines “me” or “you”? What has been there all along that has never changed?
What is That Presence?
What has been there to witness everything that has happened in your life? What never changes? What is the most fundamental core of who we are?
Explore this question for a few moments and you’ll realize that it’s …
Consciousness is the fabric of all things. In fact, even science has shown that everything at its core is energy vibrating at different levels.
In our human experience, Presence, Consciousness, or Spirit manifests as the energy that composes every form.
The easiest way to experience this Presence that is you, and always has been you, is through meditation. Meditation, or quieting the mind, helps you to become simply aware of your thoughts, and the space beneath those thoughts. That space that is both empty and full at the same time, is You.
Another common method that has been used since the dawn of time to experience this Truth of Being, or ego death is through psychedelic shamanic plants and brews, such as Ayahuasca, Psilocybin Mushrooms, and Peyote. Although it’s helpful to take such herbs to experience yourself as Life or Consciousness itself, it isn’t compulsory.
These plants are simply doorways into the Universal Experience of Spirit that we are.
How to Untangle Yourself From the Web of Illusion
It can take a while to reach a deep realization that you’re not the ego, and usually much more time (or lifetimes) to experience this as an ongoing integrated reality.
The discovery that everything you “believe you are” is, in reality, false can be unsettling, disturbing, confusing, saddening, or, more positively, liberating. So don’t be surprised if you experience a lot of resistance to this article. It’s normal.
After all, the ego’s job is to protect itself and ferociously guard the belief that you’re separate from other people and life itself – in its mind, this is a matter of biological survival.
To really understand the beauty and ultimate freedom that comes with seeing through the ego, you can’t stay on a purely intellectual level. You must have actual experiences of Consciousness itself.
Even just a single moment of Consciousness can help you to discover for yourself that it is the most liberating, pure, peaceful, compassionate, expansive, and loving state possible.
In fact, Consciousness itself is the very embodiment of love, peace, and freedom. You are this embodiment. You are the Truth that you have been seeking – but not the “you” sense of self or personality: the You with a capital “Y” that is beyond a separate sense of self.
Untangling yourself from the web of ego illusion is a process that requires patience, self-discipline, and dedication. This process isn’t for trendy “spirit junkies” – it is for sincere spiritual seekers.
If you’d like some spiritual practices to explore that can help you experience moments of pure Consciousness, here are some paths:
- Read through the self-inquiry questions above regularly. Ask yourself, “Is this (thing that I think is me) really me?” Although emotions, thoughts, personality, and body are experienced by you, they are not truly you because they are subject to birth, death, and change.
- Practice dynamic meditation, breathwork, or some form of catharsis like exercise or dancing to release any repressed energy within you. Do this before traditional meditation to make accessing the stillness within easier.
- Meditate each day. Try 15 minutes first, then move on to 20+ minutes. Remember: the purpose of meditation isn’t to “get” anywhere or “achieve” anything. It is simply the practice of sitting with whatever arises in you.
- Regularly affirm to yourself, “I am Consciousness” throughout the day. Feel that truth seep into your bones and very core with each breath.
- Explore the way your ego influences your life with compassion. Inner work practices such as shadow work and journaling are powerful ways of becoming more mindful of your ego.
- Read into the experience of The Spiritual Awakening Process to get further guidance. We created this book to help support you on the spiritual path.
- Practice mindfulness on a daily basis. Mindfulness is a vital practice that will help to ground you in the present moment. After all, the only place you can experience Consciousness is in the Now (not in thoughts about the past or future, which are just that: thoughts!)
So what is the ego? The ego is a teacher, one that you carry with you each day.
When seen in this light, the ego is the most powerful and persistent teacher we have to wake us up to the Truth that has always been here, and will always be here.
What thoughts or unique realizations have you had about the ego? I’d love to hear them below in the comments.