A few days ago someone asked me ” What exactly is this ego, everyone is talking about” ? Indeed , it seems like we are all on a hunt to track down the elusive trickster, that villain responsible for our moods, suffering and bad hair days ( just to mention the obvious). So while everyone is talking about it and pointing their finger to denote the unconscious action of the one thing that seems to be standing between us and an enlightened life, it still seems to be futile to catch it. So what is ego – and where does it hide, so we can see it when it is rearing it’s ugly face ?
The reason why “ego” is beyond grasping and putting a finger on it is that it is not a thing or a structure – it is a process. What we call “ego” is the diminutive for “egoic conditioning” and this is a lifelong process that is based on a single humane habit : wanting.
When we are born a sense of “self” is developing. This is natural for all sentient beings and it is basically the sense of “this entity” versus “that entity over there”. We can observe how small children are learning to make the distinction and how the sense of a differentiation between the “self” and the world is developing. There has to be an awareness of “self” – a sensory knowledge of the entity that I perceive to be “me”, and over time I will experience the boundaries and limitations that go along with forming the idea of “self” and “other”.
This realisation that there is an other and I am dependent on them, is at the basis of ego formation. There are certain needs the little “self” in the form of a human being has – like food, warmth, social interaction. And soon we learn that being cared for our needs is pleasurable, as opposed to being neglected is associated with feelings that are uncomfortable. Obviously, the first stage is much more enjoyable, so this is what we want to have – now and forever.
This is how wanting is born. Wanting is a striving, a grasping for something other than the current moment is presenting. While Life is ingenious providing for our needs, it could not care less for what we want. It is part of the Life experience to live through a whole range of sensations, but soon we learn to distinguish those that make us feel comfortable from those that are unpleasant. And in consequence, we want all our experiences to be enjoyable and resist those that we perceive hurtful. This building up of a resistance and trying to avoid the natural flip side of the spectrum, is a desire and if it is not fulfilled, it is becoming the basis the basis for suffering.
To want something means to fixate and then use attention, energy and focus to get it. So let us assume a child is experiencing the uncomfortable sensation of getting hungry, so it will cry and eventually someone will take care of this need. So the child learns that the act of “voicing ” one’s discomfort gets the unpleasant sensation satisfied and it will go on to use the same behaviour in different situations, by that learning that “effort” and “resistance” does eventually lead to satisfaction and fulfillment of the need. And herein lies the mistake, because a feeding would have taken place, whether or not a child cried. Of course this is all oversimplified to state the example – but we can easily see, that at the same time we learn that we have a separate identity, we also learn what we need to do to receive what we want.
Later in life this process gets more complex. The more “identity” we are forming, which is the concept of ourselves, based on the beliefs that are taking form in us, the more “wants” will be generated to support this image we have about our own “self”, our own, personal, individual identity. This is not only provisions for our daily survival, it is also plan, wishes and desires that reach into the future, to create an ideal persona of ourselves, with certain attributes, skills and possessions that are supposed to make us happy and free.
And this is the point we start to confuse an awareness of our self, that is equipped with certain characteristics and even a particular personality, that is based on previous experiences, environmental, cultural and social influences, as well as personal gifts, talents and preferences, with that imaginary picture of ourselves, that is based on illusion. This is the point we start to manipulate reality in terms of controlling the experience and we just see what we like to see and ignore what does not suit us. This is how our egoic conditioning starts to develop. Based on things we have learned, experienced or observed, we think we know what we have to do to keep ourselves safe and happy. We just need to do what we have always done – because this is a tried and trusted methodolgy. It works ! But that is the msitake.
What the egoic conditioning does not understand is that each and every situation is different and is a function of a billion of different elements and factors involved. There is no way to control it, the only possibility is to navigate it with prudence and wisdom, based on intuitive knowledge.
So what we call “ego” is partly our imaginary self based on teh way we like to see oursleves, because of a believe that this is what would make us happy. But partly it is also an array of more or less unconscious conditioned reactions based on what we have learned and what we think we know. As we have not learned to trust life and simpla let go – we hold, grasp and attach. By that we prevent life from flowing and condition suffering for ourselves and others.
It is time to start practicing another process – not of grasping, but of “letting go”.