What is "Ego"?
Here's another chunk from the new book. It's a continuation of the discussion of what is meant by "conditioned mind", which was in the blog before the previous one. Have a beautiful day!
People sometimes wonder if the entity I name “conditioned mind” is the same as what others call “ego”. Yes and no. In the western part of the world, generally, the word “ego” is used to name the autonomous “self” that supposedly resides at the center of all our experience. My familiarity with western psychology is fairly primitive, but from what I can see there is an assumption embedded within it that says we are each a separate and self-directing individual, with an independent will and a power to assert that will upon the world both inside and outside of us. There is an “I” who can be improved, says this point of view, and there is a world that "I" can manage to the point where “I” can be happy.
In the east, and particularly in Buddhism, there is the understanding that no real and autonomous entity exists apart from Life.
What do I mean by “Life”? This word points to the mysterious, indescribable, inscrutable something that simply exists and which underpins all we experience. A theist would call this “God”, perhaps, but I avoid that word because it implies an entity that is outside of what is rather than which IS what is. There is something that is not illusory, which is “real” in an ultimate sense—or, at least, so it appears—and we each ARE this something, despite the appearance of our separation, but at least in my experience this something is not comprehensible by the human mind. We cannot actually know it. The reason, I would say, is that we are inside of this something. You can’t really understand something unless you are outside of it, where you can fully see it. A fish, it is commonly presumed, cannot understand what water is because it never experiences not-water. Being inside of Life, a part of Life, we can not truly apprehend Life as it is in itself. We can experience it, however. We could even go so far as to say that because we are Life, because there is no real separation, it is impossible to not experience it.
We are conditioned to assume that we are an autonomous, separate personality. We assume that Life is something we can relate to as an outside thing. We assume that we can control Life, or appeal to it, or manipulate it by being “good” and other similar things. This is an illusion. There is no real separation, says the eastern point of view: only a mirage, backed by the presumptions embedded deeply in our culture. “Ego”, in my use of that word, is a name for this illusion of separation.
Almost without exception people believe they are ego. We experience the separation inherent in the illusion instead of experiencing ourselves as Life, with all of the compassion, peace, clarity, and integrity that is Life. I suggested earlier that we cannot but experience Life, and this is true. Even the illusion is Life, in a way. However, if we accept that the illusion is real then we will suffer as if we are somehow outside of Life. Ego is built upon selfishness and want, upon deprivation, upon loneliness and the ache of living apart from who we truly are, and so it inevitably fails to provide real happiness. We might say that it IS unhappiness; that is, that ego is the process by which unhappiness is created and maintained (unhappiness being also an illusion). Worse, one of the primary mechanisms the illusion uses to make itself seem real—more about this later—is self-judgment. Self-judgment is the mechanism within the illusion of a separate self that keeps our attention fixed on what is (supposedly) wrong with us, so that we do not wake up to the tragic and insane world the illusion creates for us to live inside of. To identify ourselves as the ego, then, has this consequence, that we can never ultimately feel good about ourselves; we can never love ourselves unconditionally; we can only attempt to improve ourselves and fail, over and over again.
When I use the phrase “conditioned mind” I intend to indicate everything that the word “ego” suggests, and something more. The something more is the machinery that operates behind the scenes to maintain the illusion of separation as something that appears to be real and unquestionable. It is the collection of processes that have as their collective design to manage our attention such that we cannot see the way we are each being manipulated within our own minds.