In the mindscape of most spiritual seekers there is something called “the ego”. However, the exact meaning they assign to this ego remains vague. Often they merely have generalized ideas in mind, ranging from “selfish and cold”, via “emotional and immature” to “arrogant and proud”. Even if all this can the ego, for Advaita Vedanta none of it is the ego itself, but only its possible concomitant effects.
What is Advaita Vedanta’s definition of the ego? The ego is a Latin word and its meaning “I” is exactly what the ego is, no more and no less. This means that the ego is our ordinary self, with which we move through life. So the ego is not a small villain hidden somewhere in the mind, as for starters it is exactly what 99.9% of all people in the world mean when they use the word “I”. 1 Every ego-self may express itself differently; however, common to all is that every ego-self differs from the other ego-selves and generally from everything else in the world.
The self and the Self
Another term used by the seeker of Truth is the “Self”, usually written with a capital ‘S’. Even this Self is rarely defined clearly. Generally it is just conceived as somehow “better and more true” than the self with a lower case ‘s’. Advaita Vedanta, which calls for unambiguous definitions and terms distinguishes Ahamkara, the “regular self” (of the above-mentioned 99.9%) from Atman. Even though 100% of all people are Atman – the true Self – at the very most 0.1% of them have recognized this fact.
I usually add “separate” to the word self and “true” to the word Self. Thus we have “the separate self” (=ego) on the one hand, and on the other hand “the true Self”. To begin with, they exclude one another, because those who conceive of themselves as separate from anything do not know their true Self, which is non-separate from everything, i.e. advaita = not-two.
|Meaning (Sanskrit)||My term
|Ego||I or self||Ahamkara||separate self|
|Self||true Self||Atma or Atman||true Self|
The idea of separation, which constitutes the ego, is a fallacy, i.e., the ego is nothing but a misconception that can be set right. Advaita Vedanta is about removing ignorance and not about collecting experiences. The misconception called ego is the one ignorance that forms the base of all other kinds of ignorance.
I would like to refer to my very first essay of November 2010 here, in which I describe how everyone seeks peace more than anything else. But someone who takes himself for a being separate from others has no chance of peace, because he constantly feels under pressure to assert himself. He has to defend his ground and continuously consolidate it, in order not to fall behind. He has to persistently create boundaries against everything “other” or protect himself from it – with regard to living beings, forces of nature, environmental toxins or whatever. The fallacy of the separate self generates grief.
Hence we are lucky that the separate self is nothing but a fallacy that can be set right. First of all, however, one has to recognize the fact that one is up against a misconception – as I said before, 99.9% of all people are in agreement as far as their identity as separate beings is concerned.
Ignorance or incompleteness
Most readers of these essays are, so to speak, in between the 99.9% and those 0.1% who have understood the separate self as illusion. Although these seekers still live in strife, they already got the message that there is no need to resign oneself to it. But often they do not know how to completely free themselves from the big flock of those who believe in separation. This is due to the fact that they are rarely able to distinguish between their ignorance and the perceived incompleteness (please refer to the following essay, in case you are not sure about the difference I am talking about: Essay 11/2010). However, without this differentiation the basic fallacy will never be overcome.
Why not? Everyone who experiences a feeling of want (= incompleteness) in life will set off in search of what is missing. He is hungry and seeks food. He is missing someone and makes a move to meet him, etc. So he looks out for experiences that promise to eliminate the feeling of want and provide him with a feeling of completeness or abundance.
This brought about feeling of completeness will pass once again. Why is this so certain? Because the feeling of want is based on the idea of a separate self, and as long as this idea continues to exist, this want will make itself felt again and again. Only once the fallacy has been set right, the feeling of incompleteness is forever eliminated: those who know themselves as non-separate are complete for good; i.e. they know that they have been complete all along and will remain so.
Only once you unmask your perceived want as ignorance, the basic fallacy is overcome.
Doesn’t the ego have positive sides as well?
The difference between humans and all other living beings is the human sense of self, which is not a fully established separate self as yet; however, it is an identification that will develop in the course of life. The establishment of the ego is very important in the course of human development because the establishment of a separate self enables the person to act and eventually challenge the belief in the separate existence of the “I”. First of all a person needs to establish his identity as a separate self; only then he can question it. Even though this sounds absurd, it is how things are. Those who remain at the level of the by-and-large non-separate infant will not be able to develop spiritually. This also applies to those who incarnate as animals, stones or bacteria, because in such life forms there is no sense of self at all.
Most people represent a mixture of a strong, medium or missing ego (= the belief of being a separate self). If the ego is very strong in one area of life, this results in the above-mentioned concomitants of selfishness, emotional entanglements, arrogance and the like. If in another area of life the ego is weak or not at all established, one will be tossed about by the respective circumstances without much ability to assert oneself. Both curb spiritual development.
In case of an overly strong identification it should be questioned, thus breaking it down gradually. In case of a missing or weak identification, it has to be built up; i.e. the ability to set limits in that area of life must increase. Both are part of preparing for the path of knowledge (at least the way I teach it), and there are different methods to get to the medium range of the scale: identification with a separate self that is neither too strong in any area of life, nor too weak or completely absent. Only then can the knowledge work yield fruit.
Every seeker whose identification with a separate self is not located largely in the medium range will work on himself, as both extremes interfere with well-being and success. The decisive difference lies in what one aims for: whether one is working on oneself to attain well-being and success, or in order to see to it that one’s spiritual search can reach its goal. If the latter is what you aim at – wanting to recognize the true Self – you are on the last segment of your spiritual path, even if you are working on your personality temporarily. On the other hand, those who are actually chasing more well-being and success have not even entered the spiritual realm in the sense of Advaita Vedanta. Of course it requires some honesty and ideally the guidance of a spiritual teacher to keep from mistaking one for the other.
Conclusion: The ego is neither good nor bad – it is a necessity. However, the fallacy that comes with the ego is bad, for the above-mentioned reasons. For every seeker of Truth it is about exposing this error as error and the success of this enterprise substantially depends on the strength of the identification with the separate self. To achieve the aim of the search for Truth, i.e. to be able to replace one’s identity as a separate self with the true Self, one may sometimes have to diminish the ego, whereas at other times it may entail strengthening or establishing the ego, because an ego of medium strength is the ideal condition for the path of knowledge. Yet “ego” should never be taken as its various expressions, but as a relatively clear definition of one’s own personality. With this personality one can set about in good courage to recognize what transcends this personality: the true Self.
This does not yet exhaust the complex topic Ego-I-Self; e.g. there is the question whether the ego must be eliminated, whether a strong ego makes one stronger, where in the body/mind-system the ego is located, and whether by overcoming the idea of separation one’s ability to manage the practicalities of life suffers. I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, questions or objections as foundation for a second essay.
- Try one thing: In your spiritual books, replace the word “ego” with the simple word “I”. Most likely you will understand many statements at a much deeper level – at least if the respective author himself is not subject to the fallacy of presenting the ego as an evildoer. Generally speaking, one can assume that most Indian teachers do not refer to anything else but the ordinary self when using the word ego.