The human ego is an illusion. Breaking free from this illusion, at least periodically, is a critical step towards spiritual growth. The ego is nothing more than a mental construct, which identifies with ones thoughts; it is empowered when we believe we are what we think. The ego strings together past events and projects into the future. It is the part of ourselves that compares and separates us from others. For most people their sense of self is closely tied to the ego.
The concept of self that I want to point out is a wider state of human consciousness. It is pure awareness in the present moment, independent of other experiences. The words enlightenment, awakening, transcendence and mindfulness have been used to describe something similar. I see self-awareness as a fundamental result of consciousness, while the ego is a mind created entity.
The illusion I want to point out is that when we define ourselves, more often than not, we are describing our ego. By doing this we are missing out on a more complete sense of self, one that numbs our subjective individuality in favor of an interconnected reality with the outside world.
I am only beginning to recognize the full deception of the illusion, and the power to be transformed by becoming aware of it. For me, it is still a work in progress, although I have already experienced a shift in how I see myself.
The idea that the ego is an illusion is difficult to explain. Even if it is understood in principle, it still has to be internalized and applied to one’s life. So convincing is the illusion of the ego that for some people the words on this page will be meaningless. They are totally convinced they are their ego (nothing more, nothing less). However, once the illusion is identified the implications can be profound and life changing. Realizing that the ego is not what it seems can be the first step towards spiritual transformation.
Our ego is derived by the continuous stream of experiences. Our memories and experiences are woven into a coherent story, the story of me and the story of you. The stronger the attachment we have with our story, the stronger the identification is with the ego. In addition, the story is also projected into the future. Contrary to popular thinking, someone with a large ego does not necessarily believe he/she is better than other people; they simply identify more strongly with their story (their past and future).
The ego identifies with the external world in different ways, and misinterprets the external reality for the internal reality. To the ego, we are what we do, have, own, make and look. Our sense of identity is tied in with possessions, money, status, occupations, roles, appearances, and the opinion of others. These are things mostly outside of us, and they become part of our story. But things we identify with are not who we are.
The Collective Ego
There is another aspect to the ego which is just as prevalent. These are the things we identify with as a group (the collective ego). Being absorbed by our ego creates a mental position that separates us from life and other groups of people. Collectively, these mental positions are strengthened and become even more destructive. The collective ego takes several forms, such as: nationalism, race, religion, politics, ethnicity, tribal and ideologies.
As long as we can say: “We are right and they are wrong,” or “We are good and they are evil,” or “It’s us against them,” then the door is open for all kinds of abuses. The collective consciousness that completely separates humanity into distinct groups is the root of war and violence. Contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth:
“By far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”
Breaking Free From the Illusion
Eckhart Tolle has written several books on spiritual growth. Central to his message, in The Power of Now and A New Earth, is the human dysfunction associated with the ego. And that an enlightened state of consciousness is possible by dissolving the ego. This can only occur when we access the dimension of the present moment. The ego arises through the stories in our minds; fully focused on the present there is no story. The ego exists only as a mental construct, just like the past and future. In reality, only the present is real.
In the The Power of Now, Tolle recalls his experience of breaking away from identification with the ego. After a lengthy period of anxiety and depression, one simple thought completely changed his perspective of life. On one especially dreadful night he thought:
“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”
The Transformation of Consciousness
Tolle realized that his suffering was caused by his identification with the ego. This was the ‘self’ he could not live with. He learned that by relinquishing the ego, his anxiety and depression would also disappear; his state of mind shifted to deep peace and bliss.
The core problem is the stress that arises in order to maintain the false self. The ego is never satisfied for very long, as it always needs to be built up. What arises in most people is a deep-seated feeling of longing, of never having enough or being enough. It is an endless game of striving, struggling, competing, fighting, arguing, and so one.
We all have an ego, a form of self-preservation I suppose. No doubt it evolved as a survival mechanism. A strong sense of individual identity must have been an advantage in a highly competitive environment. We still compete today on many levels, but for the most part it is not life or death. The key insight is to see it for what it is: an unavoidable part of the human condition that has to be kept in check.
Tolle also realized that the entry point towards enlightenment is the present moment. That is The Power of Now, the transformation of consciousness that emerges by letting go of our story, and living fully in the present. The true self is the conscious awareness behind our thoughts, the ego and our story. Living in the now, free from the grip of ego, is the simplest and most practical philosophy for well-being and mental health. That is the most life-altering concept in philosophy.
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006), 73.
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 2004), 4.
Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion (Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2012.