4 – The illusion of the ego


This episode explores the topic of the ego. What is ego? What part of me is really me? When we view ourselves and others as independent and permanent, we tend to view ourselves as finished products rather than works in progress. The reality is that the sense of self is an illusion, we are impermanent and interdependent.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 4. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the illusion of the ego. So let’s get started.

So today we’re going to be talking about the ego, specifically the illusion of the ego. But to understand this a little bit better, we need to talk about what the ego is. Poor ego gets a bad wrap or we often talk about the word ego attach to meanings like megalomania or vanity. When you talk about someone who has an ego, it’s usually with a negative connotation. But strictly speaking, it is only a psychological term that was popularized by Freud meaning the consciousness as opposed to the unconscious mind. So, it’s the awareness of one’s own identity and existence. So, your ego is your conscious mind. It’s the part of your identity that you consider yourself. With that definition in mind, what we’re going to be talking about today then is essentially the sense of self. What is the sense of self? What am I? That’s a question you can be asking yourself throughout this entire podcast episode. What am I? What is the self? That’s what we’re going to be exploring today.

Our natural tendency is to view, not just ourselves but others as well as permanent things. In the last podcast episode, we talked about the reality of impermanence and interdependence. And yet when we’re thinking of the self, the sense of ego, generally we see ourselves as permanent fixed things. So, taking what we learned or talked about on the last episode, if everything is interdependent and everything is interconnected, then what are the implications for the sense of self that we feel?

On the last podcast episode, I talked about interdependence and impermanence seen through the eyes of wisdom. So, understanding that everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent is vital for having a proper understanding of the sense of self. Because when it comes to the self, the sense of the ego that we feel, the tendency is to think backwards. We think of ourselves as independent of everything else, their self and other, and we tend to think of ourselves as permanent rather than impermanent. I am an entity that exist independent of anything else and I would go on and on. When the reality is as we saw on the last episode, everything is interdependent and everything is impermanent. So what does that mean for the self of self? What is the ego? Well, as the title of this podcast episode implies, there is the illusion of the ego. When we think of ourselves and others as independent and permanent things, the tendency is to view ourselves and others as finished products continually viewing ourselves as finished products rather than works in progress.

In Buddhism, we talked about the concept of no self. The idea that things have no intrinsic existence of their own. Take a moment and look down at your hands right now. They’re probably holding your phone or on the keyboard or perhaps on the mouse or holding something. But look at them and ask yourself, “Are these hands really me?” What if you lost your hands in an accident, would you still be you? Of course, right? Now, look at your legs and ask the same questions. If I didn’t have these legs, would I still be me? Then ask yourself what part of you is really you. I mean, what part of your if removed, would make it so that you are no longer you? Take a minute to think about that. Is there any part of your body that if it was gone, you would know what the certainty that you are no longer you? Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, it’s my brain. My brain is what makes me who I am.” Well, what specifically in your brain makes you you? Is it your personality, your memories, your abilities and skills?

Look at those for a second. Look at your personality. Does personality change overtime? Can a traumatic brain injury change your personality? It sure can. If your personality would’ve change due to a traumatic brain injury, would you still be you? Well, the answer is absolutely. It might be you with a different personality than the you from before. It doesn’t even have to be that drastic, though. Just think back to the you from 10 to 15 years ago and ask yourself if you’re the same person. Compare the you from middle school versus the you from high school versus the you from college, the married you, the parent version of you. If you’re like me, you’re going to notice that all of those are different people and yet they’re all me. Think of it like this, that’s who I was back then, this is who I am now. So if your personality isn’t you, then what is you. Maybe memories. What about memories? What if you lost all your memories, would you still be you?

My grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years of life, when I’d go visit her, I had to remind her who I was, and often I had to remind her of who she was, her own name and where she was and where she was from. But even without her memory, she was still my grandma. Your memories are precious part of you but they’re not you. See, we often believe that our abilities and skills are what make us who we are. I consider myself a techy or a computer nerd, yet if I was stranded on an island for the rest of my life without any technology, I would still be me. I wouldn’t be a techy or a computer nerd because I wouldn’t have those things. Or consider as singer who loses their voice, or an artist who loses the ability to paint because they’ve lost their limbs or something, or a dancer or an athlete who becomes paralyzed. You see where this is going?

The things that you think make who you are end up only being parts of who you are but none of these things alone is you. It’s like we talked about in the last podcast episode like the car. You can take the car apart, take it and separate all of it’s components. You can take out the engine and ask what is the car and the answer is that you take several parts of this together and you start forming the idea of car, but none of these parts alone by itself can constitute the car. For it to be a car, all it needs is one or more of those parts and the same applies to us, the individual self. There is no part of you that is you without all of the parts of you that make you you. So you are who you are because of everything that makes you who you are, and yet none of those things alone can be called you.

So how does the Buddhist concept of no-self apply in your everyday life? Why is this concept even useful? Well, consider this next time you’re offended by something that someone says or does. Ask yourself, what part of me has really been offended? Analysis it like we did in the previous podcast taken its parts. It’s causes and conditions, and you’re soon going to discover that this concept of no-self can actually be an incredible tool for letting go of the ego because you’ll discover that the ego is an illusion, because the ego isn’t you. The sense of self that makes you think you are who you are is only a part of you, but that’s not you.

I think this concept is illustrated beautifully in a letter I received from a friend of mine and I want to read this letter to you because this is about dementia. And my friend writes this letter and this is what he says. He says,

“My mother-in-law works at a dementia unit at a rest home in Australia. Today, we visited her at work and met some of the residence each with a vary in degree of this difficult, at times tragic condition. The visit gave me much to reflect on between the challenges of getting old, the final phases of life and mortality itself. But one tiny thing in particular stuck with me. At the dinning room, each member has a seat at a table. They use the same one everyday, a routine crucial to a suffering memory. Still, they often forget which seat is theirs. To help them remember, each person’s place at the table has a laminated page stuck to it. The page has their name and a set of pictures and photos that are meaningful to them.

For example, I met Patricia who told me guided by the pictures that she’d been traveling around Australia. I could also see from the pictures that she loved scones with jam and cream, and had some recent grand children. Each person’s laminated placeholder was the same, 10 to 15 photos that reminded them of who they were. It was beautiful and somehow deeply sad. The thought that someday your life, however long and prosperous, might be the still down to 10 photos that will define you.

I can’t help but notice the kinds of things these pictures were, too. Patricia had 90 something years to her name. Ninety years of stuff that might have been on that page, all the accomplishments and the memories, the people and places, friends who came and went, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, love and hate, and boredom and anticipation, anxiety and calm, fear and peace. And at the end of it all, there were scones with jam and cream. Ten percent of her photos were dedicated to that. Ten percent of who she is. It struck me that with the brevity of life, the constant coming and going of things, what remained in the end for these men and women was what they had loved. Sitting their past 90 years of age, suffering from dementia, most of what you ever though was important is gone. The arguments and the hurts and the conversations and the judgements and the regrets, they’re all faded or forgotten. Your friends might be gone, your bank balance definitely isn’t going to be on that page and even the business you built doesn’t photograph well, and it probably isn’t that interesting anyway.

And there is a view of what you loved and you don’t score more points if that thing is world peace when Patricia’s thing is scones. If there are any points, you only score more by the intensity of your love, not by the object of it. What do you love? What pictures will tell your story in the end? Have a great day.”

This letter was very moving and very touching. My own grandma suffered from dementia and then her final years and months continued to deteriorate to the point where she didn’t recognize who I was when I would come to visit her. Sometimes she thought I was her son, my dad. Sometimes she would remember that I was one of her grandkids. And what’s interesting is you take this concept of the mind and you think, “Well, my memories, that’s who I am, the things that I remember and know or my personality. And what you’ll find like this example with Patricia, even the things that we think are solid in terms of defining who we are, our memories, can be gone and yet that doesn’t change who you are. Now, you’re just you without the memories that you had. So again, I ask you to ponder on this question, what part of me is really me? What part of me is the essential self that I feel so connected to the sense of ego. Because the conclusion should be that if you spent enough time pondering on this, what you’ll discover is that the ego is an illusion.

Much like this idea of a car. A car is real and it exist and at the same time it’s an illusion because it doesn’t exist independent of all the parts that allow it to exist. Well, the self is the same. We exist and we’re experiencing life the way we’re experiencing it, but we are a part of everything that allows us to exist. I like the way Alan Watts talks about this concept. He says, “You are something that the universe is doing in the same way that the wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” Now, the implications here of understanding that the ego is an illusion to self of sense or the sense of self is an illusion is actually really powerful because what is the conclusion of realizing I am not independent of everything else. I am not a permanent thing than what you realize is you are interdependent with everything and impermanent just like everything on earth. So, what we essentially realizes that we are one with everything. The sense of self can become really strong when we’re talking about things like religion, politics, sports, anything where we identify really strongly with the things that we like or don’t like, the things we believe or don’t believe, which reminds me of an experience I had while traveling to the Middle East.

My wife and I were doing the Mediterranean cruise and we had a tour guide in Israel that was showing us all of the key attractions and sites in and outside of Jerusalem. And we had spent hours with him. He was telling us the Jewish perspective of the various sites we were visiting. And something that happened that I thought was interesting, it really stuck with me was when we crossed over to Bethlehem to see the sites in Bethlehem, we had to switch tour guides because this was territory now controlled by Palestine and our Jewish tour guide couldn’t go in there with us.

So we switched to a new bus and a new tour guide and as soon as we got in the bus and now we’re in Bethlehem driving, the first thing we wanted to know because everything we had just been experiencing was very clearly from the Jewish perspective, the assumption was, okay, you must be Muslim maybe or you’re probably not Jewish. So we wanted to find that our really quick. So we were just asking our tour guide as soon as he introduced himself and we all introduced ourselves, and I remember asking, “So, what are you?” And he kind of looked with a surprised look and said, “What do you mean what am I?” And we said, “Yeah, our tour guide on the first part of the tour was Jewish and it was interesting to get his perspective. So I was wondering what you are.”

And he kind of laugh and he said, “Well, I am a human being. A human being who lives in Bethlehem.” And that immediately realized, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s the topic we’re not going to go into then.” At the same time, it seemed just so wise. Well, of course, what else could you be. And it made me realize in the months and years after that experience, we do tend to view each other through the labels that we use as if those were nouns. It doesn’t matter what he believes. What he believes isn’t who he is and what I was asking is who are you.

And yet, I treat that question of who are you with, in terms of whatever you respond, you know your beliefs or the ideas that you have, the … You know, all of these things that describe you, I would tend to treat as, well [inaudible 00:16:04] as you. And that was a powerful lesson to me to realize, well of course, all you are is a human being and nothing else. Anything that we add to that, we should add to it as an adjective and that’s fine because that’s a description but not as a noun, because the noun has already established your a human being.

So it was a neat experience that stuck with me. And then to develop on that, I realized, well, then courage, what is the concept of courage with the understanding that the illusion of the ego. Courage ends up being the courage to be as we are, right here right now. The courage to be free from attaching ourselves or chasing after other’s acceptance and avoiding their rejection. The things that we think make us who we are prevent us from having the courage to just be what we are, to be what we are right now and recognizing that what we are right now as I mentioned before is that we are works in progress. We tend to take snapshots of ourselves or snapshots of others like a Polaroid that’s printed and once I’ve interacted with you once, I’ve created this mental Polaroid an image of who you are and the problem is that’s not who you are. First of all, a snapshot just like imagine a picture, it’s a fixed thing. And as soon as I have it there, I’ve decided who you are without realizing that who you are is constantly changing.

So, an image certainly isn’t going to allow me to see the you that’s constantly moving. So if I was able to see you without putting that permanent image of who you are, then I would recognize that who you are is constantly changing and I would hope that you recognize that who I am is constantly changing. And then this gets more complex because there’s who you are and there’s who I am, but what makes this even more complicated is that there is who you think that I am and then there is who I think that you think that I am, and both of those layers of the complexity and how we perceive each other are blinding us from what we really are. Think about that. We do this all the time with the people that we interact with. We give ourselves labels and then as soon as we do that, as Kierkegaard says, once you label me, you negate me. You don’t give me the opportunity to see who I really am because there is already who you think that I am.

Consider the way that we use labels on our society. We use these labels all the time. I’m a republican. I’m a democrat. I’m a Christian. I’m a Buddhist. I am dumb. I am smart. You know, we use these labels as if these were permanent things that make us who we are. But we, like everything else, exist because of causes and conditions. We are who we are because of the countless things that make us who we are. Like the cake, like the car. We inherit genetics from our parents, beliefs and ideas from our family and society, and these things are part of how we are, but they are not what we are. The problem with our labels is how we use them because as I mentioned before, we tend to use these as nouns instead of adjectives.

So when I use a label like I am a Buddhist as a noun, then it separates me from everything that is not a Buddhist. It divides and separates. But now consider the label I am a Buddhist as an adjective. It becomes a description of how I am, the noun me which is human. I am a human being. That’s all I really am, and I tend to view things through the Buddhist lens. That’s different than trying to separate myself by using that as a noun to describe who I am because the reality is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t be a Buddhist or a Christian or an anything. Because those things aren’t things to be. We already are something. We’re human.

So, when we learn to view our own labels and perhaps more importantly the labels that we assigned to others as adjectives instead of nouns, it will be more like talking to someone and realizing, “Okay, I’m wearing a blue shirt and you’re wearing a read shirt.” But the color of the shirts that we wear doesn’t make up who we are. It’s just part of how we are at this specific moment in time, at this specific moment of being human. Try to start viewing labels. Yours and others as adjectives rather than nouns and see how that changes the way you view yourself and others.

And this doesn’t just happen with people. It happens with everything. From the moment we’re born, we acquire labels and concepts and stories and beliefs, and these things can tent the way that we view things. It’s removing this tent that allows us to see things as they really are, to see ourselves for who we really are. In Buddhism, this is taught as Buddha nature. Being able to understand who you are is in your true nature. And we do this with reality as well, you know, when you can see things as they really are beyond the stories, and the meanings, and the concepts, and the labels that we attached things, then that is awakening, that is enlightenment. It’s learning to see things as they really area.

In the last podcast episode, I talked about Plato’s allegory of the cave, and this concept has seen shadows and thinking that that shadow is the real thing when the shadow of the thing isn’t the same as the thing itself. But we wouldn’t know that because we exist in a world where what we’re seeing are the shadows.

So the important lesson here is that we need to start learning to see things as they really are and to see ourselves as we really are and understanding that the sense of ego that we experience is an illusion because what I am is constantly changing whether that be the physical form, you know, in the physical way my … The cells of my body are constantly changing or growing and dying, and physically we’re constantly changing. But every other aspect of me is changing as well throughout my experience of being alive, my belief changed, my personality can change, my memories are changing. We’re constantly adding new ones, we’re forgetting old ones. We’re constantly changing and involving. So that sense of self can really be examined and what you’ll realize is that just like the car, the self is the creation of everything that allows the self to exist but none of those things are independent of the causes and conditions that allow it to be that way.

Several months ago, I was hiking in Park City close to where I live with some friends who were visiting from Mexico, and about half way into the hike, I noticed this curious tree with an odd bend in it. I took a picture of it to remind me of how I felt when I saw this crooked tree. When we look at trees, we see all sorts of trees. It doesn’t matter if they’re bend or straight, it they’re oaks or pines, if they have bark or no bark. In most cases, what we see is just a tree being a tree. And we might even think, “How unique. I love that bend or that curve.” We can start to imagine that maybe it wasn’t getting enough light so it turned this way or it turned that way. Perhaps the strong wind or the weight of too much snow may have caused it to bend. Either way, we don’t get caught up in the emotions of judgment. We simply appreciate the tree. Yet when we look at humans, we lose all that. It’s easy to judge and say you’re too this or you’re too that. We judge the shape of the leaves and the color of the bark or whether or not it has bark and everything else about it. But what if we look at people the way we look at trees? What if we could appreciate people just the way they are without any judgment?

Understanding that this sense of self, this ego is an illusion that helps us to remove the meanings that we attach to people, that people are supposed to be this or supposed to be that, then we can start to appreciate ourselves and others simply for being where human beings being human. And when we can learn to see ourselves and others that way, it will be like when we look at trees. We simply appreciate the tree for just being a tree. There is no distinction of, well this one is a bad tree because it’s crooked and this one is a good tree because it’s straight or silly things like that.

Beyond asking ourselves who apart of me is really me, you can start to ask yourself this in various situations or circumstances in life. You know, next time you’re offended by somebody who cut you off on the road, ask yourself … Because you’re going to have that sense of anger, but then observe that for a minute and think, “What part of me is really mad? Why am I even mad about that?” Look for the causes and conditions of things. Because what you’ll find is there is no independent permanent thing even if that thing is a sensation like anger, an emotion like anger. You can see it naturally arise, analyze it and then it’s gone just like everything else in life. It’s interdependent with the circumstances that allowed it to arise and it’s impermanent because it finally goes. And when you can view it that way, suddenly it doesn’t grip you quite as tight as it used to. Explore this with your various emotions. Explore this concept of interdependence and impermanence with all the things that you think are part of who you are, your memories, your emotions, your personality, your skills and abilities. Explore all this things and see where that takes you. See how that makes you change they way you perceive the sense of self, and as you realize that the illusion of the ego is simply that an illusion.

Try to notice what aspects of you life change and how simple change in perspective of the sense of self is enough to alter the way that you experience the various events that you go through in life. And perhaps one of the conclusions you can draw is this sense of [interbeing 00:26:40], the sense of being connected with everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this in the teaching he give where he’s talking about his left hand and his right hand. He says, Imagine you have a hammer in your right hand and your left hand is holding a nail. You put in the nail in the piece of wood and the hammer slips and it hits your thumb, you’re first reaction is to drop the hammer. The right hand is going to take the thumb of the left hand and hold it and comfort it because it’s experiencing pain. And as it does this, the left hand is thinking, “As soon as this stops hurting, I’m going to pick up that hammer and I’m going to hit the right hand back.” It doesn’t think that way because it understands that it is one and the same, and it doesn’t benefit the left hand to retaliate on the right hand and make it experience the same type of pain that the left hand is feeling. And this seems so simple when you’re thinking about your hands, these are two separate things and yet because of the understanding that it’s all part of being the same, you don’t experience those types of thoughts.

Yet we do that with ourselves, the sense of self being separate from other allows me to want to retaliate on someone else if they do something that makes me hurt or upset. But you can study that and realize the nature of interdependence and the nature of impermanence allows me to get past those emotions and realize it does mean no benefit to turn around and inflict harm on someone else who inflicted harm on me. This is that very foundation for starting to understand compassion and love and kindness which is going to be the topic of a future podcast episode.

So I hope you enjoyed the topic of today, the illusion of the ego. And I would love to here what you think about this topic either on the podcast comments or on the secularbuddhism.com website. The specific post on this podcast topic, I would love to get your feedback there. But I hope that this has been a good podcast and I look forward to the next one. Thank you.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.