Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

There’s No Such Thing As Ego

Very early this morning, I lay in bed with the fingers of my two hands knitted together and rested high on my chest. I was having trouble sleeping, so instead I was meditating. I started to notice a sensation that seemed to be occurring in my hands and my chest, a sensation of fullness and expansion, a feeling of pressure, a quality of immensity. There are memories of this kind of thing happening in the past during meditation. It feels like my whole being is an erect penis, impressively making itself as big as it can possibly be. It evokes fear, as if something wants to run away from it, to escape from everything. But this morning, instead of trying to escape, it seemed as though something else, something more me-like, was letting it be as it was; at least that was the story; a kind of tumbling into the experience of it, of losing myself in it. But I think this is actually what I usually try to do with it: to allow it, to accept it, to welcome it. This morning, again, I was a marvelously erect something, petrified in my engorged immensity.

I’m not sure exactly how what I wrote about above relates to the topic at hand, but I enjoyed writing it, and I’m sure one of us will be able to construct a fun Freudian interpretation from it. Today’s topic is ego. I’m not talking about the pistons-and-cogs construct of Victorian-era psychodynamic psychotherapy. I’m talking about new-age ego, the ego that so many of us are so keen to destroy.

There is no such thing as ego. It doesn’t exist. What most people are referring to when they talk about ego are things that seem to be happening which are misconstrued to be about someone.

I’ll give an example. Cindy and I have a friend whose father seems to be a little bit, shall we say, on-the-spectrum. When Cindy and I got together, he commented on a photo of us by asking, publicly on a social media platform, “Why is such a beautiful women with such an ugly man?” I didn’t even know how to take this. I think I’m ugly, but other people seem to think I’m okay-looking. But then there’s this comment that seems like it’s designed to offend, yet at the same time matches my apparent self-image. Perhaps it was disturbing because I didn’t know how to respond. Should I have written, “Why does such an emotionally intelligent child have such an autistic father?” I’m kind of joking right now, but the point is that a constellation of sensations, feelings, and thoughts were occurring inside this body, and there seemed to be an impulse for some kind of action to occur.

It would be easy to gather together all of those things that were apparently happening and say, “That’s my ego.” Then I could create a narrative about how the purpose of my life is to somehow make it so that this particular configuration of events never happens again. I actually have no idea how that could be accomplished; I don’t think it’s possible. But that’s an example of the sort of new-age idea of the ego and the problem of the ego, and how the ego needs to be destroyed. The story goes that, in an ideal world, when confronted with bizarre low-emotionally-intelligent behavior, one would simply have no response. I guess it would be like a pond in which the water doesn’t move at all after a pebble is dropped into it, or like a tree that doesn’t sway when the wind blows through its branches. It’s basically bullshit.

When it rains, the ground gets wet. When a cat sinks its teeth into a mouse, the mouse most probably dies and becomes food. When a healthy seed is placed in warm, moist soil, it usually sprouts and grows into a plant. These are examples of how the world works. It’s no different with humans: when a battle-traumatized veteran hears a balloon pop, he may dive under a table. When a child who was raised to feel worthless is given critical feedback, she may bristle with outrage.

What we call ego is just part of what seems to be happening. Sometimes, what seems to be happening is misconstrued as being about someone and gets knitted into a story: “I’m someone who meditates about being a penis.” That misunderstanding of self also doesn’t mean anything, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not what seems to be happening that’s the real “problem”; I’m not the ground that identifies as being dry and I’m not the ground whose sense of self is threatened by the wetness of the rain. Similarly, I’m not some arbitrarily and continually changing bag of phenomena that seems to occur in the presence of a particular human body. Of course, if there does seem to be a phenomenological illusion of something separate that’s happening, then that’s also what seems to be happening.

I might have lost you on that last paragraph; I lost myself a little. So I’ll summarize: there is no such thing as ego. Sometimes, what seems to happen is that some things that seem to be happening seem to get misconstrued as being about someone or for someone, and that’s what seems to get labelled as ego. But there’s nobody that can change it, or affect it, or choose not to take it personally. It’s not a problem and it’s not a solution. It’s just what seems to be happening.