The word “ego” has become akin to a four-letter word in the world of New Age spirituality. With talk of the talk of ego death and the like, it can be easily to mistake the ego as being an altogether negative thing, but the fact of the matter is that the ego is a vital component to what makes our experience of the physical world possible. In its basic function, the ego is the component of consciousness that enables you to perceive where your body ends and where another form begins. It is a survival mechanism that prevents us from seeing ourselves as “being one” with an oncoming vehicle. Without it, we would not survive long enough to have a spiritual experience in a physical body outside of death.
In Freudian theory we have the human psyche being broken into the id, the ego, and the superego. In reality, these are all just aspects of the ego, which is the component of consciousness that identifies with the body and the physical world. In turn, these aspects of the ego have dominions in the brain, which acts as a receiver for consciousness. The id is the primal survival as well as sexual aspect, and can be correlated with the reptilian center of the brain, located in the brain stem. Next we have the emotional or “feeling” center of the brain, or limbic system. This relates to the ego we think of when we think of someone who is easily offended and takes things personally. This is the ego that is all about “me” and how “I feel”. The physical domain or “house” of this ego in the center of the physical brain. Lastly we have what is referred to as the superego. This is understood to be the center of higher thinking, logic and reasoning and can be correlated with the neocortex which is the large mass of grey matter that is at the top of the brain complex.
The ego is what we use to identify you as you and me as me. The ego is what allows us to see ourselves as separate individuals from one another. Again, this is not a bad thing in and of itself, as we are all individual perspectives of the ONE Great Mind, so individuation through the tool of ego is necessary. As long as the ego is relegated to its proper role as a servant to aid us in the process of individual experience, there is no issue. The problem comes when the ego believes that it and the body it inhabits is all there is to you and that what it perceives with the senses is all there is to the world.
Our ego is what creates our common perception of reality. If left unchecked, our ego may even come to believe that what it itself perceives IS reality, and that nothing truly exists outside of it. This disease of runaway egotism is known as “solipsism”. The solipsist believes to some degree or another that the world literally revolves around them. This can lead to the belief that there is no such thing as Truth. It can also lead to the belief of “moral relativism”, i.e. what is “wrong” to you is not “wrong” to me.
Our ego is what we use when we create an “identity”. Examples of ego identities include mother, son, lawyer, athlete, citizen, American, soldier, priest, etc., etc. In and of themselves, having roles and identifying with groups and tribes aren’t bad things. They are part of the human experience. The problem comes when we become so focused on and attached to our external roles and identities that we lose sight of what we really are, which is a spiritual being that is an individual expression of the ALL in the physical world. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
Many of us fall so far into the game of ego identity that we will construct different personas for ourselves that apply to different situations we are in. The person we are at work, may not be the person we are at home, may not be the person we are at a party. Like a writer who develops a character, one may take incredible time and attention in developing a social persona who is the polar opposite of the person they are when they are with family. The creation of a social persona stems from either or both the desire to be accepted and the desire to keep things hidden. Both these desires stem from a desire for safety and security, which is a natural thing, but like any desire, can they be taken to extremes. Instead of wearing different “hats”, to suit different situations, we wear different “masks” to completely hide authentic parts of ourselves. The meticulous creation of social personas can lead to extreme narcissism, and ultimately result in a self-destructive meltdown when one realizes they are living a sham and their psyche eventually buckles under the weight of a life that is a lie.
The Buddha realized that suffering came from our attachment to the perceptions of the ego. It came from our attachment to our identities and to the physical world. The reason this attachment causes suffering is because the only constant in the Universe is change, so when the ego becomes attached and wants to hang onto a particular state of things, it will inevitably experience suffering when the state of things changes. Transition is a terrifying thing to the grasping mind, and the most terrifying transition of all, of course, is death.
Death is the ultimate transition and transformation. This is why the initiation rituals across the world and across time have always had death as a central component of the initiation process. This initiation process is where the concept of “ego death” comes in. In truth, the goal is not really for the ego to die. This is impossible as it is literally attached to the body. The goal is to transform the ego from the self-centered ego of the immature childish mind to the mature holistic and spiritually focused ego of the true mature adult, focused on moral virtue as opposed to childish self-centeredness. Sadly, the initiation structures for enabling this sort of transformation have all but disappeared from our modern society. But that is something that is changing, slowly but surely, as people across the western world begin to yearn for a more holistic and meaningful life.
In the meantime, one of the best techniques one can use for moving beyond ego identification is through meditation, particularly in the Tibetan Buddhist style of simply being present and observing your thoughts. As you sit there and thoughts arise, you watch and observe them, but you do not get wrapped up in them and follow them where they want to take you. You stay in the present moment, focused on the breath. Through practices like this, you realize how fleeting and immaterial the thoughts that ultimately create our ego identities truly are.