For a good deal of my life, I have had a persistent and gnawing suspicion the ego is ultimately an illusion. The ego is the self-concept, the notion of “I,” or “me,” as separate and independent from “other.” I have asked myself time and again if the ego is a fact or an illusory construct of the mind. If the ego is simply the awareness of a form of energy and the limits of its form, and awareness of the limits of other forms as I have often defined it in the past, then it seems it is indeed a fact instead of only a construct of the mind. This definition makes the ego a “factual illusion” – factual because there are in a sense, real apparent boundaries and “limits” we perceive every day between entities, beings, etc. – and an illusion as well because no thing is permanent, essential, and unchanging, nor ultimately “separate” and “independent” of anything else since all is truly One.
I have been satisfied with this definition of ego in the past, but I now ask myself if this is even the ego at all. Is the recognition of the limits of form by a self-conscious organism enough to constitute ego, or is the ego something else – something even more complex? If the ego is only the concept of “me,” of “self,” with all of its intricate beliefs, prejudices, influences, etc., than the next question we could ask is if there truly is a real and permanent “me” – an ego, or if there is only an organism my brain calls “me” for convenience so “I” can speak of things and relate to the world around “me.” Most of us believe that independence and separateness are actual realities, not created by our minds, but the very notion of separateness itself is only possible with the notion of the “I,” the “self,” the ego, because the ego is the “measuring stick” against which all things are judged and deemed “separate.” That is why without the ego, “independence” and all notions of separateness do not exist. Of course, “different entities” and forces do exist, but the concept they are somehow ultimately “separate” from and “independent” of anyone or anything else is the illusion created by the ego. So while the “self,” the ego is a necessary and inevitable construct to enable us to speak of things and relate to things, it is still an illusory construct since it is an ever-changing idea – not a permanent, “fixed” and essential reality as is commonly believed. We can see this fact very clearly in ourselves, especially when we think about who we “were” several years ago, and who are “are” today. We are not the “same” person this moment than we were several years ago or even yesterday. Our egos, our selves are not a “fixed” entity, “spirit,” or “soul,” but rather an ever-changing impermanent process, just the same as any other being in the universe.
The reason I refer to the ego so often, and why it is very important to do so is because virtually everyone in the entire world presumes the ego, the self, the “I” to be at least a “separate” and “independent” reality, if not a “permanent” reality, when it never is. At the same time, virtually everyone in the entire world views reality only from the limited perspective of the dualistic ego, buying into the illusory notions that “self” and “other” are ultimately true, when they never are. As stated previously, while “different entities,” organisms, and forces do of course exist outside the limits of our organism, the idea of being ultimately independent and separate from “other” is an illusion. That is why there is ultimately no “other,” there is only Oneness. While the self is an illusion, it could nevertheless be said to be the most important illusion because it gives rise to everything we care about. Without the concepts of self and other, there would literally be no means to care about anything or anybody. This is clearly evident when we ponder the things that truly matter to us, as they all center on me – my relationships, my job, my family, my country, my feelings, my opinions, my disappointments, my concern for others and for the world, my hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, etc. So the ego is not necessarily a “bad” thing, as it enables us to live lives as selves capable of relationships, a sense of value, compassion, love, happiness, importance, significance, purpose, meaning, etc. However, the ego can also be a source of pride, greed, lust, violence, jealousy, sadness, hatred, anger, tribalism, etc. As with all things dual, there are two sides to every coin. The “coin” of ego is no exception.
Despite the fact the ego is an illusion, one of the reasons people believe in concepts like the “permanent self,” the “soul,” God, and other such ego-based concepts, is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the ego, the self actually is. “Self” and “other” are illusions created by the brain. The brain exists within an organism, and through thought which arises in the brain, recognizes the formal limits – the “body” of the organism it occupies. At the same time, the brain also recognizes through thought, the limits – the “bodies” or formal structures of other entities outside the formal limits of the organism it occupies. These recognitions from thought create a sense of “me,” or “I,” as separate and independent from “other.” While this results in a very “real” experience of being a “self,” a “me,” independent of “other,” this is an illusion because it is our brain, through its thoughts, which create this sense of independence and ultimate separateness, which therefore cannot exist outside our brain. Because this ego, this “self,” this “me,” cannot exist outside of our brain and the thoughts which arise within it, it is therefore nothing more than an idea, not an actual “reality” apart from thought. Without thought, the “self” cannot exist.
It is important to note how thoughts in particular relate to our belief in separateness and “will.” Thoughts precede what we consider “voluntary” action, which gives rise to our feelings of “will.” Without thoughts there is no action. We don’t typically think that “I” am making red blood cells, even though our body is doing so without us being aware of it. We don’t identify our “body” and its involuntary functions like breathing and the manufacturing of red blood cells with our sense of “I” and “will.” That is why we don’t think “I” am making red blood cells, but rather “my body” is making red blood cells. However, we do think “I” thought of something – not “my brain” thought of something. The fact we feel this way clearly demonstrates the fact we see our body and mind as separate things – as if we have a body which runs on its own, independent of our “voluntary,” conscious thought processes, and “houses” our separate minds with “free will” that tell our bodies “what to think” and “what to do.” Most people are therefore dualists at heart. This is what gives rise to the belief in the “immortal soul,” and is the basis for Rene Descartes’ mind-body dualism theory we will explore more in depth later on. If we did not see mind and body as separate things, then we would not see any distinction between the heart in our bodies beating involuntarily, and us voluntarily deciding to move our bodies to take a walk.
The neurological and physiological reasons for why we intuitively perceive mind and body as separate things is brilliantly illustrated in a wonderfully insightful book entitled “Why We Believe in God(s)” by J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD and Clare Aukofer. In this book, they state the medial frontal area of our brains, just behind the space between the eyes, contains the circuits for introspection, as well as awareness of our own and others’ nonphysical attributes, emotional states and traits, wishes and desires. This is not a learned ability, but is innate, or hardwired if you will because the brain represents mind and body in separate neural circuits, which allows us to separate minds from bodies by experiencing and believing them to be “separate” and “independent” realities from each other. The lateral part of the brain is where we recognize concrete, visible things such as faces and bodies and the movement of others’ bodies in relation to them. It is clear to see why religious notions of a non-material “spiritual realm” or part of ourselves and reality fits perfectly with this natural mind-body split which is ironically due to nothing more than the way the material brain is organized. This is a far cry from Rene Descartes’ false belief the pineal gland is the seat of the soul and where our thoughts are formed. Michael Persinger, a psychologist at Laurentian University in Canada, argues there is no stable, single sense of self or one part of the brain from which it emanates. To paraphrase neuroscientist Sam Harris who agrees with Persinger’s position, there is no place for “you” to hide in your brain. There are instead several areas of the brain that are responsible for our conscious experience of self. This is one of the reasons why the self is an illusion, and since it is generated from myriad causes in the brain, is not some “non-material” substance or agent as posited by many religious traditions.
Our feelings of “I,” or “me,” which are always associated with our thoughts and actions, and not with involuntary impulses and processes that run our bodies, clearly illustrate the point that is the thinker who is the “I,” or the “me.” The reason the thinker is the “I,” is because the “I” is thought itself, since our very sense of “I” is created by thought, as stated previously. Again, without thought, there is no “I.” The reason the “I,” the “thinker” is the “thought,” is because the thinker cannot exist without thought that creates the thinker; and thought cannot exist without the thinker that creates thought. They are one and the same, since one could not exist without the other. There can therefore be no separation between the “thinker” and the “thought.” All is One. It is not a question of which came first, the “thinker or the thought.” One can never come “before” or “after” the other, since one could never be without the other at any point, and must therefore always coexist together at all times as two sides of the same one coin.
When thoughts arise in our brains, we naturally feel that “I” thought of something, because of our brain’s identification with thoughts and actions that happen within the organism it occupies. This identification creates the “I,” the “self,” the ego – our very real sense of being “me.” What really happens during this phenomena of ego identification, is the brain simply observes or witnesses the thought that happens, but then takes ownership and calls it “mine” because of the brain’s identification with thoughts that arise in the brain of the organism it occupies. This ego identification we experience is unavoidable. It is what the brain does. And it happens so quickly, we are not even aware its happening to the point we take life as a “self” for granted. It is why we buy in to the compelling illusion of the “immortal soul,” or “immortal self.” While the “I” feels as if it is “immortal” or “permanent,” it is not permanent, since it is a product of the impermanent brain and the thoughts that arise within it. Without the brain, there is no thought to “create” the “I” in the first place. No brain, no thought. No thought, no self. That is again the reason why the ego, the self, is nothing more than thought itself. It is also the reason why the ego, the self, is nothing more than the material brain. While it feels as if our “minds” are “separate” from our bodies, and “not material,” they are not separate, nor immaterial since the “thinker” is nothing more than an idea created by thought arising in the brain. That is why the “thinker” is the “thought.” There is never any separation between the two. While it feels as if they are separate – that “I” think “my thoughts,” the reality is, thoughts happen in the brain within our organism, which creates our sense of self – the ego, which in turn calls the thoughts “mine.” So the ego is deluded into believing itself to be the “source” of thought, when it is in fact nothing more than thought itself, or a “product” of thought if you will, for convenience of speaking. Rene Descartes is famous for the quote, “I think, therefore I am.” While this appears to be true on the surface, the truth is, “Think I, therefore I am not.” The “I,” the “me” is simply thought itself, and therefore cannot exist outside of thought. That is why the self is an illusion, since it is not an “objective reality” outside our brain and the thoughts that arise within it. Nevertheless, we simply cannot imagine existence without the “me,” since it is only through the subjective experience of me, the self – the “experiencer,” that we can “experience” anything – a life, meaning… indeed, all of the things that matter to us, as stated previously. It is no wonder so many fear death and the termination of the self. This primal fear no doubt drives our afterlife theories and concepts of the “soul.”
The single tiny thread to which spiritualists grasp to validate their beliefs in God, the “soul,” and the “supernatural;” is the concept of mind-body dualism as championed by Rene Descartes in the 1600s. This is the foundation for the belief in the notion that reality is comprised of two “separate,” opposite, and “independent” realities of the “spiritual” world, and the “material” world. Descartes’ reasoning is based on the premise that mind and matter are separate and independent realities, which would in theory make it possible for the “mind” or “soul” to exist independently of the body before and after death. The problem is, Descartes’ mind-body dualism theory has no credible backing from the overwhelming current scientific evidence and understanding of mind and matter as being one and the same, as illustrated by the fact that drugs and damage to the brain can affect individual character, behavior, and personality, which would not be the case if our selves or “souls” were not physical. As also stated previously from Thomsen and Aukofer’s book, we have a complete physiological and neurological explanation for the phenomena of this perception of a mind-body split, rendering a “spiritual” or “mind-body dualism” explanation unnecessary.
Not only does the concept of mind-body dualism – the idea of a “ghost inside our heads” if you will, not have any backing scientifically, but it is also a self-contradictory concept which therefore does not hold up to sound reasoning, and must therefore be false. For if there were two opposite and independent “realities” of mind and body as substance dualists claim, then one “reality” would cancel out the other, and there would be only nothingness, which is obviously not true. Furthermore, the idea we have “immortal souls” which exist “outside” the realm of the natural, causal, material world, while at the same time manages as a “spiritual” and “non-material” substance or agent to somehow “act” on and “affect” the natural, causal, material world through our material bodies nevertheless, is a blatant contradiction and therefore falsehood. For if “the spiritual” is not of the causal, material world, then it can necessarily have no effect on the causal, material world either – a major problem for all dualists and spiritualists who posit the contradictory belief in the supernatural “power of God” and our non-material, spiritual “souls” at work in our physical world. The bottom line is, neither science nor sound reasoning can back up Descartes’ mind-body dualism theory. That is why the expression “mind over matter” is false, as mind and matter are One.
In our everyday world and mode of living, we are only known by our egos, our names, our social security numbers – all of these constructs of thought we are attached to. We cannot avoid our persistent identification with our self-concept – our ego, during our everyday waking state, since the ego is nothing more than thought itself, as stated previously, and we cannot consistently live in the everyday world without thought. So living in the world which necessitates thought only forces and reinforces us in many ways to live as an ego – as a separate and independent “self” from “other.” Deep meditation can be one way to detach from this ultimately illusory identification with the ego temporarily, by allowing us to quiet the mind of thoughts so we can attain a state of awareness without thought. Awareness without thought is what some mystics call “Nirvana,” or “self-transcendence,” because awareness without thought necessarily does not involve the “I,” the ego, since the ego again, is thought itself. However, we would not necessarily always want to live without the self-concept, since without the ego, we would not know what it means to live as a unique individual, with all of the joys and sorrows it brings. At the same time, the serving of self alone without consideration for the whole, is one of the darker aspects of living as an ego that almost always causes us pain and sorrow.
Even though the ego is ultimately an illusion, this egotistical view of reality is the basis for the entire way in which virtually everyone lives and perceives the universe around them. It is belief in the illusion of being separate from everyone and everything else, when in truth, we are One. While there is a “reality” of sorts to the notions of “I,” self, and other, this is an illusory reality because there is nothing permanent to the self. The self, just like every other manifested form is temporary, impermanent, ever-changing, and illusory, just as the form of an ice cube is shown to be temporary and impermanent when heat is applied to change it into a puddle of water. The ego is real as a dream is real, but not Reality, as a dream is not Reality.
While I agree with the atheistic viewpoint there is no “supreme being” with a “will” and a “plan” overseeing the universe and all that occurs within it, I take it a step further than the atheist, and reject the notion of any being truly existing because no “thing” actually exists since all things are ever-changing and transforming into “something else.” Since no form is permanent, and all forms are always nothing more than a composition of other pre-existing elements, then All is truly nothing more than a whole manifested in countless forms which are ever-changing and endlessly evolving. This means no “being” of any kind, whether it is an animal, a person, a flower, or a plant exists as a permanent, unchanging form. The notion of permanent form, and for Christians and Muslims, the permanent self, or “soul,” is an entirely egocentric view which contradicts everything we know to be true about Reality and the nature of the universe.
A more appropriate adjective for my viewpoint is that of an a-egotist – a word I do not believe actually existed until now. An a-egotist is someone who rejects the idea of a permanent and essential “self,” since such a notion is demonstrably false and illusory, as all things, beings, and concepts depend on the existence of other pre-existing elements for their existence, making the notion of independent “self-essence” impossible and contradictory. Only if things existed independently of everything else could the notion of “self-essence” or “individual permanence” be even possibly true. Since all things and forms depend on the existence of other things for their existence, all is truly One and inseparable. As all things are ever-changing and endlessly evolving, the notion of a permanent anything, including the concept of the “self,” is untrue and an illusion, since no form whatsoever is permanent. The only which is “permanent” and “eternal” is All – not the forms within it. All is timeless – without beginning and without end. Every form of All is impermanent and illusory. Our egos, our notions of “self,” are no different than any other form, and are therefore also impermanent. Since our egos cannot handle the fact of its impermanence, it invents all kinds of intellectual “loopholes,” such as the notions of “eternal souls,” the “afterlife,” and “God” to comfort itself against the reality of a fact it cannot accept. These notions are all nothing more than defense mechanisms created by the ego, for the ego, to lull itself into the illusion it has individual “separate” existence and permanence, when it never does.
Again, the notion of “substance dualism” – the idea purported by Rene Descartes there are two self-essential “realities,” one material and the other “spiritual,” and “parallel universes” or other like notions, are not true. The reason they are not true is because all of them fail to recognize the truth All is One. Essence is one, and can never be many. This is true whether we are talking about people, things, “universes,” “substances,” or anything else we perceive to be of a separate and distinct essence from anything else. There is no such thing as “multiple essences.” The fact nothing is permanent proves there is no such thing as “multiple” and “individual” essence, and the truth all is one. The fact absolutely nothing whatsoever exists independently of anything else, and is always a combination of multiple pre-existing elements also clearly demonstrates the fact and truth of Oneness. Again – Only if things existed independently from everything else could Oneness not be true. Since everything co-exists in dependence on everything else, all is truly One.
Many who consider themselves “spiritual” or “religious” will often cite a distinction between the ego from the “soul” or “spirit” of the individual, with the implication the ego is the “false self,” while the soul or spirit is the “true self.” Any notions of “true” and “false” selves are just another manifestation of the egocentric dualistic game. While it is a clever attempt of the ego to justify its illusory existence by believing in a version of itself to be “real,” eternal, or permanent, this is an illusion because it is the very notion of self at all that is the whole issue. Let us make no mistake about it – the notion of a “soul” or a “spirit” is only an idea, because it is nothing more than an exalted version of the ego, since it is simply a projection of our self-concept – our ego – onto an idealized or demonized “version” of itself. Again – the ego always tries to invent “loopholes,” such as the notion of the “soul” to make the idea of its ultimate “reality” to be true, but none such loopholes exist. It is not about a “false self” or a “true self.” The very concept of self alone is always an illusion to begin with because there is nothing permanent to the self, “true” or “false,” since all is One.
Once it is understood that the self-concept is nothing more an idea created by thought itself within the brain, with an awareness of the limits of the form of the organism it occupies for it to be “self-consciousness,” then the notion of “separate consciousness,” or so-called “self-awareness” or a “soul” existing independently of form – the physical body – is a contradiction, untrue, and an illusion. As stated previously, the fact we can damage or remove certain parts of the brain, resulting in minor to major changes in personality further illustrates the physicality of our “selves” being nothing more than what the brain does. If our “selves,” or “souls” were not physical, as spiritualists and substance dualists claim, then drugs and alcohol would not be able to alter our personalities and abilities, even if temporarily, but we know as a matter of fact they can and do. At the same time, brain damage and other degenerative diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s, would not be able to radically alter our “selves” or personalities if our “selves” our “souls” were not physical, but we also know as a matter of fact they can and do.
Absolutely nothing exists independently of anything else, because all is truly One. To try to get around this by saying a “non-material body” exists as our “soul” or our “spiritual form” is a contradiction of terms – like a round square, since that which is of form must be of substance by definition, which must therefore necessarily be of energy/matter. It cannot be “spiritual,” since that which is “spiritual” is supposedly nothing of the physical universe. That which is not of the physical universe can have no form since that which is “spiritual” is by definition, unlimited and “eternal,” meaning it can have no definitions of “time,” “space,” “shape,” or “form” whatsoever. To try to explain this away by saying the “spiritual” has form, but is not of time is impossible, as time and space are the same illusion – not separate illusions. Therefore what is not of time, can also not be of space, and therefore cannot possess “shape” and “form” if you will, nor any attributes of “selfhood” as the Judeo-Christian, Islamic God is defined. That is why the idea of the “form” of God or “spiritual entities” is impossible, and is a self-contradiction. When we speak of a transcendent “God” and “spiritual entities,” we are speaking of the limitless existing within defined limits, which is exactly the same contradiction as speaking of “round squares,” and is therefore not true.
Another way to illustrate the ultimate truth of Oneness is to think of a pie. If we take one pie, and then cut it up into multiple pieces, is it still one pie, or is it many pies? Nobody calls a slice of pie a separate pie in and of itself. It is still just one pie now divided into many pieces. The oneness of the pie – the fact it is one pie, remains no matter how many times we divide it with slices, just as all elements within the universe, including our egos, are merely pieces of the same one universe. All notions of separate “pieces” as being self-contained entities within themselves, which is the notion of ego, is an illusion. Since ego is illusion, all notions of separate, self-essential “beings,” even the notion of a separate “supreme being” ego-god is also an illusion.
In a nutshell, the “stuff” all forms are composed of – energy – which exists due to the beginningless and endless interplay of the two fundamental principles of Oneness – stasis and change, is the only “unchanging,” “timeless,” “eternal” if you will. The forms which manifest themselves as a result of this interplay are not, since they are ever-changing. The belief in the permanence of any form whatsoever, whether it is an object, our egos, “souls,” “spirits,” or “God,” is an illusion and not true. This is where we can easily get confused. We confuse the illusion of form’s permanence with the truth of the permanence of the only which is manifest in countless forms – All and its two principles of Oneness, as we will explore further in another post on this site, “The Principles of Oneness.” As we saw in the example of the ice cube previously, an ice cube appears to be a “fixed” form, but when heat is applied, it changes into a puddle of water. The ice cube is not “destroyed.” It is changed. So too, when an ice cube forms as a result of water freezing, it is not “created.” It is only changed from one state to another. The essence of the ice cube – water, remains whether it takes on the form of an ice cube or a puddle. All, and its two principles of Oneness – like the water – are permanent and “eternal” if you will. The ice cube and the puddle are the forms of that water, which are ever-changing and impermanent. The water is forever. The forms of that water are not. Our egos are merely different forms of the same Oneness of All, which is why they too, like the ice cube, are impermanent, clearly illustrating yet another reason why the notion of the “immortal soul” is untrue.
Ascetics and other “religious” people the world over have for ages, taught a need for the denial of the self, or the “disciplining,” and “torturing” of the self, of the ego. This does not lead to either truth or enlightenment because one is never free of the ego by denying it. Rather, one is only free of the ego by being aware of it – of truly seeing it for what it is. It is in awareness, not judgment where truth is to be found. That can only come with honest, truthful, courageous inquiry of what is, without needing to defend, condemn, or justify the ego. As stated previously, the ego is not necessarily a “bad” thing, as it is necessary to enable consciousness to be self-conscious, as without the ego, self-consciousness – All’s awareness of itself, would not be possible. The problems arise when the ego comes to believe it is the center of the universe, and not the center of its own universe. There is a vast difference between the two. It is all the difference between being a people of war or peace. Virtually all of us believe our ego is the center of the universe, which results in egotistical pursuits of “converting others” to our way of believing and thinking, leading to endless war. That is why the question of ego and our awareness of the truth of what our egos are is so vitally important.
When are we free of attachment to our egos? When we no longer have to defend, condemn, or justify them. When we do not feel the compulsive need to justify our ego by creating fictions to prop up the notion it will live forever, such as afterlife theories, the notion of a “loving God,” or any other idea which purports the permanent reality of what is truly only temporary, passing, and illusory. It is only when we can look at life with graciousness for what we do have, without selfishly desiring to live forever and perpetuate the idea of “me,” that we are truly free. True Salvation is Real freedom since it is independent of the ego, and involves seeing it for the illusion it is instead of needing to endlessly justify it, as is the case in the Christian and Islamic notions of salvation. We are only free when we no longer need to hang on to the childhood fantasy of immortality, and can accept the limits of our lives with grace, dignity, and an immensity of respect and humility only the permanence of mortality can bring. As long as we are trying to defend, justify, and perpetuate the idea of “me,” we are never free. All wars are nothing more than a defense of the idea and perpetuation of “me.” That is why it is vitally important for everyone on the planet to see the ego for what it is. If we all knew, actually knew within the deepest recesses of our beings we are One, that it is ultimately never about “me” alone, but about the Oneness of All, the world would be transformed into a very different place – the “Kingdom of God” on Earth, as Jesus is said to have spoken of. For now, there is absolutely no evidence this will ever happen on a global scale. But does it even have to for us to be free? Does another’s circumstance dictate our freedom within in our non-attachment to our egos? If it does, then we are not truly free. To save ourselves through awareness of the Oneness of All is in a sense, to save the world entire.
The fundamental issue with the ego is that it fails to see the Ultimate Reality of the Oneness of All. In truth, the self does not exist. The “I” does not exist. All is One. Realization of this Ultimate Truth ends all notions of self and other, and all the illusions of God as an ego, as separate from “his people.” The notion of the ego being a self-essential, independent reality as separate from everyone and everything else, while at the same time being the center of the universe, whether that ego is the notion of “me,” “you,” or “God,” is the single delusion which is the root cause of virtually all suffering and misery. Unfortunately, this delusionary belief is the foundation for all ego-centric worldviews such as Christianity, Islam, and atheism, with virtually the entire world population following an ego-centric worldview of one kind or another. Since each of these worldviews buy in to the illusion of the self being at least a separate, independent, and essential reality, if not a permanent reality, they are all false. The only truth is Oneness, as essence is always One, and never many. There can ever only be One Essence, and that essence is the Oneness of All.