Let’s start with understanding “What is Ego?”
Your ego is what initiates the voice within that “I am this…”, “I know this… I know that…”, “I am better at this than somebody else…”… “I am not better at this than somebody else” … “I am bad at this”…”I want to be as better as him in this”…”I deserve this”… “I need to prove them wrong”…”I have to think hard about this”. It is the “I”, which is synonymous to the source of the voice itself. It is what you believe about yourself as who you are and as who you are relative to others and relative to this world. It is the thinker you think you are, it is how you see yourself, and it is how you experience yourself relative to the world. This is how you look at yourself at any point of time. This is how you separate yourself from the world as a person. It is how your brain identifies itself. We all know that we think and we do things – Ego is that “I” – person or thinker – that we think we are internally (that subject that is thinking and experiencing all thoughts and objects around in this world).
The three questions we will answer in this post are:
- Is it necessary to have an ego to live life?
- Is having an ego bad? What does it bring to table? (Short Answer – Ego is not bad)
- What does the absence of ego feels like?
The bigger the ego – the bigger and stronger the beliefs are – and therefore there is less peace when there is a conflict in any of those beliefs. But, at the same time, your ego (beliefs about yourself) is what that pushes you towards proving the world wrong and making oneself act in response and achieve great things in this world. So, it brings unhappiness and it also brings great happiness.
So, now you see the problem that spirituality came down to –
- There is no way you can live your life outward without having an ego. Because you’ve to establish beliefs about yourself to move in this world and do things outward.
- But, the more beliefs you establish, the more the causes of happiness and unhappiness. And the more beliefs you’ll have, the more additional beliefs you’ll have to strengthen the older ones.
- Hence, spirituality says that you can never be eternally peaceful in this world. Because your ego is both the source of happiness and unhappiness in you and that’ll keep happening until you die.
And there is no way you can progress outward without having an ego. Yes, some may have a smaller ego and some may have a larger ego, as I said, but you’ll have it. There is no escape, or there is one? We’ll come to it.
So, it is not bad. Ego is as is not bad for it is the source of happiness and unhappiness in you. The problem is having an ego and expecting one will only have happiness in life. But, one thing ego will never give you is eternal peacefulness. This is why logical spirituality like advaita in Hinduism or Buddhism says one will never be peaceful in this world if you don’t drop the ego. Yes, you might have some moments of joy and calm, but you’ll never be eternally peaceful in this world. There will always be a journey of happiness and unhappiness.
Hence, the logical question then arises – What does the absence of Ego feels like?
The absence of ego feels just peaceful – neither happiness nor unhappiness, just calm – for there is no hunger or desire to be right, important, wealthy, successful, to make something right within you for there was never a void within you to feel right or wrong about you. And, hence man achieves eternal peacefulness and balance in his or her life. This is what many call as bliss. But, there is a cost one has to pay to go there and that cost is one’s ego. The cost of bliss or peacefulness is ego. The Buddhists call this state as Nirvana and Hindus call it the state of Moksha.
Nisargadatta, a famous Vedanta guru who achieved self-realization or Moksh who lived with his family in a village in Maharashtra and owned a shop for his daily living, says “when you’re realized it doesn’t mean you’ll not get up next morning and do your duties. I still get up and go and manage my shop, but the perspective of life completely changes. “
But, is getting rid of the “Ego” or dropping the “Ego” even possible for a human-being?
Moments before we discussed that it seems impossible for a person to live without an ego when the person is living outward. Then, how is it even possible to not have the ego and what does it mean in a logical sense. We’ll come to it logically.
Absence of ego is possible by dissolving it. Dissolving? in what? in your Orange juice? We’ll come to it.
Dissolving your ego is what basically spirituality is all about. Nothing else. Whoever says there is anything else to it, don’t believe them. Period.
Simple and logical so far, right?
Things will become a bit complex from hereon.
Let’s understand stuff one level deeper
Until here the major philosophies of enquiry such as Mahayana Buddhism and Vedanta agree completely. Buddhism and Vedanta are one of the only few pure non-religious enquires in the world and hence I am mentioning only them.
Where the Buddhism and Vedanta start disagreeing is the framework with which the ego should be dissolved and the underlying truths/phenomena of those framework.
The ego has to be dissolved or killed without any doubt for eternal peacefulness. But, to kill or dissolve the ego, one has to understand what exactly is the ego and what is it made of? This is where Buddhism and Vedanta differ.
Since, we will be introducing multiple selfs, let’s call what we called as Ego until now as the “Ego-Self”.
So, everyone agrees that we have to get rid of the “Ego-Self” to be peaceful.
Be with me here: When you experience something (say looking at another person, looking at that tree, or even looking at yourself, or focusing on your own thought, etc. ) that experiential moment is actually a thought, even though it is a physical experience, it is nothing but a thought in your mind. And that while experiencing that thought, what you experience is that “I am looking at the tree”. There is an illusion created that there is an “I”. But essentially, that illusion is created because of the space-time separation that is needed between subject and object and we will see that in full detail below. In absolute reality, there is no “I”; that “I” is nothing but a set of self-belief-thoughts. So, Ego-Self is nothing but a group of thoughts. There is nothing more to it. It is a set of beliefs about who we are, as we see the world through it.
Buddhism says this illusion of the Ego-Self (also called the false-self) is what is to be destroyed and you can leave peacefully. Vedanta says this too and a bit more. Buddhism says this is all there in its framework. In Vedanta’s framework there is something more.
We have to first understand the framework and then we go into how to dissolve the ego.
Understanding the framework – it is a bit complicated!
Vedanta says that behind the Ego-Self, there exists the real-Self which is the Knowingness or Atman or Awareness or the Seer (the one who sees) or the grand-Subject. Vedanta says there is something called as Knowingness or Awareness or Consciousness or the Seer (the one who sees) or the grand-Subject or the real-Self or the witness. Some sects call it pure Consciousness to distinguish from the word ‘consciousness’ that we commonly use as “someone becoming unconscious” and “some came into their conscious”.
Let’s start with three examples and then move into the description of the framework.
Illustration 1: Sometimes when you watch a movie, you become deeply engrossed into it. You almost feel that you’re there physically and you actually feel the actor inside the movie in your head and you forget who you are and you forget your surroundings. This is like you having the actor-self, you’re viewing the world within the principles and conditions of that movie and from that actor-self. But suddenly the power is gone, and you realize you’re watching a movie in a dark theatre and you come to the awareness of your surroundings and your regular life. This is the kind of similar experience of ego-self and the real-self (pure consciousness). This is why people who are realized say that your existence is actually in your mind. So, their perspective changes just like how your perspective changes when you the power goes off.
Illustration 2: When you’re small, you and your brother are fighting with your mom on whether to have samosas or puri for your dinner in the evenings. While both these food-items have different form and taste in the way they’re prepared and consumed, they’re both essentially common flour with potato and peas. Yes, there is a difference in form, taste and perception. Knowingness or Consciousness is like the maida or common flour that everything in this world is made of including you and me. Yes, some of us are samosas and some us are pastas and some of us are pooris.
Illustration 3: Imagine you’re driving your car. You are aware of a car two lines aside, when it came into your vision for a split second, but you’re not specifically giving your attention to that car now. You are talking to your friend sitting besides you and focused on the road ahead. But you still know that there is a car two lanes beside your lane. This is a very rudimentary example to compare that at any point of time there is stuff coming into your knowingness like the chill you feel on your skin as you type this, but you notice it for a split second and you move on with what you’re doing. (this is actually your sub-conscious here, but I just wanted to give a frame of reference to understand what we’ll discuss below). (Vedanta says all this is just layers of the experience of consciousness but the maida of it all is just consciousness. And when you experientially realize this through meditation, you’re not worried about being a samosa or a pasta anymore in life for you know you’re just a maida.)
Vedanta says, primarily there is the sphere of plane of Awareness or Knowingness. For anything to be known, it has to come into the sphere of knowingness first. Each of our thoughts are also objects that fall into this sphere of Knowingness. When there is no thought at all, then the Mind/Ego-self ceases to exist.(why is that – we’ll see below) And what exists is the pure plane of Awareness or Knowingness. It enables anything to be known, but when there is nothing to be known, it just feels like emptiness. There is only the ultimate Subject – pure consciousness. And the Subject can only experience its presence whenever there is an Object to be experienced. But, the Subject is always there.
For example, imagine sitting in absolute darkness and silentness and you cannot see yourself. For now imagine that you’ve never seen yourself till now. And when you’re sitting in this silent dark space without having ever seen yourself in the past, you will not understand anything. You just exist, that’s it. You still know at this point that you exist. You don’t know in what form. But you know you exist. This is the pure beingness or the pure knowingness. There is no interpretation of your form yet (for you’ve never seen yourself). Now, when there is a small light – then at that moment of experiencing the world around you in that light – you divide the subject (you) and the rest of the world and the form of “you”. It is the experience of the light that has separated the subject and the object. Else primarily everything is just knowingness or beingness or the grand Subject alone. And it is within this grand-knowingness, a sub-subject of this grand-subject arises called the Ego-Self “I”.
As you now can relate to it, anything that can be known has to come into the sphere of Knowingness first. When there is no object to be known, then it just exists by itself (Knowingness – the ultimate subject alone), nothing else. (Then what is the mind? We’ll come to it.) So, in one way knowingness is what makes the mind possible, but not vice-versa. Knowingness can exist on its own but when the ego-self exists knowingness also exists. Knowingness is the ultimate Subject of experience, but the Ego-Self overrides it as the Subject of experience in our daily life. Which means the Knowingness is always registering what the mind is doing, because mind is happening within knowingness. And mind is the samosa of the maida Knowingness.
Vedanta says it is this Knowingness that is always eternal. And it is this knowingness or pure consciousness that you experience when there is dreamless sleep. In dreamless sleep there is no mind working. There is no thought. There is no sub-subject that overrides the grand-subject, only the grand-subject “beingness’ or ‘knowingness’ exists. In dreamless sleep, you cannot know the experience of time, your dreamless sleep feels like a void. You will not even know that it is a void if you don’t check your time. Because in dreamless sleep there is no object (there are no thoughts) in the space of knowingness – there is nothing to be known or experienced. Only thing that exists is pure knowingness. When you have your Ego-Self in the dream, the thoughts are experienced as a reality, your mind is still working. When you are dreaming, you absolutely feel that your dream is your reality. That is the Ego-Self creating thoughts and navigating that created reality. Eventually, what you think as a mind is nothing but a series of thoughts. What you think of as a thinker thinking those thoughts is also a set of belief-thoughts (beliefs). So, there is in reality nothing but the function of the mind.
So, Vedanta says – there is Knowingness as a plane which is the grand-subject that can exist on its own. All experience happen within it. When you have a thought it comes into that plane of Knowingness. And your Ego-Self (which is also a set of thoughts within that plane of knowingness) gives attention to that thought and take it forward. At that pointed moment of time, there is an illusion that the Ego-Self is the thinker of the thought using its mind. Because the Ego-self using the mind to give attention to the thought is the very moment at which you feel a separation between you and the thought and your mind. Vedanta says this is an illusion which makes you feel that the Ego-Self is the thinker. But, what is really happening is – it is one set of belief-thoughts (Ego-self) giving attention to another thought that has just come into knowingness and the experience of this what we call as mind, which is again a thought. All that is happening is thoughts being given attention (by no one), not created. The thoughts are just happening. But, at the moment when there is attention, there is an illusion of the thinker (Ego-Self/Sub-Subject) – at the moment of attending that thought there is a separation of Subject (Ego-self) and the Object (thought).
When you’re sitting in a stationary train, and the opposite train in your window moves, it gives you an illusion of your train moving. Just similarly, there is a mind whose property is to give attention. There are a series of thoughts that are occurring and you cannot stop them and when the mind attends to it, there is an illusion that the mind is thinking those thoughts and bringing them into life. This is why in Bhagawad Gita they say – you really don’t control your thought, it appears such that you control it. But, all that is happening is it is just occurring to you and this phenomenon of giving attention is what you call as mind and then what you belief of yourself basis past expereinces is what you call as “I”. So, in total, there is only Knowingness, Ego-Self (self-belief thoughts), Mind (the thought that there is a process to voluntarily think a thought), and then there are series of thoughts occurring to you and attention happening to them at the same time.
But, this is all being witnessed by Knowingness which is what Vedanta says as “God”. Buddhism says there is no Knowingness, there is just the Ego-Self creating an illusory self which when destroyed there is just bliss. Vedanta says when you destroy the ego-self there is bliss, but the Knowingness always exists in the background as the grand-subject. If you know some programming, a crude example would be as: you can say the grand-subject as the parent class. The “Ego-Self” is the derived class of the parent class that currently overrides the parent class.
How to kill the Ego or dissolve the ego according to Buddhism and Vedanta?
When you sit to meditate, a lot of thoughts keep coming in the beginning. This is just common. There will also be a thought saying that “there are no thoughts or I am not thinking”. But, once you do it observantly and frequently, you’ll be able to not have any thoughts for like 10 secs, 20 secs, 30 secs, etc.
We are always trying to know something. Meditation is to stop that knowing. When you stop those trials to know something, what exists is the calmer “I am”.
In that moment of those 10 seconds, you’re just the pure consciousness. And there is bliss for that time. Gradually, when you focus your mind inward instead of outward, by inward – focus on the consciousness and not on the thought you’re getting. Thoughts are considered to be outward. It is like when you’re watching a movie – you’re watching a screen. Yes, you’re into the characters in that movie and the emotions of it (all thoughts). But sometimes, you just come out of it for a brief moment and you see a screen on which the movie is being played. And you know the movie will stop and you have to go home. That is the big picture thinking that monks and realized people have. It is not that they’re not enjoying the movie, it is that they’re aware that this is a movie. Aware not logically the way I am telling you, but experientially they know this is all just maida, they know this is all just consciousness, they know this is a movie being played on a screen called consciousness that is enabling this movie to be played in the first place.
This is what is the dissolution of your mind is according to Vedanta. It is the ability to zoom out of the movie (your zillion thoughts). When we’re living absolutely in our thoughts, the movie and those characters and the “I” is everything for us. Spirituality says it is not. When you will be able to experience (with meditation) the fundamental knowingness of life, you’ll instantly realize that what you’re experiencing so far is a manifestation or creation of your mind. And hence whether you look at yourself as a samosa aspiring to be a poori or vice-versa actually changes.
Now, coming to the last difference. Buddhism says there is no Knowingness too. Buddhism says even Knowingness is a creation of the mind. In Vedanta, Knowingness is also called the atman (the god, the spirit, the ultimate screen that witnessed everything and that lives on, the maida that gives form and taste and experience to everything). Vedanta calls Knowingness the ultimate Witness of everything for the maida is the witness of it becoming a samosa, pasta, and a poori and quarrelling among themselves on who is living a superior life and who is superior.
Buddha says Knowingness exists but it is not any Atman, Atman is also a bullshit of the mind. Hence, in Buddhism there is no Atman or Soul. Whereas in Hinduism, which is derived from Vedanta has something called an Atman that is the ultimate witness of everything. While both the forms of enquiry agree on Ego-Self and Knowingness/Consciousness, Buddhism doesn’t agree that consciousness/beingness is a grand-subject of Atman.
Framework -> Ego-Self (yes), Consciousness/Knowingness/Awareness (yes), This consciousness or beingness is the Soul or Atman (Buddhism says no, Vedanta says yes)
There is a famous saying on the above that is worth putting it here. Gautam Buddha said “I searched for the soul but I never found one”. Vedanta said “who was the seeker?” I am not saying one is right and another is wrong. I don’t have such experience. But, this is a discussion of the two major spiritual enquires that have dominated the world. Also, while one can study a lot of texts and meditate and get the understanding of it, true realization or moksha is an experience. It cannot be achieved only by learning, it can be achieved by experiencing the enquiry into oneself.
A slight tangent -> Now, you see why machine learning and artificial intelligence scientists struggle with the concept of consciousness. All major scientists understand the experience of consciousness or beingness and they don’t deny the existence of consciousness , there is no doubt about it anymore in the scientific world. The question is: is it a function of the mind or the mind is a function of consciousness or beingness like the way spirituality is saying so. Because basis what spirituality is saying – it is the beingness or knowingness as its attribute giving the ability to the mind to know something. Then you cannot give the experience of consciousness to a robot. That means a robot will never have the experience of “I exist” even when sitting in absolute darkness without experiencing its form before.
Some scientists say – it is the mind that gives this experience in which case the robot can feel its existence in the future provided it has a lot of learning.
Personally, when I used to study computer science, and my friends and I used to discuss about AI & ML, I always used to struggle with this. While the others used to say we’re just a learning machine, and once the software or the robot has enough knowledge and learning then it will have an experience of itself. I used to feel this is absurd – I am not just a product of an extensive amount of training. A AI/ML software or a robot as nothing eventually but training in form or the other – what you call as supervised training/ unsupervised training/ and so many different forms of training. For me personally, the robot will never its own experience of beingness. This is what I stick to. At the end it is a software trained to do something. It will never have an experience of beingness. Obviously the challenge to this is: once the robot has enough training and learning to experience itself from the world then it will experience the individuality. For me this is also training in a round about way. And hence I never agree that AI/ML will have its experience of beingness.
Hope this is useful, thank you.
PS: I’ve shifted from being a non-vegetarian to a vegetarian since about 3 years. Non-vegetarian (non-veg) food was absolutely close to my heart and I won’t lie that I used to pity on people who never used to eat non-veg food for I used to feel they’re missing the best taste in this world. I ate a lot of different kinds of meat and I used to love the red-meat. And I left it all. A lot of people ask me why I left non-vegetarian food. It is not because of some religious reasons. It started with my exploration of the logic behind spirituality. I for sure know that non-veg food is for sure one of the biggest pleasures for me in life. I asked myself “could this be a function of my mind?” like what spirituality is saying.
I’ve been a heavy non-vegetarian eater since birth up to 34 years of age. When you eat non-vegetarian food, it absolutely feels like there is no better taste, there is nothing better, and nothing even comes close to red meat (mutton) to me and then comes chicken and fish in that order. At that time, it almost feels impossible to eat vegetarian food for the relative taste of vegetarian food feels almost like tasteless crap or nothing. But, once you stop eating non-vegetarian food for a long time (this part is the difficult time), then you absolutely don’t feel anything after some time. This is how the mind plays tricks on you – what it really makes you feel as something really nice and important and tasty and really beneficial for the best experience of life, once you leave it for a while, it doesn’t even come into the picture anymore. You may say, this is because I’ve lost the memory of the taste of the non-vegetarian food. Probably so, but I’ve observed that – even when someone eats it right next to me, I don’t feel any craving to go back. Even when that aroma brings the memory of the taste of the food, it doesn’t make me crave. This is something I find surprising as a function of our mind. When I left, I told myself that the day I will feel the craving – I will go back and eat it again. But, I never truly felt it. Now, my mind gives me that the best taste of food is in some of the vegetarian food that I eat. My wife is a great cook and probably that helps me. But, I want to bring this to your notice that – non-vegetarian food was absolutely close to my heart and like this in a few months, it was gone! One of my relative asked me – what’s the benefit of leaving the non-vegetarian food? The problem is: you come from the experience of non-vegetarian food being superior in taste and experience and that it is beneficial in the first place. So, to leave something that is beneficial needs some other benefit. But, what we don’t understand is: it was just an experience we had from our childhood with our families eating non-vegetarian food and having a sense of a superior taste. You never started eating non-veg because there was a benefit in it. You like the taste of it and hence there is a benefit.
Hindus call this Consciousness in religious terms as the symbol Om, Sikhs call this as Ik Onkar. This is God with which we’re all made of – there is one God, the ultimate grand-Subject, the Witness of all there is to be known, and we all have it within us and we can experience it when we stop our thoughts for a moment. And involuntarily, we all experience it every night in the form of a dream-less sleep. So, there is no need to seek God elsewhere, it is within us at every moment.
Krishnamurti famously once said, “The difference between you and me is you mind what happens, whereas I don’t mind what happens.”
Love you all, hope you have a great day!! Enjoy the experience of living!!
Ramana Maharshi said “Once the mind sees the inner self, it will realize its source and it will never wander outward again.”
Ramana Maharshi said “When the world, which is what-is-seen (thoughts, people, things) is removed, there will be a realization of the Consciousness which is the Atman alone, which is the Seer. That is when you’ll truly realize who you are.”
Ramana Maharshi said “Beingness is continuous. It is permanent and eternal. Thoughts sometimes happen and sometimes don’t happen. So, you decide which is the actual reality – the one that is always present or the one that never comes again.”
Ramana Maharashi said “Your job in this world is to be – it it not to be this or that.”
Ramana Maharashi said “When the mind sees its source, then it automatically submits itself to that Atman. But as long as it doesn’t see its source, it is always restless living outward.”
Ramana Maharashi said “You meet the actual “you” when you lose your ego”.
Ramana Maharshi said “Realization is not something that happens daily slowly. It just happens in one shot. And that day you’ll realize that you have been searching for your home all this while having never left your home.”
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