The Myth of the Self
Imagine standing on a scenic mountain peak and looking out at the world in all directions without any obstructions.
These days, if we see someone behaving selfishly, we might say they’re “being egotistical.” If someone thinks you have a really “big ego,” they may even post a blog calling you an “egomaniac.” From the standpoint of our mental health, it’s important to have self-esteem or what some psychologists call “a healthy ego.”
So when we’re talking with our friends and mention our “ego,” what do we mean?
From a Buddhist point of view, the ego is something made up by the mind. It’s the sense of self — a flash of “I” or “me” that we believe in and cling to. It’s the basis of our feeling of self-importance. It’s a story, a myth of self that we keep telling ourselves.
That “self” is the center of our universe. No matter what we’re doing, our actions always come from, and reflect back to our sense of self-consciousness. This ego-self we cling to is the source of most of our problems. Wherever we get hung up in pain and confusion, there we’ll find the ego.
The Buddha taught that the root cause of our suffering—ignorance—is what gives rise to this tendency to “cling.”
“What am I clinging to?”
This the question we should ask ourselves. We should look deeply at this process to see if anything is really there. According to the Buddha, we’re clinging to a myth. It is just a thought that says “I,” repeated so often that it creates an illusory self, like a hologram that we take to be solid. With every thought, every emotion, this “self” appears to be more and more real, when it’s actually just a fabrication of the mind. It’s an ancient habit, so ingrained in us that this very clinging becomes part of our identity, too. If we let go of this thought of “me,” we might feel that something familiar was missing—as though a close friend or a chronic pain had suddenly disappeared.
Imagine that you look down at your hand one day and see that it’s clenched in a fist. You sense that you’re holding onto something so vital that you can’t let it go. Your fist is clenched so tightly that your hand hurts. The ache in your hand travels all the way up your arm. Tension spreads throughout your body. This goes on for years. You take aspirin now and then, or have a drink, or watch TV or take up skydiving. Life keeps on happening…and then one day you forget to hold on, and your hand just opens. But when you look, there’s nothing inside!
Clinging to this mythical self is just like gripping an imaginary object in our hand. What does it accomplish? It only gives us a headache and ulcers. And we quickly develop many other kinds of suffering on top of that. This “I” becomes proactive in protecting its interests, because it immediately perceives “other.” The instant we have the thought of “I” and “other,” the whole drama of “us” versus “them” develops. It all happens in the blink of an eye. We desire one thing and try our best to get it; we hate or fear another and work to keep it away; and there are still other things we don’t care about one way or another.
What we’re trying to get, ignore, or steer clear of could be a new car, our in-laws, or the State of Arizona.
We play out the same patterns with belief systems and values, not just with people, places and things. We may not care about internet neutrality but we may be strongly pro or con on war, equal rights, or the existence of extraterrestrials. All of our neurotic emotions and judgments start with our clinging to “I, me, and mine.” And we’re not exempt from our own judgments. We admire some of our qualities and build ourselves up. But there are other things we can’t stand about ourselves, so we tear ourselves down. One minute we’re feeling pretty smart and sure of ourselves, and the next minute we’re feeling totally inadequate or guilty about something. We spend a great deal of time ignoring the pain we’re really feeling because of this inner struggle—always striving to be happy with who we are, and never quite getting there.
We expend so much effort just to convince ourselves that we’ve found something we can call “me.” We try to freeze the moment-to-moment flow of experience that is our life and make something solid out of it. But somehow, it just doesn’t work. Our efforts only produce more anxiety because we’re going against the way things truly are.
Why do we clutch our ego so tightly, when the tension of holding on is so painful? We think that to give up this thought of “I” would be crazy. We think our life depends on it. But actually, we would feel so much better and more relaxed if we just let go. It’s a tricky situation. On the one hand, the mind is fully awake and ego-free. That’s called the “true nature” of our mind. On the other hand, we don’t see that ever-present awake quality—we don’t even know it’s there.
Through the practice of meditation, we become familiar with the workings of our mind and begin to experience more clarity. Then we start to see beyond the illusion of ego and glimpse the true nature of our mind. We see what it’s like to be free from ego. In that moment, we’re relieved from fear and anxiety about our life.
This isn’t some far-fetched, top-of-the-mountain epiphany.
When it’s not clinging to ego, our mind isn’t stressed out, worried, or trying to prove anything. Its attitude is “just relax and enjoy being yourself.” People often ask what the experience of this “true nature” is like. They worry that it’s like becoming a vegetable. But it’s not like that at all. The mind actually functions much better. When we take a break from our habit of clinging to the ego, we see more clearly and think more clearly. We feel more alive and awake. It’s a very beautiful place to be. Imagine standing on a scenic mountain peak and looking out at the world in all directions without any obstructions. That’s the view of the mind free from its obstructionist friend called Ego.
This excerpt from Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind by Dzogchen Ponlop was originally published in Elephant Journal.