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There Is No Such Thing as an Ego

by Peter Russell

I don’t have an ego. And neither do you.

This doesn’t mean that you and I don’t get caught up in egocentric thinking and behavior. We do, but we are mistaken in thinking of the ego as some separate individual self, some “thing” in the mind.

When I observe my own mind, I notice there is an ever-present sense of “I-ness.” This has been there all my life and hasn’t changed. The feeling of being “me” is the same feeling I had when I was ten years old. My thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, attitude, character, personality, roles, desires, needs, and beliefs may have changed considerably over the years, but the sense of “I” has not.

I do not find a separate ego, another “self,” that sometimes takes over. What I find instead are various patterns of thinking that condition how I decide and act. At times, I may feel fearful or judgmental, and I may behave in ways that are manipulative or self-protective. I may think that if I could just have things be a particularly way I would be happy. I may feel insecure and want attention from others, seeking to feel important. I may draw a sense of identity from my social status, the roles I play, my character, or my lifestyle. And when this is challenged in some way, I may try to defend and reinforce this constructed sense of identity.

In each case, past experiences and conditioning create beliefs, attitudes, needs, desires, and aversions. These become the lens through which I see my world, affecting how I interpret my experience, the thoughts that arise in my mind, and a whole set of stories about what to say or do, in order to get what I think will make me feel better. The “I” that is interpreting and thinking is the same “I” that is always there, but its attention has become engrossed in one or another “egoic” pattern of thinking, leading to correspondingly egocentric decisions and actions.

What we call the ego is not another separate self so much as a mode of being that can dominate our thinking, decisions, speech, and actions, leading us to behave in ways that are uncaring, self-centered, or manipulative.

Our exploration of ego would be more fruitful if we stopped using the word as a noun, which immediately implies some “thing,” and instead thought of ego as a mental process that can occupy our attention. For this, a verb is a more appropriate part of speech. I am “ego-ing.”

The difference is subtle, but very important. If I see the ego as a separate self, some thing, then it’s easy to fall into the belief – common in many spiritual circles – that I must get rid of my ego, transcend it, or overcome it in some way. But seeing ego as a mental process, a system of thinking that I get caught in, suggests that I need to step out of that mode of thinking and look at the world through a different lens, one less tainted by fear, insecurity, and attachment.

This is a much easier and more effective approach. Rather than berate myself (or my imagined ego) when I notice myself caught up in egoic thinking, I can notice instead what is going on and step back from it. This doesn’t mean I have eliminated that way of thinking – it will surely return. But when it does, I can choose to step out of it again. Transcending the ego thus becomes an ongoing practice rather than a far-off goal. (See also my "Prayer for Peace.”)

  • 22 Comments
  • Janet1111 Dec 02, 2010

    It's helpful to look at ego in this way, more of a pre-programmed channel of thinking than some thing to be overcome. It does require awareness however to recognize when one is caught in this pattern of being as it is the natural human tendency. It's helpful to have another channel of awareness to turn to which could be called the soul channel, where one learns to generate actions that come from a space of authenticity instead of social patterning. I can only imagine what our world would look like if more people were living through the lens of the soul.

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    Tobyjohn Dec 04, 2010

    To me there is a separation . I consider the ego to be the collective of all thoughts and verbal dialogue of the mind. A meditative state of untainted pure consciousness can be reached effectively silencing the egoic self and with mild concentration and attention to the present moment can be maintained. I would regard this pure and true inner self to be very different and separate from the illusions of self created and maintained by the mind.

    Stepping back and having awareness is a start but I would say the full separation is not fully realized this easily.

    Cheers

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    tommendola Dec 04, 2010

    the idea of ego, is that consciousness that we act from, that sees the world from separation perspective,....like the 3rd kosha in yogic studies...
    it is aware of and considers the personal self as who we are....
    to become the witness or observer is to enter the divine consciousness, we as connected to everything,......the 4th kosha.....
    these 2 basic states of consciousness represent the shift of paradigm that humanity is now going thru..

  • David Spofford Dec 05, 2010

    I've recently become tired of seeking escape from the world, from 'ego-ing'. Seeing ego as a process, a verb, rather than a thing, is much more in line with how things actually are it seems to me. Everything is a process, a stream, a flowing. What does it really mean to disidentify with the patterns that are grounded in my physical beingness, my mind, my belief that 'I' am separate from 'you'? Actually Peter did not go so far as to say that the I that I know that I am and have always been (it seems) is the same I that each of you know that you are. If I do not go all the way to the source process that I am living (or that is living me) then what is the point? Am I not merely changing clothes so to speak and adopting another pattern of separated thinking? And if I do go all the way into source do I not disappear altogether? I feel the fear of ego-death here that is likely an inherent aspect of the ego-ing process. Perhaps I am just not aware enough yet. Perhaps there is a pattern that is not 'non-being' that it would be of value for me to adopt. For now I continue spinning as my awareness is flooded with my ego-ing process.

  • MikeNelsonPedde Dec 05, 2010

    Well said! Basically, the 'ego' is a belief you have about who you are. When we stop seeing the ego as a separate entity, we're able to accept all of who and what we are, and that can be a powerful step toward healing. We also need to accept that this belief of who we are isn't static, and be open to change.

    Hugs (http://bit.ly/hugcert),
    Mike.

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    JewelPeot Dec 05, 2010

    Articulated well, and in line with my thoughts. Interesting, this has been used against me, in that "my ego" was causing troubles, although the others, in an ashramic setting, and who protested that they had given up their egos, I felt as if they were the worst offenders - with a sense of smug justification. I hated it when they blamed everything on "my ego", and then left it like that without further conversation. It was shallow.

    In consideration of a non-dual cosmology philosophy, the more negative and primitive aspects of the self, are always present. It seems as if we, as personal manisfestations, decide at what level we are operating within, not that it goes away, and sometimes, as in this particular rant and rave, we indulge. The challenge is one of discipline and consciousness of both our actions and reactions - the verb rather than the noun.

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    ladycdw58 Dec 05, 2010

    Great article !! I guess I see what we call "EGO" as an aspect of Consciousness. That part of us that causes or helps us to chose or reason for decision making. Is there anything in Creation or Consciousness that doesn't have a purpose or reason for being? I guess in our lunar and conditional thinking we are programmed to thinking in terms of good and bad, evil and that we are separate, instead of as apart of the whole. So we tend to think of the ego as such and not as a part of Consciuosness.
    My thoughts first go to thinking why do we have it and what is it for and began to respect and use it or allow it to function in it's proper place and not as something that we should be afraid of as evil or cause feelings of being separate . Maybe even a catalyse to our own consciuos evolution so that we can continue consciously to expand and express the Consciuosness and , Powerful beings(powerbeings) that we really are.

  • dadburnett13 Dec 05, 2010

    Peter, Thank You!
    I'be been long leaning towards that perception of ego but until now was not able to put it into words. Thanks for you insight and your clarity.

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    lumbini623bc Dec 05, 2010

    well, that is a very strong phrase or statement to make. all of us have ego - to put it as - this is mine, that is mine, this is my thinking, that is my thinking, you have to accept my line of thought, my thinking is correct and yours is not, . . . and the list goes on. this very concept that one owns this thought and that thing is very abstract.

    the mere thinking that one owns this and that is subject to change. one can think this is mine [say 'a'] now, but tomorrow 'a' might not be yours, in a sense that one might discard 'a' for some other thing, perhaps 'b'. and this keep on changing and changing. this is not constant and is ever changing. can we say this is mine, the ownership or possession of 'a' constant and eternal --- no! when one thinks this is mine and one thinks that this is constant or eternal -- it is just a manifestation of ego, that entity called self!

    all of us have that 'ego' and it is a matter of time that we shred off this 'ego' as we go wiser. as a child we will definitely have a higher ego than when we are older. say, as a child we will cling to a ball given to us as a personal gift by some loved one during christmas. at that very moment, that ball seems to be part of our possession. nobody can have it. we might keep it as very significantly important.

    however, as days passes by and weeks and months, that possession of the ball seems to have loosen its grip on the child. the child finds it of lesser importance because there are some other 'better' things to be attracted to. at last, the ball looses its owner.

    in the same way, that very 'thought' we have when we are a child ''this is mine, this is how i think, this is the ultimate thought, i will not divert from this thinking, thou shalt think like what i think, etc --- is all about ego. and this ego will eventually looses its grip on the child, just because the child could not find 'gratification' or 'greatness' from that 'thought'. then, the child will abandon this very 'thought' and look for another one which will give him a stronger 'greatness' and that is ego.

    this ego, thinking that this is mine, it is mine, etc. does not have a permanent entity in our mind. the mind keeps on searching for a better ego, everytime the ego looses its shine. this keeps on and on and the mind keeps on searching for another. so, we can come to the conclusion that ego is all about that single alphabet, straight as it is, pointing up to the sky and yet the other end is pointing down to earth, and it is called 'I'.

    and that this 'I' is this very body of ours standing here and now. we can choose to raise our hand and point up to the sky suggesting 'I' am 'great', here 'I' am, listen to 'me ['I']' or perhaps bring down our hand and passively parked next to our body, pointing to earth. this very act of having our hands pointing to earth, displayed a 'self' of humility, humbleness -- a condition where most of us have -- suggesting a low 'ego'.

    to be continued . . .

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    lumbini623bc Dec 05, 2010

    continuing . . .

    that said, all of us have an ego. it is only when the state of mind is actively displaying an importance of that particular moment or condition of the mind thought that one wants to show that that 'I' is manifested into bodily action and that is when the hand will eventually rise -- a display of serious ego. unknowingly, the mind thought will send a silent message to the body causing the five senses to react on that thought and the hand is raised. at this particular juncture, if we can investigate what comes in between that thought . . . . and that bodily action that causes the hand to raise, is in itself all about ego!

    ego, in a nutshell, is all about the fault finding mind. the mind is constantly clinging and attaching to ego --- 'I' want to own this and that; 'I' want to win and control', 'I' am not satisfied with this and that', 'I' feel unpleasant with this and that, 'I' want too change this and that, . . . and the list goes on. it is about the internal self ego looking at the external object, be it tangible or intangible.

    for a moment, why not we discard these external [worldly] objects that we want to gain control over, and spend some peaceful, harmonious moments with our 'ego'.

    take a deep, deep breath and take this 'ego' out of this body and throw it away! crush it if you have to; destroy it if you have to; exterminate it if you have to ........ what is left is simply nothingness, no memory, no thinking, no thought, just peace . . . . inner peace . . . . all conditions within us seems to be at a 'standstill' quietness. for a moment you might think that you are dead. not really!

    it is just that memory of 'ego' clinging and attaching to some object that you have discarded and erased. now you have no more memory of 'ego', no more thought or thinking . . . there is so much peace, peace within . . . . . inner peace

    just like a fully clogged computer harddisk . . . when you have discarded all the files and memory inside your harddisk that you will find 'emptiness' and it is just peace, inner peace, no clinging, no memory, no thought. consciously you are at peace!

    you have thrown away that little fault finding condition called EGO --- Exceptionally Gross and Guilt-thinking Object!

  • Jack Martin Leith Dec 06, 2010

    Thank you Peter. I agree with everything you say in this article. In his book Creative Victory, Tomas, writing about the Toltec wisdom carried by Carlos Castaneda, says: "Warriors know that there is no ego, there is only the tonal." He also writes: "Warriors know that the tonal is the organizer of the world; the tonal is everything we know, everything in our world, everything that meets the eye." And "Warriors know that egomania is an expression of the first attention's [= tonal consciousness] sense of self."

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    mtorkildson Dec 06, 2010

    I like using egoing rather than the ego - thanks!
    The habits of the mind do not give up easily. I suppose you could apply Rupert Sheldrake's theories about habit in nature here too. I have found that my habitual mind disappears if I can dissolve completely into the presence of sensation (I can't be both totally aware of all sensation and participating in the ongoing mental chatter). My egoing is present most of the time, although the impact is less destructive if I am aware of its movement. It's interesting and instructive to sit back to watch the machinations....

    Dissolving into sensation as often as I can remember has helped me to be more aware (and to explore the inner lanscapes that are not in our awareness much). Remembering that I live in service to something greater than myself helps, but one always has to be careful that doesn't become part of the egoing too (as I have seen often happens in spiritual practice and is so destructive). Our minds tend to hold on to the illusion of control and miss so much. Life is a humbling mystery.......

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    Tasha Dec 07, 2010

    Peter, your message resonates with me…seeing ego as a process seems natural as we continue to explore consciousness. (Which itself is perhaps a process?) And your style invites me to be patient and accepting of those times when ego-ing steps forward. And I appreciate dspofford’s reminder of the possibility to feel unity through remembering that consciousness is the way to the source which blurs away our separateness.

    Arriving at this last thought brings up the recurring question…what is the point of this physical journey? ........Probably a ego-ing question?

  • usefulidiot Dec 08, 2010

    "There Is No Such Thing as an Ego"

    Only an ego could come up with such a statement! lol

    I think we have certain levels of identification with ideas, thoughts, emotions etc. The stronger the identification with these thoughts, ideas, and emotions is what leads to ego.

    I think we invest ourselves in these ideas (attachment), and when they are challenged - that’s when we buffer up against the core principle "ego". I like to think of ego as a kind of ball of gravity which sucks things towards it. Sometimes its hard to escape its grip, and other times you can watch the ball from afar.

    Perhaps a black hole of ego is a better description. But then again, if we cant identify with our ideas or thoughts, it seems we have no essence to life. I’m sure a painter totally identifies with what they are doing, body and soul. Or a neurosurgeon or musician. But perhaps if you clean toilets for a living, you don’t.

    I know “EGO” when I see it, but it can be harder to describe. For instance an altruistic act of kindness, has in it a seed of selfishness (if I perform this act, I will feel good, others will view me if a good light)

    I don’t see a problem with that, because despite the philosophical reasons – someone else benefits.

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    desmond9999 Dec 08, 2010

    Eye am my "BREATH/SPIRIT" breathing, pulsating and growing into full consciousness of myself as the constitution of our universe of minerals, plants, animals, humans , angels and arch-angels forever.
    Eye do accept myself as the fragrances, images, sounds, flavors and textures which eye experience as my universe. It is such a joy living one conscious deep breath at a time in celebration of myself and the rest of life as all of what eye am feeling, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing in my here and now. If this is what Peter is identifying as egoing eye love it because it is in this manner that eye am able to make sense of this magical process which is individually and collectively all of us.
    Thank you all for your absolutely abundant selves of limitless potentials and your choices to share.
    Desmond Green.

  • Peter Russell, MA, DCS, FSP Dec 09, 2010

    Thanks for your various responses to my blog. I am heartened to know seeing ego as a thought process rather than some "thing" to be overcome has resonated with many of you. It has certainly been very useful for me. And I also appreciate those of you who have expanded the discussion into both the nature of spiritual awakening and other perspectives on 'ego.'

    To clarify a couple of points… I was not implying that stepping back from ego-ing in this way is full awakening to the true self. Nevertheles, I have found it a valuable practice in service of liberation. The less we identify with egoic thinking, the more we are open to subtler levels of our being -- an important step in refining our awareness of 'self.'

    Second, I was not referring to the ego in the way that developmental psychologists do. That "ego" can be a very important part of our development. I was only referring to a mode of thinking that we can easily get caught in. This too can be useful at times. It developed for good reasons, helping us take care of our well-being; sometimes is helpful to be thinking about the future, or concerned about how our appearance. The problem comes from our getting caught in this way of thinking for most (if not all) of the time. When such thinking takes over, our attention is caught in the stories we are telling ourselves, overshadowing our true nature. That is why learning how to step out of it can be so helpful.

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    SalamanKa Dec 16, 2010

    Would it not be wiser to understand that what man has chosen to call 'ego' is indeed the 'god' within us all? In ignorance, man chooses to make alterations to this 'ego,' creating then an 'altered ego,' which causes man to percieve his world in various forms called 'illusions.' With such distorted views perhaps man has failed to see the beauty of the 'ego.' The 'god' within as the 'ego,' when void of distortion/alteration, is the 'I am' which creates the journey for man in wisdom or in ignorance as the will may so choose, for the pure adventure of life!

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    CFagan11 Jan 07, 2011

    charliefagan@hotmail.com Yes, Peter, I resonate with you! I do not have an ego, nor do I have a mind, an intellect, a life, whatever. I am not alive, but I am living. I am always 'ING-ING-ING-GGGEEEEEEEINGINGING. i AM NOT A PERSON BUT A LIVING BEING ALWAYS BEING, CHANGING, EGOING, MINDING, INTELLECTING, LIVING, .....EVERY SECOND i AM DIFFERENT IN SOME WAYING. OF COURSE THE PROBLEM IS THE INTELLECT WHICH IS NOT REALLY ITS FAULT AS THAT IS THE WAY IT CAME TO BE. We are stuck with a 'thing' language our means of communicating. That is why 'religion' is so destructive, and by 'religion' I include any 'stuck', brainwashed belief whether that is political, social, religious, phiosophical. 'Religion' creates divisions, destructive devisions, wars, Israelites V Palestines, Muslims V Christians, Democrats V Republicans, Tea Parties, on and on. I have published a book which I have titled "Winning Freedom From Religion" available in Major book stores. Peter I would like you to read it. I have made copies of your article "There is No Such Thing as an Ego" and am passing it around here In Barra de Navidad, Mexico. I was blessed with being catapulted into the process of enlightenment back in 1967 as I was a young priest ministering in a little town in the Sierras north of Lake Tahoe. It suddenly happened in the depths of a very deep depression. Blessing to you! Charlie

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    Robert Cerreta Aug 14, 2011

    Hello, Peter.

    I am a bit late to this but found your thoughts on the ego refreshing. They feel right to me.

    I love what was said in the channeld book called "Ask and it is Given" from the entity know as Abramham, written by Ester Hicks

    Bottom line it says we all chose to come here and forget that we are God.

    That we would use the wonderful polarity of Earth and our universe to constantly stimulate our little personalites (ego lenses) formed by our expereinces here and pick from the immense offerings of life on Earth, those things which ignited wonderful desires within us.

    Anything at all that we desired we could then choose and create towards. And when finished with one, we can then move on to other desires...

    It says we could not stop our minds from having these desires if we tried. Hence, eastern thought tends to run counter to the makeup of this little game we have selected. : )

    No need to detach from what would seem to be ego based things. In fact just the opposite is the case. We should seek to select that which would brings us the most joy and go after it : )

    We are here to create, and by forgetting, we have the fun of trying against what appears to be all odds.

    Joy and happiness are the goals of life found by creating.

    Of course it also says that if I am reading the book, that I have actually become lost in the illusion and thus need a bit of refreshing to realign my negative thinking (which I think Eastern Religion tries to do and gets me half way back towards, but misses the key peice stated above).

    When coupled with what "God" says in Neale Donald Walshe's books that we are in a world of the relative - of illusion - and that all we need to do is recreate ourselves in the next grandest verson of the greatest vision we have of ourselves", for me, this is as close to the secret of life as any I have found.

    And for me none of it could have happened without AA.
    Getting my wrong thought ass kicked back onto the path of life helped me re-align with the goal of living - to joyously create..

    (and a strong nod to Mike Dooley's TUT work as well which states - "Thoughts become things, choose the best"

    Simple...

    And surprisingly consistant across all three of the above writers...

    So - my ego is as SalamanKa above states - GOD with a touch of Earthly expereinces thanks to the forgetting which my ego makes possible : )

    Your thoughts?

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    BrianMontgomery Jan 12, 2012

    You do have an ego and so does everyone else (except the rare few who have transcended it). A simple applied kinesiology test of your first statement (I don't have an ego. And neither do you.)comes up "not yes" thus false.

    As you hinted the ego was critical in the survival and evolution of humans. It identified desirable things like food, shelter etc as well as things to avoid, predators, rivals, challenges to survival. The basic inherent motives of the ego are survival and gain, both fear based.

    Human ingenuity and our complex society have baited this mechanism with endless distractions and pleasure/reward traps. The ego is biologically rooted, genetically propogated, socialiy reinforced, and strongly programed.

    Your elegant point of shifting the ego from noun to verb however allows us to observe it as it goes through its programs. Instead of identifying with "it" we can de-personalize it and hopefully diminish its energy and power over time.

    Thanks for the interesting observations and everyone's comments.

    Ego over and out.

  • KYRANI Feb 20, 2012

    I think your idea of process could better be an idea of processes and not simply mental but mostly somatic, which of course includes the brain. If you use the observing self, rather than the participator self, which is tangled up or colored by ego self, and simply observe what is happening as you sit in meditation you find the following. With the activity of mind, ie thoughts arising and disappearing again, we find that suddenly a thought seems to be irresistible. If we entertain that thought then emotional responses arise, which are somatic processes. So you find that certain thoughts give rise to somatic processes, which are the emotional responses. Over time you will find that there is a whole set of thoughts that act like hooks and they all have associated emotions (bodily processes). This set, which is very large, is the ego self, it is an association with some of the activities of mind. So you are right in using the idea of processes but they most are not mental processes. There are mental processes in the processing of thoughts in becoming conscious or demanding attention etc., but the bulk of the processes are somatic. As there are somatic process associated with the thoughts there are strong pathways in the brain and this then gives the idea of permanence. In reality our ego self changes somewhat with each experience but we don’t notice it because it is a modification to a huge set.

    I think it is not true to say we don't have an ego. Rather I would have said the ego is only an illusion and an ephemeral being. It does vanish before mystical experience but it is a difficult path to try and make it do the work of rubbing out itself! That is why meditation is a royal road to enlightenment. When we can be a dispassionate observer and develop awareness of the mind's activities and the consequences that were set into action in the body, then we can choose to simply let go of all the ideas/ thoughts and not be hooked and distracted by them. When we, as the self, no longer identify with the mind's activity then the ego self vanishes.

  • MichaelDeanBogar May 09, 2013

    The word "ego" is the Greek word for "I," and made its way into popular parlance via a mistranslation of Freud's German word "ich" which simply means "I". Scholars decided they would use the word ego instead of ich when translating Freud into English. That's what scholars do--confuse and obfuscate in order to be scholarly. They would have saved us a lot of trouble and bad psychology and dangerous spirituality if they had simply translated "ich" as "I" and left "ego" to the Greeks. The best line of Peter's article, in my opinion, is: "What we call the ego is not another separate self so much as a mode of being that can dominate..." That is exactly right, and it is the nascent mode of consciousness from which all subsequent modes of consciousness grow--like a seed of consciousness. From that "I" or self centered mode of awareness at birth, we develop an ever increasing relational "we" (wego) mode of consciousness, and then an analytical or skeptical mode of consciousness, and eventually the "I" (self) morphs into a mystical union of the I with the divine. This is what some call soul-making: the necessary and purposeful journey of the "I" from Source through innumerable life experiences with a goal of reunion with Source as an entirely new being. Earth is the womb of soul-making, and the I-seed utilizes every internal and external experience to grow up. This course is beautifully illustrated in the Greek Eros/Psyche myth and in the biblical journey of Adam to Christ. Those who think that the "I" (ego) is illusory or unnecessary are in for a difficult and impossible spiritual journey. The chick in the egg (eggo) might as well reject the shell which encompasses her emerging self. The I-seed contains all that we are and are becoming. "I" (ego) is God in seed form. Those wits who says E.G.O. means "Edging God Out" would be better served by suggesting that E.G.O. signifies "Edging God Outward".

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