Every one of us lives with a created self.
The created self, often referred to as the ‘ego’, is simply the person we believe ourselves to be. It encompasses our career choice, our social circles, our values, virtues, talents and the personality traits which we hope the people we meet would attest to. It’s our identity.
Often given a bad rap, the created self is necessary, to an extent. It reminds us to dress somewhat appropriately for work, to follow unspoken social rules such as listening to others when they speak, and to not road-rage at the idiot driver.
That said, the ‘true self’ is not the version of ourselves who is tempted to be rude to others, either. That’s just a layer of damage we’ve accumulated which shows up when we’ve been distracted by the stress and white-noise of life.
I always #LOL when people say “I am who I am” as a defiant protest against bothering with normal manners and common courtesy.
So what is our ‘true self’?
According to psychologist and spiritual teacher Ram Dass, our truest self simply ‘is’, and cannot be defined. He challenges the notion Descartes captured in the sentence: “I think, therefore I am”, saying it would be more correct to say “I am. And I think”.
While it’s probably true (and who am I to argue?), I find that for me, this concept leads to pointless overthinking. I end up wondering if I’m supposed to blissfully meditate my way into some sort of vacuous blob of nothingness.
We haven’t always pressured ourselves so greatly.
Earlier Buddhist teachings, for example, focused far more on attaining personal freedom rather than the incomprehensible and potentially disempowering question of ‘what is self?’ Rather than believing we have no identity, we allow our identity to be fluid and simply don’t attach to it or rely on it.
If you look through history, the people society have considered to be great spiritual leaders over time – from Gandhi, to Mother Teresa, to Jesus – have all either had, or been portrayed as having, a very strong and confident sense of self.
For me, the goal is simply to be the ‘created self of least effort’. To function well-enough within the world we’ve created, without sacrificing the freedom of being the version of me which comes most naturally. The struggle of ‘being somebody’, at the cost of neglecting who I am, seems to lead only to pain and confusion.
Over time, I’ve met people whose false self has been created with incredible effort. I see it in those who strive to be socially elite, or popular. They seem to worry more about the car they drive, and who they’re seen with, than the words they speak.
It’s easy to dislike these people, but those who wear the thickest masks carry the heaviest burden. If you get close enough to them, you soon discover they suffer through life feeling as though they’re a fraud, about to be caught out any moment; “If people saw who I really was, they wouldn’t like me.”
Of course, the false self isn’t always pretentious. I’ve known people who created brilliant false selves; charismatic, high energy, fun and charming. They suffer the same pain as the pretentious folk – perhaps even more so, since the stakes are higher. They have a bunch of people around them who are incredibly fond of their exhaustingly well maintained, created self.
The Ego is a great servant but a lousy master.
The path of least pain, as I see it, is the path of least struggle. It lies not in completely renouncing the ego, but in caring about personal freedom.