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, social circles, values, achievements, beliefs, talents, failures and personality traits. It includes our victimhood or our perceived strength, our inferiority or superiority. Often given a bad rap, the created self is necessary, to an extent. How dull would life be if we didn’t get to define our desires, our boundaries, our likes and dislikes? Where would be the fun if we could not share our ‘selfhood’ and experience the unique ‘selfhoods’ of others?
According to many modern spiritual gurus, our truest self simply is, and cannot be defined. Spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle (and countless teachers before him) describe the True Self is the self who observes the ego. When René Descartes wrote the famous words “Cogito, ergo sum”, the Latin philosophical proposition which translates to “I think, therefore I am,” he was defining only the ego. Psychologist and spiritual teacher Ram Dass once suggested that instead of “I am my thoughts”, it would be more correct to say: “I am. And I think”.
While all this is interesting, to a degree, I find these concepts can lead to pointless overthinking. Which is exactly what we’re supposed to be avoiding. I end up wondering if I’m supposed to blissfully meditate my way into some sort of vacuous blob of nothingness, and if so, what’s the point? Surely part of why we’re here is to define our own experience, to actually have tastes and preferences.
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 disempowering question of “how do I annihilate part of who I am?” Furthermore, the people society has considered to be great spiritual leaders over time – from Gandhi to Kabir to Jesus – have all either had, or have been portrayed as having, a very strong and confident sense of self. That is to say, they had a decent sized ego.
But as we know, the ego isn’t always good. The ego can easily fall into drama and separateness, and thrives anywhere with a culture of “them vs us”. For that reason, the ego thrives in religion. I once worked with a man who prefaced any rant with, “As a Christian…”, because his Ego Self was so strongly associated with that particular identity. But he was also a man who could treat people terribly, acting in ways that other people would consider immoral, yet think nothing of it.
In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that the ego is “a wonderful servant, but a terrible master – because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward and more reward.” These rewards can seem like things no-one would ever intentionally choose. They create an enhanced sense of self due to separation from others, such as, “I am better than them” or the equally false, “they are better than me”. Unfortunately, whatever we believe is the truth we prove to ourselves through our own perceived experiences.
While most of us create the Ego Self without conscious thought, shaped mostly by our interpretation of life experiences, I’ve also known people who’ve deliberately created brilliant ego selves: charismatic, high energy, fun and charming. These people are exhausted from the charade, and can snap without warning. It’s as though they believe that if they drop the mask, there will be nothing at all behind it.
In the words of Thomas Merton, “And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.” The strenuously created self is its own worst enemy, since the more well-received it becomes externally, the more pain it causes within.
Ultimately, I believe that through intention and attention we can reshape the ego, should we choose to. This, I believe, is what the Buddhists meant by personal freedom; a mind not at war with itself. But while we are physical beings on a physical planet, we can never eliminate the ego. And why the hell would we want to? With a bit of friendly oversight, the ego ain’t so bad.