Getting to know ego

My last post was about how ego operates. One aspect of understanding ego is with the intellect and the other is to experience how this unconscious identification with a false sense of self is happening in myself.  The first aspect is challenging enough but to actually be aware of my ego and being able to see it directly in myself is something I find even more difficult.

Conceptual understanding is of course very important but it is like learning the theory of swimming, the technique and the different strokes e.t.c., and is not the swimming itself. Reading a lot about it isn’t really enough to be able to swim in the water. However, for some people it is crucial to first understand the properties of the water, so they can arrive at a confidence that floating on top of the water is possible. But that is just a first step, to help us find the courage to step into the water, and not the swimming itself. So it is important to keep in mind the difference between theory and practice. Understanding something does not necessarily mean being able to do it. The 19th century master Patrul Rinpoche compared the mistake of thinking you have realized something when you just understood it intellectually with reading a dance manual and thinking you are dancing.

The Yamantaka near Dzogchen monastery cave where Patrul Rinpoche did personal retreat

That’s why I am trying to go forth and back between both trying to understand as well as experiencing ego in my being. With respect to what ego feels like, I have sometimes been able to notice how there is a vague sense of “I am”. It is almost an unconscious identification with what I am doing, feeling, thinking.

This sense of self seems to be created by unconscious identification with the activity and appearances in my mind, rather than the nature of how my mind is. The problem is not “what” I am doing, feeling and thinking, but the “I” because it is a false sense of self. My ego self is defining what I am by creating a mental image based on my personal and cultural conditioning. The sense of “I” is not something real, objective or truly existing, but quite subjective, transient and one could even say irrational. It is based on both past and future and not the present and what truly is. For example, how I think of myself is based on what happened to me in the past. These events and experiences happened because of many causes and conditions and have nothing to do with my inherent self.

My ego is also constantly looking into the future. Most of the day my mind is not with what I am doing in the moment, but with hope of future fulfillment. I might be driving to Lodeve (which is the closest town to Lerab Ling, the Rigpa retreat center in the South of France where I am right now.), but I don’t really care much about the driving. I just want to be in Lodeve, and my mind is in the future, already in Lodeve, and preoccupied with thoughts and ideas of being there. That’s why being in the present is such a powerful practice. It is the direct antidote to living in the past and future. How could ego be, if I don’t let my awareness get lost and absorbed in past or future thoughts? How could ego feed itself if am fully aware of what I am doing and what is happening right now?

During the last week I also started to ask myself: Why does ego arise? Why do I identify with a false sense of self? I seem to have a deep inner yearning to know myself, or maybe better said, to know “what I am”. When I am present and aware of the natural sense of being that is my true nature —which is something beyond words concepts and description — then this unconscious identification cannot take place. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen a lot. When I am out of touch with this innate knowing, in which there is a natural certainty and confidence of who or what I am, my mind starts looking for an identity and ends up identifying with something that is not really me. My awareness then gets lost in this process and I seem to lack the insight and intelligence to tell the difference between my true being and a false sense of self. It  is a very subtle process, and it is not easy to know the difference between what is my true and false self. Why? Because my mind’s clarity is already clouded and impaired. Imagine how difficult it might be to distinguish a genuine dollar bill from a fake in dim light. In the same way, at first glance the false sense of self we call “ego” looks and feels like the real thing!

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