How does ego work?

I am trying to understand better how ego works. The Tibetan word for ego is Dak Dzin. Dak means “self” and Dzin “to grasp”,  and put together it means grasping at a self. In particular, the teachings say that it refers to grasping at or identifying with a false sense of self.

In the Buddhist teachings the fact that our ordinary sense of self is false is called “emptiness of self” or “egolessness”. When I reflect on and try to understand this truth I always find it helpful to look at this from two sides: to understand how things are, but also to understand how I got deluded in the first place. Today I want to focus on the second.

How does this false sense of self come about?  I recently heard a nice description of how children develop their identity. In the beginning, babies seem to neither have an idea of name or an “I”. By the way, this sometimes brings up the question whether a childlike  state of mind is enlightenment. I have heard my teacher explain that even though it is a very pure and innocent state of mind, children are not able to recognize their inherent nature. Therefore, sorry, the answer is no. Now, back to how the sense of self is formed.

In the first stage, even before there is an idea of “I”,  children start to relate to themselves with their name. For example, after hearing their parents to refer to them with a name, a baby might say “Baba is hungry”, “Baba go here” (… yes you guessed right, “Baba” is how I used to call myself as a baby!) First the children get the idea that the name “Baba” refers to themselves and then in the next stage they adopt that name as their identity, as their sense of self. They start to use “I” to refer to themselves. Then slowly all the attributes and qualities of their person become their identity. We define ourselves by how we are: I am short / tall, skinny / overweight, intelligent / stupid, beautiful / ugly e.t.c. We say: I have blue / green /brown eyes, I am dressed nicely / shoddily. Our education, profession, friends, cultural and social conditioning begins to define ourselves and determines how we think of ourselves.

When we feel good, we say “I feel good” and if not “I feel bad”. The feeling becomes adopted as our identity. Interestingly, there is a sense that our identity is always the same, we ignore the fact that all these attributes that we make our identity change all the time. It seems to me this one of the reasons why such an approach to happiness doesn’t work. We think happiness is to make feeling good our identity, but that feeling good is just a fleeting state of mind and can’t possibly last. Over time we develop a strong habit to identify with our feelings or thoughts or judgements. When feeling good inevitably changes to something unpleasant, then our sense of identity has no choice but to change to “I am feeling bad”.

One thing that is funny is that ego is not very consistent. For example when we have a headache, sometimes we says “I am sick”, and sometimes and we say “my head hurts”.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

One of my teachers Tsoknyi Rinpoche describes the process of how our mind becomes deluded with the example of looking at a flower. The first moment you see a flower, you see it purely, just as it is, without judgement. But then the next moment mind comes in and starts to label the flower and then to evaluate and judge. It gives it attributes like: tall stem, green leaves, yellow blossoms, smells like lavender, this is a flower. The next step is to either say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.  If we liked it, we say “I want it”. Then we take action: we pluck the flower and take it home. Or, if we don’t like the smell, we say “I don’t want to smell this” and do what we can to get it as far away from us as possible.

All these reactions take on a life of their own. In the process of identifying with this false sense of self our awareness gets completely absorbed into the forms we identify with. Our mind gets lost in this process. Our pure awareness which has the ability to look at things with wisdom and clarity gets covered up and when this happens we loose our freedom. Our often irrational feelings, judgments, habits and unconscious reactions start running us and our lives.

The way to come back to our true selves and to regain our freedom begins with coming back to this pure consciousness that can see things as they are. How can we do that? By refocusing our awareness on the present moment? If we can simply learn to be present and be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and impulses in our mind, this process of investing our identity with them will no longer be able to happen. In the light of this pure and natural awareness we will be able to see the transient nature of all these arisings. We can see that these risings are in flux. They take form, stay for a while and then dissolve. In that presence of awareness there is also an understanding that our true being is simply open pure awareness, insubstantial, and without a concrete identity.

When the cognizant aspect of our mind — the aspect that can know — recognizes its own nature, there is a natural sense of being and sense of knowing oneself. When our cognizance is not able to recognize what it is, then it feels the need to find an identity and unfortunately gets entangled and lost in the forms it identifies with.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

The great master Tulku Urgyen always used to say:

“Samsara is mind turned outwardly, lost in its projections. Nirvana is mind turned inwardly, recognizing its nature.”

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche wrote that, “we have to understand, the buddhas took one path and we took another. The buddhas recognize their original nature and become enlightened; we do not recognize that nature and so become confused. In the teachings, this state of affairs is called “One Ground, Two Paths.”

In Tibetan the pure and pristine awareness of nowness that can see things as they are is called Rigpa, and awareness that is obscured and deluded is called Marigpa, usually translated as ignorance.

What we need to do is to recognize our natural pure awareness and then reconnect with it. Meditation is often described as “getting used to”. If we are able to simply be aware, we become like a light in which the darkness of identification with a false sense of self naturally dissolves. We need to decide that this is the way to become free and make a choice to strive to develop this natural presence.

I find it quite difficult to remain in my natural pure awareness. My habits of grasping and feeling attachment to what feels good and aversion to what doesn’t are very strong. That’s why in meditation we try to develop a deeper equanimity and even mindedness. My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche always says that we need to be like a charming hostess who is able and willing to accommodate even the most difficult guests. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi used to say “The best way to control cow and sheep is to give them a big grazing field. Some risings might stay for a while, and it might seem they will never go away but we need to have complete confidence that they will eventually naturally dissolve when their karma is exhausted.

Another very important point is that being in our natural and pure awareness is not just a solitary state that is removed from life, but that it can be integrated into all aspects of our lives. We can learn to perceive forms, sounds, smells, touch, tastes, thoughts or feelings with our full being. We can even act with our full being without loosing that deeper sense of awareness and presence. When difficulties arise we will then no longer take things personally. We will be able to deal with them with the understanding that they are not able to affect our deeper sense of being. When we experience negative emotions we can welcome them with understand that we are not our thoughts and emotions. Because of many causes and conditions these thoughts and emotions arise and will eventually dissolve.

When I study and reflect on the teachings, I find it so inspiring and encouraging that the solution is simply to be present in the face of whatever arises. It is not easy but it is very simple. We already have Buddha nature. There is no need to try to get something nor trying to get rid of something. We just need to reconnect with our fundamental nature which is already perfect in itself!

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5 Responses to How does ego work?

  1. varuni chaudhary says:

    Dear Bernie,
    This was a great post. You have a natural ability to say it beautifully.
    Have a wonderful spiritual journey.

  2. Barry says:

    Bernie – – “It is not easy but it is very simple.”
    Your post simplified the not easy… you explained it so much more gracefully, than my attempts with loved ones. Thanks!

  3. ABHA MENON says:

    The article “How to live a more meaningful life inspired by the Tibetan Book of Living & Dying” is very enlightening. A very lucid understanding of “EGO” emerges after reading this article. It explains how the “TRUE SELF” is “PURE AWARENESS” and must not be mistaken for traits, which are transient. Feeling good or bad is also acquired awareness. PURE AWARENESS (or if I may call it CONSCIOUSNESS) is “insubstantial and without identity” and therefore beyond the the purview of the cognizant mind. The GITA (The holy book of the Hindus where Lord Krishna gives a discourse about the philosophy of life to Arjuna (One of the Pandava’s) also explains the same understanding of PURE AWARENESS or CONSCIOUSNESS as separate from material and sensual self. It says I (the enlightened ones) AM CONSCIOUSNESS, and I see the world, the existence pass by as a spectator and am not impacted by the positively or the negativity.
    The Gita as well this blog says fundamentally the same thing. Examine this passage from this article QUOTE – ” being in our natural and pure awareness is not just a solitary state that is removed from life, but that it can be integrated into all aspects of our lives. We can learn to perceive forms, sounds, smells, touch, tastes, thoughts or feelings with our full being. UNQUOTE.
    In this context. the GITA conveys tha,t in order to exist in a state of pure consciousness, one does not need to renounce the world. One can continue performing one’s duties and responsibilities with detachment while one’s consciousness remains only a spectator of your thoughts, feelings and actions. One can construe this to mean that one can attain this state of consciousness or ‘pure awareness’ by performing one’s Karma with total commitment, without any expectation or anticipation of results.

  4. Isaak says:


  5. Harish Nagaraja says:

    This is a great resources.Bhudha’s teachings are really wonderful . It is beneficial to one and all.

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