I am finding it very helpful to reflect on how ego works. When I reflect on the teachings I always try to combine intellectual understanding with personal experience of what is said. In the Buddhist teachings this process of assimilation is described as the “Three wisdom tools.” First we need to learn through the ‘listening and hearing’, then we need to gain understanding through “reflection and contemplation”, and finally we need to free our minds through “application and meditation”.
Recently I have been reflecting why emotions like desire, anger and indifference (or ignorance) are considered to be destructive emotions and how that relates to ego. For example, when I feel desire it gives rise to a strong sense “I want”. With anger there is a strong sense of “I don’t want” and with indifference “I don’t care”. In that way these emotions feed my false sense of self.
Actually, the emotions themselves are not the problem but how they give rise to ego and become an addictive habit. It is not the thing we want but the addiction to the wanting something. As soon as one want is satisfied, the habit of wanting looks for another target.
Why am I addicted to wanting? Because it gives me a sense of self and I am craving to feel this sense of “I”. Whenever there is a sense of “I want” in my mind, I get a short experience of high. Similarly “I don’t want” or “I don’t care” feed this false self. Even being angry at someone reinforces it. No wonder these emotions are called the three poisons! They poison my mind by feeding a false sense of self!
“I sometimes wonder what a person from a little village in Tibet would feel if you suddenly brought him to a modern city with all its sophisticated technology. He would probably think he had already died and was in the bardo state. He would gape incredulously at the planes flying in the sky above him, or at someone talking on the telephone to another person on the other side of the world. He would assume he was witnessing miracles. And yet all this seems normal to someone living in the modern world with a Western education, which explains the scientific background to these things, step by step.
In just the same way, in Tibetan Buddhism there is a basic, normal, elementary spiritual education, a complete spiritual training for the natural bardo of this life, which gives you the essential vocabulary, the ABC of the mind. The bases of this training are what are called the “three wisdom tools”: the wisdom of listening and hearing; the wisdom of contemplation and reflection; and the wisdom of meditation. Through them we are brought to reawaken to our true nature, through them we uncover and come to embody the joy and freedom of what we truly are, what we call “the wisdom of egolessness.”
Imagine a person who suddenly wakes up in hospital after a road accident to find she is suffering from total amnesia. Outwardly, everything is intact: she has the same face and form, her senses and her mind are there, but she doesn’t have any idea or any trace of a memory of who she really is. In exactly the same way, we cannot remember our true identity, our original nature. Frantically, and in real dread, we cast around and improvise another identity, one we clutch onto with all the desperation of someone falling continuously into an abyss. This false and ignorantly assumed identity is “ego.”
So ego, then, is the absence of true knowledge of who we really are, together with its result: a doomed clutching on, at all costs, to a cobbled together and makeshift image of ourselves, an inevitably chameleon charlatan self that keeps changing and has to, to keep alive the fiction of its existence. In Tibetan ego is called dak dzin, which means “grasping to a self.” Ego is then defined as incessant movements of grasping at a delusory notion of “I” and “mine,” self and other, and all the concepts, ideas, desires, and activity that will sustain that false construction. Such a grasping is futile from the start and condemned to frustration, for there is no basis or truth in it, and what we are grasping at is by its very nature ungraspable. The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on and on grasping shows that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. From this secret, unnerving knowledge spring all our fundamental insecurities and fear.
So long as we haven’t unmasked the ego, it continues to hoodwink us, like a sleazy politician endlessly parading bogus promises, or a lawyer constantly inventing ingenious lies and defenses, or a talk show host going on and on talking, keeping up a stream of suave and emptily convincing chatter, which actually says nothing at all.
Lifetimes of ignorance have brought us to identify the whole of our being with ego. Its greatest triumph is to inveigle us into believing its best interests are our best interests, and even into identifying our very survival with its own. This is a savage irony, considering that ego and its grasping are at the root of all our suffering. Yet ego is so convincing, and we have been its dupe for so long, that the thought that we might ever become egoless terrifies us. To be egoless, ego whispers to us, is to lose all the rich romance of being human, to be reduced to a colorless robot or a brain-dead vegetable.
Ego plays brilliantly on our fundamental fear of losing control, and of the unknown. We might say to ourselves: “I should really let go of ego, I’m in such pain; but if I do, what’s going to happen to me?”
Ego will chime in, sweetly: “I know I’m sometimes a nuisance, and believe me, I quite understand if you want me to leave. But is that really what you want? Think: If I do go, what’s going to happen to you? Who will look after you? Who will protect and care for you like I’ve done all these years?”
And even if we were to see through ego’s lies, we are just too scared to abandon it; for without any true knowledge of the nature of our mind, or true identity, we simply have no other alternative. Again and again we cave in to its demands with the same sad self-hatred as the alcoholic feels reaching for the drink that he knows is destroying him, or the drug addict groping for the drug that she knows after a brief high will only leave her flat and desperate.” (p. 120-121)