"What is the Ego?"(1)

A Course in Miracles tells us that we have only one problem and that there is only one solution. It contends that all of our manifold specific problems are but effects of this one singular error. And then it goes on to say in Workbook Lessons 79 and 80 that if we are willing to see the problem just exactly as and where it is, that we will see that it has already been solved. Well, what is this problem?
"The problem of separation, which is really the only problem, has already been solved. Yet the solution is not recognized because the problem is not recognized." [W139/141]
So, what is the connection between the ego and separation? The Course answers,
"The separation is merely another term for a split mind. The ego is the symbol of separation, just as the Holy Spirit is the symbol of peace." [T73/80]
Possibly the most misunderstood of all the concepts taught by A Course in Miracles is that of the ego. And is it any wonder that this is so? Believing that the ego is real, we identify with it and look upon it through its own eyes, its way of understanding, which is partial and fragmented. The Course tells us in very plain language,
"You do not realize the magnitude of that one error. It was so vast and so completely incredible that from it a world of total unreality had to emerge. What else could come of it? Its fragmented aspects are fearful enough, as you begin to look at them. But nothing you have seen begins to show you the enormity of the original error, which seemed to cast you out of Heaven, to shatter knowledge into meaningless bits of disunited perceptions, and to force you to make further substitutions." [T348/373]
It seems that the most commonly used interpretation of ego is borrowed from psychotherapy, some sort of overinflated self-image, an undesirable component of personality. One of the most ridiculous malaprops in the world is "my ego." There is no relationship whatever between modern psychotherapy's use of the term ego and the Course's use of this same term. In the view of A Course in Miracles, there is no my ego! MY is the ego, splitting itself off from itself to talk about itself. This is like a madman talking about madness. Now, one might ask "Who could know more about madness than a madman?" but I think anyone would immediately see the fallacy of this "reasoning." We do not allow a sick doctor to operate on himself. Talking about or trying to analyze the ego from within its paradigm is like the six blind men arguing over the nature of an elephant, "Is it stump, or a snake or a whip, etc., etc., etc?" Another image which comes to mind is a man inside a dark cave trying to draw a map of the cave. And yet the Course warns us,
"The analysis of ego-motivation is very complicated, very obscuring, and never without your own ego-involvement. The whole process represents a clear-cut attempt to demonstrate your own ability to understand what you perceive." [T200/215]
and goes on,
"If you believe you understand something of the 'dynamics' of the ego, let me assure you that you understand nothing of it. For of yourself you could not understand it. The study of the ego is not the study of the mind. In fact, the ego enjoys studying itself, and thoroughly approves the undertakings of students who would 'analyze' it, thus approving its importance." [T274/295]
Let us begin with one very simple principle -- THERE IS NO EGO. It is a fiction, a nothingness, a virtual impossibility. It is but a spurious idea which has no existence outside of the Mind(2) in which it arose. Here the Course tells us this quite simply,
"The full awareness of the Atonement, then, is the recognition that the separation never occurred. The ego cannot prevail against this because it is an explicit statement that the ego never occurred." [T90/98]
Another principle which accompanies this is -- THERE IS ONLY ONE MIND. Identification with the idea of separation gives rise to the appearance of many, but this is not so. The collection of thoughts which we commonly call "my mind" is really not a mind at all, but habit, conditioning.
"The structure of 'individual consciousness' is essentially irrelevant because it is a concept representing the 'original error' or the 'original sin.' To study the error itself does not lead to correction, if you are indeed to succeed in overlooking the error. And it is just this process of overlooking at which the course aims." [T73/77]
In the One Mind, which is infinite, is the capacity to contemplate any and all cosmic possibilities. This one mind can identify itself with either wholeness or separation and thereby experience the apparent consequences of either.

What is the idea of ego?

The ego is but one simple thought or belief which, in the abstract, can be said several ways:

1. That it is possible for anything to be separate from the whole.

2. That it is possible for there to be something greater than everything.

3. That an effect can be greater than or different from its cause.

4. That it is possible for anything to be separated from the source of its existence.

From that one thought, given the power of belief by the One Mind, arises the experience of this entire illusory universe of form and multiple metaphysical levels as well.

It is interesting to note that from the great cultures of our western tradition we have several myths of a boy child being born who grows up and overthrows, challenges or defeats the king. In Greek mythology it was Zeus who banished Kronos from his kingdom. In Judaic mythology, it was Moses who defeated the pharaoh And, of course, Jesus challenged Herod. In our individual lives we grow up in rebellion against our parents and/or the social structure. It is deeply inherent within our nature to rebel against authority. This is one of the principal manifestations of the ego.

"I have spoken of different symptoms, and at that level there is almost endless variation. There is, however, only one cause for all of them: the authority problem. This is the 'root of all evil.'" [T43/48]

"The ego's goal is quite explicitly ego autonomy. From the beginning, then, its purpose is to be separate, sufficient unto itself and independent of any power except its own. This is why it is the symbol of separation. [T188f/203]

What is the ego?

There are two ways of answering this question, but in either case it must be remembered -- there is only ONE EGO; it only appears as many. From an absolute perspective, as I said above, it is nothing. More than that, an impossible nothing. Examining the 4 precepts above it should be immediately obvious that this is so. In the words of A Course in Miracles,

"There is no definition for a lie that serves to make it true." [M77/81]
However, from within its sphere of operation, it has the following characteristics, qualities or appearances:

1. The ego is the entire process of self-referencing. It is an arbitrary and illusory point in time and space to which the entire universe is referenced. Perception from this point gives the illusion that this singular point is the center of the universe (both of space and of time). Your habitual thinking places you in the center of everything. Saying it this way probably illustrates the complete ridiculousness of this thinking, but day-to-day, moment-to-moment, all experience is referenced from where you think you are. From here, past is whatever is behind you in time, future is whatever is not yet come. North is "north from here", likewise up and down. This creates the illusion that this center (you) has some reality independent from a whole which is perceived as "out there" or "up there" or "back there." Albert Einstein said it this way,

2. The ego is entirely self-reflecting. This singular point, having no real independent reality, learns what it is by reflection. It reflects back what it sees, what it is told, what it learns from the "external world." The mind is a mimic. We learn who and what we are via the reflection we see "externally." Therefore, the mind becomes conditioned, trained, by what it sees and what it is taught. It then merely repeats what it has been taught. It is a monkey, a perfect mimic; "Monkey see, monkey do." Human free will is a myth. Virtually all self-centered behavior is programmed and imminently predictable. Why else would advertising be so effective? Following the dictates of conditioned mind is, in no way, freedom. It is the most pernicious form of slavery to the past and to the dictates of "society." Sure, you can choose the color of your car, but can you choose no car? When identified with ego, one has no direct knowledge of himself or even of the totality of options available to him. All he knows is reflected, acquired, second-hand knowledge. This is ignorance indeed and guarantees the past will be repeated despite superficial changes in the form.

3. The ego is the entire universe of time and space. Time and space are both means for measuring distance, the amount of separation. Through these mental devices or tricks, cause appears to be separated from effect.

4. The ego is the entire process of name and form. All form implies a separateness one from the other. And language delineates this separation by making distinctions. The Hindus call it nama-rupa, name and form. This is as far as our separate divinity goes -- giving things name and form. Man has never made a single living thing. In fact, Man has never truly created anything at all.

5. The ego is the entire process of differentiation and distinction. The mind, utilizing the separative tool of language, makes arbitrary classifications and categories. Since we "think" in words or symbols, all linear thought is ego-based. Words are based on fragmentation, differentiation, definition. Therefore, the whole process of talking about (whether internally or verbally) and therefore thought, is separation. The entire process of intellectual "understanding" is based on dissection, breaking apart, attempting to understand the whole through defining it as the sum of its parts. The entire structure of language is subject-action-object. To objectify is to separate from. Objective thinking is separative thinking; the observer is different from the observed.

6. The ego is the entire process of identification. To identify with any limited concept -- nationality, race, religion, species -- is to set oneself apart through the perception of differences.

7. The ego is imagination and memory. All form is image and memory is time and image dependent.

8. The ego is the perception of lack. Perceiving lack gives rise to desire. The ego is all desire, even the desire to be "spiritual," or the desire to be without desire, or the desire to be without the ego.

9. The ego is limits of any kind whatsoever.

10. The whole idea of personality, individualism is ego. The word, personality, derives from the Latin, persna, meaning mask. This referred to the masks the players in drama wore. And what is personality but a mask which hides our true identity? We are actors who have confused ourselves with the role we play. The word, individual actually means "indivisible," unable to be divided. Is that how we experience our so-called "individuality?" What ego strives for is specialness, calling it individuality, but it is in no way indivisible.

11. The ego is "I," and "me," and "mine." My ego is redundant.

12. The whole concept of possession and ownership is the ego. The ego grasps and holds, attempting to own...anything -- territory, ideas, people, things -- in order that it might define its existence by these possessions.

13. The entire field of perception is ego.

14. The belief in process, progress, and growth requires time and, therefore, is of the ego. It is merely a way of postponing, a way of saying, "Some other time -- not now!"

15. Society, laws, morality, all hierarchical organizations, the entire concept of levels of any kind belong to the realm of ego.

16. The ego is ingratitude, the refusal to accept, the whole process of rejection, the incapacity to receive.

17. The ego is death, the belief in the alternation of existence and non-existence. The changing of form is seen as the witness to the reality of this belief. But nothing is ever lost, it merely changes form.

18. The ego is the whole process of looking out from a center onto a world perceived as "out there". To "look within" means to perceive everything as within. Holistic (non-ego) perception sees that everything arises within the mind, and there is only one mind. It is an all-inclusive perception in which nothing is outside nor excluded; as Mr. Krishnamurti states, the observer is the observed. He once described this mode of perception as having a center everywhere and a boundary nowhere. This is complete nonsense to the formal, limited self-mind.

And this is not all! This is but a partial list hinting at the magnitude of that one error. Attempts to fragment the ego and understand it partially are doomed to miss the all-pervasiveness, magnitude and complexity of the infinite manifestations of the ego. Virtually all movements of the self-mind are ego-based and directed toward reinforcing the belief in its reality.

"That one error, which brought truth to illusion, infinity to time, and life to death, was all you ever made. Your whole world rests upon it. Everything you see reflects it, and every special relationship that you have ever made is part of it." [T347/373]

Once again, it must be emphasized -- THERE IS NO EGO separate from your belief in it. It is an empty shell, a lifeless nothing, an inconsistent phantom. Only by your belief in its reality does it have any power at all. The ego does nothing in and of itself. Only your decision to believe in it gives it any existence whatsoever. We are not hapless pawns or unwilling victims of something that happened long, long ago. The Fall of Man did not happen in the far distant past; it is happening now, and now, and now. Like a picture on a TV screen, each and every moment this image is refreshed by our belief in its reality. Moment-to-moment we give this spurious idea new life, new reality, new power. Thomas Merton points to the willful nature of our "Fall".

A Course in Miracles echoes,

"You attack the real world every day and every hour and minute...." [T217/233]

"...history would not exist if the same errors were not being repeated in the present." [T51/56]

"You will believe that you are part of where you think you are. That is because you surround yourself with the environment you want. And you want it to protect the image of yourself that you have made. The image is part of this environment. What you see while you believe you are in it is seen through the eyes of the image. This is not vision. Images cannot see." [W53/53]

So we begin to see that this constant renewal of the image of separation is not passive at all but an act of determined unwillingness. How is this constant renewal of the image accomplished? Among other tricks, ego uses activity, accomplishment and possessions to explain, define and justify its existence. It is both the problem maker and the problem solver. Ego makes a problem out of any situation -- too much money/not enough money, relationship/no relationship, etc. Ego prefers drama to silence. Silence and space threaten its existence in that its meaninglessness and powerlessness may become apparent.
"By becoming involved with tangential issues, it hopes to hide the real question and keep it out of mind. The ego's characteristic busy-ness with nonessentials is for precisely that purpose. Preoccupations with problems set up to be incapable of solution are favorite ego devices for impeding learning progress. In all these diversionary tactics, however, the one question that is never asked by those who pursue them is, 'What for?' This is the question that you must learn to ask in connection with everything. What is the purpose? Whatever it is, it will direct your efforts automatically. When you make a decision of purpose, then, you have made a decision about your future effort; a decision that will remain in effect unless you change your mind." [T60f/66f]
Now, if we have seen this as fact and not merely some words scribbled on the pages of a blue book, where do we begin? A Course in Miracles answers,
"Only by learning what fear is can you finally learn to distinguish the possible from the impossible and the false from the true." [T190/205]
Perhaps, here is a beginning -- learning what fear is. Have we ever asked the question, "What is fear?" We don't like it and we know that it limits us. But isn't the usual approach "What am I afraid of?" or "Why am I afraid of that?" This makes fear seem specific and the cause seem external, does it not? Yet time and again, A Course in Miracles insists, "seek not outside yourself." Fear is an inside job. And our job is not to overcome fear by making it real and then approaching it, but merely by understanding what it is.

Perhaps one of the reasons we do not like fear is its power. Most humans encounter the actual power of the mind most directly and clearly in terror. We have become so accustomed to our self-imposed powerlessness that the hint of our real force that fear brings is scary indeed. So, is it the external situation or condition we fear, or the hint of our own power?

What fear is.... Is there any fear that does not involve the body or the opinions, actions or reactions of those seemingly external to ourselves? If real wholeness, joining, is a fact, what is there to fear? Does not all fear involve some sense of potential loss? If all is one, who can lose? It seems obvious, then, that if there is fear of any kind whatsoever, there is a belief in separation. Is that not the only possible, reasonable conclusion? Does not all fear arise from the perception of myself as a separated, mortal being? As long as this perception is the basis for my experience, fear in some form will be part of that experience. It is unavoidable; it comes with the territory. Therefore, it is fruitless and counter-productive for the separated self to attempt to overcome fear. It is not possible. The ego-self is the cause of fear.

"The fundamental conflict in this world, then, is between creation and miscreation. All fear is implicit in the second, and all love in the first. The conflict is therefore one between love and fear.

"It has already been said that you believe you cannot control fear because you yourself made it, and your belief in it seems to render it out of your control. Yet any attempt to resolve the error through attempting the mastery of fear is useless. In fact, it asserts the power of fear by the very assumption that it need be mastered. The true resolution rests entirely on mastery through love." [T28/32]

An interesting conclusion arises when we explore the Introduction to the Course. It says,
"Nothing real can be threatened.

Nothing unreal exists."

So, if you feel threatened, you have made yourself unreal and you DO NOT EXIST.

Then, what is it that makes this mastery possible? Once again, clearly, directly and simply,

"The correction of fear is your responsibility. When you ask for release from fear, you are implying that it is not. You should ask, instead, for help in the conditions that have brought the fear about. These conditions always entail a willingness to be separate. At that level you can help it. You are much too tolerant of mind wandering, and are passively condoning your mind's miscreations." [T25/29]

"Spirit need not be taught, but the ego must be. Learning is ultimately perceived as frightening because it leads to the relinquishment, not the destruction, of the ego to the light of spirit. This is the change the ego must fear, because it does not share my charity." [T48/53]

What can the ego be taught?
"Belief that there is another way of perceiving is the loftiest idea of which ego thinking is capable. That is because it contains a hint of recognition that the ego is not the Self." [T52/57]
Another way of perceiving! Not merely another way of thinking about. This is an extremely important point, possibly the crux of the entire Course. We are not talking about just a change of opinion, or some mental trick or construct, but an entirely different way of perceiving. In the Song of Prayer the voice of the Course says,
"Do not see error. Do not make it real." [SOP9]
What would make this possible? This passage does not say to see the error and then try to think differently about it. It clearly implies a totally different mental process of some kind, not merely behavior modification. The Course cautions us against just such error,
"... you react to your interpretations as if they were correct. You may then control your reactions behaviorally, but not emotionally. This would obviously be a split or an attack on the integrity of your mind...." [T200/215]
Our current way of perceiving is with the physical senses, controlled and directed by the ego-brain-mind, interpreting and reacting based on the past and then analyzing, rationalizing and justifying in order to make its behavior "reasonable" or "acceptable." About the physical senses the Course says,
"...sights and sounds the body can perceive are meaningless. It cannot see or hear. It does not know what seeing is; what listening is for. .... Its eyes are blind; its ears are deaf. It can not think, and so it can have no effects. .......eyes and ears are senses without sense...." [T558f/601f]
Within this same section, the Course points out,
"Yet are there other sounds and other sights that can be seen and heard and understood."
This "other way" of perceiving must then be somehow extra- or super-sensory and without any reference at all to the past. The entire lesson of near-death and "out-of-body" and various other forms of psychic perceptions is that our habitual way of looking at and thinking about things or situations is not the only way there is. Beyond that one lesson -- that there is truly another very different way of perceiving the very same circumstances -- the ego can learn nothing but its own nothingness and in that profound recognition is truth born.
"You are nothing. You may have your name and title, your property and your bank account, you may have power and be famous; but in spite of all these safeguards, you are as nothing. You may be totally unaware of this emptiness, this nothingness, or you may simply not want to be aware of it; but it is there, do what you will to avoid it. You may try to escape from it in devious ways, through personal or collective violence, through individual or collective worship, through knowledge or amusement; but whether you are asleep or awake, it is always there. You can come upon your relationship to this nothingness and its fear only by being choicelessly aware of the escapes. You are not related to it as a separate, individual entity; you are not the observer watching it; without you, the thinker, the observer, it is not. You and nothingness are one; you and nothingness are a joint phenomenon, not two separate processes. If you, the thinker, are afraid of it and approach it as something contrary and opposed to you, then any action you may take towards it must inevitably lead to illusion and so to further conflict and misery. When there is the discovery, the experiencing of that nothingness as you, then fear -- which exists only when the thinker is separate from his thoughts and so tries to establish a relationship with them -- completely drops away. Only then is it possible for the mind to be still; and in this tranquility, truth comes into being."(4)
There is no greater release and no deeper laughter than to discover that what I thought I was does not exist. At that point one has tasted the goal of A Course in Miracles.
"The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love's presence, which is your natural inheritance." [Introduction]
And, if we look carefully, we will see that all blocks are but manifestations of the mind's tendency to move toward specialness, toward uniqueness, toward so-called individuality. Within this movement, which is also and inextricably the move to isolation, are the seeds of all conflict, loneliness, suffering and death.
"Specialness is the function that you gave yourself. It stands for you alone, as self-created, self-maintained, in need of nothing, and unjoined with anything beyond the body. In its eyes you are a separate universe, with all the power to hold itself complete within itself, with every entry shut against intrusion, and every window barred against the light. Always attacked and always furious, with anger always fully justified, you have pursued this goal with vigilance you never thought to yield, and effort that you never thought to cease. And all this grim determination was for this; you wanted specialness to be the truth." [T477f/513]
The ego is unwillingness, nothing more. Are we willing to see that it is our demand for individuation, for uniqueness, which is the source of all of our problems, pain and suffering? The ego-mind, in fact, has a predisposition to see virtually any and all situations as, at least potentially, negative and problematical for itself. It needs problems to solve and "others" to attack in order to make its existence real. And being in constant contradiction, can anything but problems arise? If we see this, radically and profoundly, then we will see that un-Happiness is a constant activity that we are doing to ourselves. And in that realization, we will also see that we have another choice.

Return to Chapters
©1993 daan dehn
(To return to the text from these notes, click the Back button on your browser)

1. W457/467. This entire page is worthwhile reading along with "The Ego--The Miracle" M77/81

2. The use of the word with a capital M is used to denote the One Whole Mind. With a small m, the meaning is the so-called individual mind or ego-mind.

3. Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p.82f

4. J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living, First Series