The Ego and the Self

By Swami Shraddhananda

Coming to the United States from India in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “The Ego and the Self” is found in Seeing God Everywhere.

The ego and the Self stand at two opposite ends of our spiritual journey. Our inquiry begins with the ego and culminates in the realization of the Self.

Broadly speaking, the ego can be taken as that part of the mind which expresses individuality. It is the ego that gives us the sense of “I” and “mine.” The ego is the mouthpiece of the personality. The total personality is, of course, a very complex thing; it is not easy to understand how deep its roots are. Various factors in the body and mind such as biological urges, glands and neural structures, emotions, and other elements are involved in the construction of the personality. But so far as its vehicle of expression—namely, the ego—is concerned, there is not much difficulty in understanding and grasping it. Every moment of our lives we are keenly conscious of ourselves as individuals. When we think or speak or do anything, we know that the ego, our I-sense, is present. Its role is very important in our everyday lives. As a rule, there cannot be any activity, mental or physical, any understanding, feeling, or desire, without the sense of individuality in the background. The ego is the master player of our present mental plane.

There are, of course, certain exceptional situations when the ego might not be involved. For example, when we are deeply engrossed in some artistic object or while listening to beautiful music, our I-sense becomes attenuated and may even disappear completely. In common language, we say that we were so absorbed that we forgot ourselves. This is also the case in certain types of religious experience where the devotee is so moved by divine love that the ego drops to its minimum level. There is a spontaneous forgetfulness of oneself as an individual. For the time being one feels merged in the object of spiritual adoration. Except in these special cases, we find that the ego is always present in daily life. The ego is the thread that pulls the different elements of the individuality together and gives it cohesion.

When the ego functions, it associates with a wide variety of objects. The ego, by itself, is a neutral entity. But this neutrality ends in the field of operation. The ego has to identify with something, or else it cannot express itself. For example, the ego has to identify itself with the body. Then I say “I am healthy,” or “My height is six feet.” When I say, “I am thinking,” my ego has associated itself with the mind. When I say, “I am angry,” the emotion of anger is the object of association.

The ego in action changes from moment to moment. This moment it is linked with a certain function of the body, and the next moment with a state of the mind or an external circumstance. There is no limit to the objects or ideas with which the ego can connect itself. When we speak of ethical or cultural life, the ego is also there. It has only changed its center of identification. It now associates itself with ethical qualities such as virtue, truth, and purity, or with some cultural values such as poetry, science, democracy, resulting in the corresponding assertions: “I am virtuous”; “I am truthful”; “I am pure”; “I am a poet”; “I am a scientist”; “I am a citizen,” and so on.

In these various cases of identification the ego connects itself with a clear understanding, but there are some extraordinary instances where the identification is only implicit. The ego can identify itself with ideas that are vast and infinite, though it is not fully conscious of this fact. For example, we implicitly believe that we are not going to die. All our thoughts and actions betray the strong assumption that we shall always be here, that we are immortal. But this belief is not expressly recognized; it is subconsciously assumed. The ego is similarly occasionally confronted with feelings of boundless happiness, knowledge, or tranquillity. Though we lack the time or courage to deeply ponder our kinship with these spiritual qualities, there is nevertheless an implicit identification in the background of our consciousness which we cannot shake off.

Yet were we without this kind of cosmic ego identification, life here would be miserable. We could not survive if every moment we feared death and were conscious of suffering, limitation, and ignorance. Fortunately for us, there is occasionally a sort of unrecognized, implicit identification of the ego with the Infinite.

This identification, however, is not clear in ordinary consciousness because it is superficial. It does not go deeply enough into the personality. We do not care to discover the true foundations of the personality, although we often use the word. We do not fully know what the mind is. Human beings have deeper levels of existence than the personality and mind, though in daily life it is not necessary to analyze or understand them.

The implicit identification of the ego with the Eternal and Infinite points to a basic Reality behind the universe and behind the individual personality. Vedanta calls this Reality the Self. The Self is the core of the mind and personality. It is also the core of the external world we perceive. When we probe deeply enough, we and our universe become one. The Self is that Unity: we live and move in that Unity. We can never escape our own nature. We are generally satisfied with the superficial manifestations of our personalities, but there is always an unknown element of our existence upon which the ego occasionally stumbles. In some moments of our lives we feel its presence as immortality, as infinite calmness and beatitude, as vast, undefined knowledge. Just as in our daily life the ego is the “mouthpiece” of the personality—the instrument by which the personality can work and manifest itself—so also in the field of Self-inquiry the ego serves as a “pointer” to the true basis of the personality, the Self.

The first role of the ego is understood by everyone. The second role has to be recognized by analysis and discrimination; many people never have a clue that there is a vast Reality in the background of their lives. Perhaps these people have had no opportunity for introspection. For such people, the Self remains unrecognized and undiscovered, perhaps for many lives. The desire to look deeply into life depends on a person’s temperament and accumulated psychophysical tendencies. For those who take the question of spiritual life seriously, that vast, immortal Being—the Ground of our Existence—cannot be allowed to remain unknown and undiscovered. The highest goal of spiritual life is to realize that ultimate Ground, to know that at all times we are one with all that exists.

We have to begin, of course, with the ego, but our goal is to go forward until the ego discovers the Self. The primary function of the ego is to identify itself with this and that. The ego cannot help it. We have to bear with the nature of our egos, but at the same time we have to train the ego so that its tendency of identification is directed to supersensuous ideas and ideals. It has to be taught to associate itself with God. The ego then learns to call itself the servant or the child of God.

The ego seeks relationships. It becomes restless if it is left alone. The object of spiritual training is to give the ego spiritual relationships. Sri Ramakrishna used to speak of two kinds of ego—the ripe and the unripe. The ego that says, “I am the child of God, I am the servant of God” is the ripe ego.

The unripe ego is that which attaches itself to different ideas and objects of worldly enjoyment. It says, “I am beautiful”; “I am powerful”; “I am wealthy.” These identifications may be necessary in everyday life, but in the context of the highest spiritual goal, these notions are barriers. When you say, “I am the body,” you have covered your true Self with a veil. For that reason Sri Ramakrishna said that the point of spiritual practice is to gradually transform the unripe ego into a ripe ego. When a person does some work, he or she may say, “I am doing this.” This is an expression of the unripe ego. The same activity can be taken up by shifting the ego’s outlook. The person can say, “This body which does the work is God’s tool. God is the agent.” St. Paul used to say, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Now the ego has become transformed; it has become the ripe ego.

There cannot be Self-knowledge if the ego is left to its ignorant ways, sometimes identifying itself with this and sometimes with that. Each identification becomes a link in a chain binding us to this relative existence, and thus the vision of our true nature remains far away. The ignorant ego has been compared in Vedanta texts to a terrible poisonous serpent, and caution has been given to the spiritual aspirant to always be careful of this serpent.

When we say, “I myself have done this,” we are using two terms. One is the “I,” the ordinary ego. But what is the “self” in “myself”? Ordinarily we do not care to analyze why we use these two terms. We also say, “You yourself have told me this.” Using the third person we say, “He himself had come there.” What is the implication of the word “self” in these three usages? The Vedanta analysis says: The “I,” the ego, has only one face. It can be manifest only in the first person. But “self” is common to all three persons. It has three faces. It is behind him and behind you and behind me. It is the unchanging, undeniable, immediately-experienced, abiding Consciousness behind all personalities.

Our minds, our intellects, our lives, even our world, are ultimately rooted in the Self, in that eternal Truth, though we do not ordinarily know this. We sometimes have only an implicit intuition of it. When we consciously try to discover this Self, that implicit intuition becomes more and more vivid. We become more conscious of our spiritual nature and give up all false identifications. We have been ignorantly accustomed to say, “I am a man” or “I am a woman” or “I am Mr. So-and-so.” In order to break that habit, we have to declare: “I am the servant of God”; “I am unlimited Consciousness”; “I am one with eternal life.”

As our spiritual comprehension matures and as the experience of the Self becomes more explicit, we find that this experience has nothing to do with any kind of objective association. That is why in higher Vedanta practices, the method often used is that of negation. Positive identification is necessary up to a certain stage of our spiritual life. After that, the ego has to be taught to forget its old habit of identification and instead to practice saying, “I am not this body. I am not this mind. I am not these five elements. I am not thought.”

The ego has to be trained to dissociate itself from whatever ideas of attachment come into the mind. This is a very difficult task, but if we gradually train the ego through spiritual identification, the ego can then be detached enough to take up these negating practices. Do these negations lead to emptiness? No. They eventually lead to the discovery of the Self, which is beyond both affirmation and negation. Then the ego will discover that its true nature has always been in timeless Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss—the vast tranquillity and freedom that is the Self. Not for a single moment were we ever dissociated from That.

The experience of the Self is quite different from the experience of the ego. It does not have to take the form of “I am.” For the sake of contemplation we have to use such language as “I am of the nature of eternal bliss, eternal knowledge,” but in actual experience there is no question of “I.” The actual experience cannot be described in the language of the ego.

Why? Because the Self is not something that stands outside of myself; the Self is my true nature, the eternal subject of all experience. We cannot express the Self as an idea or in words, in the way that we can express a concept or describe an external object. This is why Vedanta says, “neti, neti”—not this, not this. The Self can never be known as I know an external object; the seeker is the Self. When the veil of ego identification has been removed, the seeker finds that the Self was always there. Though the ego can point to the Self, the Self is, in fact, revealed only by Its own nature, and that experience is unspeakable.

What happens when Self-knowledge comes? What is the gain? Self-knowledge is the highest conceivable perfection. A passage from the Chandogya Upanishad says that when a person realizes his or her true nature, that person finds that the Self is not confined within one single body. “The Self is in front and also behind, the Self is above as also below, the Self is in the south and also in the north, all that is the Self.” In other words, the person of Self-knowledge finds that the Self is the all-pervading Consciousness. It is everywhere. Wherever we may go, the Self is there. This means that the Self is the Substratum, the Ground, not only of the individual personality, but also of everything that we experience.

The Self is the center of the whole universe. It is the center of all individuals. All time is in the Self, all space is in the Self. Everything is in the Self. One who knows the Self goes beyond ignorance. Knowledge of the all-comprehensible Truth, the Self, gives a person the highest satisfaction. The passage from the Upanishads continues: “One who seeks this, reflects on this, and understands this delights in the Self, sports with the Self, rejoices in the Self, revels in the Self. That person’s companionship and sovereignty are in the Self.”

When we were in the state of ignorance, the ego was a passionate seeker of company; now we are in a position to tell the ego: “You are a natural companion of the Infinite. You need not seek association anymore. All objects, all beings, are already one with you.” The knower of the Self does not require any other joy. The realized soul becomes the greatest emperor in this universe because everything has become his or her own. Not even the head of a pin can be excluded from the sovereignty of the realized soul. There cannot be any possible desire that is not fulfilled for that person. This state is attained through Self-knowledge; this is the goal which the ego must attain—its ultimate destination.

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The Ego and the Self