Explaining Ego

Ego is, essentially, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves

“Killing the ego is the only thing to accomplish,” Ramana Maharshi said in one of his talks. “ Realization is already there. No attempt is needed to attain realization. For it is nothing external, nothing new.”

There are many spiritual traditions, both old and new, where some version of this advice crops up again and again; ego is presented as the obstacle between us and enlightenment, and getting rid of it is the one thing we need to do to see what reality is all about, man. But, despite all the talk of killing the ego, or advice on how to deal with the ego, or meditation practices on how to dissolve the ego, I’ve historically been a little fuzzy on understanding what the ego actually was.

In this particular context, when I refer to “ego” I mean “the feeling of I” or my own concept of “self.” When you say “I” to who or what are you referring? When you think “myself” what are the feelings associated with that?

I’m not a spiritual teacher, and I don’t promise enlightenment. (And, even if I did, if you are seeking enlightenment by killing the ego, you’re going to come up against the obstacle that trying to become “enlightened” is highly ego reinforcing. This isn’t really a problem, but it is a fundamental paradox that has to get dealt with.)

But, I am curious about ego, and have been meditating on it for around a decade now. And, through that lens, the problems of the world begin to take on a different tone.

At its most basic level, I think of ego as “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.” So, what does that mean?

When I think of “myself” I have a whole set of memories, and feelings, and associations that go along with that. But, basically all that is in the past. The person I think of as “me” is basically a collection of memories, and then I tell stories about those memories and these collection of stories form the basis of my sense of self.

For example, I’m a programmer. I learned how to program in college, and have been working in industry for like 10 years or so. I’m also a woman, in a highly male field, and this informs a sense of different-ness, but also a sense of accomplishment because women tend to leave the field more often than men. So, both being in industry for 10 years and being a woman is something I intuitively tend to take pride in.

Now, when I think about being a female programmer, I generally feel happy or proud, or (stated another way) feelings I enjoy tend to come up.

On the flip side, after being sexually assaulted by a man who used to be a coworker, I had a few years of really struggling with my work and even just being around men. I eventually took about a year off of work, and burned through all my savings going to therapy. At that time, when I thought about being a female programmer, I was angry. I was really resentful that the man who assaulted me got to continue progressing in his career, and whenever I thought about that, I’d feel angry, or despair, or misery. So, stated another way, feelings I didn’t enjoy feeling would come up.

So, there are several interesting things going on here. One is to note, that I was forming stories based on past memories, and those stories generated feelings in the present. Like, “I’ve accomplished something important by staying in a male dominated field,” or “It’s not fair that I can’t hold a job while the man who assaulted me can,” generate very different feelings on a similar topic. But, fundamentally, the present is the only important thing.

It seems, we can only think of one thing at a time. So, although we think of “ourselves” in terms of our whole life story, in any one moment we are only ever really having one memory, and that memory is triggering feelings, emotions, and sensations. So, in any instance, our consciousness is effectively a “sensation tone.”

Or, as one of my friends described it, we are in the “infinite now.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It is now. It is now. It is now.” he responded.

Consciousness is only relevant in terns of now. And, now we may be having a memory of the past, but in the now that memory will be very limited to what can be experienced in an instant. Over the course of 5 minutes, we may have many complex memories of events and stories surrounding them, but those 5 minutes are always parsed in instances of now where how you feel now is constantly shifting and changing.

So, who are you?

For me, this feeling of “I” is generally associated with the feelings I have in the present. My past stories don’t matter at all, until they get recalled in the present. My expectations about the future don’t matter, unless I am imagining them in the present. And, I kind of knit all my memories and future desires together in a story, but another way of looking at it could be I am just the sensation I am having right now. I am just the awareness of now.

So, why does this matter?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, some of our stories end up generating feelings we like, and some of our stories end up generating feelings we don’t like. And, this is where the whole complexity of ego comes in, because most of us try to stay in a zone where the feelings that are being generated from our story are the ones we like.

So, what do we do when feelings we don’t like come up?

At our most basic level, we often try to not think about it. So, this would be me the years after my sexual assault before I went to therapy. I went to work every day, and often I would be triggered by innocuous (and, sometimes not so innocuous) things the men around me did. For example, let’s say some young new hire kind of had a crush on me, and would blush a little bit when he talked to me.

Part of me would become very afraid, or angry, in that moment, because male attraction reminded me of being assaulted. However, rationally I knew this person had done nothing wrong, so I tried to ignore those feelings. Instead, I would try to focus on the problem at hand, or other aspects of the conversation or whatever, and ignore the feelings that observation triggered.

As time went on and I kept ignoring my fear and anger, it got harder and harder to do effectively. So, I had to dip into stories that gave me a bigger and bigger positive emotional payout. When men started to annoy me, instead of just finding work interesting, I would lean into gender stories. I would think about how I needed to be a programmer, because we didn’t have enough female programmers. Yes, this job was hard for me, I’d say to myself, but it was worth it because my presence in programming was making the world a better place. What I accomplished was superior to what these annoying men around me had accomplished, because I’d done it in the face of deep sexism.

Eventually, however, I was so triggered by men that I became completely unable to focus on my work at all, and I had to stop programming all together. And, this was horrible. All the stories I was using to feel better about myself were no longer there to lean into, so all I had was this memory I was trying to avoid. When I wasn’t working, I had nothing to distract me from my anger and fury about what had happened to me. I couldn’t reassure myself with “I’m better than the man who assaulted me, because we both have the same job, but I did it in spite of all these obstacles” because we didn’t have the same job.

Instead, a bunch of horrible stories came up — like “this person destroyed my livelihood,” and “I may never be able to work as a programmer again,” and “there is no way I can live a normal life now.” And, I just accepted them. I accepted them as my worst fears, and it took a few years, but they eventually went away.

Because, here’s the thing, when you’re constantly distracting yourself from underlying pain, that pain doesn’t go away. In fact, it gets worse because we keep ignoring our triggers. So, from my previous example, I noted how I’d try to ignore it when my male coworkers made me feel uncomfortable for benign reasons — like, oh, this young kid seems like he has a crush on me. Actually, this was a huge mistake, and I’ve come to realize many people who are attracted to me really are dangerous.

Most especially, people who are either not able or willing to disguise their attraction to me in a professional settings are problematic. I’ve had interns two drinks in beg me to go skinny dipping with them. I’ve had male bosses who felt entitled to stare down my shirts later throw me under the bus to save their own ass. In a professional setting, someone expressing implicit attraction to me is generally either a) too immature to know good boundaries, or b) willing to use their power to get what they want from me even if it hurts me. Neither is good, and both need to be addressed.

As a more senior developer now, the young and immature can generally be deterred with a stern demeanor. When I was younger, I wanted everyone to like me, so I always tried to be friendly. Now, I realize it’s often better to be disliked and spared sexual attention. As for bosses using their position to get slight sexual power kicks, they must be avoided at all cost, and it’s very important to pay attention to this when being interviewed.

However, as long as I was ignoring the negative feelings that came up, I didn’t have the ability to take action to improve my situation. So, instead of stopping people’s problematic behavior toward me, I’d just keep laughing it off when my coworkers “flirted” with me, or talked down to me, or whatever. So, of course I kept feeling worse. The behavior escalated because I was allowing it!

And, I see this as basically a universal epidemic on our society. So many of us ignore our bad feelings by focusing on stories that make us feel good. But then, we allow the conditions that make us feel bad to keep going and going. When I stopped hating my work, my identity as “feminist female programmer” became a lot less important to me. Like, I still think it’s cool, but I don’t cling to it the same way. If I had to quit being a programmer now, I’d be ok. But, when I hated my job and work environment, I needed it because it was the only thing that was stopping me from being miserable all the time.

The people with the strongest egos tend to be the ones in the most pain; they cling so tightly to their stories because they need the good feelings those stories generate to chase away the bad feelings they’re having all the time. Or, sometimes, they will even cling to stories that make them feel bad because it prevents them from feeling something even worse. For example, for me during my period when I wasn’t working, I leaned into the identity of “sexual survivor” because it was a less painful story than “professional failure.” The fact that it may have had some truth to it is sort of irrelevant in this context; the relevant part, is I kept bringing it up in my mind to distract myself from feelings of failure.

Often, you can tell if this is a problem for you, because you’ll have other avoidance techniques — often drinking, obsessive video game playing, dissociation, eating addictions, pot or other drugs, etc. If you’re having a lot of trouble being present in your life, there’s a very good chance you have some strong stories that you’re clinging to. I was kind of hoping to write about what to do about it, but I think this is getting long and I want to go get lunch. Anyway, if this was interesting for you and you’d like to think about it more, I’d suggest trying to notice what you feel in the present, what stories you’re telling yourself and how they make you feel, and differentiating who you think you are from you you are at any instance in time. At some point, I’ll write a follow up of grappling when you start being able to notice the role your own ego has in your life.