Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Imaginary Ego

—this article contributed by Mercurious—

It's a common assumption that each individual among us has an ego. That is to say, we have a readily identifiable "I", or "Self” that serves as the author of our experience of the world. We're so sure of it that we capitalize the personal pronoun "I" when we depict it in language, and almost no one (except maybe devout Buddhists) would ever question the existence of the "Self." Writers like Thich Nhat Hann, the very popular Vietnamese spiritualist, will suggest that the utter interconnectedness of all things makes an autonomous, independent ego/self an illusion. And some of the mystical, transcendental writers and artists, from old-timers like Meister Eckhart through new age writers like Echhart Toll will suggest the existence of a kind universal soul that is a more primary reality than the illusion of individual ego.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: virtually all of us take our "self" as a given. We believe that there is a stable and identifiable ego or self lurking within —an entity that is the ground zero, the prime mover of our experience in the world.

But are we really sure of this?  There are moments when an objective view seems to call this assumption into question. For one thing, whatever you might want to define as "self" clearly changes from moment to moment, from circumstance to circumstance. The person I am when at work supervising colleagues in our publishing business is a considerably different person than I am as a father to my adult kids, which is in turn different than the husband I am to my wife, which is much, much different than the smart-ass crony I am when hanging out in the company of my geezer pals. Now, I might be more mercurial than most in this regard, but I daresay this social  variability is true of most everyone. Don’t we  all “wear a face we keep in a jar by the door?” sometimes? Are we really different than Bruce Springsteen when he admits “two faces have I”?

 If there is a definable "self", why is does it vary so much from moment to moment?  If "self" was a piece of hardware, a car, for instance, it's as though it is a Suburu station wagon one moment, a Ford f150 pickup the next, and a Chevy Corvette in the next instant.

And it's not only changing social circumstances that change the self. I'd argue that even in the absence of other people requiring us to don different social stances, each of us really changes rather fluidly from moment to moment. One morning my commute to work might find me to be a very sanguine, philosophical self utterly at peace with the world; another morning might find me grumpy and a little hostile to the world if I've had a bad night (or maybe a little more Scotch than is healthy). Here, too, you are hard pressed to define anything that is a concrete, identifiable Self that remains the same from moment to moment.

And it goes even further. I'd further offer the suggestion that each of us, even in any given moment, is really a multiple personality with different moods and "selves" that interact with one another. This is not psychopathology in any way, just the human experience. We all have moments of inner debate, where we consider the rewards and costs of behavioral choices before adopting a course of action. There are a whole range of human experiences that seem to be based on one aspect of the personality passing judgment on another "self."  Embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride—all these very common human experiences are really nothing more than one "self" observing and passing judgment on another.

So where is the single identifiable "self" that we all want to believe in? If you make a concerted effort to find that self, can you even do it?

So it seems to me that there is another possibility, which is to surrender the defense of the illusion itself. We spend a good deal of energy and angst trying to establish and defend the boundaries of ego and self against other people and the world at large. (As my friend, the Professor puts it, we "take ourselves too seriously").  An awful lot of misery in the world is caused by this effort, both on an individual psychological level as we struggle to be that lonely ego in the world, and, by extension, on a global scale as nations insist on the sanctity of their geographical and ethnic boundaries. Have you ever considered how absurd it is, really, for an individual to be born on the earth, and then to have constraints placed on where he may wander on the surface of the planet? Like "self", national and ethnic identities are pretty false constructs. There  is nothing so imaginary as a line on a map, and nothing so ironic as ethnic groups at war with one another even though genetically there is no difference between them whatsoever. 

What happens, then, if we imagine for a while that it is not a definable "self" that is the author of our experience, but rather that the self is a fluid, ever-changing thing that is actually authored and defined by shifting phenomena? I'm suggesting something exactly opposite to common wisdom: that it is actually experience that defines self, not self that creates experience. Who we are at any given moment is largely governed by the inner and outer phenomena we experience in the moment, not by any kind of prima facie truth.

At the very least, it's an interesting spiritual callisthenic, one that can be rather refreshing and restorative.  You can get the sensation of an enormous burden and weight of artificial responsibility lifted, if for example, you take a few minutes to consider the simple act of breathing. What if there is no "you" that is choosing to breath as an isolated, lonely individual in the world; but rather that the cosmic world is "breathing you" as one element in a larger connected whole. And contrary to the fears that taking such an approach is to surrender free will, I wonder if we'd be considerably more free if relieved of the tyranny of ego defense. This subjugation of ego is, of course, the goal of much spiritual pursuit, and perhaps is the impetus behind the use of mind-altering drugs—ala Aldous Huxley.

And the more discerning among you will now see the inherent dangers in this line of argument. (One of my Geezer friends reviewing this piece prompted that recognition.) While there is certainly some merit for taking a break from ego, it’s also possible for ego/self dissolution to be a problematic event. Drug abuse is one such danger. And one definition of psychosis, in fact, is that it is a personality that has lost all boundaries between self and other. Individual personality that is totally subsumed in collective can lead to nasty things like a Nazi political movement.

So perhaps it is not that ego/self needs to be entirely dissolved, but that we need to take a vacation from it occasionally, or better yet, acknowledge that while Self exists, it is a flexible, fluid entity. Examined closely, the “Self” is a concept that more closely resembles the vaporous nature of a cloud than a fortress to be defended at all costs.  There is considerably freedom in loosing our hold on such an unreal construct.

It's worth considering, anyway.


  1. —The Professor responds—

    I have to say, Mercurious, my disposition tends to go in the opposite direction (within reason, of course.) We do “construct” ourselves, but that artificial construction is what seperates us from other (dare I say “lesser”?) animals. Fascinating evocation of the world breathing you. This does seem to have some parallels with Buddhist thought, and if a person cold “switch of” their ego from time to time, we’d all be more healthy (I think that’s what meditation is trying to get at, maybe? Just a thought: is that non-thinking, instinctive “flowing” existence what some are after with drugs, etc? If they achieve such ego submergence through these means, what are the ramifications?

    An interesting study some years back asked 100 subjects to describe themselves and 99 others with adjectives/phrases. To describe themselves, 82 percent used the phrase “depends on the situation.” They only used that phrase to describe 17 percent of the others—when dealing with others they chose a static adjective 83 percent of the time (I’m approximating these percentages from memory, but it is an interesting study that stuck me.)

    One of the reasons we engage with social groups/societies is to buttress our sense of identity (in this sense collective) Might there be some mileage in comparing the excesses of self with excesses of group identification (religious. patriotic) From the other end, some of the reasons why we so often seek out social affirmation and collective identity may give some clues as to why we find it so challenging to live without an overtly presented (and protected) ego. Personally, I think a lot of our ego is projected—much like Ozymandias’ buildings—as a defense against the ultimate nothingness of things (I think there are many essential existentialist who simply ignore the fact because there’s little point in paying attention to it…similarly, we all may know we are specks of dust, but by playing an interesting role every day, we imbue our little moment with synthetic significance.

    1. Professor, that's an interesting interpretation, to suggest that excessive group identifications is an echo of the ego-artifice I was speaking about here. And I fully agree that all of this is a defense against the nothingness of things that we quietly dread.

      I think you are right here. In fact, I wonder sometimes if a lot of the rather painful and self-defeating habits humans sometimes exhibit is exactly that—an attempt to convince ourselves that we exist, since we secretly do understand how fickle and untrustworthy this thing called self is.

      Another very interesting thread here is your offhanded mention that the capacity for artificial creation is what elevates us from animals. I hadn't thought of that, but it is worth considering.

  2. "by playing an interesting role every day, we imbue our little moment with synthetic significance."


  3. I've worked hard on this who for 63 years, and hold suspect anything that tries to topple it. One of the first signs of a toxic, manipulative sect thrashing around in its cultic phase is an insistence upon certain provisos: abolition of the ego; salvation of the whatever's left; extension of credit. Of course the whole sensate universe is illusion; it's what we deduce from it that shapes us, makes us useful to it or not. Thought-provoking post. You're on my blogroll.

  4. Interesting observation, Geo. Yes, there are certainly dangers here, as you point out. Abolition of ego is a stage in any brainwashing endeavor, be it military boot camp, Catholic monastery, or a Scientology seminar. But there are dangers to a very rigidly defended ego, too. Perhaps it depends on where the impetus comes from: if someone else is trying to get you to abandon your sense of self, ulterior motives seem likely. But personal exploration, maybe not so dangerous.

  5. A fascinating post-a great launch to reflective thought.
    -We are born of course with DNA predispositions, but we are molded, shaped and filled by external influences until we achieve a full on engagement, someplace in our mind, that permits us to understand that. I think Maslow called it self actualization, but it is a point that we know, or admit to our self, that we are the product of much that is beyond our control, however we can begin to exercise edit skills. We can shed, or try to, certain ways, while seeking growth or addition of other ways of living, thinking and being.
    -Our "self" then is a kind of semi permeable membrane of bio mass, time, experience and aspiration.
    -Self Control, as impossible as it may well be, is at least an objective of those who ponder.
    -Perhaps George Harrison had it right when he wrote "once you have seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there...life goes on within and without you..."

    1. Plenty of food for thought, Tom. Another theme I've been pondering is the role of self-restraint as a human faculty. In many ways, it seems to be the essence of what makes us human rather than a "lower" species—this ability to choose to countermand the urges of instinct. One might argue that we have less of this than we think; still, the ability to restrain impulse seems pretty integral to any concept of free will.

      Another theme that draws me is William James' observation that the only true act of free will is that of sensory attention—the ability to focus in among all the huge volume of sensory and neurological input and choose a limited range on which to focus our attention.

      For other articles, obvously.