Who am I? Am I my ego? Deprived of ego, am I still me? Here I would like to do a simple reflection on this vast topic. To clarify, I am using the word "ego" in its conventional sense. Here "ego" simply means "a sense of self, an image of self".
When you mentally withdraw yourself from the world and start to observe people around you, you will find that most people are the slave of their ego, and not much else. Their motto of life is, "I have ego, therefore I am". And at first glance, this seems to make sense because "I am who I am because I have a sense of self". But, let's take a closer look.
We work tirelessly to please our ego. We buy stuff because those stuff in return buy us respect (or jealousy) from others. We say things because our speech in return says something about us. (How often do you notice people saying things just for the sake of having their voices heard?) When we don't recognize our true nature, we tend to fill in the vacuum of ego by things outside of us. We can't feel our own existence unless we define ourselves by accessories, pinning ourselves down in this fluctuating world by things like cars, jewelries, or even boy/girl friends.
We are attached to our belongings. However, even our most precious belongings --- a healthy body --- will sooner or later decay. Then why be attached to objects at the expense of our health? People donate money to have their names carved on walls. We
try our best to leave marks (good or bad) on the world so that we know
we have lived. We forget to enjoy living because we worry so much about
being forgotten after we die.
We are attached to our thoughts. In capitalism, our thoughts are called "intellectual property". We try so hard to coin new terms so that our names would be associated
with the term. We get furious when other people use "my term" without paying tribute to me in the footnote.
However, what else is more elusive than thoughts? Thoughts come and go. They come from nowhere, and go to nowhere. If I change my mind or forget a thought, do I lose my property?
When other people criticize our ideas, we feel that they are criticizing us because we identify too strongly with our thoughts. I would gladly join anyone in criticizing "my thoughts" because that is the best way to improve, and thoughts are merely the echo of my past. By the time "my thoughts" become known by others, I have already moved on, and "my thoughts" are no longer my thoughts.
We always look outward for things that differentiates us from the rest of the world. And over the years, we build a portfolio of things or characteristics that make up the image of self, just like bird building a nest. The only difference is that our nest is an illusion of self, an imagined image of who we are.
Our self perception is so dependent upon other people's perception of us. We see ourselves through other people's eyes and facial expressions. We are the mirror that reflects other people's mirror. We feel good or bad about ourselves through this third-hand information. We put our own happiness and self worth at the mercy of other people, as if other people are wiser judges than we are. Are we that suspicious of ourselves? What's more, we would never know what other people really think of us. We are only guessing, and a life-long series of guesses constitutes the ego.
But who am I without my ego? Is there anything left that makes me "me"? I don't know yet, but I can identify one candidate. Let's call him "the intellect". And I will end with a little story of Self, Intellect and Ego.
The "Master Self" had two apprentices: Intellect and Ego. Intellect was good at thinking and worked hard, while Ego was only good at flattering Master Self and did nothing else. Over the years, Intellect produced wonderful thinking, and brought fame and wealth to Master Self. Master Self didn't like Intellect because Intellect made him tired. Intellect also didn't like wealth and fame because they distracted him from his work. But Ego was a sweet heart, always making Master Self feel good. So, Master Self gave all the fame and wealth to Ego. Ego thrived on the fruit of Intellect's labor, and kept expanding his influence, while Intellect was left in the cold and lonely corner, without any recognition or further mentorship. This unfair distribution kept happening. One day, Intellect left Master Self quietly. Master Self had only Ego as his apprentice. Seeing no more wealth and fame and having no ability of his own, Ego also left, and Master Self was broke.