132 – What’s the Ego? And how do we reduce it?

What’s the ego?

Mindfulness Online Training

What’s the ego?

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What’s the ego? How does it manifest and how can we reduce it? Discover answers to the puzzle within this concise article and lecture. Essential for anybody with a spiritual practice wishing to experience more peace and gain freedom from suffering.


Spiritual practice is about cultivating a peaceful mind, living harmoniously and gaining freedom from suffering. What causes suffering? Our attachments. The Buddha taught us this. We get attached to all sorts of things and it’s this fluid and changeable bundle of attachments that form our ego.

I discovered the concept of the ego through reading Eckhart Tolle’s teachings. I describe it as a concept because there’s nothing real about it. ‘Ego’ is a useful label to help us understand a human phenomenon and evolve spiritually.

What is the ego?

As I understand it, in his book A New Earth: Create a Better Life, Eckhart describes the ego as thought and emotional patterns that are persistently repeated due to our strong identifications with them. Although there are a multitude of other spiritual definitions; and ego has quite a different meaning in psychological theory; I’ve found Eckhart’s definition to be the most truthful and useful in my own spiritual practice. So let’s explore it further…

The ego consists of positive or negative mind activity we identify with. It can be about having something or having nothing. For example, we may identify with being a great tennis player, a poor public speaker or both. We may identify with being a mother, a daughter, a husband or a wife. We may identify with being stylish or dowdy. We may identify with being popular or unpopular. We may identify with being a peaceful or angry person. We may identify with having a luxurious car or having no car. We may identify with being a vegan or a meat eater.

What does the ego consist of?

If we bring awareness to the regular themes that circle around our thoughts again and again we soon begin to shed light on our identifications. Identifications include, but are not limited to the following: Possessions, knowledge, roles, likes, dislikes, creations, opinions, resentments, appearances, beliefs, positive or negative comparisons, addictions, attachments from the past or fantasies about the future. These identifications give us a sense of who we perceive ourselves to be, which is the delusion. The truth is that who we truly are is none of these things. We are actually the consciousness that observes them.

How does the ego impact us?

To the ego, all identifications are viewed as beneficial. It believes they’re helping by adding something to its false sense of self. The truth is quite the contrary, because identifications reduce us rather than add to us. When we identify with something, we’re constrained and vulnerable. Identifications reduce our confidence, peace of mind, freedom, options and ability to respond creatively.

The spiritual vision is to be capable of experiencing life without identifications. Easier said than done! We all have the capacity to do this, but the ego blocks it. When our thoughts and actions are governed by the ego we’re unskilful – we suffer and cause ourselves and other people harm. Mindfulness allows us to transcend the ego, to think and act skilfully, and be at peace with what’s presented to us.

The ego tries to protect things we’re identified with by being controlling. It’s fearful of losing them and therefore losing itself. The ego can also use human nature to strengthen itself. If you have children, you may be identified with your role as mother or father, which is natural. Identification with being a parent may motivate you to protect and guide your children, which is a good thing, but without discernment even this role may take unskilful identifications in the form of the over-protective parent, controlling parent or boasting parent. The same is true of personal relationships and anything else that we attach to and identify with. A wise person knows the difference between natural and neurotic identifications.

When we identify with opinions, the ego likes to create arguments and defend its position. Having opinions is OK and necessary, but identifying with them always causes problems. Another common type of identification is with possessions, which leads to obsessiveness and jealousy. If the ego feels unsuccessful at controlling things to reinforce or add to its identifications, it may resort to anger.

Real-life examples of the ego

Sometimes we only know when we identify with something if it’s removed, threatened or blocked in some way, which causes suffering. Where there’s suffering, there’s the ego. I’ve experienced this myself when travelling on holidays with wonderful people. I’ve become identified with what I’d enjoyed without even knowing! This form of identification was multi-faceted and contained a number of components, including attachment to the pleasurable feelings of beautiful surroundings, the warm temperature and attachments to the companionship I shared with the people I’d been spending time with. My ego believed all these things were a part of ‘me’. A little while before it was time to depart, usually a day or so before, I experienced suffering in the form of sadness as the ego wanted to continue to grasp onto something that needed to be released. The ego’s operation and identifications are often subtle.

I recall another time when I was identified with a pen. It was a good quality disposable pen – nothing too extravagant. The kind of pen you can buy in packs of three from a stationery store. One weekend, my son and I were spending time together. He picked up the pen and started to bend back the clip that allowed me to secure it into my pocket. I became aware of my feelings of frustration and anger. After a minute or so I told him to leave the pen alone, took it from him and inspected the damage. I was disappointed and felt like a victim. I then confessed to my son that I was identified with the pen. He could sense my pain and apologized. This is clearly a very subtle and insignificant example in the grand scheme of things, but it does illustrate how we unconsciously create identifications. The positive we can take with any example of identification is that every time we suffer, we have the opportunity to learn and progress. Suffering is a fine teacher allowing us to learn about our egos.

How does the ego manifest?

The ego likes to strengthen itself through thought. It’s interesting to watch how the ego creates persistent identification-based thoughts about this or that relating to worries about the future or events from the past. Here are some of the various guises in which the ego manifests:

  • Absence of mindfulness and being lost in thought
  • Feeling superior or inferior to others
  • Feeling fear, anxiety, expectation, regret, guilt or anger
  • Shyness and fear of attention from others
  • Craving
  • Unnecessary thoughts – mental stories and fantasies
  • Suffering because something we identify with is lost or threatened
  • Having perceived ‘problems’ with others
  • Unskilful thought, speech or action

The ego operates within the realm of time and is always concerned with past and future. This is why being in the present moment through mindfulness is the ultimate antidote. The two most obvious indicators of an active ego are suffering and being lost in thought.

Reducing the ego

We can reduce our ego through mindful awareness and labelling. When the ego surfaces and causes problems, we can say to ourselves, “that’s the ego”. It helps to label and gain some perspective on it. We gain perspective because it’s not who we are. For example, if we’re feeling angry about a past situation when somebody did something that we believed caused us pain, the ego may bring related thoughts to our attention in the form of images, movies and sounds associated with that person or situation. If this happens, we simply acknowledge them and mentally say, “the ego is creating these thoughts” or “the ego is creating these feelings”. When we acknowledge the ego, we are instantly mindful and gain freedom from suffering.

We can be curious about what, where, when, how and with whom our ego is manifesting. Understanding our egoic triggers and themes helps with this. We don’t need to judge the ego, as this will strengthen it further. We simply observe what it’s doing as a friendly and curious witness. This is enough to create awareness and perspective. And by meeting the ego in that way, we often gain the wisdom to know what we need to change, acquire, or let go of.

The ego’s like an ice cube. The warmth of our hands, which represents mindfulness, melts the ice cube. It can be held with a loving acceptance and understanding that it’s based upon our past conditioning, which we cannot change. Hating, resisting or discarding the ego reinforces and feeds it. In spiritual practice, we need to balance accepting the ego with taking responsibility for its reduction and ultimately its death.

In summary, it’s helpful to understand the ego if we want to reduce and ultimately remove it. We become the accepting, curious, silent witness for the ego. Understanding who we truly are helps us understand who we are not. Understanding who we are not helps us understand who we are. Who we are not is the ego. Who we are is its kind observer.

Based on an extract from Darren’s book “Being Present – Cultivate a Peaceful Mind through Spiritual Practice” published by Findhorn Press.

Darren Cockburn is a spiritual teacher, author and coach. He’s also the founder of the Mindfulness Online Training podcast and Mindfulness Bournemouth. Connect through his site darrencockburn.com or social media.

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