Dear Donagh,

...I’ve been trying to work out what the ego is.  You often write about it, and I've looked up all your past references to it.  I ought to hate it by now I suppose, but I still have questions about it.  “My ego is not the identity God creates in me, but the one I create for myself (in collusion with other people),” you wrote.  And “The real self is part of the whole world, but the ego is an attempt to create a separate self.”  What is this separate self and where is it in me?  I'm confused can you help me?  Evelyn

Dear Evelyn,

I hope I never said that you should hate your ego.  There’s not much to be gained by hating anything; that only ties us up with it in complicated ways.  We have to understand our ego; or rather, we have to try and see it at work.  We try to see it at work in order to be aware that we don't need to be controlled blindly by it at all times. 

Many things that are simple in themselves become complicated the moment we begin to speak about them.  Language is odd at times.  We say things like, “It is raining.”  If someone were to ask, “What is raining?” we would think that that was an odd question, but the odd thing is the mention of an ‘it’ in the first place!  I once remarked to an Italian that their language was free of that particular bit of nonsense (in Italian you just say ‘piove’, with no ‘it’).  But he replied, “What we are really saying is ‘esso piove’.”  But that is something that Italians never say in fact!  He had introduced an ‘it’ (esso) artificially – such is the addiction to turning everything into a ‘thing’, even in a language that doesn't encourage you to do so.  Is rain a thing?  If you say yes, you are thinking of rainwater, not of rain.  Rain is rain only while it is falling.  It is a process, not a thing. 

This is all very trivial when it is only about the weather, and such... um! ...things.  But when people start talking, for instance, about their marriage as if it were somehow ‘out there’ – or about their life – the way is open for a lot of confused thinking.  If you were to say that there is no such thing as marriage, people would accuse you of being against marriage; they would call you a libertine.   But what is your marriage apart from the pair of you?  Sometimes people ask what prayer is, or meditation.  When asked such questions I tend to reply that there is no such thing as prayer, no such thing as meditation.  There is just what you do and what God does.  Likewise there is no such ‘thing’ as your ego; the word stands for a way of thinking about yourself and everything in you and around you.      

If you were asked, “Who are you?” you would reply with our name.  If you were asked, “What are you?” you would answer, “I'm a nurse, or a waiter, or a train-driver....”   We take our job as our identity.  All this is perfectly practical and normal – so long as nobody tries to imprison you in your name or your job.  You would cringe, I think, if someone said, “Ah, so you’re one of those Murphys!” or “So, you’re just a waiter!”  There’s nothing wrong with being a Murphy, or with being a waiter, or even a waiter called Murphy.  You don't have to hate yourself for it.  But you know that while you are that, you are also more than that.  Likewise there is nothing wrong with having (or rather, being) an ego; but you know that you are more than that. 

Your ego is just a more extended sort of ‘name’ and ‘job’.  Like these, it is a superficial identity that links you into society.  There is no need to think of it as some sort of mysterious inner kernel of your being.  It is not your real self; it’s all ‘out there’.  It is your whole personality (but not in a philosophical or theological sense).  It’s what you do and how you ‘fit in’ in every situation.  The trouble is that we internalise it and make it our only identity.  When it is really internalised, it is also how you feel.  Sartre described a soldier in civilian dress walking down the street, or rather marching – because he had become a soldier to his very core; he had internalised his outer identity.  Sartre called this “bad faith” (not in a religious sense, obviously). 

At this point you can quote me against myself.  I wrote, and you quoted: “The real self is part of the whole world, but the ego is an attempt to create a separate self.”  But what I said above suggests that it’s a superficial public identity.  This is where it becomes more subtle.  Because the ego is a superficial identity it never truly satisfies us.  Our job and our relationships with others are sometimes difficult and we feel a need to take a break from them.  Where then do we go for satisfaction?  We try to return to ourselves.  A man told me recently that he spent “quality time” with himself every few days.  But what do we return to when we return to ourselves?  My answer is that it is very often to the internalised ego, like the soldier’s.  Our personality has followed us home.  This isn't “quality time”; it’s just more of the same – only private, isolated – it is the ‘separate self’.  So we are alone and yet not alone.  There is no satisfaction; just the built-in frustration of the ego.  Then the question arises: do we have an identity that lies deeper than this frustration?

This is the question of the true self, the quest of all real religious seekers.  The mystics are the people who have found their way to it and can therefore guide us towards it – though they can never make us see it.  That seeing (like all seeing) is something that only we can do for ourselves.  They tell us that when we glimpse our true nature we see that we are deeply one with God, and with other people, and with everything around us.  We will know ourselves so close to other people that they will appear to us as ourselves in another form.  Each moment will be a fulfilment in itself, rather than a mad rush to the next moment and the next.  In other words we will know what it is to be alive. 

I hope these words will clarify it for you, Evelyn.

God bless,

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