Letting go of the ego

What does it even mean to ‘let go of the ego’? And how to do it? It’s a simple enough instruction but seemingly very, very difficult to execute.

Here’s the thing. The ego is the bit in your mind that thinks it has control. That thinks it has free will and can do stuff. I’ve written tons already about free will and how the notion doesn’t make sense (here, here and here) but even so, it seems very difficult to dispel the idea that we are agents. I think that part of the problem is one of language.

What do we mean by ‘I’ and ‘me’? In one sense we mean our bodies. In another sense we mean our minds. And finally, we mean our consciousness in which the sense impressions of the body and the thoughts and emotions of the mind appear, but to lump these three together creates a problem. Let’s see if I can make this clear…

Can we agree that we are only responsible for the thoughts and actions that we are conscious of and that we have control over?

It makes little sense to take responsibility for the sounds that we hear, because we couldn’t not hear them if we tried. Or for the function of our liver or kidneys, because there doesn’t seem to be a method for controlling them consciously, even though they are part of our bodies.

So, to exercise our free will at the very least we have to act consciously and we need to be able to control the relevant actions. That is to say that anything that we do subconsciously doesn’t count. Still on board?

Clearly, our bodies and our minds have some connection to consciousness. Sense impressions from our bodies and thoughts and emotions from our minds appear in consciousness. But it’s a one-way street!

Try not to think a thought. Just like with not hearing sounds, it is absolutely impossible. Meditation shows this so simply. Sit on a cushion and use your free will to focus on the breath. Try not to have thoughts and see what happens. Thoughts will appear anyway, just like sounds. What does that tell you about free will?

How about control over which thoughts appear in consciousness? Try to follow a thought back to its origin. Where does it come from? And how can you think anything else than what you thought? Where is the conscious process of creating the thought? Just like with your liver and your kidneys, that process is inscrutable. You aren’t conscious of the process of creating thoughts.

At this stage your ego infused mind will most likely start creating thoughts about thinking. Something like: ‘I can think about birds if I want. Here’s a thought about birds: tjilp!’. But you don’t know where that thought came from either.

What our mind does is just claim ownership and responsibility of the thoughts that appear and the actions that our body takes. And that is what Buddhists call ego. The tendency of our minds to claim responsibility when it doesn’t have any.

And we think we like it (yes, I’m talking to you).

But thinking we like something doesn’t make it so and far from being some unmitigated good, so much of our suffering is directly related to this sense of responsibility. All the negative thoughts we have about ourselves and others only make sense if we believe that we or they could have done differently. All judgements of ourselves and of others is predicated on free will, ours and theirs.

But, but, but, how can I change what I think? Doesn’t writing this post imply that you believe I am free to do something, i.e. change my mind about free will?

Nope. To bring this full circle: it is a problem of language. I am no more free to type or not type these words than you are to change your mind. If with ‘I’ I mean my body and mind, it seems that typing this post is what I did just now but ‘my’ consciousness had nothing to do with it. All of this just appeared in it.

Consciousness is only aware. The stuff in consciousness does things and thinks things. But consciousness has no influence over what, or how, or when. It is just the space for the world to play itself out in.

Ego is the responsibility that our mind tells itself that it has. Let it go. It sucks. Besides, nothing will change. Your mind will do what it always does and your body will do what it always does. The only difference is all the judgements about yourself and about others will start to make less and less sense. Self love and compassion follow automatically.

It’s nice. I promise.

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