Three little letters, one word and a whole world of chaos – as part of my week of focusing on consciousness, I decided to spend the morning with Me, Myself and I, pondering our ego.
Google says it’s “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance” – a definition that sends the linguist within me into a state of frenzied excitement with the idea of tearing it apart.
Etymology of Ego
Aside from playing scrabble, boggle and hangman, one of my favourite games involving the alphabet is taking a sentence or a string of letters and chopping them into pieces to find a deeper meaning.
A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance
A person’s ~ This means it’s not referring to animals, or birds, or reptiles, or plants, or any form of living organism; it’s referring to a human being.
Sense ~ This implies perception by sensory faculty, i.e. understanding something through feeling.
Esteem comes from the Latin estimer – to estimate, and importance comes from importare, meaning to bring in. Both of these are evaluative words, relating to worth and significance.
Self ~ this is where things get a little bit messy.
As noted by Oxford, Collins and Merriam-Webster, the word self is defined “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others”, which morphologically speaking, binds us to the concept of being physically, emotionally and mentally distanced from each other.
And although this is only really a surface-level scrutiny of it all, it’s pretty clear that this warped and restricted definition of self is exactly what creates the gap between I and you. And that gap between I and you, is what causes war, both within and without.
I think therefore I am
In my philosophy course at the Fachhochschule in Köln, I was asked to write up on Renet Descartes Discourse de la Méthode, which is where the famous je pense donc je suis or I think therefore I am comes from.
Although it was tough having to decipher ye olde Francais and translate it into English, while at the same time trying to adjust my tongue to daily life in Germany, that task had a big impact on how I went on to live my life.
It was Descartes’ approach that really struck a chord. He decided to erase anything he’d been taught in the past and start from scratch, to assess the world with a fresh perspective and to give himself a blank canvas on which he could paint his thoughts.
It made me want to do the same.
It made me never want to accept anything as truth unless I had reasoned with it myself and it sent me off on a slow but steady quest to understand the ego.
Who in the world am I? Ahh that’s the greatest puzzle.
I think therefore I was
Me, Myself and I are amongst the first words we ever learn and so the semantic sense of self I described earlier is ingrained in us from as soon as we learn our mother tongue.
I becomes the person we see in the mirror and the voice we hear in our head. It isolates us from others and it teaches us possession – possession of people, things and thoughts.
The ego shapes our entire human existence and creates our self-identity.
We think of ourselves by our physical appearance and we’re characterised by our biological gender, which in the vast majority of societies around the world, gives us a specific role to play.
Then, when we look in the mirror, we choose from a broad range of adjectives like tall, short, fat, thin, ugly, pretty, to describe the form we see staring back at us.
Have you ever noticed how at a dinner party, in the office or whenever you meet somebody new, when you’re asked to introduce yourself, you start off with what you do for a living?
And our personalities are often illustrated by our actions. We might be a nice person (we do nice things), quick witted (we’re respond to things quickly and with wit) or a scatterbrain (we lack concentration).
Before my conscious awakening, all of this seemed pretty normal, obvious stuff and there wasn’t really a lot to dispute. I couldn’t see past the person I saw in the mirror and voice I heard in my head.
I am therefore I think
We think our ego helps us be in control, but actually our ego has control of us.
Eckhart Tolle says that the ego is what creates the dysfunction of our human minds, both individually and collectively – and if you pay attention to it properly, it’s difficult to make a case against him.
On an individual level, we’re destroying ourselves with the torment of our inner critic, our unfulfilled desires and our unhealthy attachments. And collectively, all you need to do is turn on the news to witness the madness en masse.
Over the few years I spent dipping my toes in Buddhism and putting a heavy focus on introspection and self-development, one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from it all is the omnipresence of suffering and how it’s caused by the human mind.
I’ve realised through direct experience that it’s our attachments to people, things and thoughts that cause us so much pain and suffering in the first place.
And so I’ve made a few decisions on the matter of I.
Knowing full well I’d be much more of a Sister Mary Clarence than a Mother Teresa, I don’t plan on trying my hand at nun-hood. And with a relatively extrovert personality, I’m not about to run off to a self-sustaining hut in the hills of Koh Samui, ostracise myself from society and renounce all of my possessions – even if I do think that could be the ultimate solution finding inner peace.
But what I am going to do is face the situations we’re tested with all day every day with a conscious effort to drop the ego.
The word ‘I’ embodies the greatest error and the deepest truth, depending on how it is used