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The Ego According to Yoga Philosophy

26 September 2013

Sooner or later everyone asks the question “what is the ego?”, and the general definition is usually something like this: “the ‘I’ or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.”

But yoga goes a little further and sees it as reflected consciousness; a part of the soul’s pure consciousness that reflects in the mind and functions as the subjective knower, establishing the dichotomy of the observer and the observed, the experience and the experiencer. Therefore the ego is a fictitious character established by the mind, and the mind is simply a subtle form of energy (it has no consciousness of its own). The mind however, acts “as if” it’s a conscious entity, because of soul’s consciousness reflecting on it, or working within it.

Only a very small part of the sun’s light, when reflected from the moon’s surface, makes the moon appear as if it generates a light of its own. We may say “by the light of the moon”, but that light in reality is actually the sun’s light reflecting from the moon’s surface. Similarly, only a small part of soul’s pure consciousness, when working in the mind, identifies itself with the mind and its limitations, and thus feels itself limited. So then, the ego is not only reflected consciousness but also limited consciousness. Limited consciousness naturally equates to limited intelligence, limited understanding and limited ability of perception. Our eyes are not all-seeing and have a limited vision. From the eye’s limited perspective the earth seems flat; but the truth is, the earth is round. Since we see only a small portion of the earth’s circular surface (the horizon) it appears to us as flat, but when seen from a jetliner at 36,000 feet our perspective is expanded and we begin to appreciate the “roundness” of the earth’s horizon. This correlates to the ego’s limited ability to perceive things in the bigger perspective, so instead of seeing the whole (or undivided “oneness”) it sees everything in parts and falsely identifies each part as being separate and independent of the other parts.

The ego is the self or ‘I’ in our mind around which all our thoughts, feelings and experiences seem to revolve. The ego-self is the author, writing the script for all our thinking, feeling and desires. It is the subjective enjoyer and the “experiencer” of all our activities and the results of those activities. Whenever we say “I think, I feel, I see, I love, I enjoy, I hate, I fear, etc.” we are referring to our ego-self. This ‘I’ with which we are so familiar is our limited duplicate ‘I’ not our true ‘I’. It is this false (reflected or duplicated) ‘I’ that experiences all our pleasures and pain, all our joys and suffering. Our real ‘I’ – the Self (with a capital “S”) is the Soul in us that lies behind the ego. This limited ego-consciousness needs to be withdrawn from the mind and dissolved in the Self (like a baby salt doll thrown into the sea) or else have its effects annihilated by non-identification and non-attachment with the physical body and the thinking mind.

Yoga and meditation practice both teach us to slowly and steadily drop this identification and all its attachments. As the ego-self is gradually and progressively trained through yoga and meditation to drop its attachments, it becomes free and spontaneously withdraws inwards. Step-by-step, in deep prolonged meditation the ego-consciousness first withdraws from the body and then it withdraws from the mind. As it begins disconnecting itself from the activities of the mind and withdraws inwards it becomes aware of its original source and its oneness with that source. This process continues until the ego has expanded itself to the point of complete annihilation in the Soul (again, like the salt baby in the sea). Once the duplicate or reflected ‘I’ has merged with the real ‘I’ this is called Self-realization, samadhi or illumination, and this merging (union) is the object and true goal of all yoga and meditation practice.

“The I-ness or egoism (asmita), which arises from the ignorance, occurs due to the mistake of taking the intellect (buddhi, which knows, decides, judges, and discriminates) to itself be pure consciousness (purusha).”Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:6

And, we’ll end this article with a quote from Krishnananda “The ego is trying to practice yoga. Oh, what a pity! The ego cannot practice yoga, because the ego is to be destroyed in yoga. So how can it practice yoga? Here we have a strange difficulty, and it has to be overcome with a strange technique; that is yoga itself. Yoga is achieved by yoga itself; there is no other means.”

Of related interest, click on: The Wisdom of Patanjali

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