Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ego As An Emergent Phenomena

One of the common assertions being made these days among the non-dual set about the ego is that it doesn't exist, and that we can demonstrate this by examining ourselves directly, and not finding it. Because we can't find an actual "thing" we can say is the ego, it must not exist, or so the reasoning goes.

A lot of people seem to find this very convincing, even definitive, and employ it as a conversation stopper whenever someone brings up any reference to the ego. Mention the ego, and like clockwork someone out there will stop you in your tracks, and say, "but there is no ego, and therefore it can't do anything, and therefore we are not responsible for whatever it is you might attribute to the ego". The problem with this argument is that it assumes two highly debatable points:

first, that someone has actually examined themselves thoroughly enough, top to bottom to actually say for sure that the ego is not there.

second, that the ego has to have some sort of definable, identifiable center or substance to exist.

I have to point out that just because you can't readily find the ego, doesn't mean it isn't there. Most "things" in this world that are subtle enough, or complex enough, to have meaningful effects can't be easily reduced to some substance or "thing". But that doesn't stop us from observing their effects, or otherwise seeing the pattern they create. By observing those effects, we can infer their reality, and describe their characteristics and qualities with some degree of certainty.

Take something as simple as an electron. We can't actually see electrons, and we don't really know what they are when it comes down to it, but we can infer their existence from the effects we see when they move and interact with our environment.

In fact, everything we see or feel in this world is composed of atoms and molecules that we actually can't see directly. Even so, we can infer their existence from their effects, which are often quite dramatic. Ingest the wrong molecules, and we will die. Ingest the right ones, and we will thrive. What we call food doesn't actually exist as "meat" or "vegetables" or "fruit", it exists as bundles of chemicals that our bodies can make use of by breaking them down at the molecular level and recombining them into our own bodies. We can't see that process either, but we can detect the effects, both in the laboratory and in our own bodily health.

The same goes for all chemicals. There is no actual, irreducible "thing" called "water" or "sugar", and the search for some pure substantial thing of that nature will come up empty. Instead, all we find is an arrangement of atoms, which are not "water atoms" or "sugar atoms", they are just basic building blocks that, when put together a certain way, can produce any kind of molecule we like.

And it doesn't end there either. These atoms are composed of even smaller particles, such as electrons and protons, along with a couple of hundred other potential particles, all of which are composed of quarks. What quarks are made of we don't really know, but we can certainly be clear that none of these particles actually exists as "things". Instead, they are best described as a series of intangible force-fields interacting through quantum effects, which makes locating them in space and time literally impossible. And since the entire physical universe is composed of these force-fields, we can't honestly say that anything in the universe can be nailed down as an identifiable "thing". So if that's not possible for the physical world, why should it trouble us that the ego can't be nailed down and observed as a thing-in-itself? We don't go around saying the physical world isn't really there because of this, so why should we say that about the ego?

Electrons, for example, can never actually be found as discrete entities. They can only be described as a probability wave pattern that collapses indiscreetly in space and time when we try to observe them. We can't say where they even are precisely, because that wave pattern exists as a probability field stretching over a significant amount of atomic territory, not as a specific thing in a specific place.

And yet, no one would suggest that electrons don't exist, just because we can't literally find them. We know they exist through their effects, even if those effects are quantum in nature. We can observe the effects electrons have at every level, not just at the atomic level, but at the molecular level, and also the cellular level, and even at the ordinary level of life, in all the electronic equipment we use, including these computers. We have learned to harness the quantum nature of electrons to make transistors work, the basis for all modern computing. Which is a pretty good trick for something that has no definite, identifiable, observable existence in the classical sense. All that tells us is that the electron, like all of life, has its existence in a much looser and dependent sense, as a part of an endless string of observable causes and effects.

No one is going to run around saying electrons are illusions because we can't actually observe them. We can observe their effects just fine, and that proves their existence. It's true that their existence is not as solid "things", but as complex probabilistic force-fields interacting by means we can only describe mathematically, rather than literally. And we can see them as part of a vast interconnected web of actions and reactions, all of which is observable by us - whatever we are. That seems more than good enough a reason for us to accept their reality.

So let me politely suggest that it's better to look at the ego this way, by observing its effects, rather than as something purely illusory that doesn't actually exist. If we observe the ego through its effects, we can see tons of evidence for it, all over the world, throughout all of human society, and in every person. We can see greed, conflict, selfishness, violence, misery, self-protectiveness, vanity, narcissism, and much much more, without any need for microscopic analysis of this ego-thing's literal existence as some kind of solid substance at a singular point in space and time. We can also feel the effects of the ego within ourselves, as the simple sense of being an awareness inside a body, bound by it and suffering and enjoying the body's various experiences from a separated perspective.

So maybe we don't know what the ego is, or where it is exactly, but we can feel its effects, and experience its consequences, all day long. In that sense, the ego is clearly real, even if we don't always know where precisely it comes from, where it's going, or what it's composed of.

Generally, when non-dualists talk about the ego's lack of reality, they are referring to this internal sense we have of being an ill-defined conscious "self" that lives and desires and experiences life through the body and mind. And true enough, that sense of self is hard to find, or define. And yet, it persists in any case, regardless of whether we are willing to call it an ego or not. Saying that it doesn't exist, doesn't make the experiential effects of egoity go away. It doesn't make our own personal existence go up in flames. Even if we declare ourselves egoless because we can't find such a creature inside us, the pattern of causes and effects remains unchanged, and so we remain "egoic" nevertheless, with all the same faults and struggles as before. We will still observe the effects of the ego in ourselves and in others, including in those who claim to have seen through this illusion. Whether they have actually seen through this illusion or not, so long as the effects of the illusion persist, what difference does it make?

If we can't find a center or "thing-ness" in a thunderstorm, does that mean we won't get wet when it rains? Of course not. The same goes for the ego. People who claim to have transcended egoity by these neo-Advaitin arguments often seem to have very large egos indeed, and act and behave in a manner that is recognizably egoic, though covered with a veneer of spiritual pretense. How is that any different from all the ordinary forms of egoity we encounter in life?

Well, maybe some of them do become better, gentler, or kinder people. Or maybe not. In any case, the strength of the personal self-sense does not at all seem absent in them, or in their life activities. They have most of the same faults as everyone else, and most people observe all the usual signs of egoity in them, for better or worse. Why is that? Why isn't it enough to observe that there is no actual thing called an "ego" in us? Why is that not sufficiently liberating?

Well, I'm going to suggest it's because this whole approach isn't the right understanding of the real nature of egoity. Treating the ego as though it's supposed to either be some sort of literal thing with substance in and of itself, or it doesn't exist at all, is not just a logical fallacy, it's a huge experiential error, with serious and even tragic consequences for those who go too far down that road.

I would also suggest that treating most everything in life as if it has to be a thing-in-itself with consistent substance to it, or it isn't real, is a huge misunderstanding of how life works. It ignores the plain truth that most of life isn't a thing or substance at all, it is what scientists call an emergent phenomena.

An emergent phenomena is something that can't be said to exist on its own, but only as the product of seemingly disparate forces and phenomena. Weather, for example, is the classic example of an emergent phenomena. Weather is the product of many disparate forces and phenomena, from sunlight to water to air to the earth's rotation to a trillion tiny fluctuations at every level of the climate system. It produces all sorts of effects, from clouds to thunderstorms to hurricanes to sunny days to droughts to floods to heat waves and so on. None of those are actual "things", they are phenomena that emerge from the climate system. At their source is the heat from the sun, but we would not readily identify a snowstorm as a product of sunlight. And yet, it emerges from the complex interactions of sunlight with the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and crust all the same.

To take a more personal example, let's look at our physical body. By the same method of examination, we can fairly easily see that there is no literal "thing" to the body, it's actually just a collection of many different pieces and parts, from the organs to the fluids that pervade them, to the cells and molecules we can't see but form its basic structural functioning, down to the sub-atomic particles and their various quantum force-fields, none of which are directly observable. You can't point to a single point or substance in the body that is the "body-in-itself". Nor can we point to a time when it came into being.

Life is an emergent process, even at the cellular and genetic level. The evolution of the species, the changes that bodies go through over vast generations of reproduction, is likewise an emergent phenomena, without some "thing" called evolution we can point to that accounts for it. Nothing in the body, viewed either singly or in relation to the rest of the world, is something we can pin down as an actual "thing" to be separated from the rest of life. And yet few would deny that we are alive, or that the body exists. or that evolution is a real process (okay, maybe some would on the last one, but not for these reasons).

What we call the ego is of the same nature. It too is an emergent phenomena, not a thing in itself. What does it emerge from? Well, like the weather, it emerges from all that the body and mind and our awareness is constituted of and is related to. Like the body, the ego emerges from a highly complex and impossible to reduce set of functional pieces and parts, none of which exist in isolation as "things". Those pieces and parts exist in complete interdependence with the body and the world and the awareness we have of these. Our ego is therefore in constant flux and change, and while it's various patterns create a constant sense of self, even that is always in flux, never constant, and impossible to pin down. Like the body, there is no "itself" to the ego, but it still functions, and we see its effects everywhere, including in the body. It is just as real as the body is, despite its elusive observibility as a "thing".

So my suggestion is that we put aside this expectation that the ego must be observed as a tangible, identifiable thing to confirm its existence. Instead, we should be looking at the observable patterns in our psychic and bodily life that betray the presence of ego. Most of those patterns are obvious, tangible, and have real effects that can be unmistakably observed. This means recognizing the ego as an emergent phenomena, the product of many forces and interactions that are impossible to completely observe altogether, but which, like the weather, can be traced pretty easily to a single source.

The source of weather on earth is the sun, without which the earth would be a frozen lifeless ball of crust whose only liquid would be a few small puddles of hydrogen just barely above absolute zero. In the same but opposite manner, the source of the ego is the identification of infinite consciousness with the body-mind, without which our existence would be unlimited, undefined, and free, and even the body-mind itself would be liberated from any its apparent limits.

The difference lies in the nature of consciousness, which is not bound or limited in any way at all, until it begins to identify with the body-mind. That process doesn't occur inside the body, or in the mind, it occurs in consciousness, and it latches onto whatever patterns the body-mind has, as if they were forms of identity rather than freely arises energies within infinite consciousness.

When identification with the body-mind becomes the principle by which we know ourselves. what is actually occurring is consciousness latching onto, holding onto, and contracting from its own infinite nature, and even the nature of the body itself, to a tiny fraction of its original unity. When it does that, every aspect of the whole suffers. Each part of both consciousness and the body begin to feel separate and isolated from the other parts. And as that feeling of separation sinks in, what emerges from the whole body is a strained sense of "ego", of being a disparate awareness inside the body, intimately related to it and yet apart from it, observing and feeling the body-mind but not able to shake the felt sense of separation that creates its own selfhood, and not knowing why.

This contraction and separation is persistently and tangibly perceived through all the functional capacities and structure of the body-mind, not just at the physical level, but in all the body's koshas. And because the body is itself  merely an emergent phenomena, an ego-sense arises emerges from this distortion of its nature. What we end up with is a sense of being a limited individual self that has somehow "fallen" from grace; of being disturbed, distorted, even perverted beings, unable to shake this sense of separation, and compelled to find fulfillment in the midst of the body's broken life, but unable to accomplish the task. Hard as we might try or even seem to make progress, the project never comes anywhere near to completion, because identification with the body creates a self that cannot be anything but a product of that process, it cannot direct  it or undo it. And for that reason, death is always lurking just around the corner, shadowing us the same way the ego shadows the body-mind.

This contraction of consciousness in formal identification with the body-mind has many, many effects not just on our awareness, but on the body-mind we identify with. The direct effect is the knotting up of the nadis or circuitry of energy and consciousness in the body, throughout all the body's many levels, not only the physical. And yet we can feel this knotting most tangibly in our own physical body and brain as all kinds of discomfort, tension, stress. frustration, and desiring. From that, a sense of disturbed and dissatisfied ego-self emerges as a kind of interior phantom that reflects this identification with the body at every level. That ego-self becomes our functional ground of being so long as we are identified with the body. And it tries to accomplish the impossible, which is to find permanent and even infinite peace and happiness as the body-mind while identified with it.

This negative emergence of the ego is extremely important to observe and understand. Ego emerges in the body-mind when consciousness is in a state of identification with its own form. That ego is certainly not a "thing" with any permanence to it, but it will persist nonetheless so long as identification is the principle by which we live our bodily life. And so the essential process of spiritual life - the life by which the ego emergence is undone - is one in which we relinquish identification with the body. It can't occur otherwise. It certainly can't occur by mere analysis of the body-mind and consciousness to the point where we see that no such "thing" as the ego exists. That merely tells us that we are dealing with an emergent phenomena rather than some literal "thing", Which is good news, because it means that the ego can actually be dealt with, by taking responsibility for the bodily principle from which the ego phenomena emerges.

That means inspecting and bringing to an end our own persistent habits of identification, often called our vasanas and samskaras. We can't stop the ego-sense from emerging from the body-mind's functional contraction until identification with the body-mind comes to an end. We can't manipulate the body in some fashion to make this ego-sense go away, or manipulate our mind to stop thinking of itself as an ego, and have the ego disappear as a result. Unless we relinquish the "original sin" of the entire identification process, the ego will keep emerging and function as a real phenomena that will perpetuate the cycles of our suffering.

That relinquishment is, generally speaking, done slowly. The instantaneous insight of suddenly seeing that there isn't any substantial ego within this emergent process will not, in itself, bring the ego to an end, precisely because it isn't a substantial "thing" at all. What must be seen is the simple truth that the ego is the product of an emergent process of identification with the body-mind, and the subsequent contraction of consciousness to a personal reflection of the body-mind, that produces this simple, everyday experience of being "me" in a world of others and things, some of which are "mine",  and the rest someone else's. That spontaneous insight, if it is understood in this manner, can at best initiate a process of inspection and relinquishment of identification with the grosser forms of the body,  moving steadily through the subtler forms, until the whole error of identification is released. But unless it does, it becomes not only useless, but has the potential to delude us even further, by leading us to identify with that experience, fostering the emergence of an inflated spiritual ego rather than one that has relinquished identification with the body-mind

So the key insight is not that the ego isn't present as a "thing" in us, but that the ego is an emergent phenomena, and that it emerges from the whole process of our identification with the body-mind. This isn't so hard to observe, if we actually take the time to simply notice the actual relationship between the body, the mind, and this internal sense of self. Even so, it can be very painful to observe, because it requires us to nakedly feel what we are up to in a manner that is wholly unflattering. The pain of separation induced by our identification with the body-mind has to be felt without dissociation, and without resort to further identification. Otherwise, we will not be motivated to let go our grip of identification with the body-mind. We must see and feel the damage we have done, in order to renounce it and repent from it.

Not that there are no benefits from this process. or that it is all dark and lugubrious. Quite the contrary, even in the midst of these painful insights there is a great relief and freedom, because we can't help but begin to relinquish our identification with the body-mind as they progress. That relinquishment, even from the beginning, naturally allows for the spontaneous eruption of native happiness and humor in us, coming from some indescribable source beyond any kind of identity or  place in time and space. And that convinces us that the whole ordeal is worth the trouble, and gives us the energy and faith to persist through it all.

Another benefit is the liberating realization that there is no eternal ego-soul to concern ourselves with, some "person" inside us to be liberated or transformed or who must become enlightened. All of that is merely an illusion created within our own minds by this emergent process of identification with the body-mind. There is no actual soul in the body-mind, only an emergent ego phenomena whose reality is rooted in identification itself. That doesn't mean there is no ego at all, any more than the emergent nature of weather means there are no thunderstorms or hurricanes. Both will produce violent outbreaks we will need to take into account and deal with accordingly. Because both are observed by their effects, which are often destructive, they must be taken seriously.

This is one of the reasons that the Buddhist teaching on anatta, or "no self" cannot be separated from the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination (or co-arising origination). I've encountered neo-advaitic dzogchen teachers who only emphasize anatta, without understanding and making use of dependent origination to describe how anatta actually works. Instead of teaching about dependent origination, they merely repetitively emphasize the basic truth of anatta, as if it means that nothing more need be done than notice that no ego exists, and that the prior freedom of emptiness is universal. But contrary to these corrupted views of both Buddhism and dzogchen, one cannot really separate anatta and dependent origination. They are two aspects of the same truth, and pretending that one can merely declare "no-self" without understanding the dependent process by which the illusion of self is created, leads to much confusion and false dharma, and much ego inflation to boot. And the ego ends up persisting within a "spiritual" personality, even a supposedly enlightened personality, without comprehending that one is creating even more bondage for oneself and others as a result.

Paying attention only to the absence of some reified ego-thing, without understanding that it is an emergent phenomena with observable effects every bit as serious as a tropical typhoon, only blinds us to the damage the ego continues to wreck in our lives, even when we think we have destroyed it. We have not, so long as identification with the body-mind persists. Even worse, we will have blinded ourselves to its phenomenal reality, and not noticed how much it is still affecting ourselves and the world we live in, making reclamation of our true nature virtually impossible, no matter how much spiritual experience and wisdom we seem to have.

And that's a real shame, because it's not necessary at all. A different path of spiritual life is available to us, one that understands what the ego is and how it emerges, and that addresses the root of it all, by relinquishing identification with the body-mind rather than trying to achieve some state called enlightenment or emptiness or non-dual awakening. The root of duality is not mysterious, but it is not unreal either. Our suffering is very real to us, and its root is in the very means by which we come to identify ourselves. And it can also be undone by a very down to earth process of relinquishing our grip upon the body-mind and its myriad experiences.


  1. Truth is not something that you can point your finger at.
    It is someone that you realize that you have been all along. <3

  2. Thank you for sharing and for Carole Lubby for sharing this with friends. It was a long read, but you presented some important ideas I agreed with and some I need to look closer at and put more thought into, so I persisted and glad I did :) I get so sick of cliches and popular ideas which lead us nowhere. Trust and Love for example, to name a few I can think of (not to exclude their importance), have been put up on the "God" pedestal so to speak, lol. I'd like you hear more about "the down to earth process of mind-body relinquishment". Please let me know when you will expand on that, thanks :)

  3. Thanks for sharing. Complex, yet interesting. Carole Lubby is my informant here.


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