What is the ego?

1.
What is the ego? The Buddhist wants to say the ego is a fiction, as this seems to be the only way to avoid the reductio ad absurdum inherent to mind/body dualism. If the ego is real, it must exist in a self-contained dimension not subject to the laws of time and space. It must be the cause of the physical effects observed in the brain and body, itself remaining untainted by the carnality of the meat within the skin. It is absent from the bridge of the ship it is supposed to be captaining. How can this be? It must be because we as the describer of the mind are under the false assumption that “I think, therefore I am.” Supposing the cognitive scientist were somehow able to accurately map the mental processes of the mind by putting thought into code, he would still assume a priori that these codes were used by an ego. Why else suppose the function of the mind was representational if not to bridge this assumed gap between physical and mental? Why do we jump so quickly to divide the mental from the physical? Is it because we want to carve out a slice from the loaf of the world and call it “mine,” a tiny vestige of free will surrounded on all sides by an unbearably determined universe? Time bakes the world; it is the oven or matrix surrounding the loaf, like the space surrounding Earth. Creative energy is released from within this spatiotemporal matrix as heat and gravity, inspiring the raw dough to take form. The yeast in the dough enacts its chemical destiny, much like the DNA of an organism expresses its phenotype, as the result of an interaction between internal potentiality and external necessity. The oven informs the dough. But it is not that the organism alone grows or that the environment alone nurtures. It is that the organism-environment field together cooperates in the enactment of a body-world in space and time. Taken separately, the world and the mind can only have a second-hand relationship with one another. Mind must view the world through a lens, and the lens can never be clear enough to see the world itself. Why do we add this extra dimension of complication to reality? Did we really find it in the world itself? The answer must be no, because as we’ve already said, separating the mind from world leaves the observer with nothing but a represented version of that world. If the mental is separate from the physical, the physical must be translated into the mental before it could be witnessed by the ego. But the requirement of translation pulls the rug from beneath any epistemology that sets out to know the world objectively. All knowledge becomes interpretation, as the only source of information we have about the world has been tainted by the mind way before we even become conscious of it. All one can ever know, from behind the lens of the mind, is the mind itself.

2.
Let us return to the original question. What is the ego? The ego is the sense of tension struggling to be hewn from the symbiotic dance between the conscious and the unconscious. It is the mind within the body within the world [fig. Yang]. The body-world, in the case of this masculine conception of the ego, represents that which is unconscious, the dark and mysterious feminine principal. This is the archetypal relationship between man and nature. It is what leads the engineer to spend billions to design, build, and launch huge rocket ships that take astronauts to the moon. If the mind is an anomaly lost amid a cosmic sea of empty chaos, loneliness becomes the dominant emotional temper of a humanity whose sole preoccupation is the endless expansion of knowledge and accumulation of wealth. The goal is to expand the known, increase the size of the world, encroach on as much of the empty unknowns of space as possible. It is the spirit born during the Enlightenment continued right up until today. We are the conquers of the New World. We blast off into space at tremendous expense, burning millions of gallons of fuel in a way far too inefficient for nature herself to ever have devised, in search of more resources to exploit and more knowledge to fill in the gaps between the pages of our Encyclopedia Galactica. NASA is coming to realize, though, that the biggest issue facing interplanetary space travel is not how to protect the astronauts from the vacuum of space during their long, alienating trips between orbits, but how to protect them from their own psyches. Space becomes the overwhelming depth of mystery; the dark and unknowable belly of the beast, and man becomes the knight in shining armor nobly going where no man has gone before to slay and defeat his own shadow. As the astronauts among us continue rocketing off into space, they will continue to face the profoundly centering experience of seeing the Earth, the whole world, from the outside. Being so far away from home that the horizon becomes circular alters one’s perspective of what it means to be back home again, apparently walking upside down on a ball of air, water, and rock hurling through an empty void. As the mind travels further out into empty world-space, it begins to expand to fill in for the lack of matter. When you’re so far out that the Sun becomes just another star, it looks as though the world is all in your mind [fig. Yin]. The mind transforms into the higher ground of being and the world becomes but a lower expression of it. This reverses the prior situation where the mind was a periphery extension of the more primary world. The infinite extension of space overwhelms the world with relativity, as it becomes clear that matter is not the most common feature of reality. The matrix of space is primary. There are many worlds, but only one space. The world as the fundamental ground becomes but a distant childhood memory. And what lay outside, above, and beyond the mind? Like space encompasses the world, spirit encompasses the mind. This view of the ego is feminine, turning the mind into the matrix embracing the world—not confronting it but creatively participating in the creation of it. The mind, in turn, is embraced by the cosmic compassion of spirit. From this eternal origin called spirit, all of creation, from civilization itself down to the last grain of sand on an uninhabited beach, becomes a divine manifestation made real again in each moment. We must come to see that each of these figures is equally true, two sides of the same non-dual reality. Fig. 1 is the reality of Yin. The divine moment of genesis occuring continuously through each moment, as though a bolt of lighting shooting down from the vast potentiality of spirit, into the creative intricacies of mind, through the organic metabolisms of body, finally arriving as the seeming stuff of the world, the matter, the ground, the surface. All of it is lila, the divine play of the cosmos, created right then, in the eternal now moment. Fig. 2 is the reality of Yang. The creation moment was long ago, but after billions of years of evolution from matter, to body, to mind, mankind was born to claim it all for himself. Yin is the ever-present origin; spirit as the ground of being. Yang is the once-present origin, slowing evolving back to union; spirit as the goal of being. We can separate these two parallel processes into the two personalities they seem to promote. Fig. 1 is the viewpoint of the mystic. Fig. 2, the view of the engineer. We can see, though, that, when driven to extremes, the two arrive on each other’s doorsteps. The engineer has a mystical experience far out in space watching the earthrise above the lunar horizon; the mystic, far below on the surface of the Earth, experiences the infinite spilling a bucket of water that had been reflecting the moon. “In this way and that I tried to keep the pail together. I hoped the weak bamboo would never break. Then suddenly the bottom fell out. No more water; no more moon in the water. Emptiness in my hand.”

3.
God is evolving through man. Once the irritable Yahweh of the Old Testament, next transformed into the compassionate Christ of the New, finally reborn as the individual story of each ego, now elevated to the heights of the soul, God in ego-drag. Each step brings God deeper into the game of evolution. A more complete surrender leads to a more awakened consciousness. Spirit pours Itself out into Matter in an act of forgetting and gives birth to Body, Mind, and Soul, which eventually return to their source in Spirit when they have finished running their course through time. They remember Spirit, bringing the many back into the One in which they originated. God cannot help but forget Itself; Once It has, It then cannot help but remember.

The ego that does the remembering, that is the representing, runs its simulations in the prefrontal cortex. It gets its visual aspect by projecting onto the same areas of the visual cortex that receive input from the retina about the light from the outside world. With eyes open, the outside world is stabilized by the visual cortex and observed by the ego (presentation). With eyes closed, the outside world is un-coupled and experience becomes the invention of the ego (representation). The ego and the prefrontal cortex are principally involved in memory. They remember, they inform, they give meaning to the raw sensory data from the outside world by putting it into context. They hold in their dynamic connections to one another the matrix of thought itself; each individual brain, though, is also part of a larger matrix of cultural meaning. We are raised to have the egos that we do. This upbringing depends on certain cultural memes, memes that are passed on not because of biological natural selection, but because of some higher, more value-laden dimension of reality. Memes decide for themselves what the future is going to be, they don’t have to wait to react to nature’s changes retroactively. Memes are genes with minds of their own. It seems that the ego itself is a meme. In fact, it seems to be THE meme. The ego is the mind that has control of a body and therefore of its action in the world. It is the meme that gave birth to human history, its culture and writing and technology.

One Reply to “What is the ego?”

  1. I think of the ego as framework of identification of self as well as framework of interaction of self with others. As framework of identification; ego has self identifying with matter, with mind, with spirit… etc. As framework of interaction; ego has self experiencing others and reacting to others.

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