The ‘ego’, the soul, and metaphysics – 3

2. And here we come to a necessary distinction: ego and ‘ego’, or self and ‘self’; the necessary, real or true ego, and the contingent ‘ego’, the ‘false ego’. Based on the previous considerations, it might seem that the latter is what is meant by the empirical, worldly ego, or ‘outer man’ of philosophical discourse (as in Frithjof Schuon), but that would be an error, since that ‘ego’ does nothing, being merely an impostor, or a mask, thus ultimately as unreal as the son of a sterile woman. What is real – though ambivalent, as will be shown just below in this same paragraph – is the soul (jiva in non-dualistic advaita philosophy), that is, the subject, one of his sides, as it were, facing the higher, spiritual domain and the other facing the outer world. This last, outer or ‘empirical man’, is the doer and the sufferer – this is the way he sees him/herself (cf. ‘Explanation’, p. 9, et passim).

Similar remarks can be made for now about individual and ‘individual’, the second term referring to a limited, narrow view, actually an ideology, that is, viewing the individual, and the individual viewing himself, as ‘self-sufficient’, ‘self-motivated’, independent and autonomous –in other words, the product or result of individualism (about which there would be much to say in psychological and sociological terms). The first (individual or jiva) is a metaphysical entity, rooted in being… but why ‘ambivalent’? The answer is that while the second, ‘individual’, stands for a psychological construct (as the ‘ego’, its equivalent term, is such, obviously), what can be said of it – namely, that this deluded ‘individual’, rootless, ‘for himself’ alone, happy may be at times, but mostly forlorn, and subject to all sorts of dis-ease if not despair(1)- is by and large the actual description of the ‘normal ego or individual’! And so a clarification is in place:

So far the pairs ego-‘ego’ have been presented as equivalent to individual-‘individual’, the second term in both pairs being clearly false, non-existent. Ultimately, however, the first term of each pair has to be put into brackets if not denied altogether, the reason being that ego and individual are not what they appear to be and are generally taken to be: separate end independent entities (doers, thinkers, feelers). What we are now putting in relief is that to the extent that an individual or ego thinks himself to be independent and separate he is the subject of ignorance. These two terms- ego(-‘mind’) and individual(-‘body’)- are conjointly equivalent to ‘body-mind’ as per Advaita (a term which means ‘not-two’), and, while what this expression –‘body-mind’- signifies is not devoid of reality altogether, it is not wholly real either. The reality behind this conjoint concept is spoken of as mithya in advaita. Mithya is best translated as phenomenon-a, ‘what appears’. All things in the world, all transactions, whether inner or outer, are no more than appearances. ‘Reality’ is what always is the same, unchanging.

Having just dealt with the ambivalence concerning the term individual, this last is not, however, opposed, contradictory to what is universal, since the individual can be seen as a/the focal point of the universe, not confined to limits; a focal point of radiation which contains the whole universe (2) (we owe this observation to lama Govinda, a Mahâyâna Buddhist). On the other hand, so long as an individual considers himself separate and identifies himself with his body and/or mind (or as having an individual conscience), he cuts himself off –psychologically speaking- from everything else – quite an isolation! And thus instead of having it all –better, being ALL in his own substance- ends up with nothing, that is, with ‘himself’ alone. Accordingly, it does not matter in the end whether we place the word individual between colons or not, and ditto with ego. Can we speak any longer of an ‘authentic’ ego or individual once we have gone into the metaphysics of it?

fn 1 “The tragedy of this delusion of individuality is that it leads to isolation, fear, paranoid suspicion, and wholly unnecessary hatreds” E.E. Hadley, quoted by A. Coomaraswamy in ‘Who Is “Satan” and Where Is “Hell”’ –Coomaraswamy 2: Selected Papers, Metaphysics, R. Lipsey, ed. (Princeton, 1977).

fn 2 Since it is a focus of ‘unitary consciousness’ which, as such, is capable of encompassing the whole.

Is the ego, then, not the basic disorder –a veritable nest of disequilibria- the one and only ‘subject’ of dysfunction? From the Buddhist perspective at least, it is not just a question of there being a number of personality types and disorders, which can be described, diagnosed and treated by whatever means are available to the therapist, but over and above that that personality itself, and including the notion of person, are ultimately a disorder, or an illusion (3).

The problem, to repeat, lies in ‘self-identification’ and attachment to what is a limitation of being – both based on ignorance. These tendencies (attachment and ignorance) are two of the three ‘poisons’ or defilements as seen from the Buddhist perspective; the third one -aversion, anger or hate- follows, of course, by implication or extension (fig.1). The result is suffering, which ties that triad with another related one: duhkha, anitya, anâtmân – suffering, impermanence, non-self (trilakshana, ‘the three marks of existence’).

fn 3. We could thus have titled this essay: ‘The Problems of the ‘ego’’, or ‘Freedom from the ‘self’’.

The three ‘poisons’ – addiction, aversion, delusion


Attraction                                                                                            Repulsion

Desire                                                                                                  Anger

Addiction                                                                                            Hostility

 (Attachment)                                                                                         (Rejection)







(Fig. 1)   (Imagine an inverted triangle – ‘Ego’ in the centre)

One thought on “The ‘ego’, the soul, and metaphysics – 3

  1. Dear Martin,
    How funny life is. There has just been a discussion on Michael James’ website on whether Bhagavan Ramana Marharshi instruction to abide in / investigate the self meant the self or the Self.
    The discussion turned around Bhagavan’s Aksharamanamalai poem, v.44 and Murugunar’s commentary on it (from Robert Butler’s translation):

    Paraphrase of v.44

    ‘Turning towards the Heart and away from external phenomena through detachment (vairagya), ceaselessly and one-pointedly examine and know the Self through the self, with the inward-turned vision which is of the form of the enquiry “Who am I? ” Then shall you (yourself) clearly know (as your very own nature , the truth of the words ,“You yourself, You alone, are the essence of the Real .”).’ Thus did you instruct me, [Arunachala! ] What a wonder is this!

    Murugunar’s Commentary

    akam tirumpal – turning within means ceasing to pay attention to external objects. The elimination of thoughts [about them] in the mind is also implied here. Through observing oneself with the inner eye, the veil of illusion is destroyed and the perception (darśana) of the knowledge of the Real arises. When we speak of ‘the self’ as the scope (viṣaya) of enquiry, we are referring only to the jiva , which is of the form of the ego, not to the Self, the true nature of the ‘I’. How so? Because the suffering of birth, which arises from ignorance, and the consequent need for enquiry as a means to remove that suffering, appertain to the jiva only, which is bound by delusion and bewildered, not to the supreme Self, which is eternally present, pure, aware and free, and because that Self can never, in any way, shape or form whatsoever, be (or become) the object of the jiva’s practice of enquiry, except in the sense that when the ego, which is the obstacle to the realisation of the Self (ātma-sākṣātkāra), is destroyed through the means of enquiry, that Self will remain simply as the jiva’s own Self, and will be known and experienced by it as the nature of That (tanmaya) through [abidance in] perfect peace (śānta vṛtti). Since the world with its cycles of birth and death (saṁsāra) does not actually exist in the supreme Reality, but arises through a lack of awareness (pramāda), which is the true death, unremitting enquiry is indispensable until such time as the ego-knot, which lies at the root of it, is permanently severed. Therefore Arunachala through his grace instructed, ‘Constantly observe [the “I”] with the inner eye.’ [The meaning of] akamukam – inward turned [is] ‘to establish the mind in the Heart, its source, without letting it stray amongst external phenomena.’

    Best wishes

Comments are closed.