Deconstructing the Ego

“The ego is a fiction, the outcome of the thinking mind trying to pull itself into the center as though it had a nucleus that was solid, stable, and unchanging.” – Stephen Levine 

Modern neuroscience has confronted us with a strange truth that is almost impossible to accept: we don’t exist. I’m not suggesting that our bodies are imagined, but the concept of an “I” that rides around in the head and is one coherent and fluid essence has been proven biologically inaccurate. Although we feel like a single unified entity, the Ego is in fact a collection of snapshots of our experience taken over time and strung together to form the illusion of a stable self, like the frames of an old-fashioned movie.[1] 

What story have you been telling yourself about who you are and how you fit into the world? From the moment you could understand language, you began to craft a narrative about yourself. The script has likely changed substantially over time. How did you think of yourself 10 years ago? Your self-identifiers and attachments have likely morphed dramatically since then. 

Of all of the information that exists in our environment - electromagnetic fields, ultraviolet waves, and other types of energy - humans evolved to perceive through the five senses a small segment that would help us survive and pass our genes to the next generation. With the use of scientific instruments, like an infrared thermometer, we can detect other subtle energies that we didn’t evolve to sense as part of our natural subjective reality. Imagine, if you can, perceiving the world as a snake, which can detect infrared radiation emitted up to a meter away via holes in its head. This is another slice of “reality” that humans don’t tap into. The truth is that the real material world is a vast jungle of information of which your brain selectively picks out a small segment according to how your brain’s been trained by evolution and conditioned by your experience.   

Upon this narrow view of the world, your brain selectively remembers certain interactions with your environment that it deems useful. Over time, residue from different experiences shapes your subconscious interpretation of the world. If everything that’s happened to you up to this point in your life were a cloud of sticky notes (each representing a moment in your life) being blown in the wind around a telephone pole, your Ego was formed from some number of those stickies that happened to stick to the pole. The more emotionally salient memories, like winning a trophy or getting bullied as a child, tend to be stickier.

But even out of the small fraction of memories that form your autobiographical Ego story, psychologists have found that many of them are inaccurate or entirely false.[2] That’s why witness testimonials are often unreliable – your brain doesn’t care about the truth, it just wants to create a coherent story that would’ve once helped you survive.

As one Ph.D. material scientist-turned-meditation instructor named Gary Weber puts it in his book Happiness Beyond Thought, “The critical errors are believing, a) that these stories are related, b) that there is some ‘reason’ they are included other than that they caught our attention or produced an emotion, and c) that they must be maintained even if they may not be true, or if they no longer serve any purpose. As we watch our thoughts, we can see this default program of beliefs running, often destructively.” The stories that define us are an amalgamation of arbitrary bits of past information.

Your autobiographical sketch is based on a narrow set of accuracies, out of a narrow set of memories, which comes from a narrow perception of the world. Yet this fictional narrative defines your future actions and current view of yourself. Your Ego defines the way you perceive the world. And where might that worldview be unhelpful? Are you willing to challenge your hard-held beliefs?

There are specific meditation methods of self-inquiry that are designed to get you to step out of your Ego and see where parts of it are formed by misconceptions or subjective bias.  


[1] Gallagher, Shaun. "Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science." Trends in cognitive sciences 4.1 (2000): 14-21.

[2] Loftus, Elizabeth F., and Jacqueline E. Pickrell. "The formation of false memories." Psychiatric annals 25.12 (1995): 720-725.