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The Ego Game

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

"That which comes and goes, rises and sets, is born and dies, is the ego. That which always abides, never changes, and is devoid of qualities, is the self." ~Ramana Maharshi

Think of the last time you saw someone perform a magic trick. It could be at a live event with hundreds of people sitting next to you, maybe on a busy street with a local magician holding a mic and looking for volunteers, or a friend insisting on showing you a card trick they picked up on YouTube an hour earlier. Whether we believe in magic, or we simply admire the skill involved with sleight of hand practice, it’s no exaggeration to say that regardless of age, there remains a part of us that experiences a sense of awe and fascination during those few seconds and minutes of the magic. The trick ends, and we either leave imagining how it worked or if we’re lucky, we get to find out the secret, after which the excitement fades.


Magic is nothing more than a form of illusion, one that we enjoy. However, when people think of illusions in any other context, it doesn’t seem all that fun. Since magic and illusions are associated with jest and manipulation, we enjoy witnessing a magic trick if we know it’s not real. The same can be applied to a movie. We enjoy watching a film where people murder each other in cold blood, where ruthless kingpins plot to conquer the world, or if we’re romantics, then watching two people meet, be friends, fall in love even though they said they wouldn’t, and end up happily ever after even though it isn’t even a single bit cliche….because we know it’s a movie and it isn’t real.


The narrative changes however when we think of what we believe to be our ‘real life’. Seeing individuals cheat on each other resulting in drama, breakups and schemes to kill, is fun when watching on a screen, but not on the phone with our best friend on the other side as the victim. This is why stories, myths, folklore, tales, movies, and plays are so popular. It is also why humans look for meaning in the world when it is not there. It's akin to being lied to. We tell countless lies to others every day but don’t appreciate being lied to by other people, because lies lead us to believe a false sense of reality, and when we find out that what we thought was real, isn’t in fact what is real, we feel stupid and disrespected.


That is of course, until we see the funny side - that nearly everything in our lives is an illusion, and that’s okay! Illusion here refers to the idea that we think what we see, smell, touch, hear, and feel is real, when it’s nothing more than an appearance. This is not a bad thing, and to elaborate on this I’ll use a word that in most cases has a positive connotation to it: a game. Not just any game, the ego game, because this illusion is the most ubiquitous of them all, and also the most important.


Let me explain.


 

Filling the gaps


We usually don't doubt that we have an ego or an identity. It always appears that there is an ‘I’ who is thinking, perceiving, and interacting with the world. Even the language we use assumes that there is an ego, a distinct separate entity - “I think,” “You are….” etc. We perceive to have this identity because this is the subjective experience that results from different regions in our brain trying to add a narrative to our experiences, thoughts, and behaviours, when in fact all we are is a bundle of experiences. Neurologically as well, there is no “I” or “me” that can be located in the brain – so in that sense, it does not exist in reality.


Still with me? If not, here’s an example of one of my favourite illusions - The Kanizsa Triangle, a visual illusion that demonstrates the mind's ability to perceive illusory contours and complete missing parts of a figure, first introduced by the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa in 1955. The triangle consists of three "Pac-Man" like shapes arranged to form the corners of an equilateral triangle, even though the triangle itself is not physically drawn or outlined. Here's a simple way to describe it:


  1. Three partially shaded or filled-in circles are arranged to suggest the corners of an invisible triangle

  2. The spaces between the circles create the impression of a white equilateral triangle, even though there are no actual lines connecting the circles.


See for yourself:





When we look at the arrangement, our brain tends to fill in the missing information, and we perceive the presence of a white triangle that isn't physically there. This is a result of the brain's tendency to organise and interpret visual information by completing incomplete shapes and patterns. This illusion highlights the active role of the brain in constructing our visual experience and making sense of the world around us.

Since childhood, we’ve grown and have been conditioned to believe that we have an identity. We have a certain role to perform, we belong to a particular ethnic group, and we have societal, patriotic, family, relationship, or religious obligations to follow - the idea we need to conform to said identity to function in the world. This is true to an extent, but is again, nothing more than an appearance, a veil covering the true nature of reality. One of the best examples of this idea being challenged is through the work of French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. In her 1949 work - The Second Sex’, Beauvoir explores how women have historically been marginalised and defined compared to men. For instance, Beauvoir discusses how societal expectations, socialisation, and education contribute to the construction of gender roles. In numerous cultures, girls were raised to conform to societal expectations and taught to prioritise relationships and nurturing roles, reinforcing their subordinate position. Similarly, Beauvoir criticises the portrayal of women as sex objects, the idea that women were created to fulfil the male desire, restricting their freedom and perpetuating inequality across different regions of the world. (Source)


Note that this is separate from the idea of men and women having inherent qualities that make them distinct. While it is true that men and women have their inherent genetic qualities that contribute to strengths and capabilities in certain areas, Beauvoir is targeting the flaws associated with societal expectations that condition individuals to behave in a certain way, a vast generalisation of all men and women in a societal hierarchy. She advocated that women should embrace their sexuality on their terms and that women have the capacity for freedom, independent of men. Beauvoir’s work is considered to be one of the most influential texts in feminist philosophy, women empowerment, gender roles, and socio-political activism towards women's rights, and for good reason.


 

The roles we play


If we look closely enough, it’s easy to notice that the ego we believe exists doesn’t exist. Think of the roles we play when put in different situations in our lives. The character we play at work is different to that which we play with our family or friends. Specifically as well, our roles change as we interact with different people in our lives, each demonstrating a different part of what the ego represents. With some people, it’s easy to talk, go out, and have fun. With others, it’s a tad more difficult, and we notice this each time we interact with them. In both cases, we are still being ourselves, and yet we cannot pinpoint what we truly are, because it changes from moment to moment. It’s like walking from room to room to fulfil a different purpose. One moment we’re in our kitchen cooking up a meal because we’re hungry, the next we’re in the living room lounging on our couch because we’re bored and want to see whether Netflix’s collection has gotten any better. One moment we’re in our bathroom because we need relief, the next we’re in our bedroom because we need a nap. In all of these cases, we are not the cook, we are not the movie watcher, we’re not the bathroom goer, we’re not the napper, we are simply the experience itself, falling for the illusion that there is a separate experiencer who is experiencing it all.


When someone asks us to describe or define ourselves, we may think of some words that align with what we think we are. We may use words like extroverted, introverted, shy, open-minded, pragmatic, rational, empathetic, etc.’ The problem here is that by doing this, we’re putting ourselves into a box, a classification. In other words, we’re limiting ourselves. We’re not one word, or even ten. We can’t be. I can say that I’m extroverted but that is just one of the many traits my ego identifies with, and isn’t necessarily active all the time. If I were to be placed in a random environment with a bunch of people who I don’t know, I may not feel all that extroverted and refrain from interacting with them. I can call myself an introvert then, but you see how this justification doesn’t last very long.


We enjoy putting things in boxes because it helps us conceptualise the world, other people, and ourselves. “How old are you? Where are you from? Where do you work? What are your hobbies? What do you eat? Are you single? What’s your sexual orientation? Are you religious?" And so on. By asking people these questions, we think we get to know them and craft a story behind what we think they are. For example, someone says they’re a 27-year-old straight female from London, working at the UK embassy who is a pescatarian and goes to church every Sunday. We’ve placed this individual in multiple boxes and we think we know who they are based on a few descriptors, but do we?


We’re all limitless and no box is big enough.


 

Now what?


All of this does not mean that the ego, as an illusion, is pointless. It is the most powerful and consistent illusion that we experience. In evolutionary terms, it is useful to think of ourselves as separate and distinct from everyone else. There is much more of an incentive to survive and reproduce if it is for my survival, and for my genes to remain in the gene pool. For instance, it wouldn’t be wise to jump from a skyscraper thinking “There is no me that’s going to fall and die so why not just do it anyway?”


We’re all selfish by nature, which by definition means we have an identifiable ego that causes us to do things. We say and do things because of how they make us feel, which cannot happen if there is no sense of self or ego, whether that’s true or false. Our brain naturally creates narratives to make sense of the world. Our brains are essentially always thinking in terms of stories: what the main character is doing, who they are speaking to, and where the beginning, middle, and end is. Our ego – which we think of as an integrated individual – is a fabrication that emerges out of the story-telling powers of our brain. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, made a similar point - saying that the self is not a concrete thing – it is merely a collection of experiences.



So in conclusion, there is and isn’t a sense of self or what we call the ego. When we wake up, get dressed, go to work, socialise, talk, act, we are doing it. We identify with our roles, and we perform them moment to moment, and we need to if we want to function in the world. However, true freedom comes to us when we realise that no matter how true it all appears to be, it’s all a product of our consciousness. Losing consciousness would render us unable to experience anything, true or false. Everything therefore is just an appearance in consciousness. All the thoughts and emotions that cross our minds are like clouds in the sky. For example, if someone says something to offend us, the thought of being angry may cross our mind, but that’s all it is, just a thought. It’s only if we choose to identify with it, that we end up being angry. Identification with thought is what feeds the ego. It’s what keeps the game going. Of course, ending this article with that would be anti-climatic, so here’s a story instead:


A restless businessman once came into the Buddha’s assembly, walked straight to him and spat at Buddha. He was furious that his children, who could have spent their time earning money, sat with Buddha instead, with their eyes closed. Buddha merely smiled at him, there was no word, no reaction. The man walked away in a huff, shocked. He could not sleep all night. For the first time, he met someone who smiled when he was spat at. His whole world had turned upside down.


The next day he went back to Buddha, fell at his feet and said:


“Please forgive me! I didn’t know what I did.” But Buddha said:

“No! I cannot excuse you!”

Everyone in his assembly was taken aback! Buddha then said:

“Why should I forgive you when you have done nothing wrong?”


When the businessman reminded him of what he did on the previous day, Buddha replied:

“Oh, that person is not here now. If I ever meet the person you spat on, I’ll tell him to excuse you.

To this person here, you’ve not done any wrong.” (Source)


What a legend.

 

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