What is the ego?

The ego is the aspect of the mind that feels personal. It emanates the boundary of "me" and "I." We can observe in a newborn child that the personal sense of "me" has not yet crystallized. A newborn may be crying loudly one moment and perfectly content the next. States of mind seem to come and go without a central identity holding on to experiences.

By the age of two, toddlers start to use words like "me." "Mine" can become a favorite word in this stage. This is a sign of the ego crystallizing. The greater mind is creating a demarcation within itself, a sub-identity, which we have given a first and last name.

On close inspection, we see that this sub-identity is not a thing in itself, but rather a bundle of thoughts. For example, the thought "name Joe" may have been repeated thousands of times by the age of two. That thought will have occurred in association with many experiences of happiness and unhappiness, creating a close association of thoughts, including "name Joe," "mine," "me," and "I." If these thoughts occurred only once in a while, or not in close proximity with each other, they might be like any other thoughts that come and go. But their close proximity is what causes them to inter-relate strongly, which creates the experience of a new sub-identity we call ego.

The ego is not a separate entity. It is a web of recurrent, closely associated thoughts. That web of thoughts has its own energy, which expresses as our unique personalities.

The ego is neither good nor bad. It is an experience in awareness, fundamentally no different than the experience of seeing an apple sitting on the kitchen counter. The apparent difference is that the ego feels intensely personal because its story is repeated endlessly over a lifetime.

This sub-identity we call ego will go through various stages of development as a child, pre-teen, teenager, young adult, adult, and elder. Whenever the thoughts and tendencies change, we might say "Joe has changed. He's not who he used to be."

Somewhere along the journey, the series of thoughts we call "Joe" may stop, just as a new, disruptive thought enters: Who am I? What am I? An examination may ensue, wherein a more open, unfettered awareness sees "Joe" as a story within many stories.

Who were you before you had a name? What were you before you exhibited likes and dislikes? 

The development of the ego is a natural part of human life…

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Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership from McGill University. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.