Really Pinning Down The Nature Of Ego

In Fearless Simplicity: The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World, Tsoknyi Rinpoche offers us a tantalizing hint about the nature of the ego:

When you look for this “me,” for this “I” or ego, you find that it is mind. It is the knowing quality that you call “me.” In fact, there is no “me” to find anywhere other than the knowing quality. You can’t pinpoint anything other than the knowing quality. When that knowing quality is misconstrued, it is given the name “me.” If it is understood as just being what it is, then it is called intelligence [or original wakefulness–AT].

p. 100

This is brilliant, though I want to suggest that it’s only one category in a larger taxonomy of egocity.

I. Ego as Knower

In my experience, Tsoknyi Rinpoche nails (let’s say) 70%–to offer a fairly crude estimate–of ego rising. For it very often does rise in the unstated guise, “I am the knower.”

About this statement, however, I need to be clearer. Far better to say that it rises in the regimen of knowing. Thus, it may rise as follows:

  • “I know period.”
  • “I presume that I know.”
  • “I must know.”
  • “I need to know, but I don’t know.”
  • “I doubt whether I know.”
  • “I wish I knew.”
  • “I don’t know how to…, but I need to know how to…”
  • And so on.

II. Ego as Victim

Now we come to what Jung called the inner child. (I like to call it “the little boy” or “the little girl.”) Here, so far as I can discern in my own experience, the rising of ego is not a matter of the knowing quality; instead, it is a matter of lingering hurt. Some examples:

  • I am worthless. I am unworthy.
  • I am unlovable. I am loveless.
  • I am alone. I don’t belong anywhere.
  • I am utterly insignificant. I don’t matter at all.
  • And so on.

Notice that the ego, rising in the presence of hurt, is tacitly adopting the position of the victim.

To see this, take a simple example: you find yourself complaining about cracks in the sidewalk in your neighborhood. “Why isn’t anyone in charge of taking care of this?” This is the ego as the victim experiencing hurt.

What is the hurt? Well, it needs to be discovered. Here is but one hypothetical possibility. “I am the caretaker, and nobody cares about anything or anybody, including–and most especially–me.”

III. Ego as Doer

A third basic guise in which the ego rises is that of the doer. Examples:

  • I have so much to do.
  • I need to plan.
  • I can’t forget X.
  • I’m overwhelmed by…
  • I need to be organized.
  • I’m imagining strategies for…
  • And so on.

Here, the ego rising isn’t coming with the intention of knowing this or that (unless, perhaps too reductively, one wished to say that one want so know what’s the right way to do X or Y). Instead, ego is rising in the mode of the doer.

A Lack of Reduction

I’m not sure that we can easily reduce any of these three to one reduction base (e.g., all have to do, Procrusteanly, with knowing). And, more to the point, I’m not sure that such is necessary.

Speedier Pinpointing

For what we, as practitioners, are really after are simply more skillful ways of identifying ego just when it rises so as to observe it and see it off. The point at hand, in other words, is not to get caught with ego way downstream.

Endnote: Relation to Samskaras

For those curious about the relationship between these three basic types (knower, victim, and doer) and samskaras (= false identities: for more, see here), I would say that these three types are (a) completely formal in nature and (b) are “one hypostasis higher” than the rising of samskaras. After all, samskaras are already content-rich. If “I am the victim” is the one-higher-up basic type, then “I am insignificant” (one samskara) is already one level further down.