The Enlightened Ego


A mysterious and powerful instrument of awareness lies hidden within us: the mind. Over the past several articles in this series (A Meditator’s Map to the Mind and Uncovering the Unconscious), we’ve been exploring the nature of the mind in meditation. It is said to have four principle functions: manas, buddhi, chitta, and ahamkara. For a brief recap of the first three, see “Anatomy of the Mind”. Here we’ll explore the last function: ahamkara—the individual self, or ego. To begin, let’s examine what we mean by self-identity, and then look closer at how it is influenced by meditation.

Who Is the Self?

When we refer to ourselves we use words such as “I,” “me,” and “mine.” These words play a number of roles. They register a sense of self-identity, mark the separateness of one person from another, and signify our possession of things—the effort to extend ourselves into the surrounding world (this is “my car”).

The familiar sense of self supplied by the mind at each moment is labeled ahamkara in Sanskrit. It’s a term constructed from two words: aham (“I”) and kara (“maker” or “doer”). The mind, as ahamkara, is the maker of an “I.” With every action, it proclaims: “I am the doer” and “These actions are mine.” Thus, when we use the word “I,” we imply an identity constructed within the mind itself. Your “I” is the identity of a particular body, a particular personality, particular patterns of thinking, and a particular life.

Rarely do we inspect our own identities very closely. We simply are the player of roles (parent, teacher, tennis player) and the owner of qualities (attractive, articulate). Thus, when we ask ourselves the question “who am I?” with sincerity, it can arouse curiosity and further inquiry: “Is there some aspect of myself that I have not considered? Am I other than who I seem to be?”

The perception that one’s identity is both something less and something more than it seems is a paradox that’s at the core of yoga philosophy. Consider this passage from the Bhagavad Gita (6.6), one of countless such scriptural references to the nature of identity: “The Self is the friend of that self by whose Self the very self is conquered.”

Translators have attempted to sort out the ambiguity around the term “self” (or atman) by leaving references to the individual self in lowercase and capitalizing references to the Self that represents transcendental reality. On the lesser side, we cling to a limited self—we grasp onto our ego and the things with which it identifies. Yet each of us is also a manifestation of something more enduring than we appear to be. Just as a wave on the surface of the ocean remains part of a vast underlying expanse of water, each of us is part of a vast field of pure consciousness, or Self.

The Nature of Identity

According to the Sankhya tradition, a dualist school of classical Indian philosophy, each person’s identity is an assemblage. You are the construct of a conscious Self (the subject or knower of experience, purusha), and an unconscious body/mind (which serves both as an instrument of awareness and an object of experience, prakriti). You have a body, but your body is not the entirety of you. You think, but your thoughts are also not the whole of you. Within each of us lies a pure inner witness—the knower, or consciousness.

The mind, acting like a highly polished mirror, receives the light of consciousness, reflects it in its innermost surface, and takes on a likeness of consciousness itself. According to the sage Vyasa, we thus perceive our thoughts to be “the same as consciousness” because of their proximity to it.

This process is designated by the unique Sanskrit term asmita, literally “I am-ness,” a semblance of true awareness. The term implies a false sense of identity, one that is mistaken. It is mistaken because, once reflected in the mind, consciousness no longer knows itself in its pure nature. What is otherwise unlimited, blissful, and eternal, through the confusion of asmita, gives the mind the appearance of consciousness. Then, through the agency of ahamkara, the mind supplies us with a limited sense of “I.” Until we know ourselves deeply, we cling to the finite identities created within the mind by ahamkara.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of pain in this. Over the course of time, we must learn to address the unpleasant realities of life that result from identifying with a body: health is unreliable, the aging process creeps steadily along, and death is a certainty.

Does life offer an alternative to the suffering that comes with false identification? The answer to this question lies at the heart of yoga. Despite our deeply ingrained patterns of misidentification, something in life calls to us, whispering that there is more to be known. This is the call of meditation.

The Self in Meditation

Meditation, say the sages, gradually dispels the falseness of self-identity and reveals a deep and true Self. This requires a process of purifying the ego.

Scriptures recommend two complementary strategies for refining ahamkara during meditation: First, soften your grip on the limited self by contemplating such statements as “I am not merely a body” or “I am not governed only by mundane desires.” Second, rest your mind in the presence of the Infinite by focusing the mind on a mantra.

The Bhagavad Gita (6.25) says:

Slowly, slowly, one should turn away (from desire), quieted by a steady discernment. Actively establishing the mind in the Self, one should think of nothing else.

The Yoga Vasishtha (5.59) similarly affirms:

Abandon that which is knowable—the object. What now remains is the pure consciousness which is free from doubt. I am the infinite Self, for there is no limit to this Self. It is the beauty in all, it is the light of all.

Through the implementation of these two strategies, meditation can lead you to an expanded self. Gradually, it diminishes the notion that your “I” will find permanent happiness in any of the limited identities you have assumed, and it allows you to trustfully abide in the presence of pure consciousness.

But despite the encouragement of the scriptures, a fear may persist. You might wonder, “What will happen to me if I truly relax in meditation? Will ‘I’ vanish? Lose the self that I seem to be?”

In fact, meditation helps us realize that our true identity simply cannot be lost. Consciousness is the unperturbed subject of awareness, not its fleeting object. In meditation, the self senses the fullness of Self. Disturbances and false identities are gradually dissolved, so that there can be a restoration of wholeness—not a loss, but a filling in of your identity.

The essence of meditation, then, is the expansion of self. It is a process in which the narrow confines of limited identity are gradually transcended in favor of what the Bhagavad Gita calls “the boundless happiness” of Self. To meditate is to dwell in that deep and joyful nature. Then, manas, the lower mind, rests in its focus; buddhi awakens to its role as the inner observer; impressions in chitta from previous meditations come forward for inner support; and the identities created by ahamkara increasingly relax into a higher sense of Self. This is the nature of meditation—a mind coordinated in the effort to rest in one’s own Being.

About the Teacher

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Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more