The etymology of the word ego is simply “I” in Latin. It was used by Latin speakers in the very same way that we use the first person singular nominative case personal pronoun in modern English, which is “I”. In present day, we use the word “ego” to make a specific distinction; for example when we wish to address an inflated sense of self-worth, but also to refer to our identity that we have built around ourselves. But what, actually is the “ego”, and what is its relationship with that which we call “self”?
We can say that the ego is fundamentally a construct. It is made of parts just like a building is made up of concrete and, our ego is made up of our dreams and fears, aspirations, memories and so on. Let’s take a quick look into what the traditions of the West and East say on the subject.
For Sigmund Freud, the Ego is a part of a psyche’s apparatus that functions as a mediator between our basic human instincts (ID) and the moral that is socially upheld as desirable (Super Ego). (Super ego is the aspect of personality that holds all of our internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from both parents and society–our sense of right and wrong.)
The latter two elements of our psyche are in mutual contradiction and it is the job of the Ego to ‘unify’ these contradictory aspects. The result of this synthesis is something that is –apparently– stable and coherent, even though it is under a lot of pressure and always under construction. The metaphor of the Iceberg is usually employed to exemplify the mechanics and visibility of these forces: the Ego is the tip, the visible part, is only there because it’s supported by another deeper and less accessible mass of ice.
As for the Buddhist, they claim that nothing possess an underlying reality. One of the most common (and normal) aberrations of our mind is to think in terms of identities. The concept of Anatta or no-self is very clear on this: there is no thing that has a substance, they are all aggregates. The same happens with our ego: it is illusory to think that it exists. The Story of Nagasena and the Chariot is often told to exemplify: There is no such thing as a Chariot, they are parts just put together.
The same is valid for the ego: there is no such thing. What we are is a constant flow of sensations and thoughts and to identify ourselves with any of this is to create attachment to an illusion with ultimately leads to suffering. There are equivalent thoughts in Western philosophy by thinkers such as John Locke, Heraclitus and David Hume who appeal to the ‘bundle theory of the self’ and to the Theseus Ship Paradox which is just different ways of putting what the Buddhists are saying.
For Hinduism on the other hand, there is such thing as a Self and it is called Atman. It is what we find when we peel away all the illusory layers of the mind (where the Ego lies). It is equal to that of the impersonal Absolute (Brahman)-like a spark to the sun (they are both fire)-. Again, there is emphasis in self-knowledge, for it is through it that we can pierce the veil of illusion and see our true nature.
Lao Tzu wrote “knowing others is wisdom. Knowing the self is enlightenment”. It seems that many traditions highly value this kind of knowledge and see it as a means to happiness. We should be vigilant of our Ego and keep in mind that is something that has been constructed, and therefore something that can be reconstructed and reshaped in whichever way we want. If it is inevitable to have an ego we should resort to shape it to our convenience. To see it as a tool and not as a master.
Alan Watts said: “[the] ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water” is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.”
In the video below Alan Watts talks about the illusion of the Ego and that its a social institution with no physical reality –
To know this, and to be open to evolve the idea that we have of ourselves will bring dynamism and evolution in our being: It is a good idea not to take oneself too seriously, for the identification of ourselves with an ‘I’ petrifies, on the other hand self-discovery and to laugh at oneself opens the gates to self-realization. Watts explained, “…man’s un-happiness is rooted in the feeling of anxiety which attends his sense of being an isolated individual or ego, separate from “life” or “reality” as a whole. On the other hand, happiness – a sense of harmony, completion, and wholeness – comes with the realization that the feeling of isolation is an illusion”