Before I get into ego traps, I need to explain what the ego is. I made a post previously about the self. But, for this post, I’m going to give a simple definition. Ego is the sensation of “I”. Ego is your idea of yourself. When asked to describe yourself, the ego is what you’re describing. The ego is your “persona” that you display not only to others, but that you yourself believe. It’s incomplete. This has to be true because consciousness can never be an object of itself.
Notice that I don’t say it’s inaccurate, just incomplete. You can never know exactly who you are. This is because, as far as we know, systems can’t simulate themselves. It always leads to infinite regression. Let’s use a computer system as a thought experiment.
Let’s say we want to build a computer system which perfectly simulates the universe. I mean the exact state and location of every atom, every gravitational wave, etc. We won’t concern ourselves about practicalities like speed, power draw, the limits of physics, or how it gets the initial state of the universe. We are going to ignore quantum randomness and locality issues like quantum entanglement. I’m sure there are other quirks of physics I don’t know about, but we are going to ignore all of those and assume the universe is far more Newtonian than it is. The point of this experiment doesn’t depend on the actual universe being Newtonian. It’s just to demonstrate a point.
Our computer system will be located on earth. Picture an imaginary sphere around our galaxy. Outside of this sphere is what our computer simulates. It ignores the inside. The simulation gets inaccurate over time because the part which it isn’t simulating (our galaxy) propagates light out at the speed of light away from us, affecting the simulation. But, since we are good system designers, we account for this. We program it so that the imaginary sphere automatically expands at the speed of light (the fastest information can travel in our universe). This means that the system does not try to simulate the slowly, ever-expanding sphere (our galaxy) in which it resides. We now have a perfectly accurate simulation of the universe, minus a relatively small expanding sphere.
This is working fine, so let’s upgrade the system. Now, it simulates the whole universe minus earth. We use the same solution as before, making an expanding sphere around the earth which it ignores. It will only take 8 minutes until that sphere touches the sun and we can no longer simulate the sun. Soon enough, we won’t be able to simulate the solar system either, and it just gets worse from there. So, we upgrade the system again. Now, it simulates a sphere outside the building in which it sits. In no time flat, we already can’t simulate the earth any more.
How small can we shrink this sphere? The smallest we can make it is if our initial non-simulated volume is coterminous with the outline of our computer system. Perhaps we can even shrink it smaller if our system is very large and some parts don’t come online immediately. But we can never create a perfect simulation with this strategy because we can’t shrink the non-simulated area to zero. If we try to simulate the inside of our imaginary volume, then we get an infinite regression. If a system simulates itself, then it has to simulate the simulation of itself. And so on to infinity. Maybe this is somehow possible, but it doesn’t seem so.
Returning to the Ego
The brain is a kind of computer. Like the system described in the thought experiment above, the brain also has a model of itself. Some people know themselves very well and their model is very good, others seem to have no self-awareness at all. But no one can have a complete model of who they are. Therefore, you always have a mysterious element to yourself. I wanted to use a thought experiment to make the problem clear, but Alan Watts explained this idea in terms of a set of simpler analogies which advocate the same idea:
“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth”.
“You cannot touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger”.
I’m using the term “model of oneself” very loosely. Obviously we don’t have to simulate all our neurons to know things about ourselves. There are other meaningful mental representations that we use to understand ourselves, such as the labels others give us. Yogis that spend years in caves can be compared to a system where the “sphere” of unawareness is kept very small. Yogis are some of the most self-aware members of our species in a manner of speaking. And humans are already the most self-aware species on earth. At the other end of the spectrum you have orangutans, chimps and gorillas. Some can pass the “mirror test”, the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. They are less self-aware, but the capacity is still there.
Assuming a high level of awareness is desirable, and I believe it is for almost everyone, there are some things to watch out for. They are called “ego traps”. What they do is they take you from an aware and alert state of consciousness in touch with reality to one that is spellbound by thoughts, hardly perceiving the world around you. Perhaps only perceiving it enough not to bump into things. One thought after another, oftentimes negative and unproductive, with no ability to stop their steady flow. Ego traps are the “gateway thoughts” that get you started in this insane state of mind.
The ego traps which everyone talks about are thoughts in the form of words. That’s because words are all language allows us to use and everything else is simply referenced by the words. But keep in mind anything that is in consciousness can be an ego trap. The nature of each person’s mind is different, so the ego traps they fall for are different. I just want to explicitly list a few common ones because once you get an idea of what you’re looking for, it’s easier not to be fooled. Here are a few:
- Feeling superior or inferior to others.
- Thinking you are enlightened.
- Wanting to be perfectly safe and secure.
- Always desiring happiness.
- Thinking there is something missing in your life and chasing after it.
- Needing to always be right.
- Trying to control how other people act.
- Needing the approval of someone else or society.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying these desires are wrong to have or that myself and others who write about spirituality never have them. I’m saying they are often a gateway into a false sense of identity; your egoic identity. So, to be more aware, watch out for these thoughts. They can often enter in through the back door without you noticing, kicking off a chain reaction of other thoughts which create a grand myth. The ego likes to make up a grand cohesive story about who you are and it hopes you’ll buy into it. The more you think about it and feed into its narrative, the more you identify with that story.
How does this work? It’s very simple. All that I have listed basically boils down to a feeling of something being missing in your life. If you pursue the approval of others, then you subconsciously think that you must need the approval of others. The harder you pursue others’ approval, the more you feel you must need it. Otherwise, why would you be pursuing it, right? This is the rationalization your mind creates. This isn’t to say that every instance of trying to gain someone’s approval is bad or you shouldn’t try. I’m saying be aware of those thoughts. If you want to be aware, don’t pursue the approval of others without knowing that’s what you’re doing.
Your sensation of identity takes the form of the thoughts you don’t know you’re having. The harder you pursue happiness, the more you will feel like you lack it. The more you always need to be right, the more you worry that you’re not. The more you want to be safe and secure, the less safe and secure you will feel. It’s okay to have desires. The desire to eat and continue living is necessary for survival. Just be aware of desire. Without the awareness, you take on a false sense of identity.
Hide and Go Seek
The fundamental game of being is like the game of hide and go seek. We hide in the thoughts we don’t know we’re having. They become who we are. Then one day, something or someone wakes us up and we realize we were playing a game the entire time. This could take 10 seconds or 10 years depending on the person. But, the game goes on several times in a single human life, played out in a different way each time. Just imagine all the ways the game is being played across all of humanity. The game of being a good person and not an evil one. The game of seeking happiness. The game of seeking enlightenment. The game of chasing after something. The game of pretending things are serious, that you’re not even playing a game. That’s why we find the joker character so fascinating. He plays devil’s advocate. While everyone is taking life deadly serious, he dares to treat it like a game. The Christian religion is an absolutely marvelous game. The stakes of the game are eternal bliss versus eternal damnation. Christianity is the version of the game taken to the extreme.
Maybe I shouldn’t publish this because I’m giving away a secret. I’m spoiling your opportunity to find out what it’s all about on your own. As Alan Watts says, I’ve given the show away. The main idea I want to get across in this post is that if you want to stop playing “hide and go seek”, if you want to stay found for a while, then you need awareness. And ego traps are the thoughts that pull you out of awareness, so watch out for them.