Ego and Desire

The feeling of a separate “I”, which we call ego-consciousness, is directly related to the strength of ignorance, greed, and hatred. The deepest meaning of ignorance is the believing in, identifying with and clinging to the ego, which as we have seen, is nothing but an illusive mental phenomenon. But because of this strong clinging to ego-consciousness, attachment/desire, anger/hatred arise and repeatedly gain strength.

The ego needs activity in order to exist. Like and dislike, attachment, aversion, greed and hatred are the main overt activities of the ego. The more desire and aversion we have the more alive we feel, the more real and concrete the ego seems. In reality, the ego depends on desire, its life-blood is desire. The ego and desire are like the two sides of a coin — one cannot exist without the other. The ego is projected desire, and desire is projected ego. It is like pedalling a bicycle: if we go on pedalling, the bicycle goes on moving; but if we stop pedalling the bicycle will start slowing down and eventually collapse. The more we go on generating desire the ego seems very real. When desiring stops the ego then appears as an illusion.

This is why desire cannot be satisfied. If we stop desire (and this means aversion also) then our sense of self starts getting weaker, it starts to dissolve. Actually, the objects we desire, like or dislike are not really that important. They are merely scapegoats or excuses for the activity of the ego, to prevent ego-death. Any object will do. Though to keep from appearing foolish, superficial or unwise the ego comes up with all kinds of good-sounding reasons and justifications for why it needs to acquire something or get away from something else.

That is why people in the West, especially in America, have yard- or garage-sales. They have attics, closets, and garages full of things they don’t use any longer, and not because it is necessarily worn out or broken. Some of it — clothing, toys, gadgets, tools, etc. were probably used very little or perhaps never. These people need to empty out their closets and attics in order to make room for more. Much of it, including the shopping trips, are simply more activities, more life-saving ruses of the ego. And even getting upset, irritated, and angry at others for seeming trivial things is often only more excited energy to make the ego seem more alive.

However, at the same time it entails and generates a lot of suffering. So we can see the direct connection between ignorance, desire and the ego.
This is why it is so difficult for the average person, who does not meditate, to quieten their mind and experience total rest. We are called human beings, but a better term would be “human doings”. Even in sleep the body will toss and turn and the mind goes on dreaming. The hardest thing for the average person to do is to sit still, not move the body at all, close the eyes, and do not go to sleep or get lost in daydreaming. After a few minutes they would become increasingly restless, wanting to do something. They cannot simply enjoy just being.

This is because the ego-self would feel uncomfortable, strange, useless and either go to sleep or start dissolving. The latter is in fact what happens during deep concentrated meditation. That is why many people shy away from or do not want to meditate. Many who do meditate, cannot go into deep meditation for very long. The ego shrinks away from the deep silence (even unconsciously) because it feels like death -ego death.

Ego or “I” consciousness arises as a resistance to the flow of impermanence coming through the senses. Resistance manifests as attraction or aversion to sense stimuli, including our thoughts, memories, and emotions etc. When attraction and aversion subside resistance also subsides and along with it the strength of ego awareness subsides. This can be directly observed during meditation.

Desire is also directly related to the past and future. When we see, hear, smell taste, touch, and think, the mind unconsciously brings in our past memories of attraction and aversion and reactions to the present sense stimulation, and then it projects these into the future with the subsequent thoughts, emotions, and reactions in the next moments (or microseconds). So the conditioned mind is always moving between the past and future, and this movement activity creates the illusion of time. It also creates the illusion of “I” consciousness. Both time and the ego are simultaneously created through the deepest inner activity of the mind, generated by ignorance and desire.

The practice of mindfulness or vipassana meditation is essentially a practice of keeping the attention in the present moment, being aware of whatever the body and mind is doing in the present moment. We try not to let the mind get carried away with attraction or aversion or allow it to remain lost in thought. We tune the attention on the flow of impermanence as it arises and passes away through the six senses. We try to watch and let go of resistance to discomfort or pain, to open up and relax more and more into the present.

When we can rest the mind (consciousness) more and more in the Present, then the past and future, desire and the ego all start dissolving. And with this suffering also vanishes. This is direct experience of the Dhamma, of the Four Noble Truths.