How To Practice Self-Inquiry (Part 1): The Basic Theory About Ego According To Ramana Maharsi
Updated: Mar 8, 2019
The Ego Self: The starting point of our separation (from the divine)
One of the primary tenets of Ramana Maharsi’s teaching revolves around what he termed as "ego”. Ego is the “small self” that disconnects us from our real Divine Self. Ego hence constitutes the basis of duality. To transcend duality, it is necessary for us to stop identifying with the “small self” or the “ego” and realize our Divine Self. This Divine Self is no other than the eternal Brahman.
It’s my understanding that this Ego gives birth to three fundamental impurities (see at the end of this page) that ultimately binds prevents us from recognizing our essential nature (Sat-chit-ananda).
Recognizing the nature of “ego” or small self is extremely important when it comes to Ramana’s Self-inquiry practice. The essence of Self-inquiry practice is to seek the “source” (Brahman) of this ego-self.
Our state of bondage (unenlightenment) was inadvertently caused by our erroneous identification with our ego self. Our Divine Self is ever liberated and free, and we are THAT. If we can’t recognize this fundamental truth, then the problem is more of an identity crisis than anything else. Somehow, we totally managed to forget our authentic identity. We've become like that poor man from the fairy tale who doesn’t know his house was practically sitting on a goldmine.
How you forgot your true nature
At some point in your life, presumably when you were a child, you had full access to your true self. Then you learned how to think. With thinking, you learned how to discriminate between good and evil, high and low, hopes and fears, this and that, etc. This is the where we enter into the world of duality. Thoughts veered you into see this world dualistically. Since we almost never question our thoughts or never look into the nature of thoughts, the apparent dualistic thoughts become fully habitual and automatic.
You can consider your thoughts as a large ruthless army on a battlefield. Each soldier of this army can be considered as a single thought. A single thought, by itself, is not that much of a deal. However, when hundreds of thoughts started to appear in your mind, you had become overwhelmed by them. When that happened, you had lost focus on attending your beingness for a moment. The army of thoughts kept coming back with even more soldiers, and you lost your inwardness again. This cycle kept on going until you totally forgot how to feel your own beingness. You have been living in this condition for years. Now, you are living in a damn irony where it's natural to have gazillions of thoughts inside your head, and beingness has become a mysterious concept. According to Ramana Maharsi,
"Ignorance - ajnana - is of two kinds: (1) Forgetfulness of the Self. (2) Obstruction to the knowledge of the Self. Aids are meant for eradicating thoughts; these thoughts are the re-manifestations of predispositions remaining in seed-form; they give rise to diversity from which all troubles arise." (1)
Sometimes you do get the taste of your beingness. For most people, it happens during super deep meditation in Samadhi where your thoughts are temporarily sublimated. But you have no clue how to get access on demand outside of your meditation sessions and off the cushion. More importantly, you don't know how to permanently abide in your own beingness without getting interrupted by your own thoughts 24/7.
To taste the freedom of your own luminous nature, you need tame the army of thoughts. But how can you take on this army? Do you want to go against them head to head on the field? It can be an option, but it's not a viable one. You are going alone in this fight; where else your opponents are hundreds of thousands in number. Your chances of taming them through some form of mind control may not work. It's a long arduous process. Chances are high that you'll not be able to accomplish them in this lifetime.
Ramana Maharsi mentioned few times that even incredibly deep states of meditation and samadhi, where your concentration is so strong that you can’t sense the external world, will not be able to permanently pacify those thoughts as they will return after deep samadhi is over. (2)
There's another way. It's much more direct approach than the previous one, but it will be not be easy. The most direct way to take out an army of thoughts is to tame the king of the army. Defeat the King and the army will be under your command.
So, who is this King of all thoughts?
The king of thoughts is none other than the ego. That's right. The ego is proudly helming the title of the king of thoughts. It has various other names too. The ego has been called by various names by Ramana Maharsi – such as as the individuality of a person, the root thought and the “I”-thought. Ramana Maharsi also equates the ego with the mind.
The Ego as defined by Ramana Maharsi
The individuality of the person is operative as the perceiver of the existence of thoughts and of their sequence. This individuality is the ego, or as people say ‘I’.(3)
Arranging thoughts in the order of value, the ‘I’ thought is the all-important thought. Personality-idea or thought is also the root or the stem of all other thoughts, since each idea or thought arises only as someone’s thought and is not known to exist independently of the ego. The ego therefore exhibits thought-activity. (4)
Ego is ‘I-thought’. In its subtle form it remains a thought, whereas in its gross aspect it embraces the mind, the senses and the body.(5)
The mind is only a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will vanish automatically. The ego and the mind are the same. The ego is the root-thought from which all other thoughts arise. (6)
Default Mode Network (DMN): Scientific evidences of activities of Ego based thoughts
Recent development of scientific studies on ego can be very interesting. You may wonder if Scientists have any valid info on the type of ego we are talking about here right now. Yes, they actually have. In fact, they even have a more modern name for it. It's called "Default Mode Network" or DMN for shot. Mouthful and catchy name, don't you think? Certainly sounds much better than the ominous sounding "ego" or medieval sounding "king of thought".
What is DMN? It is a network of brain regions that's get activated when you are idle and (or) not focusing exclusively on any task or job. In other words, DMN activates when your mind is in sort of wandering state. (7)
At this stage, what you have in your mind is mostly self-referential thoughts ("I”, “me", "mine" thoughts) and thoughts about your past, present and future. That's why scientists sometimes usually view DMN as blah-blah network or ego. (8, 9)
When your mind is wondering in useless thoughts, your brain tends to get very busy even when you are physically idle. Gary Weber, author of this wonderful book called "happiness beyond thought", said that "only about 5% of the energy consumed by the brain is used for activities such as reading, or routine tasks; the vast majority of the energy used by the brain (about 20% of the entire body's energy consumption) is consumed continuously by a very busy brain." (10)
What happens when you subdue your ego?
When you’ll be able to finally defeat the King thought, meaning when you’ll be able see through this “I”-thought (or merge this “I”-thought with its source as Ramana Maharsi described it) as a result of your spiritual practice or grace (or both), the adjunct thoughts will be tamed. Which means thoughts will no longer be able to obscure your luminous nature. You'll be permanently established in your beingness.
This means you will be finally able to establish a constant and uninterruptible access to your own Self (which constitutes the source of genuine happiness). You will stop looking for and running after happiness, unlike normal people do. Simultaneously, you will be behaving like all normal people do in this world: eating, drinking, sleeping, laughing and crying, doing dirty dishes, making a living, having fun with friends and family, going to work, making love, working towards your goals and dreams, etc.
My guru Ramaji considers this state, where you embody your authentic being all the time, a stateless state or natural state (11). Ramana Maharsi mentioned this state as complete enlightenment or spiritual liberation.(12)
Appearance of the ego
When we talk about ego, we don’t usually focus on the appearance of ego very much. This is because ego is literally just a thought and as such it is very fleeting in nature. However, even though ego is basically nothing but a thought construct, the presence of it can be felt easily. You are probably already very familiar with one of ego’s common appearances. It is the incessant voice in your head. It is the chat master that's always online and always ready to bug the hell out of you.
However, despite having such a strong presence, ego is not a self-existing entity. This becomes self-evident as you progress along the path of Self-inquiry or have started receiving RASA Transmission. As I said before, it is just bunch of neurochemical signal in your brain designed to give you a distinct sense of individual self. That’s why your ego appears as "I" to you. This "I" is the expression of ego consciousness and is not same as "I AM" or "I" feeling of your being that shines forth when ego consciousness subsides as a result of practicing Self-inquiry or ascending to higher levels of consciousness with the help of RASA Shaktipat transmission.
That's why Ramana Maharsi called it as "I" thought in his discourses, to distinct the fake I from the real I feeling. According to Michael James, ".....the term ‘I’-feeling is understood to mean our.... self-awareness, in its pure form it would be only our real self, ‘I am’, but so long as it is experienced mixed with any adjuncts, it would be the thought called ‘I’, namely our ego." (13)
Nature of the ego
You may have known the term “ego” for years, but do you know its exact nature? Most people think ego in a rather benign point of view. Some people think ego gives a person his personality. Some people even emphasize to have a “healthy ego”! But if I were to ask you to define the exact nature of your ego, you will probably have a lot of difficulty coming up with an answer (unless of-course, you are a season reader into the lore of Ramana Maharsi’s teaching). Despite having a near invisible presence, ego’s nature is as complex as it gets. If you have no idea your ego’s true nature till now, then get ready to be surprised:
Your ego continuously creates the mental world that you live in
Ever heard the saying that the world is merely an illusion? Many sages said it many times, yet it is hard to believe for any normal people. When I first heard about this kind of statement; I was like “Really? Can I please walk through the walls now? That would be an awesome superpower”
The world may or may not be an illusion, but the mental world that lives in your brain certainly is. You view this world through your sense organs, right? Problems arise when ego starts filtering the information your sense organ feeds to your brain. This is why you may find one woman beautiful, but that same woman may be labeled as unattractive to another person. The experience of seeing is the same, but it is ego “I” that alters the meaning of experience.
The holograms may represent something with near perfect accuracy, but nonetheless, holograms are just projections. Similarly, your mental world may feel like the real world, but it is just a projection of the ego.
It is the false center or false core of your existence
Because you live in world created by the “I”-thought, you mistake the “I”-thought or ego to be your core of your experience. Your ego makes you feel like you have a center where all of your experiences are originating from. In reality, your state of being or beingness is the real and true center of your existence. Your ego is not your core. In fact, your ego or “I”-thought will never ever be able to be something like that because its existence is as volatile as sand castle built on a shore. After all, ego has the same properties as any other fleeting thoughts. How can your core be built upon something impermanent like that?
Your ego, in reality, doesn’t exist in literal sense. That’s why Ramana Maharsi acknowledged that “Ego is non-existent, otherwise you would be two instead of one – you the ego and you the Self. You are a single, indivisible whole” (14)
It creates separation when there is none
As soon as you start believing the ego to be center of your experience, you ego will immediately create an illusion of separate self. It will disconnect you from your own true Self or beingness.
This gives rise to a feeling of separation. This feeling will lead you to believe that you have a separate finite self. In reality, you don’t have two selves. You have only one Self and that’s your being. You can be never separated from your beingness. You will never be capable to become anything else other than your true being either. Sometimes, clouds in the sky become so dark that you can’t see clear blue sky for few moments. Does that mean the sky was literally “not there” or gone for few moments?
Nonetheless, you can’t overlook the fact that your sense of identity has been misplaced already. When your identity of pure being gets swapped with something impermanent and fragile, you started feeling endless fear, stress and unhappiness. You now have a separate self that feels threaten by this apparent imperfect world. It needs protection and perfection to survive in the world. The finite separate self feels way too small and too insignificant in this vast universe. It feels uncertain. Therefore, your finite self will start looking for acquiring things from "external" world. The finite self will do anything to get the things that it believes to be lacking:
Now your separate finite self wants to be happy, even though your true nature is happiness itself.
Now your separate finite self wants to be loved, even though your true nature is an embodiment of love itself.
Now your separate finite self wants to have the sense of freedom, when your true nature is the ultimate freedom itself.
It tries to comment on anything and everything
As I have said before, one of the outward manifestations of your ego is the voice inside your head. The ego loves to comment on everything that it is happening around you. It loves blabbing. In fact, it loves blabbing so much that it doesn’t know when to shut up. The only time you’ll find it fully silent is when you are in deep sleep!! That’s why the act of sleeping is so peaceful.
You’ll sometimes find this voice useful. For most of the time, you absolutely don’t need its commentary. You don’t need saying yourself mentally “I am going to poop” when you know you are going to bathroom for pooping. Similarly, you don’t need hearing commentary on everything you see, do, hear, smell or taste.
Gary Weber calls this useless mental chatter as “self-referential thoughts.” (15) Just because the ego can comment on anything and everything, it doesn’t mean it has the capacity to control anything. Your heart pumps your blood without the intervention of conscious thoughts. Same hold true for almost all of your bodily functions. Even complex activities like driving cars, solving math problem are solved “off-line - non-consciously"(16) but ego usually claims the doership. Solve the math, and the ego thinks “I am a math whiz”. What if you can’t solve the problem? Prepare for some backlash from ego.
The ability to shut up or turn down volume of this voice in your head can be considered a great skill to have. In fact, some situations demands that either you shut this voice down or ignore it completely. Ever heard about peak state or flow state? It’s more common among the athletes. Athletes practice their skill again and again so that during the actual performance they let their body go autopilot. This strategy deliberately bypasses the voices inside their head.
Ego likes to label everything
My boss is a bad person. She is a dumb. Right for safety is important than rights of privacy. Conservatives are not good for democracy. There is no such thing as reincarnation. I got mugged in your city; what kind of shithole you’re living in?
These are some of the millions of labels we use to define our world. For us, labels are like sign post on the path. It guides us while we are in this maze called Life, or so we thought.
Labeling means judging people, objects and experiences into various categories. Labeling everything is a way for the ego to make sense of this world. Ego loves to reach for conclusion and without labeling; it can't reach a conclusion (however superficial it may be). That's why we have a tendency to instantly judge everything around us. Our actions, attitude and most importantly, peace of mind are influenced by this judgment. You try to mingle with people you "like", but don’t even want to say hi to people you "dislike". You try to run after experiences that you find "pleasurable", but you will avoid "bad" experiences like a plague. You can't find satisfaction in this world, even if you are a highly privileged person living in a highly privileged country.
Labels consist of instant judgments as well as long held beliefs. When you instantly judge someone without considering the actual facts, you are just putting a label on him/her. But when you repeat the process again and again, it may become permanent belief.
Because of ego’s constant labeling, we don’t often get any chance to see people, objects or experiences as they are. We don't meet with people. We only meet with our superficial judgments and labels that we put on these people. We don’t feel our experience. Instead, we experience our mental justification of those events, nothing more.
To understand the process of ego’s labeling, I had conducted an experiment on myself few years back. Every day at my office, from 10 AM to 11 AM, I used to mindfully watch my thought and see how many unnecessary labels I put on my colleagues. As soon as I made a judgment, I noted it down in my computer.
I ran this experiment every day, from 10 AM to 11:30 AM, for one month. The result of this experiment, quite frankly, was frightening and eye opening at the same time. I used to consider myself a fairly non-judgmental fellow. But the notepad was saying otherwise. Here is my RAW notepad entry for just one day (I have replaced the names with pronouns).
Not only ego judges others; it also judges itself constantly. And in a weird way, it often ends up misjudging. If you investigate carefully, you will probably find you have many false labels on yourself. In fact, it is more likely you operate in this world based on these labels and most likely don’t question these labels up until not. At the age of 25, I have literally had hundreds of labels on myself.
Some of them weren’t true at all, but I believed them to be true for as long I can remember. Now, I know they are false, and have seen through them. Some of them are true, though. I accepted them as they are, as part of my personality and came in terms with them. I am, after all, a human being with flaws and imperfection. I don’t need to be perfect, do I?
If you haven’t developed the skill to be mindful of thoughts and still believe in each and every thought of yours, then this habit of labeling is going to cost you a lot. You’ll find it hard to accept life as it is. It will be difficult for you to forgive and forget. It will cost you wonderful relationships. Your ego is always polarizing things with labels. To ego, this world will never be perfect. Therefore, if you are aching for some kind of perfection, like a perfect relationship or perfect marriage, you’ll always be disappointed
Do you think you should stop judging your external world based on your labeling? Yes, I think you should. But I don’t think it is possible to become complete non-judgmental until you rise above your ego. Complete equanimity is inherent in your beingness, but it will be unaccessible to you as long as even the trace amount of “I” thought left in your consciousness.
But Can I really live my life without an ego: What really happens when you lose that small self?
Some people don’t like the idea of ego death at all. They fear that ego death will lead them unstable. This is an understandable fear. Here’s the only ONE thing that you need to know about ego death or demise of your small “I”. And that is:
You will be able to function without it just fine
If you have become concerned over the all the talking about ego death, don't worry. An ego death is nothing dramatic like that. Remember what I have earlier in this chapter... Your ego is essentially is a false core, made out of illusory thoughts. It will rise in your mind with a thought. It will die too as soon as a thought vanishes in your being. You have an ego that already rise and subside a thousand times before. So, you already have experienced ego death. In fact, you are experiencing it right now even as we speak. Yet, you continue identifying with that dying breed. It’s your clinging and inexplicable attachment to your ego that’s causing all those suffering.
But when you stop identifying with it, you permanently subdue your ego, period. Yes, you will still have thoughts, and yes, you will still feel emotions. But after your ego death, you will no longer be overwhelmed by your thoughts and feeling. You will be able to do all the things that others can do. But since you are not clinging to small self anymore, you will be operating from your beingness or natural state. In this state, the outcome of your work will not be able to put a stain on your happiness. If anything, your capability as a human being will improve. Why? Because when you are operating from beingness or natural state; these two things happen automatically for you:
The internal monologue and useless mental thoughts will get reduced considerably. When this happens, you will feel incredible stillness or silence deep within your heart. This is a natural outcome of removing stubborn fixation from egoic "I", "me", "mine" thoughts. This is why Ramana Maharsi said “The Highest Form of Grace is Silence (mowna). It is also the highest upadesa (instruction)."(17)
The remaining thoughts can't distract you anymore. Even if they do sometimes, they don't matter to you that much. When you realize your real identity is like a vast indestructible luminous sky, it is less likely you would be intimidated by dark clouds or even thunderous turbulence.
1. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talk 249. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed.). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
2. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talks 54. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
3. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talks 25. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
4. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talks 26. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
5. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talks 285. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
6. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talks 195. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
7. Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Friston, K. J. (2010). The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas. Brain : A Journal of Neurology, 133(Pt 4), 1265–1283. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awq010
8. Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Smallwood, J., & Spreng, R. N. (2014). The default network and self-generated thought: component processes, dynamic control, and clinical relevance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1316, 29–52. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12360
9. Carhart-Harris, R. L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P. J., Shanahan, M., Feilding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., … Nutt, D. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 20. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020
10. Weber, G. (2011). What is the Default Mode Network? Retrieved from http://happinessbeyondthought.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-is-default-mode-network-folk-on.html
11. Ramaji. (2014). Who Am I? Meditation: A Guide for the West to Self-Inquiry and Self-Realization in the Living Tradition of Sri Ramana Maharshi: Ramaji: 9781502794925: Amazon.com: Books (1st ed.). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
12. Maharsi, R. (2006a). Talk 146. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.
14. Cohen, S.S.,(1993) Guru Ramana. Memories and Notes. (6th edition, p54). Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1993. P54
15. Weber, G. (2011). What is the Default Mode Network? Retrieved from http://happinessbeyondthought.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-is-default-mode-network-folk-on.html
16. Weber, G. (2013). The Neuroscience of Suffering...And Its End...."no thoughts"? Retrieved from http://happinessbeyondthought.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-neuroscience-of-sufferingand-its.html
17. Maharsi, R. (2006). Talks 518. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharsi (1st ed). Tamil Nadu: Sri Ramanasramam Tiruvannamalai.