The word ego is used in many different ways, and this can lead to confusion when the specific and implied meaning is not made explicit and clarified.
Buddhism & Ego
In Buddhism, the term is used in approximately the following way.
The ego refers to one way mind/awareness can function. More specifically, the way awareness functions when it is exclusively identified with the body/personality – with the habitual patterns of sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Awareness is identified with the small self.
Of course, the patterns of the small self are not fixed, and there is no absolute separation between these patterns and the larger world.
The patterns are always new, always at least a little different. There is nothing fixed that lasts through time.
And the patterns are part of a holarchy, with three distinct characteristics. They are self-organizing and seemingly independent of the larger whole. They are seamlessly embedded in the larger social/ecological systems. And they are composed of innumerable subsystems. All these are aspects of the existence of the small self. When awareness is exclusively identified with the small self, it tends to emphasize the first and ignore or de-emphasize the two other.
As we study these patterns and the tendency of awareness to identify with them – through contemplation and meditation – we gradually come to experience directly the lack of fixedness of the small self, and the lack of absolute separation between the small self and the rest of existence. As we deepen and clarify this experience, we can soften (and eventually drop) the exclusive identification with the small self and open up for Big Mind.
Ego & Identity
An interesting aspect of how awareness functions when identified with the small self, is identity. Awareness tends to function in an exclusively dualistic way in these cases, which means that there is an identification with one end of each polarity, and a dis-identification with the other end of the polarity.
Awareness is identified with the small self, and not with the rest of Existence. It is identified as male, and not female. As tall and not short. As young and not old. As black and not white. As a carpenter, and not a professor. As stupid and not intelligent. As outgoing and not shy. As nice and not unethical and bullish. As existing and not nonexisting. As human and not other beings. As Christian and not Muslim. As republican and not democrat. And so on – the list is for all practical purposes endless.
This identification comes out of a dualistic perception, and tends to reinforce a dualistic perception as well. We are this and not that. This form of identification is by its nature exclusive. It allows for some forms of perceiving oneself and the world, and exclude other ways. It allows for some (conscious and chosen) behaviors, and exclude other behaviors (and when these do occur, they can lead to experiences of shame, guilt and often to repression and rationalization).
It leads to a relatively rigid way of being in the world, and to a rollercoaster ride of emotions and struggles. We make brave attempts to see ourselves as aligned with our identity, and to exclude anything that does not fit.
It also leads to a good deal of projections. We see one quality in ourselves, and the “opposite” quality in others. This tends to reinforce a sense of separation, lack of empathy, and a justification of treating “them” according to different guidelines than “us”.
All these patterns play themselves out in all our lives. When we are aware of them, we can relate to them more consciously.
We can also allow ourselves to open for a more inclusive, fluid and porous identity. And we can do this through a wide range of approaches.
One is to work with projections. Every quality and characteristic that we are aware of, are in the inner and the outer world. We can explore this in our daily life. Whenever an attraction or aversion comes up, we can explore which quality triggered it, and how this quality is specifically present in the inner and outer world – in myself as well as others. How does it play itself out in my life? How can I include it – honestly – in my conscious identity.
Another approach is using various forms of gestalt-inspired techniques, such as Voice Dialogue. We can also take this further by using the Big Mind process, which explores how the mind functions in all different ways on personal and transpersonal levels. This too allows our identity to soften and become more inclusive, fluid and porous.
Becoming aware of the nature of mind – empty of form – is another way of loosening a fixed identification with the small self, and a specific identity. We see that these manifestations are only one aspect of Existence. The other is spaciousness and clarity. And each of the manifestations have this as their nature. They are not solid in any way.
Small Self, Personality & Ego
Small self, personality and ego are quite distinct in this view.
The small self is this fluid pattern of physical body, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It is not fixed, and not absolutely separate from the larger or smaller whole.
Personality is the impression of a somewhat fixed and stable pattern within the small self.
Ego refers to identification with this personality.
This means that even when awareness awakens to its true nature (the absolute), and then to Big Mind (absolute and relative), there is still a small self and the impression of a personality. Neither of those goes away, as long as this body is still alive. They just become a vehicle for Big Mind in this physical world, a way to be physically engaged in this world.