As we attempt to arrive at a finer understanding of ourselves, we begin to realize that things are not as black and white as they seem. Sure, for the purposes of simplifying things it may suffice to split things into two camps and say that the ego is the false self, while the true self is simply the felt sense of existence, the I AM. But this sort of understanding is incomplete and does little to further our own growth within this lifetime. Then there are more ambiguous words like “personality” and “nature” which we try and fit into one camp or the other and yet they never seem to fit nicely within those lines. The people who equate their personality with their own ego end up becoming bland and dry as they seek to eradicate any color and vibrancy from their own self-expression. Whereas, those who equate their own nature with that of their I AM essence lose all capacity for restraint or common sense, acting on every impulse and rationalizing it to themselves as something that just is.
So, in this post I want to try and redefine some of these identifiers in such a way as will make sense and remove any ambiguity as to what these words mean. Even though, we tend to use some of these words interchangeably, they are not interchangeable. In fact, missing this point is the root of why a lot of us spend years spinning in circles in our own journeys of self-discovery. Hopefully, this post will help bring some clarity to the ways in which you understand yourself.
The 4 Layers of Identity
Firstly, let’s begin by getting rid of the words “true” and “false”. I find they create more confusion than clarity.
This “I”, that you are, is a composite sketch built through 4 layers. And with each added layer, there is an enhancement of our sense of individuality as well as our sense of separation from the world surrounding us. The fours layers are that of:
Each and every one of us operates through all 4 layers. No layer is any more “true” or “false” than the other but they do operate in a hierarchy. Essence is the root layer and the foundation upon which our Nature rests, which in turn supports thePersonality which eventually facilitates an Ego. Essence can exist without the other 3, Nature can exist without the Personality and Ego, and finally the Personality can exist without an Ego. But not the other way around. You cannot have an Ego, which is devoid of a personality, nature or essence.
Imagine that you are looking through the viewfinder of a camera at a breathtaking landscape. At first the image that you see is the closest rendition of the scene being witnessed. It is the unaltered replica of the original. But then, as the expert photographer you are, you decide that what you need is to increase the exposure by allowing more light in therefore making the picture brighter. This is the first stage of modification. Next, you also decide that you need to increase the saturation to allow more color in the image. This is your second stage of modification. And finally, you decide that there is some extra stuff on the periphery that you would rather not have in your picture and so you crop it out. This is your third stage of modification. The final product is a slightly modified, enhanced yet completely unique perspective on the same scene that a hundred other photographers are taking pictures of.
Similarly, this “I” that you are, was built through many layers and at different stages during your formative years. Let’s take a look at each of these layers in further detail:
Essence: This is the unfiltered first layer which forms the root of the identity. It is the quality of existence or beingness which is universal to all things that exist, animate or inanimate. In spiritual speak it has been termed as the “presence”, the “isness”, the “suchness” of everything. Or when turned inward it is the “presence”, the “beingness” or the “I-am-ness” of our own existence. Even if everything we thought we knew about ourselves turned out to be a mirage, this is one thing we can hold certain, that there is something that exists – even if that something cannot be expressed in words. This is the Essential Self , theTao that cannot be spoken : the undefined, unbounded and undifferentiated sense of just being.
At this level of existence, there is no sense of separation between the self and other. The presence of the self and the presence of the world are experienced as the same one presence of all that is. Or to put it differently, The “I-am-ness” of self and the “is-ness” of the world is felt as one and the same thing.
At this level, the self is experienced simply as “being”.
Nature: This is the second layer which creates the first modification in our identity. The Natural Self is our basic identity as a creation of Mother Nature. It is related to our own biology, to the natural world around us. It is encoded within our genetics: some aspects inherited from our ancestry and some aspects shaped by the natural and cosmic forces at play at the moment of our creation into these human forms. Your natural identity is formed very early within the womb itself and becomes evident within the first few months of your birth.
No two babies are ever alike. Each one has a certain temperament, certain predispositions, certain quirks, certain inclinations, certain talents, certain limitations. In fact, this is not something that is unique only to human infants. Animals too share the same qualities. A lioness can give birth to a litter of cubs each with their own unique nature.
Astrology and sun signs are more closely linked to your Nature than they are to your personality even though they are often confused to represent the latter. For example, it is true that Tauruses tend to be bull headed, Gemini’s tend to be impulsive and Leo’s tend to be independent. But as I stated earlier, your Nature is a function of many factors – the conditions of the cosmos at the time of your creation being just one of them.
To be connected with one’s own nature immediately brings one into harmony with that of our natural world. While there is some sense of separation that is experienced at this level there is still a very strong sense of being interconnected with everything. The natural world is felt as a giant cooperative, and the response is one of service to it. It is something akin to the relationship a small child feels with its mother.
At this level of existence, the self is experienced as a “creature”.
Personality: This is the third layer which creates the second modification in our identity. This personality is our basic identity as a social creature. It is who we fashion ourselves into in relation to those around us. Every human being has a personality because every human being has been raised by other humans. The one exception to this rule is in the case of feral children: those extremely rare cases of infants that were raised in the wild by animals. These children never had the opportunity to develop this layer of their identity to its full capacity. Yet, they do exhibit very rudimentary personalities since they are most often raised by the more intelligent species of animals, like chimpanzees, wolves, wild dogs etc. that live in complex social worlds and thus also develop personalities for the same reason we do.
The personality is our social identity. It is what makes us recognizable to each other as different individuals within our species rather than just clones of one another. Our personalities begin developing just a few months after birth and by the age of just a year can clearly be distinguished from that of our peers. The personality is exhibited in terms of our likes and dislikes, what excites us, what bores us, what terrifies us, what piques our curiosity, how we spontaneously express ourselves, who we are drawn to, what makes us withdraw, what causes us to expand, what we tend to resist, how we relate to others, how we relate to ourselves.
To be fully connected with one’s own personality allows us to find our own role, function and purpose within the social order. Whether that is to be a leader, a visionary, a planner, a designer, an organizer, an analyst, a creative, an artisan, a technician, a healer, a tradesman, a labourer, a revolutionary – a fully integrated personality is the product and reflection of the social times and circumstances in which you live. And so, the full expression of that personality has the power to affect the social whole in profound ways.
At this level of existence, the self is experienced as an “individual”.
Ego: This is the fourth layer which creates the third modification in our identity. This is our basic identity as a thinking, self-aware, self-reflecting and self-evaluating organism. It is the identity that is being manufactured and designed in real-time from one moment to the next based on feedback we are receiving from our environments measured against certain pre-programmed evaluation criteria (in the form of our beliefs and value systems). The ego is the last layer of identity to develop because it requires a certain degree of intelligence in order to be sustained. Human beings are the only species capable of creating ego identities. The ego first begins to make its appearance in children as young as two years old however, it only becomes the dominant operating layer a bit later on when the child is around five or six years of age. By adolescence, it begins to subjugate or drown out the influence/awareness of all the other layers (except the personality) and by adulthood it becomes firmly rooted as the dominant throne of our sense of identity.
The Ego is an artificial/information-based construct built on ideals, values, morals, attitudes, behaviours, habits, patterns and traumas that we have witnessed and internalized as our “reality evaluation critiera”. It is like a program that is constantly running in the background, tapping into the computer’s resources in different ways and creating an overall output which may be highly efficient and functional or highly inefficient and dysfunctional depending on the quality of the programming. If you equate yourself to a computer then your essence would be the electricity that powers the machine, your nature would be the fundamental design of your hardware (are you a Mac or a PC – what were you designed to do), your personality would be your OS and finally your ego would be the various programs that have been downloaded and are using up the resources of your machine. These programs can either be beneficial and lead to the machines optimal functioning or they could be malicious ware that causes the system to crash regularly causing loss of data and other issues.
Of all the above layers, the ego is also the most malleable, most open to change or transformation, both positive or negative.
At this level of existence, the self is experienced as the construct of “me” (with all associated labels and identifiers such as name, D.O.B., occupation, marital status, sexual orientation, religious and political views etc.)
The History of Identity
The evolution of man has really been a story of our shift in identity. As we evolved in our intelligence so too did our sense of identity bias itself towards the newer more sophisticated regions of our brains. This obsession we have with the newest, latest technology is a pattern that has perpetuated itself since the first homo sapiens walked the earth.
We began as a species rooted in the natural self. With little intelligence other than our ability to use rudimentary tools, we learned to respect and lived in harmony with our natural environment.
However, as we evolved we began to congregate and develop more complex social environments because we realized there was strength in numbers. We began to learn that the elements could be harnessed for our own needs. We learned to make fire to provide us food, fuel and warmth. We learned to harness water to irrigate our fields and the earth to harvest crops of our choosing. In a sense, we were beginning to learn that nature could be controlled. We learned to harness the power of wind to power our boats for exploration.
In our earliest stages of civilization, as we began to form villages and tribes, our sense of identity became rooted in our personalities. The social world now superseded the natural world in our hierarchy of importance. With our personalities came our social roles that allowed us to fit into the scheme of things. There were the leaders, the visionaries, the hunters, the warriors, the traders, the messengers, the teachers, the healers and so on: these archetypal personality types formed our very first occupations. And it was very easy to identify at a very early age what someone would grow up to be. Yet, our connection with nature remained somewhat harmonious even though it had shifted from a relationship of reverence and dependence to one of use and function. For the first time we became aware of ourselves as the most powerful creature on the planet.
It took only a few millennia of civilization for the human ego to arise. The ego perpetuates itself based on precedence and prediction. With enough precedence and success, we now began to believe we could take complete control of our environments and destinies. Nature ceased to be a being that we lived in harmony with and instead became an inanimate resource that we could plunder with abandon. Expanding and growing our societies became the fevered cause that began to drive our evolution as a species. And as our societies grew from the size of small villages to great cities and vast empires, so did our own fear of survival within the social order.
We looked around and no longer saw a world which understood and valued us for who we were and our place within it. Instead, we gaped into the giant maw of a beast, which could only be avoided if we strived persistently, from moment to moment, to prove our worth and value to it.
And so, we became frantically obsessed with our own image and managing how we were being perceived by others. The brilliant design of the ego is that it simultaneously offers both a highly sophisticated sense of individuality as well as the most intense sense of isolation from one’s own environment.
As, you can see, we evolved from beings that were once at one with the cosmos, to beings that were distinct from the universe yet at one with our natural environment, to beings that were separate from nature yet at one with the social order to finally becoming beings that are hopelessly separate from all of it: the cosmos, mother nature and other human beings.
This transition of identity has led to most of our suffering and yet it is not the end of the story. For it is when we have reached the pinnacle of suffering that the return journey to integration and harmony can begin.
The Reason Why We Suffer
From all this analysis, some might (and many have) erroneously concluded that therefore it is the Ego that is the cause of human suffering. But it is not. Let me explain why. Saying the ego is the cause of our suffering is like saying the 5th gear on a car is the cause of all traffic fatalities. It’s true that the faster you drive, the more the risk of serious injury increases. But is that a reason to eradicate the 5th gear of a car?
Novice drivers in many countries are prohibited from highway driving at least for a year or so until they are considered experienced enough to be able to handle driving at the highest gear. In other words, the higher the gear we drive at the more we grow and evolve in our own mastery. Granted, there will always be poor drivers and bad judgment calls on this highway of life, yet this is hardly a reason to eradicate the highway altogether and instead calls for an even higher degree of awareness and alertness of the road.
So why do we suffer? It all has to do with where our sense of self focus rests. On which layers of identity is it rooted?
Let’s return to the analogy of the driving a car on the highway for a moment. As the driver, the fundamental reality is one of the road: the highway itself. It’s what all the cars and all the drivers have in common. It is the single winding thread that unites us. A masterful driver is always aware of the road: the feel of it, its curve, its bank, its imperfections, its texture. S/he feels it like s/he feels h(er)imself: at one with it. Have you ever heard of the saying many bikers use: “being at one with the road?” This is what the saying points to. When you feel no sense of separation between yourself and the road. This road is a metaphor for life, of course. And, to “feel the road” is to feel the presence of each moment as it passes and to feel grounded in that sense of being present. Then every action that one takes emerges from a place of built-in harmony with life’s flow. The awareness of the road is synonymous with the awareness of the Essence layer of our identity.
Next, comes the awareness of the vehicle. Perhaps, you are driving a car, or maybe you are driving a truck, maybe even a motorbike. As the driver, how well do you understand the nature of this vehicle. What is it designed to do? Is it designed to carry passengers, is it designed to carry cargo, is it designed to simply carry you? The rules of the road will differ depending on what vehicle you are driving. As a truck only certain lanes may be open to you, as a motorbike you will have to be aware of your vulnerability on the highway. A truck that drives like a car can be a menace on the road, a motorbike that doesn’t understand its own limitations is doomed to crash. As the driver, how aware are you of the nature of your vehicle? If it were to run into trouble how equipped are you to address any mechanical issues? The awareness of the vehicle is synonymous with the awareness of the Natural layer of our identity.
Next, comes an awareness of the kind of vehicle, the design and performance it was intended for. Are you driving a sportscar, a sedan, an SUV, a sportsbike, a chopper, a cube van, a semi? When you are tuned into the design you simultaneously understand the vehicle’s personality: is it fast and fun, slow and dependable, quick and versatile, enduring and economical? This will factor into how you choose to drive and how other drivers will inevitably drive around you. It is the leading influencer of social behaviour on this highway. Awareness of design is synonymous with awareness of the Personality layer.
And, finally we arrive at your own agenda as the driver: where you want to get to, how fast, using what route and at what expense? These are motivations that every driver has that lend richness, texture, complexity and variety to the experience of driving. They can also create confusion and chaos. It all depends on which layer of identity the driver’s awareness is rooted in. The driver’s own agenda corresponds with the Ego layer.
A driver whose awareness is rooted primarily on the road, secondarily in the nature of the vehicle, thirdly in its design and only fourthly in their own agenda or purpose is in harmony with the hierarchy of the entire system. Any and every act will emerge from a place of alignment. This doesn’t mean mistakes cannot occur, but even these mistakes are used as catalysts to the further enhance the driver’s experience and mastery.
However, take for example a driver that is instead much the opposite. This driver is most invested in and primarily aware of their own agenda: where they want to get to, how fast and at what expense. Their awareness of the design of their vehicle and its optimal performance comes only secondary. Their awareness of the kind of vehicle they are driving and the purpose it is built for is almost ignored. And finally an awareness or feel for the road is practically non-existent. This kind of driver is in complete disharmony because their own sense of identity operates in a reversed hierarchy to that of reality. This sort of driver causes disruption to the flow of traffic, delays for others and themselves and increases the risk of accident.
Similarly, in our own lives, the person whose sense of self is most deeply entrenched in the ego construct of their own minds is designed to suffer the most and as a result perpetuate the most suffering for others. They are merely attempting to survive and “get ahead” based on their limited grasp of what this life is about. It doesn’t matter what their intentions are. They may be ill intentioned or well intentioned, living for their own benefit or the benefit of others. Regardless, if their sense of being is rooted in such ideology with little awareness of the underlying layers of reality, suffering and confusion are sure to follow.
So, what then is the solution to human suffering? The answer is straightforward: an expansion of awareness and the integration of all 4 layers of self in to one seamless whole.
Awareness and Integration
The response of most spiritual traditions (especially the Eastern ones) to the dilemma of living from the ego, is to deny it completely and instead root ones identity in the fundamental layer: in our own Essence or beingness.
This is a great first step, but then what? Unfortunately, for most of the wisdom paths, this one step seems sufficient. The problem is most of these teachings emerged at a time when our social structures were still relatively simple and so there was actually a built in support structure for those willing to renounce “living” all together. They became monks and cloistered themselves in monasteries and were revered and lived off the charities of other people. Such an option simply does not exist in today’s world and nor should it. Cloistering oneself is akin to pulling the car onto the shoulder and putting it in park. Sure, you can feel the road under you and you aren’t causing anyone suffering, but you ain’t really going anywhere either.
As I said, reconnecting with one’s being is the first step in the rehabilitation of the identity. It’s like the problem driver who goes back to driving school and relearns the basics. Connecting with the nature of the road is the most basic thing one can learn and it is simultaneously the most powerful.
However, once that awareness has been found and becomes the solid centre from which we learn to operate, then we are ready to integrate the other layers of the self. We then begin to willingly explore our own nature through connecting with our own environment. What is this vehicle we have been given? Is it a car, a truck, a motorcycle? Only driving it will teach us. We see how it responds to the road and how the road in turn responds to it. All the while it is the road that is the primary teacher. Having developed a firm understanding and feel for our own nature we are now ready to experiment with our vehicle’s design: its personality. Here the road becomes both simultaneously a fun and terrifying teacher: encouraging us when we are being too timid, chastising us when we are over reaching. Little by little, as we learn about our own speed, resistance, torque, audacity, restraint, reliability, endurance the road drives us to experiment and discover more even as we drive upon it.
Finally, when we have learned about our own designs, the road asks us: “Where shall I take you?” Notice the question is not : “Where do you want to go?” but “Where shall I take you?”
Because, it is the road that has always been in control. And it is the road that allows you to exist as one of its expressions. Integration leads to the realization that all is one, both on the outside and on the inside. That we can exist as a being, a creature, an individual and as a me all rolled into one, but only in that particular order. That separation is only a matter of perspective. And that all perspectives can coexist in harmony in a hierarchy of significance. The moment that hierarchy is disrupted the whole construct falls apart.
When we value simple presence over the cycle of past and future, life and death; when we value mother nature and our eco-system over our human and social motivations, when we value our social interactions through community and relationship over our own personal agendas; when this is the hierarchy of experience in which we live our lives – then we are fully integrated beings no longer capable of suffering.
At the end, the evolution of the self is an echo of every other form of evolution that happens in the universe. It is a cycle with one movement leading to greater and greater differentiation and the return movement bringing about an integration of every point. When the circle is complete, we become whole.