Your True Identity: Ego or Awareness

September 11th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

Perhaps the most difficult concept of subjective reality is the identity shift from ego-centeredness to awareness-centeredness.  In this post I’ll do my best to explain this shift.  Such an awareness shift, however, can be very challenging to express in words, so if parts of this article sound confusing, it’s largely the nature of the problem that makes it so.

Ego

The way I use the word, ego refers to your objective, physical world identity.  This includes your physical body as well as your mind.  Your ego includes your name, your job, your home, your relationships, your personality, your habits, your favorite movie, your spiritual beliefs, and so on.  The contents of your mind are part of your ego.  Your ego is your human character and all its individual trappings in the physical universe.

It’s common practice to turn our egos into our identities.  I might say, “I am Steve.  I am a personal development writer.  This is my article.  Erin is my wife.  I am a vegan.”  I was taught that I’m a physical body in a physical universe.  My physical brain gives rise to my thoughts, and my thoughts give me consciousness.  I was also taught that every person I meet is an ego-centered being as well.  They have their own brains, their own thoughts, and their own consciousnesses.

Maybe I believe I have a spirit too and that when my physical body dies, I’ll become that individual spirit, and I’ll retain some awareness of my previous life.  That’s still ego identification.

Ego identification seems perfectly normal to most of us.  It’s so much the default that we scarcely question it.  But in many of my spiritual studies, I found that people we might consider enlightened did just that.

At first the idea that I could be more than my ego seemed nuts to me; at best it was wishful thinking.  Of course I’m Steve.  How could I be anything but Steve?  Of course I’m my body and my mind.  That’s just who I am.  It’s right here in front of me.  If I die and go to the afterlife, maybe I’ll become Steve-Spirit, but I’ll still be essentially Steve.

As I started questioning deeper, I began to realize that although I have an ego, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s my true identity.  I wondered if it might be a mistake to identify myself with my ego, but what was the alternative?

Here are some of the questions I asked that got me wondering:

  • Without the trappings of my ego, who am I?  What’s left?
  • If I lost my memory, would I still be me?
  • If all the molecules in my body are replaced by new ones every couple years, then what does that say about my identity?  At what point do those new molecules switch from being “not me” to “me?”
  • Why do I assume that another person is any less me than my own body?
  • Why the heck am I conscious?  Why the heck am I even able to ask, “Why the heck am I conscious?”
  • If my body dies, what happens to my consciousness?  Am I the body or the consciousness?
  • I can perceive many human bodies, but how many consciousnesses can I perceive?  [Just one]

Yes, this is what I do in my spare time.  :)

Answering these questions to my satisfaction was a most “enlightening” experience.  It helped me see that my real identity simply couldn’t be my ego.  There were too many holes in that theory.

I realized that I can’t be my ego because anything in my ego can change, and those changes wouldn’t cause me to cease to exist.  I could alter my name, career, relationships, personality, habits, beliefs, physique, and so on, and I’d still be me.  In fact, when I compare myself today with myself 10 years ago, I notice I don’t do the same work, eat the same foods, live in the same city, hang out with the same friends, or even think the same thoughts… but as far as I can tell, I’m still me.

Awareness

So if I’m not my ego, then what am I?  My conclusion is that what I really am is my awareness.  That has to be my real identity.  I am that which is aware of the ego and all its trappings, but I can’t be the ego itself.  My real identity is that I’m the ego’s container.

But if I’m the ego’s container and not the ego itself, then I’m not really this body-mind named Steve, since Steve is content, not container.  So Steve is contained within me, but he’s not the real me.  He’s essentially my avatar, the part of awareness that allows me to experience a first-person perspective.

I could use some new pronouns right about now, but we’ll proceed nevertheless.

Awareness is my real identity.  This awareness is timeless and exists only in the present.  I’m aware of the past and of the future, but my past and future selves are still ego projections.  My true identity is that I’m aware, and I’m aware of my awareness right now, which means I’m self-aware.

Furthermore, awareness has no parent.  Awareness is the container in which everything takes place, and there is no outer container beyond it.

Under the objective model, we had this relationship (the arrows mean “gives rise to”):

God/creator [optional] -> physical universe -> physical beings (humans) -> minds -> awareness/consciousness

But under this new subjective model, we have this relationship:

awareness/consciousness -> mind -> thought/intentions -> manifestations of thought (including the physical universe, your ego, the laws of physics, other people, bananas, etc.)

My opinion is that the objective model is totally inaccurate.  Despite the hefty doses of social conditioning urging me to accept it, I’ve had to reject it as being incongruent.  It doesn’t fit my experiences, and there are too many questions it can’t answer to my satisfaction.  Since I don’t want to go insane by trying to believe something false, I’ve had to let it go.

I’m not certain the subjective model is 100% correct, but I am convinced it’s far more accurate than the first model.  I’m often criticized for this conviction, but so far only by people whose life experience is limited to the objective model.  While the subjective model will indeed look insane from an objective perspective, I suspected the reverse would also be true, so I had to find out for myself how it would affect me.  That was a somewhat risky crossing, but I’d poked enough holes in the objective model to be in a place of knowing, “the truth is definitely not here,” so the greater risk was standing still.

Having experienced both models first-hand, I can’t imagine returning to the objective model.  With greater accuracy of belief comes greater empowerment, and I’ve found the subjective model far more empowering.  Even a skeptical person would find, upon observing the details of my life, many of which are unfolding on this blog in real-time, that even my objective reality has improved considerably since I switched to a subjective belief system.  I would think that if my belief system were inaccurate, my ability to function in the world would be impaired, not improved.  If from an objective perspective, I’ve crossed into insanity, then I must say I’m quite happy here and don’t plan on returning anytime soon.

So far subjective reality seems to fit my experience like a glove, and it’s able to provide satisfying answers to my questions, often in very simple and elegant ways.  The challenge, however, is explaining these subjective answers to someone who believes wholeheartedly in the objective model.  I can do that to my satisfaction, but often not to theirs.  In a way it’s like speaking two different languages.  I’m bilingual in that I understand the objective and subjective belief systems, but some things just don’t translate easily from subjectivese into objectivian.  Hopefully my skill as a translator will improve with practice.


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