Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 8: The Ego > Chapter 2: I-thought


I-sense and I-thought

What we commonly think of as constituting the "I" is an idea which changes from year to year. This is the personal "I." But what we feel most intimately as being always present in all these different ideas of the "I," that is, the sense of being, of existence, never changes at all. It is this which is our true enduring "I."

If past and future are now only ideas, the present must be idea, too. So runs the mentalist explanation. But this can and should be carried still farther. If the experiencer of past and future is (because he is part of them) now an idea, then the experiencer of the present (and in the present) must be idea, too. As anything else than idea, he was (and is) only a supposition, which is the same as saying that the ego is only an apparent entity and has no more reality (or less) than any thought has.

Everything remembered is a thought in consciousness. This not only applies to objects, events, and places. It also applies to persons, including oneself, he who is remembered, the "I" that I was. This means that my own personality, what I call myself, was a thought in the past, however strong and however persistent. But the past was once the present. Therefore I am not less a thought now. The question arises what did I have then which I still have now, unchanged, exactly the same. It cannot be "I" as the person, for that is different in some way each time. It is, and can only be, "I" as Consciousness.

The "I"-consciousness is the essence of the "Me," the seeming self.

All that a man really owns is his "I." Everything else can be taken from him in a moment--by death or destiny, by his own foolishness or other people's malice. But no event and no person can rob him of his capacity to think the "I."

With the body, the thoughts, and the emotions, the ego seems to complete itself as an entity. But where do we get this feeling of "I" from? There is only one way to know the answer to this question: the way of meditation. This burrows beneath the three mentioned components and penetrates into the residue, which is found to be nothing in particular, only the sense of Be-ing. And this is the real source of the "I" notion, the self-feeling. Alas! the source does not ordinarily reveal itself, so we live in its projection, the ego, alone. We are content to be little, when we could be great.

That which claims to be the "I" turns out to be only a part of it, the lesser part, and not the real "I" at all. It is a complex of thoughts.

When the "I" is thought to be the body, appearance has replaced reality.

This feeling of I-ness may be associated with the body, emotions, and thoughts--whose totality is the personal ego--or shifted in deep meditation to the rootless root of being, which is the Overself; or, it may be associated with both, when one will be the reality and the other a shadow of reality.

The idea of a self first enters consciousness when a child identifies itself with bodily feelings, and later when it adds emotional feelings. The idea extends itself still later, with logical thoughts and, lastly, completes itself with the discovery of individuality.

Descartes' reference in his statement, "I think therefore I am," is simply to himself as a person, a self limited to body emotion and thought, that is, to ordinary experience and nothing higher or deeper than that, a being whose consciousness is unexamined and unexplored.

Ego means the consciousness of self.

We are but fragments of mind thrown into momentary consciousness.

If we analyse the ego, we find it to be a collection of past memories retained from experience and future hopes or fears which anticipate experience. If we try to seize it, to separate it out by itself, we do not find it to exist in the present moment, only in what has gone and what is to come. In fact, it never really exists in the NOW but only seems to. This means that it is a phantom without substance, a false idea.

His first mental act is to think himself into being. He is the maker of his own "I." This does not mean that the ego is his own personal invention alone. The whole world-process brings everything about, including the ego and the ego's own self-making.

Philosophy does not ask us to attempt the impossible task of casting the body-thought entirely out of our consciousness at all times and in all places--which doctrines like Advaita Vedanta and Christian Science ask us to do--but to cease confining the I-thought to the body alone--which is quite a different matter.

Whoever wants the "I" to yield up its mysterious and tremendous secret must stop it from looking perpetually in the mirror, must stop the little ego's fascination with its own image.

Our attachment to the ego is natural. It arises because we are unconsciously attached to that which is behind it, to the Overself. Only, we are misled by ignorance wholly to concentrate on the apparent "I" and wholly to ignore the unseen, enduring self of which it is but a transient shadow. The "I" which trembles or enjoys in the time-series is not the real "I."

All thoughts can be traced back to a single thought which rests at the very base of their operations. Can you not see now that the thought of personality, the sense of "I," is such a basic thought?

The "I" which says, "I think so and so" or "I feel so and so" or "I do so and so" is the first thought to arise, as well as the last one to die. This "I" is the personal ego. There can be no thinking or feeling or willing without a prior sense of identity as to the person in whom these functions manifest. The ego-thought is always the prior thought, but its activity follows so swiftly as to seem simultaneous. Indeed, the mental emotional and volitional activities flow out of the ego's own activity--hence, there can be no real conquest or control of mind, feeling, or body without the conquest of ego itself. This done, victory over them follows automatically. This not done, their subjugation oppresses their manifestation but leaves their root unharmed. The way to attack this root is to concentrate attention on the source whence the ego-thought arises.

The ego is simply that idea of himself which man forms.

The body, the emotional feelings, and the intellect, are all placed on the circle-line. That which is at the centre of being is consciousness-in-itself.

The "I" of a person has several different faces, each belonging to the different activities, roles, relationships, and segments of his human nature.

What is the most immediate of all experiences? It is the "I." For all others are experiences of an object, be it a thing or a thought--the body, the world, or the mind; but this is their subject, the first identity in life, the last before death.

What other experience is there than my experience? All of it centres around an I. What is this I other than a series of states of consciousness, a stream of thoughts and an accumulation of feelings? What is that but to declare the ego to be entirely mentalistic in origin and nature?

The subject which is of most interest to every man is himself. The object of all his thoughts is likewise himself, or if they refer to some other person it is in connection with that person's relationship to himself. Thus we see that the idea of the ego, the I am, is strongly implanted by Nature in everyone.

Ego exists, as series of thoughts

The teaching that the ego does not exist--repeated so often in so parrot-like a way--can help no one, can only create intellectual confusion and thus harm the search for truth. But the teaching that the ego is only an idea--however strongly held by the mind--and as such does exist, can help everyone in the struggle for self-mastery and can throw intellectual light on the search for truth.

Our thoughts follow each other so swiftly that they keep up in us the feeling of a particular personality which the body gives us.

The ego is nothing more than a shadow. Its stuff and reality are merely that transient ever-changing play of light and colour. It exists--a word whose very meaning, "to be placed outside," is also metaphysically true. For he who immerses himself in its consciousness places himself outside the consciousness of Overself.

When we think we see a single smoothly moving cinema picture of a running man we are really seeing thousands of separate stationary pictures of the man. The experience of smoothly convincing personality is an illusion which arises in the same manner out of our mental fusion of a series of separate ideas into a single human being. The term "illusion" here used must not be read as meaning that the human being does not exist. On the contrary, this sentence would not be written or read if it were not so. It means that he exists, yes, but that he does not exist as other than a transient appearance. He is not fundamentally real.

There is no real ego but only a quick succession of thoughts which constitutes the "I" process. There is no separate entity forming the personal consciousness but only a series of impressions, ideas, images revolving round a common centre. The latter is completely empty; the feeling of something being there derives from a totally different plane--that of the Overself.

When it is declared that the ego is a fictitious entity, what is meant is that it does not exist as a real entity. Nevertheless, it does exist as a thought.

If he identifies with the ego as a real entity by itself, and not as the complex of thoughts and tendencies which it is, he is caught in the net of illusion and cannot get out of it.

The practice of the impersonal point of view under the guidance of mentalism leads in time to the discovery that the ego is an image formed in the mind, mind-made, an image with which we have got inextricably intertwined. But this practice begins to untie us and set us free.

The ego may be a transient phenomenon and a metaphysical fiction. Nevertheless, complains someone, it is all that I know. I am hemmed in all around by its "I" and utterly limited to its "mine."

The ego is only a field of force, not a real entity in its own right. Or, it is a composite of thoughts assembled together, not a real individual.

The ego is a collection of thoughts circulating around a fixed but empty centre. If the habits of many, many reincarnations had not given them such strength and persistence, they could be voided. The reality--MIND--could then reveal Itself.

The "ego" is all that you know as yourself.

It is not only that man does not know his spiritual nature but, which is worse, that he holds a false idea of his own nature. He takes the shadow--ego--for the substance--Overself. He takes the effect--body--for the cause--Spirit.

The idea of a permanent ego which common experience imposes on us is shattered by philosophic analysis and philosophic experience.

Everyone's outlook is conditioned by several factors: by family upbringing and surrounding, by evolutionary level, by traditional religion and prevailing culture, by personal circumstances and reincarnated tendencies. His reactions are shaped for him and make up his "I." This is a very limited entity, pursued by the consequences of its own limitations.

Descartes would not trust the truth of the thoughts which his mind gave him. Yet he was quite willing incautiously to trust the mind itself! For what is this everyday mind which he took to be his "I" but a persisting series of recurring thoughts? What is this "I" but an entity created by habit and convenience out of their totality?

The personal ego is not a metaphysically permanent thing. But it is a practical working tool which serves the convenient purpose of personal identification. It need not be denied. Why call it non-existent, a fictitious entity, while making full use of it?

When he is conscious of himself he is conscious only of his idea of himself, the fantasy which the ego has made for him.

The ego is a structure which has been built up in former lives from tendencies, habits, and experiences in a particular pattern. But in the end the whole thing is nothing but a thought, albeit a strong and continuing thought.

If we have written of the ego as if it were a separate and special entity, a fixed thing, a reality in its own right, this is only because of the inescapable necessities of logical human thinking and the inexorable limitations of traditional human language. For in FACT the "I" cannot be separated from its thoughts since it is composed of them, and them alone. The ego is, in short, only an idea, or a trick that the thought process plays on itself.

Because this emanated consciousness of the Overself ties itself so completely and so continuously to the thought-series, which after all are its own creations, it identifies itself with the illusory ego produced by their activity and forgets its own larger, less limited origin.

There is no entity called intellect or ego or personal "I" or individual mind apart or separate from thoughts themselves, existing alone. People give it such a supposed existence by their habitual attitude, lifelong belief. This shows the power of auto-suggestion and memory to create a purely fictional being. The sustenance, reality, life it has is false, illusory. Mind as such is devoid of all thoughts.

All our thoughts necessarily exist in the successiveness of time, but the thought of the ego is a more complicated affair and exists also in time and space, because the body is part of the ego. Whatever we do, the ego as such will continue its existence. But we need not identify ourselves with it; we can put some distance between us and it. The more we do so, the more impersonal we shall become, and vice versa.

Of what use is it to delude a man into imagining himself to be unaware of the ego or into believing that he is without one?

All the time that he talks of there being no ego, no entity at all, he is feeling the pressure of its sensations, hearing the sound of its words.

Every human institution, every human value, gets worn threadbare by use and has to make way for a new one. Even the most sacred and religious authorities lose their sway with the flow of time. When the whole universe around us is so uncertain and unsettled we need not be surprised to discover that the very I of man is transient too. Our centre of gravity is a shifting one.

Descartes, who has been called the father of philosophy in the Occident, began his thinking with the certainty of the personal self. Two thousand years earlier, Buddha ended his own thinking with the certainty of the illusoriness of the personal self!

From childhood through adulthood, man passes from one change to another in himself--his body, feelings, and thoughts. The idea of himself, his personality, changes with it. Where and what is the "I" if it has no unbroken integrity?

May not his present self alter or even vanish as much as his former self altered or vanished?

The tendencies and habits, the physical and mental activities which we have brought over from our own past, settle down and congeal themselves into what we call our personal self, our individuality, our ego. Yet life will not permit this combination to be more than a temporary one, and we go on changing with time. We identify ourselves with each of these changes, in turn, yet always think that is really ourself. Only when we still these activities and withdraw from these habits for a brief period in meditation, do we discover for the first time that they do not constitute our real self, after all. Indeed, they are then seen to be our false self, for it is only then that we discover the inner being that is the real self which they hide and cover up. Alas! so strong is their age-old power that we soon allow them to resume their tyrannous ways over us, and we soon become victims again of the great illusion of the ego.

When all thoughts vanish into the Stillness, the ego-personality vanishes too. This is Buddha's meaning that there is no self, also Ramana Maharshi's meaning that ego is only a collection of thoughts.

We dwell in a universe of illusion, for the effects and forms we perceive possess a stability which is not there and a reality which is imagined. Even its time space and motion depend upon the perceptions which announce them or the mind which is aware of them. The mystic seer's flashing enlightenment reveals this to him, but science's own reflections about its atomic discoveries are pointing to the same idea. All this has been told and taught in The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and The Wisdom of the Overself. But the seer's enlightenment did not stop there. He saw that the perceiver himself was not less illusory than the universe of his experience, not less unstable, not less unreal. He saw that the human ego was but a human idea. It had to be transcended if truth and reality were to be experienced.


The sense of egoic existence precedes, and gives rise to, the sense of the world's existence.

The ego appears in Mind, the universe appears to the ego: together they form that subject-object duality which characterizes the thoughts.

The ego-thought is behind every activity of a man. It is always coupled with the object-thought.

The "me" is the knower of the world outside (things) and inside (thoughts). But only relatively is it a knower, for it is itself an object, known to a higher power.

The "I" thinks: this is the subject. But the "I" it thinks of is "me," which is an object. Ordinarily, consciousness must have an object of consciousness. This coupling is an essential of our mental life.

Just as in grammar there is, upon analysis, a sentence's subject and object, so in ordinary thinking there is a division between the thinker and the thought held, the thing or person receiving attention, between "I" and the other.

The ego of which we are conscious is not the same as the mind by which we are conscious. He who perseveres until he can understand this, opens the first door of the soul's house.

All your thinking about the ego is necessarily incomplete, for it does not include the ego-thought itself. Try to do so, and it slips from your hold. Only something that transcends the ego can grasp it.

The body is in reality an object for the mind, which is its subject; and not only the body, but also whatever the ego thinks or feels becomes an object, too. It is less easy to see and even more necessary to understand that this ego, this subject, is itself an object to a higher part of the mind.

We understand correctly our relation to external possessions like chairs and carpets, but not to possessions like hands and thoughts. Here our understanding becomes confused. Our habitual speech betrays this. We say, "I am hurt" when it is really the body that is hurt, or "I am pleased" when a thought of pleasure arises within us. In the first case the body still remains an object of our experience, despite its closeness. In the second case, thinking is a function performed by us. Both are to be distinguished from our being, however interwoven with our activity.

The ego becomes the observed object, when it is finally and completely analysed in terms of awareness. It is no longer the observing subject.

The ego is as transient an idea as the so-called physical objects which it perceives. Both the ego and the objects appear together as thoughts within the Universal Mind and collapse together.

To the real person, the consciousness, body, nerve, and sense organs are only objects being used as mediums and channels.

Wherever human consciousness exists, wherever there is a thinker, there are also his thoughts. Subject and object join to make conscious existence of an ego, an "I," possible, both in waking and dream states.

The world-thought is an object to the ego-mind, which is the subject to it. But the ego-mind is itself an object: the awareness of it is simply the awareness of the ego-thought.

The ego is an object. The mind knows only objects. Therefore man does not know himself when he knows only ego.

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