From my first encounter with sages of the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, I was struck by the fact that on the one hand they showed great inner strength, unfailing benevolence and foolproof wisdom, and on the other apart from a complete absence of a sense of self-importance. I myself have observed to what extent the identification with a "me" that sits at the heart of my being is a source of constant vulnerability, and that the inner freedom that arises from a reduction in this identification is a source of fullness and unparalleled confidence.
Understand the nature of ego and its mode of functioning is therefore of vital importance if one wishes to free oneself from the inner causes of unhappiness and suffering. The idea of getting out of the grip of the ego can leave us perplexed, no doubt because we touch what we believe to be our fundamental identity.
We imagine that deep within ourselves sits an enduring entity that gives identity and continuity to our person. This seems so obvious to us that we do not consider it necessary to examine this intuition more carefully. However, as soon as one seriously analyzes the nature of the “me”, one realizes that it is impossible to identify a distinct entity which can correspond to it. Ultimately, it turns out that ego is just a concept we associate with the continuum of experiences that is our consciousness.
We might think that by devoting most of our time to satisfying and strengthening this ego, we are adopting the best strategy for achieving happiness. But that's making a bad bet, because it's just the opposite that happens. The ego can only provide false confidence, built on precarious attributes – power, success, physical beauty and strength, intellectual brilliance and the opinion of others – and on everything that constitutes our image. .
Buddhist detachment and altruistic influence
Self-confidence worthy of the name is quite different. It is paradoxically a natural quality of the absence of ego. Self-confidence that is not based on the ego is a fundamental freedom that is no longer subject to emotional contingencies, an invulnerability to the judgments of others, a deep inner acceptance of circumstances, whatever they may be.
This freedom translates into a feeling of openness to whatever presents itself. It is not a question of a distant coldness or a dry detachment, as we sometimes imagine when we speak of Buddhist detachment, but of an altruistic radiance which extends to all beings.
If the ego really constituted our deep essence, we would understand our concern at the idea of getting rid of it. But if it is only an illusion, to free oneself from it is not to extirpate the heart of our being, but simply to open our eyes, to dissipate an error.
When the ego does not feast on its triumphs, it feeds on its failures by setting itself up as a victim. Maintained by his constant ruminations, his suffering confirms his existence as much as his euphoria. Whether it feels carried to the pinnacle, diminished, offended or ignored, the ego consolidates itself by paying attention only to itself.
The ego's attachment to existence as a single, self-contained entity is fundamentally dysfunctional because it is at odds with reality. Founded on an error, it is constantly threatened by reality, which maintains in us a deep feeling of insecurity. Conscious of its vulnerability, the ego tries by all means to protect and strengthen itself, feeling aversion for all that threatens it and attraction for all that sustains it. From these impulses of attraction and repulsion are born a host of conflicting emotions.
In truth, we are not that ego, we are not that anger, we are not that despair. Our most fundamental level of experience is that of pure awareness, that primary quality of awareness and which is the foundation of all experience, of all emotion, of all reasoning, of all concepts, and of all mental constructs. including ego.
To unmask the imposture of the self, the investigation must be carried out to the end. Someone who suspects the presence of a thief in his house must inspect every room, every corner, every possible hiding place, until he is sure that there is really no one there. Only then can he have peace of mind.
If the ego really constituted our deep essence, we would understand our concern at the idea of getting rid of it. But if it is only an illusion, to free oneself from it is not to extirpate the heart of our being, but simply to open our eyes, to dissipate an error. Error offers no resistance to knowledge, as darkness offers no resistance to light. Millions of years of darkness can be dispelled instantly when a light is turned on.