To better understand the ego we must understand the various levels of ego, or various egos at play. Here we do not refer to the ego as it is commonly referred to, as a purely negative and selfish aspect of the I. From a phenomenological standpoint we can distinguish between two kinds of egos that are constantly operative in the manifold of experiences:
1) The Empirical Ego
2) The Transcendental Ego
The Empirical Ego, or the psychological ego, is your human “I.” It is the I-center that we know of (hence the empirical) throughout all our world-experiences, experiences that are of objects of the world. This ego is the locus of personality; it is the empirical ego that we perceive as the human “I” and as the bearer of personality. All our hopes and desires, fears and joys, are hopes and desires and fears and joys of this ego. We may also equate it with the mind.
The Transcendental Ego, or the constitutive ego, or pure ego, is the pole that constitutes experience as such; it is constantly constituting the empirical ego and its surrounding world. This ego itself is not human or otherwise. It has no personality. It is the pure I-center that is constantly constituting the empirical ego and its personality and making them the object of knowledge of the witness (I soon get to witness.) We may view this ego as a screen on which the empirical ego and its life and personality are played out like a film. Transcendental ego has no hopes and desires, no fears and joys, because it is the very agent that constitutes hope, desire, fear and joy, and plays them before us. Transcendental ego is not something in or of the world, for world and mind are its end products. The transcendental ego also constitutes time and temporality, life and death, etc; it constitutes time in such a way that it appears to us as if there is a flow from the future to the past, but it is in fact the transcendental ego that is creating the very appearance of the passage of time. It makes the empirical ego appear to itself with a determined past and a possible future.
There is a deeper layer without which the creations of the transcendental ego would not be known or experienced, but this deeper layer is not an ego; it has no I-character or ego-pole. It is the witness, the transcendental consciousness whose sole function is pure seeing, a pure, disinterested looking at the constitutions of the transcendental ego. The witness itself doesn’t constitute anything, nor does it participate in any of the constitutions of the pure ego except lending its awareness to them; it is the light by which the creations of the constitutive ego, which include the empirical ego and its phenomenal world, are known in experience.
Neither the witness nor the transcendental ego are personal; not only they do not have a personality and do not belong to the world, also there is only one transcendental ego and one witness that we empirical egos share. The knowing that runs through all acts of our personal consciousness is the knowing of the one and the same witness. It is the one sun lighting up all objects around it. Transcendental ego too is one and the same in all of us; we may view it as a cosmic mind or a cosmic person. In other words, in reality there is only one mind and one experience; we all only participate in that experience through different perspectives. The situation is similar to how we experience our dreams: There is really only the mind of the dreamer that is present; however, it constitutes a whole world around the dream subject including both insentient and sentient beings each appearing to have their own minds; but in fact not only they are all only participating in the one experience of one dreamer, they are also made of that same mind; they do not exist apart from the mind of the dreamer.
*Note: Constitution is a more appropriate term than creation when referring to the function of the transcendental ego. In creation there is a sense in which the creator makes something that becomes separate from it and can continue existing while spatially or temporally isolated from the creator. But constitution implies a creation that is constantly happening and renewed and hence essentially dependent on the constituting agent. For example, we may say your mind constitutes your dream because your dream is really nothing apart from the dreaming mind and cannot go on without it. The moment the dreaming mind wakes up, instantly the constitution, the dream, too is gone. The transcendental ego, too, is constantly constituting the empirical ego and its surrounding world together, constantly creating and renewing them in the now, though it may appear to us that the world is something out there with a history and is sustained by the laws of nature! Then who has to sustain those laws themselves!?
It is important, and very important, to emphasize that the constitutive ego does not constitute material objects around us; rather, it constitutes the experience of matter and physical reality. After all, the world and its objects are things of our experience. When I look at this apple or that orange I am really looking at my perception of this apple or perception of that orange. The transcendental ego needs not constitute a physical reality; it fulfills the same end by constituting an experience of physical reality, and an experience of physical reality is what we have. We often simply refer to world and it objects without noticing that we are referring to our consciousness-of objects and our consciousness-of the world, the referring too being itself an act of consciousness. In reality, what we see before us is not a world but the consciousness of a world. This consciousness may be natural like our everyday perceptions; it may be practical; it may be theoretical and analytical like in science. Nonetheless, objects, whether this tree or the abstract models of modern sciences like atoms or genes, are all meant in and through consciousness. Even to speak or think of objects existing independently of consciousness is really our consciousness of “objects existing independently of consciousness.”
The constitutive ego’s job, and only job, is to create an experience of a real world and to constitute an empirical ego that experiences itself as something surrounded by that world. The constitutive ego does the same job in our dreams, and that is why both the dream and the waking states are experiences of an embodied I inside a world that is always experienced as real. The sense of reality in experience has nothing to do with the objects of experience; it has to do with the logical structure of experience which is put together by the constitutive ego; this ego constitutes both the world and its sense of reality together. This sense of reality is derived from the witness, which is the only reality, and projected onto world-experience. That is why no amount of search by physical sciences for the sources of reality in the constituents of nature leads anywhere. They thought matter was the real basis of the world but when probed deep into it they found nothing, no material particles, no concrete basis except the mathematical fancies of scientists which exist only in the mind and as correlates of consciousness: World is void filled with the light of consciousness.
The ego’s job, whether transcendental or empirical, is to create a situation around itself. The transcendental ego constitutes the most general and the largest possible situation, the world and an empirical ego embedded in that world. The empirical ego, on the other hand, creates situations within the world; it sets out values and interests and pushes us to work for them using the fuel of hope and desire; but since the transcendental ego constitutes the world as an essentially unstable, impermanent structure, the hoping and desiring empirical ego makes a drama out of this impermanence, and hence the pain and the suffering. The empirical ego is the drama queen. In fact, world which is itself a situation, a superstructure, held in place by the transcendental ego is nothing but the empirical ego’s situation room.
However, pain and suffering being both constitutions of the transcendental ego and hence parts of the world have no effect on either the transcendental ego or the witness which are not not parts of the world or in it; they are wholly unworldly. Pain and suffering become personal only when the witness identifies with the empirical ego, forgetting that this ego is only as good as dream character.
We do not have direct access to the transcendental ego, and in fact it can never become an object of experience, for whenever and wherever there is experience the transcendental ego is behind it creating that experience. However, the empirical ego which is attached to the world, the world being like its organ, can be annihilated; this annihilation of the empirical ego also annihilates the world simply because the two are the two sides of the same coin. The empirical ego and world always come together like the opposite poles of a magnet.
What the mystic experiences as awakening, namely the death of the ego, is precisely the annihilation of the empirical ego and the world with it. This annihilation is an essential possibility because neither the empirical ego nor the world are really there; they’re both meaning-structures held in place by the focus of the witness on, and its identification with, the end products of the constitutive/transcendental ego. Being-in-the-world-as-human is the end product of transcendental ego’s constitutive acts.
Once the witness, which is one in all of us, lets go of this focus, once it ceases to believe in and identify with an empirical-ego-in-the-world, it is released from its captivation-in-acceptedness. Then, both empirical ego and its surrounding world disappear into thin air, for they are nothing but projection in the void. What remains is the self-experience of the witness while the transcendental ego is still constituting experience though the world and empirical ego are both reduced to the ideas of the world and the ego. The witness’s experience of itself is not an experience in the ordinary sense of the word in which there is an object and a subject of experience separated from one another; this distinctive experience belongs only in the world; once the empirical ego and the world are annihilated natural experience ceases to be; instead there is unitive experience, namely Transcendental Experience, in which no subject–object polarity exists. This transcendental experience cannot be known or understood unless the world disappears and the face of the witness appears. It is a mode of experience unknown to us insofar as we perceive the world and ourselves as humans in it.
The distinctive mark of transcendental experience is the way time is experienced in it. In our natural world-experience we experience time as a flow from the future to the past; we cannot conceive of a now-moment that has no before and no after. But this is precisely the way the transcendental ego constitutes the world and its time; it constitutes the now-moment with the sense of the past and future attached to it. In natural experience the moment always appears to be slipping away, but it is the slipping away that is appearing in the moment. The world always appears to be coming and to be going, but it is the becoming and the begetting that are appearing in the moment as the world. The world appears to us with the sense of facticity and historicity constantly meant through but not caused by appearances. Past and future are themselves appearances within the ceaseless stream of transcendental constitutions; it is this appearance that provokes in us questions of “where are we coming from?” and “whereto are we going?” But all these are arisen simply because we have taken our natural experience of time for granted. In reality, our coming and our going are themselves appearances that are themselves not coming nor going but constantly constituted from above. It only appears that the world and we in it have a history, a past and a future. The truth is that in each moment you are witnessing the birth of the world anew.
In transcendental experience our natural experience of time is annihilated with the world. We then have a transcendental experience of time in which we cannot conceive of a before or an after. There time has no before or after; it is an eternal now. It is then that we realize our immortality, the immortality of the witness, because the witness stands outside time. Thus, in transcendental experience which is a unitive experience without subject-object polarization you are no more a human person, there is no mind or personality or even existence in the ordinary sense, and hence this experience is the same for all; you are nothing whatsoever; it is the witness witnessing itself in a way that the witness and the witnessed are not two separate things. Transcendental experience is nondual experience pure and simple. That is why it is called the Inexpressible Reality, or truth itself. Transcendental experience is standing in the face of the truth, and this standing is possible only when all things but truth itself, the witness, are annihilated out of the way; and then, who is there to express and who to impress!
In natural experiencing the appearance that we come from a place and a time and are going to another place and time is nothing but the constitution of the transcendental ego. The witness is always outside the appearance, watching it from above: It has not come from anywhere and is going nowhere, for there is nowhere else but here and no other time but now; the witness is transcendent to all place and time; and yet it is all that there is. Thus, awakening is never a human awakening, for humanity is itself the dream from which the witness must wake up, or more precisely release itself.
The empirical ego too has two principal modes, the proactive ego and the reactive ego. In another post I will write about these two aspects of the empirical ego. We will see that egotism or selfishness is a possibility within the empirical ego and not the transcendental ego nor the witness.