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Deconstructing the Perception of the Ego/self

by Michael W. Taft

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger says, “Nobody ever had or was a self.” Sages and seers have historically instructed us that the ego “doesn’t exist,” and that we only need to see through this illusion to be free from suffering. While some teachers suggest that we need only recognize this illusion to be free from it, others suggest that serious efforts are needed to truly extract ourselves from this misperception. This second method is complicated by the fact that there is little agreement about exactly how to go about this process, with methods ranging from watching the breath to visualizing complex and intricate worlds.

In this  talk given at the Science and Nonduality Conference, I demonstrate that the ego, while not a thing, most definitely exists as a sensory perception. We are convinced of its reality for the same reason that we are sure, for example, that the chair we are sitting on exists: because we can feel it. The felt sense of an ego is an elaborate construction made of many other sense perceptions—such as bodily feelings, emotional sensations, and the visual sense of a point of observation—as well as thoughts, memories, and other phenomenon. These are assembled, as it were, in the brain to create an ongoing, immersive, and deeply convincing sense of being somebody.

Due to its nature as a construction, rather than as a metaphysical entity, the sense of being an ego can be radically deconstructed. Accomplishing this deconstruction requires noticing and tracking the sensory phenomena that together make up the construction of the self, and then patiently untangling them from the whole. One by one, as the threads of the ego experience are pulled free, perception shifts to encompass all of creation.

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