Beyond Self-Consciousness

When one hears people talking about ego and how annoying it is, one might wonder what it is that is so disturbing about having ego. Certainly, we can identify many problems with our ego: its insecurities, fears, selfishness and self-absorption, greediness, insensitivity and so on. However, there are also egos that have few desires, are kind, compassionate, self-effacing and generous. Most of the negative tendencies pertaining to ego are not innate to it but are acquired in the long process of ego succumbing to its lower nature. So while it is true that ego is very limited and that most egos are fundamentally neurotic, we need to investigate ego more deeply in order to discover what is so problematic about it. When we do so, we discover that it is not its sense of self but its excessive and compulsive self-consciousness that defines the main issue. In fact, this is what the term ‘ego’ most accurately refers to – the sense of self that is overly conscious of itself through the mechanism of self-reference. Some people naively believe that animals do not have ego, but they do. Their ego is simply less self-conscious; it is less developed and therefore less annoying. The bottom line is that most of those who abide upon the concept of going beyond ego do not really want to go beyond ego per se – they want to find respite from self-consciousness.

We are using the term ‘self-conscious’ in its colloquial sense here, as someone who cannot relax in the company of others due to being overly aware of how he or she is perceived by them. Self-consciousness means one is not being conscious of oneself in a pure way; one becomes conscious of oneself as a person only in contrast to the other, to someone else. It is a subtle mechanism which arises from the duality that is inherent to the structure of the observer. The observer is both one and two because he can talk to himself and can see himself as if from the outside. This duality within the observer is something very useful in evolutionary terms, for it allows our intelligence to operate with a higher level of complexity. Intelligence needs duality, but it is very easy to misuse this duality by having too much of an inner dialog. Self-consciousness is one of the expressions of this duality; it causes one to become the object of one’s own attention. This type of self-relationship prevents one from being total because one is too involved with oneself.

Longing for the Eden-like state prior to self-consciousness, people like to idealize infants based on the assumption that they are ‘uncorrupted’ and free from ego. Apparently, however, a baby already begins to recognize itself in the mirror between the ages of one and two. It is very interesting to be able to recognize one’s reflection in the mirror as oneself. Since we do it all the time, we forget that it is actually a very complex function. The image in the mirror is not who we are – it is just a reflection. Still, we believe that the mirror is telling us the truth of what we really look like; we invest a lot of trust in it. In many ways we live in a world of such reflections. There are the inner mirrors in our head, which we call self-image, and there are the mirrors in the heads of others in which we are also constantly checking ourselves. While an ordinary mirror is neutral, leaving us to interpret our own reflection and how satisfied we are with it, the internal mirrors in ourselves and in others can give us feedback – they can tell us how they perceive, judge or praise us. Even if they remain silent, we keep making assumptions, guessing what others think of us, afraid that our positive self-image will be threatened.

So while some egos are nicer than others, what they all have in common is this excessive self-consciousness. It is excessive because it does not give us a break: we wake up with it and we go to sleep with it, and it is exasperating to live with. It is of the essence to reiterate this point: the reason why people want to transcend their ego is not because of the ego itself (in fact, they are in love with their ego and they would never give it up for anything) but due to its tendency to constantly create self-reference. They do not wish to transcend ego, rather its unceasing self-referral. This point is essential to understand because unless we know what we want to transcend, we will continue to waste time trying to transcend the wrong things. To identify the problem is already the beginning of its solution.

Self-consciousness is a natural function of the human mind. What makes it negative is only the fact that it has gotten out of hand and become uninterrupted, compulsive and excessive. It does not allow us to relax into existence, to be empty and pure; it locks us in the prison of mirrors that keeps reflecting back at us, even if our eyes are closed. How can we go beyond this fixation with ourselves? To go beyond is not the same as looking for an escape. Why do people like to get drunk, dance into oblivion or smoke marijuana? Because they want to forget themselves, which means to numb their self-consciousness. They don’t feel comfortable being the way they are but are too lethargic to look for the real answers; they choose the easy way out which is not the way out at all. They want to go back to their imaginary Eden, to how they felt when they were animals or babies – but there is no way back. To be free we must go forwards, seeking higher solutions, using our intelligence to identify what the real problem is.

Self-consciousness is a general term referring to being excessively conscious of oneself as a person. However, it all can be broken down into three stages of development: the first is self-reference, the second is self-consciousness, and the third is self-image. Self-reference is a natural function of the mind that occurs prior to relating to the other person; we could say that it is pre-egoic or pre-personal. There is no mirror in self-reference; it is more like touching our face than looking back at it from an external point of view. It is more direct and more primordial than self-consciousness. The second stage, self-consciousness, is like looking at our reflection in a mirror – and knowing that it is our reflection – but not defining it. It is actually the feeling of being a person and it is mostly activated when interacting with others. We become overly self-conscious in contrast to others; personality can exist only in the social context. Self-consciousness does not yet produce a clear self-image, but there are always certain basic emotions attached to it, for instance, feeling shy or nervous or having a sense of superiority. Self-consciousness always has psychological content, because to feel oneself as a person, our me has to produce a subtle hologram of our psychological identity.

The third stage of development is self-image. Self-image is the final product of the relationship of personality with itself. While it is also a natural function, self-image becomes negative when it claims our identity, becoming a substitute of our own self. Personality defines itself through self-image, and from that self-image it derives a sense of self-worth. Without it, it is nothing; it does not know who it is. Our ability to create self-image is positive when used from the right place – from knowing who we are, from our soul. The soul does not abide upon self-image, because she lives beyond self-reference, but at times our intelligence needs to create self-image as a means of orientation both in the outer and inner world. Even the concept of being a soul is a self-image that helps us to conceptually define who we are. Having an understanding of who we are, and a conceptual image of what it means, means we can deepen our relationship with existence.

The image of being a soul is a self-image of a higher degree, for it is not merely projected by our personality but reflects the nature of reality. A false self-image is created either due to a need to compensate psychologically or certain complexes or simply due to ignorance. While one can have a completely inaccurate image of oneself, imagining things, the correct self-image is essential to exist not only as a person but also as an individual. When we are one with our pure nature, most of the time we have no image of who we are; while we are purely existing we do not need self-image. Instead, we activate it when the situation demands and then we let go of it again. In the natural state we do not need any mental or psychological points of reference to define us – we live in no-mind, in the non-conceptual state of non-abidance.

So from self-reference comes self-consciousness, and from self-consciousness comes self-image. They usually move very quickly between each other, often too fast to notice how they shift gears from one to the other. This threefold mechanism is how the ordinary ego functions. It is too unconscious to go beyond self-consciousness and too self-conscious to be really unconscious. Unless we master these functions, not through control but through bringing a higher perspective, they will remain our prison.

Now that we have more understanding of the mechanism of self-consciousness, we can identify the need to become free from it and ask the question, ‘How do we go beyond it?’ We must go right to the root of the matter. One can try to relinquish self-image, but it is useless without looking into its source, which is self-consciousness. In a similar way, we cannot reach freedom from self-consciousness without going to the root of self-reference.

First of all, we need to understand that the one who is ‘doing’ self-reference is me. Our me exists on several levels, and when it is unconscious all these levels of me are not properly connected; they cannot be unified as one self. For instance, one me may decide to drop self-referencing while another continues to do it anyway. So the consciousness of me as a whole has be transformed by linking it to I am and then to the soul. Self-reference cannot be halted through self-control, but it can be surrendered. The one who surrenders to I am and the one who is self-referring is the same one. The process of the surrender of me into I am is the beginning of this most significant transformation.

The evolution of self-reference is in direct relation to the evolution of me. Self-reference is what initially defines our me and what eventually allows the evolution of me towards its own subjectivity, from the observer to conscious me. In pure self-reference, the observer can for the first time experience itself in separation from the mind and then, by deepening how it refers to itself, awaken conscious me. Conscious me gives us a clear sense of identity beyond the mind. Although not free from self-reference, it allows that mechanism to actually make sense by replacing the imaginary mental self with the real me; it gives a level of reality to self-reference. In addition, a certain level of self-reference is transmuted into the I am of me, meaning the duality within me is dissolved. However, the awakening of conscious me does not fully transform the mechanical aspect of self-reference; because of the absence of surrender, conscious me is simply too present to fully override it. Conscious me is not our complete self and hence its impact on the functions of the mind is limited. In order to truly go beyond and dissolve self-reference, it needs to facilitate a deeper awakening through its surrender to consciousness.

One could say that an even deeper problem than self-consciousness is the fact that our sense of me is crystallized and stuck in the front of the head. It is quite scary to look into some people’s eyes and see the amount of intensity, concentration and mental claustrophobia present in their ego; it is simply unbearable. Their self-consciousness mechanisms are just feeding on this deformed sense of me. In the process of the surrender of conscious me to consciousness, we are opening up this space, emancipating the observer, and freeing the mind from the knot of the false me. Before we can go beyond self-reference, we must unglue our identity from the front of the head, and the only way to achieve this is through surrender into I am. When our me has merged with I am, it actually cannot reconstruct a center in the front of the head. If it does feel pulled back to the front, this is a clear indication that in this very moment it has become separated from I am.

That is why the stabilization of recognition and surrender to consciousness are so important. Without them, our me simply cannot be transformed; it will keep returning to its old ways. As it matures, our me is expanding its own consciousness so that it embraces both its continuous unity with I am and effortless participation in the outer world as one, harmonious reality. This is the meaning of true integration between me, I am and creation. Not only can me function naturally in the outer world from the place of its surrender to I am, it becomes much more efficient and clear. Even our vision changes: from a narrow ego-vision, based on tiresome concentration on the details of the outer world, to a panoramic, all-embracing and completely relaxed view. Since it is relaxed, it is also much more economic and it conserves and replenishes our energy. We call this process the decentralization of ego, of conscious me and the observer combined. It can happen only when the essence of me has merged with the depth of the soul’s consciousness.

Having established our roots in pure consciousness (the unity of pure me and I am), we are much more empowered to deal with the compulsive self-reference and its further expression, self-consciousness. Truth be told, when there is continuous surrender into I am, the observer has a hard time creating self-reference. If it keeps doing it, it means that either the continuity of surrender was lost or our surrender is too weak. This is important: our surrender can be deep, directed and intense, or it can be weak, wishy-washy, lethargic and diluted. If our surrender is weak, it has no force to counteract the inherent tendencies of the mind. In our surrender there has to be complete devotion to our pure nature. We surrender from the place of love, honoring our higher being by relinquishing identification with our lower self. There is intensity to surrender: divine inspiration, passion and courage to let go of everything that stands in the way to our soul.

The deeper consciousness is in horizontal and vertical samadhi, the more we are empowered to undo self-reference. It is not that self-reference is gone; it still gently arises from time to time, but without its compulsive quality. When it does arise, it is being instantaneously counteracted, balanced and released by the simultaneous surrender of pure me into I am. It is dissolved as it arises. This means that self-reference becomes transparent and is no longer able to capture our sense of identity.

Through our evolution we are not really eliminating any of the natural functions of the human mind; rather, we are transmuting them, activating their positive potential. In a similar way as awakening of conscious me does not eradicate the function of the observer (but dissolves its ability to function as an autonomous center of self), or embodying I am does not eliminate conscious me (but makes it transparent), reaching samadhi in consciousness does not abolish the faculty of self-reference: it makes it egoless. Through arriving at the state of surrender we only eliminate the negative, false self-reference. As we begin to use self-reference from the right place, this automatically transforms the quality of self-consciousness. It is based no longer on our lower nature or personality but comes into existence as an expression of our inner emptiness, enhancing our sense of orientation on a relative level without generating a false sense of self outside of our soul.

When the root of self-consciousness is transformed so is the faculty of self-image. It is activated occasionally, but only as a function, not as a substitute identity. When we know who we are as our true self, we do not need to look into the mirror to identify it. Self-image has its function – without it we could not have a proper relationship with the world – but the soul does not need to dwell upon the concept of being the soul. In fact, to truly realize our soul is to not know who we are – it is a state of not-knowing. When there is a need for self-reflection or communication with others, we can conceptually acknowledge having the identity of the soul or of me, but a moment later we forget it and return to emptiness. Existing beyond self-consciousness, we can truly know for the first time who we are and see the world as it is. The web of personality, with its countless reflections in the mirrors of the mind, can no longer separate us from pure reality. The veil is lifted and the soul can look through the eyes of transparent me at the naked luminosity of creation.


* For a glossary of the terminology used in this teaching and for further resources, you may visit our website