It all started with an apparently simple question: 'Who am I?'. Being in India, I could not stop at just my name and country of origin, so it got me thinking a little bit. We perceive reality through our five senses. Certain combination of sensory perceptions are then associated to certain objects or phenomena. Heat and flickering yellow light and a certain odor is something we might want to avoid, a small red round object with a certain smell and taste is something we might eat. Those objects are associated to primordial emotions: fear, or craving. As we grow up we learn to associate conventional labels to those objects: fire, apple. Those labels are passed to us by parents and teachers, which in turn received them from the group or society they belong to. As such, our perception of reality is already 'tainted' by the group we belong to (e.g.: Eskimos having 22 labels for what we call 'snow' in English).
The first level of definition of the self is thus through the senses: what gives me a sensory input is not me, therefore the part that receives the sensation is me. But the interaction with those that have provided us with labels for objects is not limited to pointing at those objects. We also receive information about the characteristics of those objects, required actions, and so on: avoid the fire, eat the apple, or don't eat the apple. Concepts (we can imagine the apple also when it is not in front of us), thoughts.
The second level of definition of the self is through thoughts: YOU are telling ME not to eat the apple. Body and mind. We then create conceptual, abstract thoughts: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, smart and stupid, etc.
If someone tells me that I am stupid, a third level of definition of the self gets offended: the Ego. So why do Buddhists and psychologists and books tell us to reduce or eliminate this Ego?
I think that since the Ego does not really exist (it is a concept, an abstraction), we need to get continuous confirmation from others: I am beautiful, good, smart. So we crave for positive reinforcement more and more to reinforce this perceived sense of identity, which in turn becomes our 'meaning', or the reason for our existence. Similarly, when you told me that I was stupid, you told me that my Ego was of poor quality. As I want it to be good and I cannot deny it, I deny you: I dislike you, I get angry, I avoid you or attack you. Aversions also reinforce the Ego, as they implicitly assume its existence. In a vicious circle, cravings and aversions create our own misery and suffering. We try to avoid something (e.g.: pain), but it comes or happens anyway (e.g.: sickness, accidents, aging, etc.). We try to get something (e.g.: sexual pleasure, nice car) and are unhappy until we get it.
And even when we do get it, it does not last (we loose the erection, the car ages and breaks down). So we try something else: 'love' (someone to tell us we are great all the time), power (many telling us we are great), wealth (we can get more 'things'), success (many telling us we are smart), babies (replicate our own image). But on the long term this does not work either, fleeting like snow melting in our hands.
We identify ourselves and others through our job, sex, religion, age, place, name. But we are none.This is when we need to pull out the 'spiritual' card. Love as the desire for someone else's happiness, compassion, Nirvana, God (or Gods), bliss, separate realities. Things do not get easier: it becomes even harder to have direct experience, and we cannot rely on religions as they have all been tampered, misunderstood, abused. Abraham trying to kill his own son? The original sin to make us feel guilty for our natural sexual instincts? Reincarnation? Jewish killing Muslims? Muslims killing Catholics? Catholics killing Muslims? Gods with elephant heads? Invisible jealous semi-gods? Red devils playing with fire and bearded old men playing with winged babies? Holy cows? Houses of gods covered in gold? The list is endless. Extremists, blind rituals, ignorance, usurpers have clouded my own path with fear, skepticism, disbelieve, disappointment.
Nevertheless, sometimes the fog lifts off for a brief moment and I get glimpses of truth and eternity. So I keep walking. What other choice do I have anyway?