top of page

Reflections on Ego, Self-Image, Emptiness, and Fluidity

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

Copyright 2020 by Walter Goodwin and Iron Bird Dharma


Tell me who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Oh, I really want to know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Tell me, tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Come on, come on, who? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Oh, who the fuck are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Oh, tell me who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

I really wanna know

Oh, I really wanna know

Come on tell me, who are you, you, you, you?

Who are you?

- Pete Townsend (The Who)

I was just musing on something I read in a book on Tibetan Buddhism the other day.

The author was expounding on the difference between a Western definition of "ego", and the Buddhist definition. He ended up basically saying that the Buddhist meaning is more along the lines of "self-image" or "self-reflection".

Therefore, you can have a good old-fashioned healthy ego (that's ok), but yet work toward a Buddhist sense of dissolving the ego, the sense of one static, limited self.

And that made me think about something I considered some years ago - the (for me) unfortunate translation of whatever the Tibetan word is into the English word "emptiness". That word implies devoid or lacking of any substance. But I think the Buddhist term more accurately means empty of any inherent qualities, or inherently static and substantive qualities. I considered the pros and cons of saying "fluidity" or "inherently not static" instead of "emptiness". I think about these kinds of silly things sometimes.

And not unlike comparing "emptiness" with "not containing inherent static qualities", I like this author's take on the typical use of "ego" (which has countless connotations and implications in English) compared with something like "fixed self-image". It's that lack of fluidity, that rigidity, that is inherently the problem. All self-image, good or bad, somehow got laid down on top of something else (another story about Buddha Nature for another day), and then got locked in, over time, and over repeated re-affirmation.

Eventually, we come to believe our own shtick. Everybody in our lives perpetuates this image of us, and we go out of our way to perpetuate it to ourselves as well. We seek out opportunities to reaffirm to ourselves and those around us that we are smart, or strong, or witty, or funny, or generous, or tough, or no-nonsense, or sensitive, or kind, or above-it-all.

But regardless of who we have decided we want to be, or decided we in fact really truly are, that self-perpetuation is our own self-orchestrated and self-architected, and continuously re-instantiated, prison.

We build our own walls, to keep our sense of self intact. And yes, also to keep away the immensity of the not-us. But that very self-preservation then devolves into self-perpetuated and frozen self-limitation. We are the inmates in the prison we helped construct. And perversely, we are also very much the guards.

The paradox and dilemma of samsaric existence (aka “samsara” aka “manifest reality” aka "life") then, is that we are not only stuck being us, but sadly, we are also the ones manifesting the stuck-ness – incessantly.

Everyone is stuck being themselves, either however they decided they want to be, or feel that they got forced to be. And after a lot of time passes, and we get used to who we are, eventually we feel like this is just how it is, and that there are no other options. And not to get ahead of ourselves, but the irony of the dilemma is that if we are the guards who are in charge of the cell, we are also the guards in possession of the cell's keys. But maybe that's also another discussion for another day.

In the meantime...

For some reason, God only knows why, except I was making funny noises with my mouth (it happens...) while discussing all this with myself, I thought about how Donald Duck simply insists on being Donald Duck. Tough guy, takes no shit, straight shooter. And then thinking about how Disney really was so great with archetypes and anthropomorphism, I also considered Mickey Mouse, in some ways Donald's polar opposite: kind, friendly, thoughtful, generous of spirit, etc.

And then this poem came to me, about fluidity and freedom, vs. the insistence of persistent self-imaging:

The Enlightenment of M. Mouse and D. Duck

If Mickey could be Donald

And Donald could be Mickey,

Then both would be unstuck

Now wouldn't that be tricky?

We might all lose some archetypes

Up on the silver screen

But letting go of rigid selves

They see what might have been.

By opting out of image fixed

Or any static feature

They come to see they're no one thing,

And find their Buddha Nature.

70 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page