The ego – the false self – is nothing more than a collection of thoughts. Those thoughts might be positive (I am smart/attractive/popular) or negative (I am stupid/ugly/unpopular), but they are still just thoughts.
What are thoughts? Temporary, volatile wisps of energy. They have no substance. Thousands of thoughts arrive, grow, shrink, change, and disappear every day. Their very existence depends on a very precarious and fickle mental activity.
When we depend on such an insubstantial thing for our identity, we are keenly aware that our identity is always in jeopardy. This causes the fear of annihilation, and it’s why so many people are on edge all the time: they fear that the false self they imagine themselves to be could die at any moment.
And they’re right. The businessman could lose the deal. The athlete could lose the game. The socialite could fail to impress. This would cause his/her thoughts to change. Suddenly he/she doesn’t seem so shrewd, talented, strong, or popular. The fabricated identity as the shrewd, talented, strong, or popular person is gone. The false self has been annihilated.
What has been annihilated is not the true self, of course, but a thought. When one mistakenly believes that one is that thought, the loss of that thought brings another, painful thought: “You see? You’re worthless after all.”
We live in fear of just such an occurrence if we define ourselves by our egoic thoughts. What is fear? Another thought. We are haunted by the thought that at any time we could be exposed as weak, worthless, unlovable frauds.
This is just a bunch of erroneous, destructive mental gymnastics. We fabricate an idea that we are some imagined thing and then keep up a constant, stressful act in order to uphold it, all the while feeling frightened that we will fail.
We are not a thought, and we don’t have to uphold a reputation in order to impress ourselves or others. When we stop generating these foolish thoughts, the fear that they once caused disappears.