patriarch by Shi Ke

Daoist Talks (VIII) Ego versus Self

Western and Asian points of view.

Ego versus Self: What the word ego means is well known. And we also know that since Siegmund Freud it has found its way into psychoanalysis and has thus gained more importance. We will therefore leave it in general terms in this regard and look primarily at examples of how ego is seen in the Western world and in Daoism or Zen Buddhism.
We all have an ego, some get along well with it, but for others, a misguided ego can mean a life of suffering – for others and for yourself. Especially these days we can witness live how the untamed ego made the once richest man in the world, and even a president stumble.

our ego

A few years ago I heard an interview with a psychotherapist on the radio and he said a sentence that made me sit up and take notice. Because I had heard the same thing from a coach a short time before: Almost all of their patients or seminar participants had a common problem – they could not love themselves. If you cannot love yourself, it is difficult to live in peace and harmony with those around you. And that, of course, is a component that is most closely related to the ego. If we let our ego run wild, but also if it has been hurt, we get out of balance. We usually try to compensate. Or to numb it in various ways, from consumption, alcohol excesses to psychotropics to hard drugs.

John, in a managerial position, cannot stand it when there is a more expensive car than his in the company parking lot. He always has to have the best car, he needs that for reasons of prestige, he says. Ego. His wife, on the other hand, always goes extensively and expensively shopping when she hears of another of John’s affairs. Ego. And those are the less complicated ego traps. Whole branches of industry thrive because we have problems with our egos. [1] However, attempting to soothe our demanding ego with material things and thereby create peace within ourselves will always fail. There are now self-help groups for lottery millionaires. This commendable NY Times article illustrates the problem very vividly.

The Temptation of St. Anthony

Before we approach the topic from an Asian point of view, however, 2 pictures should show how the topic was treated in Western art. They have been chosen at random, but are very suitable for our example.
Those of us who only know Dali’s version of Saint Anthony may have been a little unsure of the image’s meaning upon first seeing the work.

Let us therefore first look at the work Dali was referring to: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Salvator Rosa, 1645.
If we leave the painting technique or composition aside and only look at the content, it is quickly checked off: Antonius, devoting himself to asceticism, is tempted by the devil and his entourage, the demons, and holds up a cross to ward them off. Or, quintessence: The good is demanded by the bad. In the case of Rosa, devils, and demons are created in the spirit of Christian teaching. [2]

image source:

Salvadore Dali

300 years later, in 1946, Salvadore Dali took up the theme and keeps the title. However, he becomes much more concrete, and since, like the other surrealists, he was strongly influenced by Freud’s psychoanalysis, he goes deeper.
Both devils and demons only ever exist within ourselves – apart from mental illness. Our mindset allows them to exist – or not, depending on how far we have learned to come to terms with our thinking and desires of whatever kind.
In Dali, the devil and his entourage, are material in nature and represent the ego with its companions of pomp and desire. They all stand on shaky legs and if they were fed a little more, those spindly legs would break like dry brushwood.
While in Rosa’s picture, Antonius is still dressed as a monk, in Dali’s he is bare and very small compared to the superego.
Dali’s version too is about a challenge to the good by the demons and thus represents a very dualistic approach.

Rosa and Dali St. Anthony painting

Work by Shi Ke 石恪, 10th century

The Daoist philosophy knows the phenomenon of the ego just as well and has given it a wide space over the centuries. But, and this is what is special, it is contrasted with the concept of the self and we want to take a closer look at that in the following. [3]

The following picture of Shi Ke is certainly familiar to everyone who has ever been interested in Zen. I think it deals with our subject in an excellent way, although again my interpretation may be a very personal point of view.
We see a very relaxed image, with a monk (2nd patriarch) leaning on a tiger. Both sleep peacefully and harmoniously and are not enemies. They appear to be “made of one piece”. The tiger represents our ego. We all carry the demon “ego” within us. If we have our striving for power, money, material goods, and desires of any kind under control, we withdraw the power of the tiger, peace returns to us and we live in the self. [4]

patriarch by Shi Ke


EGO: Daoism distinguishes between the ego and the self. The ego refers to the individual’s sense of self, which is often shaped by societal norms, cultural values, and personal experiences. The ego is seen as the source of suffering as it causes the individual to become attached to their desires and beliefs, which can lead to conflict and disharmony. It is viewed as a collection of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions influenced by social conditioning, desires, and expectations. The ego is seen as an obstacle to realizing one’s true nature and connecting to the Dao, which is the ultimate reality underlying all existence.
Daoism emphasizes the importance of letting go of the ego and connecting with the true self in order to achieve a state of harmony with the world.

SELF: On the other hand, in Daoism, the self is seen as the true nature of the individual. By letting go of the ego and connecting with the true self, the individual can attain a state of inner peace and tranquillity.
The self is not defined by external factors such as social roles or personal accomplishments but is an expression of the Dao itself. The self is pure and unchanging and is often described as the “uncarved block” representing a state of simplicity, purity, and naturalness. By letting go of the ego and connecting with the true self, the individual can return to that state of purity and simplicity and live in harmony with the natural world.
Similarly, in Zen Buddhism, the true self is often described as “Buddha nature,” which is the inherent potential for enlightenment that exists in all beings. Through the practice of meditation, individuals can awaken to this Buddha nature and realize their true nature as part of the interconnected web of existence.

Some reflections on ego and self in the literature sources.

Even the first Daoists such as Laozi and Zhuangzi treated the subject as central in their writings. When Zhuangzi writes, “All things and I are one” he does not understand himself in the (isolated) ego but in the self that is connected to everything. The comparison between waves and sea is often drawn. The single wave is the ego, and the sea is the self in which the ego is embedded.

Above all, it is the dualistic view that keeps us from being in the self but feeds our ego. Our tireless comparing of e.g. our looks, skills, and material possessions with others inevitably lead to dissatisfaction with what we identify with. There will always be someone who has more of this and that and everything.

The Daoist process of transforming the ego into the self is thus via the knowledge of ignorance or non-discernment. From a Daoist point of view, an analysis of things only leads to the separation of the analyzed object and the analyzing subject. When the analyzer and the analyzed are seen as two, the ego continues in its function of discrimination and prevents the emergence of the great self. [5]
In a world like the one, we are experiencing today, in which the ego is so strongly overemphasized, peaceful coexistence is becoming increasingly difficult. The attempt by the state and institutions to counter this dilemma with more and more regulations is bound to fail and leads to a deepening of the rifts. What is more, if we as individuals are not careful and remain in the ego instead of finding ourselves, we run the risk of leading an unfulfilled life and striving for goals that others have set for us.


[1] Just when we consider how many girls suffer, because they cannot meet certain beauty standards, such as extremely slim bodies, the problem of ego vs self becomes clearly visible to us. It also doesn’t help to understand that these ideals were created by people who want to capitalize on them.

[2] Even today, the Vatican still practices exorcism. BBC Article

[3] recommended article on the self: The Taiji Model of Self 

[4] It’s like meditating: if we try to turn off our thoughts, we can’t do it as long as we pay attention to them. If we ignore them, they have no “fuel” and disappear like soap bubbles.

[5] Chang Chung-yuan: Tao, Zen und schöpferische Kraft. Diederichs Gelbe Reihe. Düsseldorf 1975, p. 71.




44 responses to “Daoist Talks (VIII) Ego versus Self”

  1. christinenovalarue avatar


    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Christine! Have a bright weekend and a colorful palette!

  2. Nautilus avatar

    Ich denke, die moderne Wissenschaft befasst sich mit der Natur, die durch unser Ego gefiltert wird … und deshalb wird die Wissenschaft niemals ausreichen, um die wahre Natur zu verstehen.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Danke! Genau so sehe ich es auch! Die Wissenschaften, vor allem die Naturwissenschaften, sind grossartige Werkzeuge fuer alles Messbare. Fuer Fragen ausserhalb des Greifbaren taugen sie aber nicht.

  3. swabby429 avatar

    My psychology professor once explained his view about the manifestations of our egos along a spectrum. At one extreme, we are aggressive, at the other extreme we are completely passive. At some variable place between the two, we find balance through assertiveness.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks! An interesting point of view! Our ego is of course a very complex and multi-layered thing – otherwise we wouldn’t need so many psychoanalysts. Personally, and in reflection in my social environment, I experience that many problems are ego-related and become insignificant when we are in our selves.

      1. swabby429 avatar

        Many of us spend a lifetime juggling with our egos.

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        And some go to heaven and some go to court 😎

  4. julianeus avatar


    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏😊☀️

  5. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    Faszinierend, Doktor Zettl!

    A most enjoyable post, Fred!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      You are so kind 🤩 Thank you very much 😊 Have a great weekend 🌹

      1. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

        My pleasure for sure! Thanks so much!

  6. Dana at Regular Girl Devos avatar

    Thank you, Friedrich, for an interesting and informative article. You well chose your art pieces to emphasize your points. Because my writing focus is self-care, I especially liked the quote by the psychotherapist on his patients: “the common problem was they could not love themselves.” The apostle Paul also addressed this universal truth: “For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Dana, I’m so glad you found this little article useful. Yes, basically it’s always about love. Selfcare is a fascinating topic. Sometimes, as someone who tends to exploit himself, I think I should do some research on this subject.

      1. Dana at Regular Girl Devos avatar

        I find the subject of self care interesting, so many nuances, and essential to my mental health!

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        We live in very challenging times and the pace is steadily increasing. If we don’t take care of our mental health, we risk getting lost in a maze that isn’t ours. You certainly know figures from the pharmaceutical industry in this area.

  7. J M Negi avatar

    Very nice and enjoyable. Thanks.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! I am glad you enjoyed it. All the best! f

      1. J M Negi avatar

        Heartily welcome.

  8. Ashley avatar

    Thank you, Friedrich, for this excellent post! I really need to learn to mediate and find ways to stop the constant internal arguments. 🙏

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I thank you Ashley! Of course it takes time and patience. I did meditate as a teenager, but not for decades – too much work. Only years ago when I started again and managed to calm down “the horde of monkeys upstairs” did I become calmer and happier myself and began to set other priorities. It’s not my place to give advice to other people, but I think there’s no harm in trying it out to see if it suits you or not. We are all different…

  9. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Friedrich, thanks very much for sharing your insights about the ego versus self. Your selection of paintings is illuminating. In being present to the plant life around me, I am learning to “[let] go of the ego and [connect] with the true self…” More than ever before, we humans need to “realize [our] true nature as part of the interconnected web of existence.” A Happy Earth Day!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Happy Earth Day to you too, Rosaliene! You’re absolutely right, of course, and almost all of us have experienced how we’re suddenly resting in our “self” when we’re gardening or otherwise closely connected to nature. This is also the core of the Daoist thinking, to become one again with nature, from which we are (sometimes very far) away.

  10. Mike U. avatar

    Insightful and extremely well written. We most definitely see major ego issues here in the States among certain political charlatans, that’s for sure. You have such a wealth of knowledge and you’re so generous in sharing it with your readers, Friedrich. I always learn something when I read your posts, and for that I thank you, good sir! 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      You are very kind, Mike, as always and I have to thank you for taking time reading and commenting. Since we live in an ego-driven world I thought it could be interesting to see this phenomenon from another perspective. Thank you again 😄🙏

  11. acrylicphil avatar

    Thank you, Friedrich. Your posts are always deeply satisfying and enlightening. Lots for all of us to think about here.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Phil! I’m glad you can relate to this little food for thought. Of course, we all know that the topic is far too complex to be covered in a blog post. But sometimes it seems helpful to look at an issue from the perspective of another philosophy. At least I think so.

  12. artsofmay avatar

    Thank you for this excellent post. I love the image of the tiger and the monk which I wasn’t familiar with.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much! I am glad you like it! BTW: Shi Ke used very coarse brushes made of straw for shaping lines 🙂

      1. artsofmay avatar

        How interesting to hear about the coarse brushes Shi Ke used.

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        🙂 Zhang Xu (張旭, 8th ct, one of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup) would, whenever he was drunk, use his hair as brush to perform his art, and upon his waking up, he would be amazed by the quality of those works but failed to produce them again in his sober state.

      3. artsofmay avatar


  13. Edith avatar

    Lieber Friedrich, danke für diese Thematik. Auch ich war an einem Punkt, indem in einfach das loslassen musste, was mich verschob, mich nicht mehr mich selbst sein ließ. Es liebt gar nicht oft an uns selbst, dass wir uns verlieren, wir werden mitgezogen, gedrängt, reingepresst. Ja, man muss an sich selbst arbeiten, um den Verschiebungen nicht dauerhaft zu erliegen. Ego ist ein großes Wort, es ist die Vorstellung vom eigenen Ich. Es ist austauschbar für einen selbst, denn wir sind nicht ständig die gleichen, weil sich um uns ja auch alles fortwährend ändert. Doch die harte Schale dessen bleibt. Man kann an allem arbeiten, wenn man nur will, denke ich.
    Danke für die passenden Bilder dazu. An den Literaturquellen bin ich noch dran. Mich fesselt es.
    DANKE, du Lieber, du sorgst für geistigen Stoff.
    Herzlichst, Edith

  14. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

    Danke vielmals 🌹 Es freut mich sehr, dass Du den verkürzten Betrachtungen etwas abgewinnen kannst. Ja, das Ego ist ein Hund 😎🙏☀️

  15. courtleymanor avatar

    Thank you for writing this, it’s brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever read a simpler description of these basic Daoist and Zen Buddhist philosophical concepts that many of us Westerners often fail to grasp or else confuse with Western psychological ones that use the same or similar terminology. Kudos!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your kind words 💕 I am very happy to hear that my attempt did not fail. Kudos back! 🌹

  16. Tanya Jean avatar

    Bravo! ❤️

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏😊

  17. Nirjablangbaro avatar

    Is this a legend

  18. Cindy Georgakas avatar

    Words from a knowing soul Friedrich. Wonderful sharing and pictures always! 🥰

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Cindy, you are very kind 🌹I am glad you like it. 🙏

      1. Cindy Georgakas avatar

        I really did and it is deserving Frederick! ❣️

  19. shreyar2000 avatar

    I loved your post very much. Insightful and beautiful ❣️☺️

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