If the ego were the act of thinking, we could investigate it simply by observing our thinking, which is obviously not the case. To investigate this ego we must ignore all thinking and observe only the thinker, the one who is aware of thinking and of the thoughts produced by thinking. Therefore it is necessary for us to clearly distinguish the thinker from its thinking, and also from whatever it thinks.
The thinker, its thinking and its thoughts together form a tripuṭi, a triad consisting of the three factors entailed in any form of objective (or transitive) knowledge or experience, namely the subject, the object and whatever action connects these two. Other examples of a tripuṭi include the knower, its knowing and whatever it knows; the experiencer, its experiencing and whatever it experiences; and the perceiver, its perceiving and whatever it perceives. In all these cases the subject — the one who is thinking, knowing, experiencing or perceiving — is the ego; the object is whatever it thinks, knows, experiences or perceives; and the action that connects these two is the subject’s thinking, knowing, experiencing or perceiving.
The one constant factor in all such tripuṭis is the ego or subject, because it is always the same ego and is essentially unchanging, whereas what it thinks, knows, experiences or perceives changes from moment to moment, and its actions of thinking, knowing, experiencing or perceiving therefore change along with whatever objects it is thinking about, knowing, experiencing or perceiving. The ego is therefore the root, foundation and support of every tripuṭi, as Bhagavan points out in verse 9 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
A friend wrote to me explaining how he is practising self-investigation and asked, ‘Where do I go from here?’ The following is what I wrote in reply to him.
When you write, ‘I seem to be “witnessing” or aware of the I am thought all the time now’, what exactly do you mean by ‘the I am thought’? The reason I ask is that people tend to objectify everything, so some people assume that the I-thought is some sort of object that one can watch, but the term ‘I-thought’ is just another name for the ego, which is not an object but the subject, the one who is aware of all objects. Therefore what we need to watch or ‘witness’ is not any object but only ourself, the subject (the ego or thought called ‘I’).
Since we are not an object or phenomenon,WATCHING ourself means simply being self-attentive or attentively self-aware. We are always self-aware, but generally in waking and dream we are negligently self-aware, because we are so interested in being aware of other things that we overlook our own self-awareness, which is the foundation or screen on which awareness of other things appears and disappears. Because of our interest in other things, we constantly direct our attention away from ourself towards other things, so our aim now is to turn our attention back and fix it on ourself as keenly and as steadily as possible.