In the Symposium, Plato has Socretes posit an allegory in a dialogue with Glaucon:
Imagine a cave, in which men from birth are tied to rocks, separated from each other by large partitians, in a manner that they can only see the walls in front of them. Behind them burns a fire and between them and the fire is a parapet along which other men walk carrying objects such as statutes, carvings, books etc. The men and the objects cast shadows on the walls in front of the prisoners. The prisoners mistake the shadows for the real people and the real objects.
If one of the prisoners is set free, he is confused and finds it difficult to believe that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows. Others can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but he clings to his shadow life which he assumes was the reality.
Eventually, when he leaves the cave he is at first blinded by the sunlight but then amazed by the moon and the stars. Once his eyes begin to adjust to the brightness, he realizes that his life in the cave had been an illusion; he feels pity for those in the cave and chooses to stay out of the cave.
This is the human mind, or rather the ego. Our thoughts and judgements are the shadows cast by the real objects. When we see someone we dislike, we may immediately look at them and see a “dreadful person”. We are perceiving a shadow, an image of the person created by the mind. That image may or may not be an accurate reflection of the person, but it certainly is not the real person, it is the projection of the ego.
Much like Plato’s cave, our egos create a shadow world that we mistake for reality. The ego creates the shadow identity through objects we own and experiences we have that make a statement about who we think we are: sports cars, designer clothes, being seen in the right places, grand homes, jets, yachts etc. Much of what we purchase is designed to enhance our shadow identity. Think back to how many purchases you made because you thought that the item would raise you in the eyes of others.
The ego also creates shadow identities through its judgements of self and others. “I’m smart or athletic”; “she’s short and ugly”; “I’m friends with Madonna”; “I’m on the board of General Electric”; “She’s that famous opera singer”.
Ego creates a shadow identity consisting of forms, ideas, judgements, status and experiences. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we live trapped in the shadow identities that our egos create and mistake for reality. Because this shadow world gives us our identity, we cling to and defend this fake identity as if our life depended on it. Having seen only shadows from birth, we are unaware of reality. Our clinging to this shadow identity causes great suffering because it is not real and it will change and fade away. Beautiful actresses cannot bear the loss of their beauty and become recluses as they age. Powerful CEOs lose their positions or are forced to retire. Shrewed politicians lose their elections or fall to a scandal. Top athletes eventually succumb to younger ones.
True freedom is to become aware of the shadows that we mistake for reality and to which we cling because they will inevitably change and fade away. We must step out of the ego’s cave and into the sunlight so that we are not doomed to suffer the trappings of an illusion—however brilliant it may seem—which will inevitably dissolve one day and disappoint you.