Psychologists define the ego as the self-organizing principle of the personality. The ego has to mediate between the id (instinct) and the superego (conscience). The ego has to balance the demands of the inner and outer forces. To see the ego as the enemy of Self-realization is to oversimplify the human personality.
A healthy ego is a pre-requisite to the paradigm shift because otherwise the personality will not be able to martial the commitment and energy to sustain the mindfulness practice necessary to shift from illusion to reality, from neurotic distractions to present moment awareness. The object of Self-realization is not to kill the ego but to stop identifying with it.
John Ruskin supports our conclusion: “Western psychology uses the term “ego” differently than it is often used in the East. The ego is thought of more as the core of the individuality, not as something to be outgrown.”
There is not an exact correspondence between the ego of Freud’s model and the false self of Simple Reality. The sages of the East are correct in their insight that there is no such thing as a healthy ego only that some are relatively healthier than others but all are fundamentally an illusion.
However, Ken Wilber rejects the classical Eastern teaching that the stages of ego development are inferior and that the separate self is somehow suboptimal. “That’s like saying an acorn is a suboptimal oak. In fact, the acorn is perfect as it is. The ego is basically an acorn for one’s spiritual self. It is possible to cultivate a very high degree of consciousness and understanding at a transpersonal level, yet to be very unconscious and primitive at another.” Perhaps Wilber is correct theoretically but humankind is desperate for something doable at this point. As far as the True self (a high degree of consciousness) and the false-self (unconsciousness) co-existing, not a chance.
The ego has a role to play during the process of the paradigm shift but cannot be allowed to be dominant any more than the intellect can be allowed to dominate our intuition. “Inner work requires that the ego consent to a subordinate, but still important, role. With inner work you take part in a process in which every element of life, including the dark elements, has a place of dignity and worth. Without the ego, chaos would erupt.” This is the viewpoint of psychologist Robert Johnson. Shaun McNiff puts it succinctly, “If the ego is always in command, there is no room for the truly unusual and new insights to appear.” Once P-A is internalized and integrated then the ego can safely be allowed to gradually fade into the mists of the P-B illusion. It will have served its purpose in the evolution of consciousness and the shift to Simple Reality.
Now let’s tie together these two loose ends of the intellect or mind and the ego. David Hawkins has a talent for brevity while at the same time not losing the impact of the principles of truth and profundity. “As Reality stands forth in its stunning self-evidence and infinite peace, it appears that the block to Realization was the mind itself, which is not different from the ego; they are one and the same.” Memorize that sentence. That tidbit is indispensable to our goal.
And what is our goal relating to Simple Reality? We cannot hear it too often and again the words of David Hawkins ring with eloquence and deep understanding. “While there is a belief in a singular ‘me’ or ‘my,’ it seems as though one is sacrificing by letting go of the ego/mind. It is viewed as a sacrifice because it is thought to be something unique and precious because it is personal. It is helpful to realize that the ego is impersonal; it is not unique at all. Everybody’s innate ego operates about the same as that of everybody else. Unless modified by spiritual evolution, all ego/selves are self-serving, egotistical, vain, misinformed, and committed to endless gain in all its customary forms, such as moralistic superiority, possessions, fame, wealth, adulation, and control.” Remember the Second Great Question having to do with our identity—Who am I? “The only simple task to be accomplished is to let go of the identification with the ego as one’s real self!” I am not my ego nor am I my body, my mind or my emotions!
Mystics of both the East and West, in the attainment of Simple Reality, have come to understand that the ego is an illusion. We must leave the ego behind in the old story as we let the new narrative, which has always been there, emerge. Continuing with Ken Wilber, “If we seek their [Easterners] advice on the nature of Mind, of mystical awareness, of ego transcendence, their opinions are impressively universal and unanimous; transcending the ego is not a mental aberration or a psychotic hallucination but rather an infinitely richer, more natural, and more satisfying state or level of consciousness than the ego could imagine in its wildest flights of fantasy.”
The ego also has a direct relationship to the energy centers of the false self and when it is used to embody the seeking of sensation, security and power then both East and West can agree on the reality that P-B is unsustainable and must be transcended. Let’s get the eastern perspective from Deepak Chopra. “The Buddhist doctrine of ego death as a road to enlightenment is something most people cannot accept. [Nevertheless] Ego death is based on a good argument, which goes as follows: the more you center your life on I, me, mine, the more insecure you will become. The ego believes in acquiring more and more. Its appetite for pleasure, power, sex, and money is insatiable. But more and more doesn’t make anyone happy. It leads to isolation, since you are getting your share at the cost of someone else’s. It forces you to fear loss. Even worse, it makes you identify with externals, and that tendency can only wind up leaving you empty inside. At the deepest level, pleasure can never be the road to God because you get trapped in the cycle of duality (seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) while God is beyond all opposites.”
Another aspect of the ego is the alter ego, sometimes called the shadow. The shadow must also be subordinated in P-B and will be transcended in P-A “The devil made me do it!” is the rationalization that helps explain our alter ego (shadow) behavior. We recommend Zweig and Abrams’ anthology cited in the bibliography related to this article to begin a study of the fascinating material on the shadow. “What these fully awakened beings have in common is that they no longer identify with the personality complex [either ego or alter ego], however it may be configured, but live out of the identity of the Self. Enlightenment, then, consists in the transcendence of the ego-habit, but enlightenment does not obliterate the personality. If it did, we would be justified in equating it with psychosis.”
However, the ego, although having no substantial reality, can be tenacious in trying to control its territory (P-B). “The personality will do anything in its power to preserve its identity and uphold its domain. This need is literally in our flesh, blood, bones, even our atoms. The power of the personality is so great, so immense, so deep, so subtle that the person who contends with it for a long time will have to give it its due respect.” In effect, Hameed Ali believes that the personality never simply throws up its hands and cedes territory to essence. “Ego death [We prefer the terms transcendence or subordination] is a repeated and in time a continual experience. There is no end to the development and unfolding of essence [True self]. This development proceeds by exposing more and more, perhaps in time, very subtle aspects of the personality. It is not that the personality is gone and now essence develops. It is rather that the more essence develops, the more personality is exposed and its boundaries dissolved.” We think of the True self as the sun and the ego as a mist that obscures P-A. Using The Point of Power Practice, the sun will intensify and burn off the mist revealing Simple Reality.
What does this process of dissolving the ego’s boundaries feel like? Swami Rama who tried and failed to transcend his ego gives us a good description. “All of the things that other people wanted me to do, all of the things that I wanted to do, all of the things I should have done but didn’t do, came up and began screaming at me at the same time,” Swami Rama said, “It is very noisy and very unpleasant. Usually I keep that turned off.” In short, Swami Rama was selective about what he chose to allow into his awareness—and committed to suppressing the rest.
Elmer Green had long recognized the dangers of this approach. “If you pursue the spiritual path, you unleash energy, and Swami Rama did have real powers. The problem is that if your personality isn’t relatively cultivated and tuned and understood, the ego can go totally out of control. Swami Rama never integrated that part of his nature. He had some higher teachings to share, but he couldn’t bring the pieces of himself under control. He once said to me, ‘The main problem in life is ego, and nobody knows it better than I.’”
It is good to hear these important principles from a number of perspectives and from a number of different people to enrich our understanding and increase the likelihood that we will hear what we need to hear and thus internalize the principles. Or, in other words, transform our intellectual understanding to a heartfelt experience. Most of us have spent decades constructing our survival strategy. Dismantling it can be life’s greatest challenge and paradoxically our greatest joy. Let’s hear from David Hawkins again: “The relinquishment of the ego self as one’s central focus involves the letting go of all these layers of attachments and vanities, and one eventually comes face-to-face with the ego’s primary function of control to ensure continuance and survival. Therefore, the ego clings to all its faculties because their basic purpose, to ensure its survival, is the ‘reason’ behind its obsession with gain, winning, learning, alliances, and accumulation of possessions, data, and skills. The ego has endless schemes for enhancing survival—some gross, some obvious, others subtle and hidden.”
It’s also important to understand the part that the illusion of time plays in this process of reducing the P-B territory occupied by the ego. David Hawkins describes this with remarkable clarity. “In nonduality, in no one instant can any such thing as a ‘problem,’ ‘conflict,’ or ‘suffering’ occur. These all arise in anticipation of the next instant or recall of the past. The ego appears to be the product of fear, and its purpose is to control the next instant of experience and ensure its survival. It seems to vacillate between fear of the future and regret over the past, and the desire and sense of time which repels action stems from the illusion of lack. With a sense of completion, desire ceases. That which believes it is finite fears for its survival for it is subject to time and the illusions of causality.” If we transcend the illusion of time, we transcend suffering and P-B.
Regardless of what we are able to accomplish as individuals, it would be helpful to our process to take a fearless look at the implications for humanity at large if it does not undertake or fails to attain an experience of Simple Reality. This often has the effect of empowering our own personal attainment. Let’s do this in the context of mythology and with the help of William Thompson. Remember, in the context of archetypes and mythology, we are all engaged in what has been called the Hero’s Journey. “Space itself is another form of a matrix, the receptacle of Plato’s Timaeus, and is the Great Goddess, longing to end form and return to her primordial rest. So the dynamical career of individual agents of form, of individuals, is a threat to the slow, vast, conservative order, the longer wave of time. To name individualized things, to have property, is to try to steal time from eternity in the form of monumentality. But in the grave of the hero, one doesn’t simply toss in the anonymous bones; one names the king and kills all his servants and wives as they take their place in the tomb of the great man. This shared death is, for example, what we find in the burials of the third dynasty of Ur. Perhaps this archetypal pattern is behind the pattern of criminal or psychotic behavior today in which a depressed male seeks to kill himself along with his wife and children and coworkers. The failed ego seeks its final monument.” We dare not fail in our quest to enter P-A, the consequences of not doing so are too horrible to contemplate. We do have a choice and we must not forget that.
Our understanding of the distinction between response and reaction is at the heart of our ability to transcend P-B. In fact as Reggie Ray, a brilliant teacher of the Buddhist worldview, realizes, the ego itself is nothing more than a colossal reaction. “So far, we have seen that the ‘self’ [ego] is a purely conceptual construction emerging as a fearful reaction to the limitless expanse of our inherent nature. [We] pull back into an inner fantasy world that is a ‘mentalized’ and distorted version of reality, a series of images and thoughts that we take to be a fixed and substantial ‘self.’ Because this ‘self’ is little more than an incessant monologue that we must carry on in order to feel secure in our identity, it tends to be self-serving and self-absorbed. From this point of view, the wild ravings of some of the more extreme forms of mental illness are only exaggerations of the delusional inner life we all carry on to maintain the fiction of our ‘self.’ The habitual ‘self’ that most of us ‘have’ is a pernicious phenomenon. What makes this ‘self’ so extraordinarily problematic is its degree of isolation from our actual experience, its rigidity and dissonance with reality beyond itself. That’s why conviction in a solid self is clearly harmful, because it is so blatantly out of keeping with what is actually the case. First, because the experience of the problematic ‘self’ is so glaringly out of keeping with our actual experience, an inordinate amount of denial or, in Buddhist terms, ignorance, is required to maintain it. This investment in what we think or want to think about ourselves and our concomitant denial of experience leads to a ‘self’ that is inherently distrustful and paranoid. We have placed all of our trust in our concepts of ourselves, and withdrawn our trust from experience.” We would do well to read this extraordinarily cogent and eloquent paragraph whenever we lose clarity on what our goal is in attaining transcendence.
The ego, of course, had a direct relationship to the Buddha’s awakening and his experience could support our thinking of him as the founder of psychology. Reggie Ray might agree. “This continual birth of the ‘self’ out of the non-self was precisely what the Buddha discovered in a final and complete way on the night of his enlightenment. He found that once the non-self of enlightenment is fully realized, the limiting, painful fiction of a ‘self’ has no further footing. The Buddha’s discovery was elaborated in the four noble truths. The Buddha’s earliest teaching makes it clear that the foundation of Buddhism is not a philosophical assertion or doctrinal analysis, but the description of a liberating experience.”
What the Buddha experienced and articulated in his sutras could also be the basis for modern psychotherapy. Practicing his teachings would eventually enable us to shift into the present moment. “As soon as we recognize the self doesn’t really exist, we stop clinging to it. Our fear and anxiety evaporate.” Eastern teachings related to the ego are thousands of years old. In the Bhagavata Purana we find the realization that, “The ego is the cause of ignorance. When the ego is subdued, the spiritual consciousness shines forth in all its glory. One realizes the divine Self.”
And in the teachings of Christ found in A Course in Miracles we also find a realization central to understanding the basic nature of the ego. “What is the ego? Nothingness, but in a form that seems like something.”
Jung’s “depth psychology,” relating to the three ego states of child, parent and adult, give further insight into why they are dominant in P-B. “But besides the possibility of becoming a prophet [parent], there is another alluring joy, subtler and apparently more legitimate: the joy of becoming a prophet’s disciple [child]. The disciple is unworthy; modestly he sits at the Master’s feet and guards against having ideas of his own. Mental laziness becomes a virtue, [and] one can at least bask in the sun of a semi-divine being. He can enjoy the archaism and infantilism of his unconscious fantasies without loss to himself, for all responsibility is laid at the Master’s [parent’s] door.” The dynamics just described form the basis of the all too common cult of personality in our modern society. The emotional maturity and self-reliance necessary to choose P-A over P-B are unfortunately very rare.
Buddhists have their own approach to psychoanalysis related to the ego or “self” as Jack Engler describes. “In other words, the ‘self’ is literally constructed out of experience with the object world. This ‘self’ which we take to be ‘me’ and which feels so present and real to us is actually an internalized image, a composite representation, constructed by a selective and imaginative ‘remembering’ of past encounters with significant objects in our world. In fact, the self is viewed in both psychologies [Eastern and Western] as a representation which is actually being constructed anew from moment to moment to moment. The therapeutic issue in Buddhist practice is how to ‘see through’ the illusion or construct of the self, how to dis-identify from ‘those essential identifications on which the experience of our personal identity is founded. The two great developmental achievements in the all-important line of object relations according to ego psychology—identity and object constancy—are seen by Buddhist analysis as the root of mental suffering.” Remember, our identity can be clarified by focusing on what we are not as well as what we are. The answer to the question, Who am I? is that I am not my body, mind or emotions. I then become the observer of my experience and free from the craving and aversion at the heart of all human suffering.
We have learned that P-B is the refuge for the ego. The ego feels comfortable there because it is familiar but most importantly the ego achieves its identity, as we have just seen, by identifying with the mind, body and emotions; the illusions of physical and mental form; and the illusions of shame and guilt in the past and fear and anxiety relating to the future. The challenge, and it is a considerable one, is that to shift to P-A that identity will have to be surrendered. Or as Ram Dass explains, “The ego controls you through your fear of loss of identity. To give up these thoughts, it seems, would annihilate you, so you cling to them.”
“On a given level, then, the self is faced with preservation vs. negation, holding on vs. letting go, living that level vs. dying to that level, identifying with it vs. dis-identifying with it.” Ken Wilber succinctly concludes our focus on the relationship between ego and identity.
We don’t want to neglect philosophers, especially perhaps our most well-known and popular American divergent thinker and author of Walden. Thoreau realized that the goal of developing a survival strategy was to develop distractions in order to escape reality and to create the illusion that one could in that way avoid suffering. “He jealously guarded against what he perceived as the distractions of a ‘normal life:’ Even the wisest and best are apt to use their lives as the occasion to do something else in [life] than to live greatly.” Thoreau realized that one way to reduce the negative influence of the ego was a life of simplicity, solitude and quiet. P-B does not support those who would transcend the influence of the ego. We all must learn how turn to the inner silence away from the insistent voice of the ego.
In closing let us reiterate the goal of Self-realization vis-à-vis the ego. In the words of David Hawkins, “The only simple task to be accomplished is to let go of the identification with the ego as one’s real self!” The “simple task” is really the only choice we have and it will be difficult if we allow the ego to make it so.
See Ken Wilber’s book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, for a detailed description of the formation of the ego.
Also see the article in this blog on Time.
References and notes are available for this article.
Also find a much more in-depth discussion of Simple Reality
on this blog and in published books by Roy Charles Henry.