What is the ego?
Ego: the opinion that you have about yourself.
Psychology: a part of the mind that senses and adapts to the real world.
(Source: Oxford Dictionary)
Much has been written about the ego. You would have thought it was something that actually existed observably like a rock, a seashell or a goat. Instead, it is merely a theory, idea, thought form or concept. The more you believe it to be real, the more real it becomes.
The ego, in describing one’s identity as a “self” or separation and individuation from one’s birthmother, represents something that can be proven to exist. It is a healthy part of differentiation. Yet, the negative connotations ascribed to the ego, are what concerns me. The “ego” is required to undergo a conversion, a rewiring, a redefinition.
How has self-identity come to denote a bad thing, to the extent that people actually feel the need to apologise for having an ego and cleanse their sins away for being so selfish? In actuality, we are created via the illusion of separation, so it feels real to us.
This is the challenge and opportunity—of being human beings tasked with free will decision-making and experience.
It’s an existential dilemma.
Do we focus on ourselves purely as spiritual beings. part of the God self, the infinite universe, the all that is? Or do we focus on ourselves as separated beings here to have the experience and creation of the individual self?
It seems to me that both goals can co-exist—different paths to the same goal which is universal. Some might seek love, prosperity, adventure, happiness or peace, yet everybody wants to feel fulfilled.
How we define words is key to communication.
The word “ego” is an ambiguous word that many people seem to regard with at best regret, at worst, disdain and shame. It is the devil that needs to be rejected, purified and the source of most of our problems and unhappiness—see: The Myth of the Self.
In psychology, the original “ego” was actually neutral, denoting the self-preservation and self-focus of the identity. Later, “ego” denoted “self” and then branched out to mean something different—an engorged, ignorant and gross from of selfishness and narcissism.
This self-centeredness could then be argued to be at the centre of unhappiness.
If the ego is a veil between us and God (as Rumi wrote), then isn’t it time we killed the ego?
The death of the ego is said to involve a loss of the division between the self and the environment, hence one becomes “one” with “all that is.”
“Ego death means an irreversible end to one’s philosophical identification with what Alan Watts called skin-encapsulated ego.” ~ Stanislav Grof
Eckhart Tolle writes that his ego died in 1977 after sustained periods of suicidal depression—he woke up one night and decided, “I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void. I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved.”
The next evening, Tolle found that “everything was miraculous, deeply peaceful. Even the traffic.”
The self we think is “real” is a creation, and we have many transient selves mostly created by our childhood upbringing, beliefs, and social constructs. Will the “real” self please stand up?
Without other people, we don’t exist in relation to others, we exist as one self experiencing itself with the illusion of aloneness. Who are we in actuality? It seems to me that our relationship to others is a crucial part of how we define, invent and reinvent ourselves. We are social constructions as much as anything. We are changing and happening beings like the seasons.
Unhappiness is not our natural state. Neither is worry, confusion, fear, angst or terror. It is self-centeredness that fuels unhealthy attitudes that lead to such states of unhappiness.
Buddhist thought highlights the illusion of separation, as well as the folly in attachments to things or situations. The ego as a psychological term has been folded into Buddhism and some have included it as part of Buddhist thought.
“Ego” is originally a Latin and Greek (ἑγώ) word meaning “I”. Sigmund Freud popularised its usage as part of his structural model of the psyche—id, ego and super-ego.
What is the authentic expression of our nature?
I believe love and compassion are the most natural components of self. It is society that has created an ugly, ignorant and selfish version of the ego—that needs to be reclaimed. The self is not ugly. The self is not selfish. Bodhicitta (altruism) is our natural expression; it’s in our nature to do good. Meditation allows us to connect to this consciousness or expanded awareness that is our real nature.
May all beings be happy. May all beings love their egos.
“I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.” ~ Hindu form Namaste
The Ego is Dead! Long Live the Ego!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: elephant journal archives