The ego is getting a bad reputation.
There seems to be a popular conception in some spiritual circles that the ego must be battled; that it is somehow inherently destructive.
At a seminar that I attended several years ago, which offered a lot of very effective and applicable guidance, the instructors told the attendees to visualize the abusive voice of ego as a snarling, slimy creature that creeps in the darkness, and to imagine holding a ray gun that shoots pure light, zapping the creature and driving it out. “Say, ‘Take that!”, the instructor urged, “and tell it that if it ever comes back you’ll zap it again.” And in a recent interview with a well-known spiritual teacher, when asked if there is anything good about the ego, he flatly said, “No. The only thing to do with the ego is eliminate it.”
Perhaps this message comes from a loose definition of the word “ego” in which it is simply a dump yard for all the delusional stuff that makes our lives miserable. If so, then the word has no use because it will mean something different to each person. A good definition of “ego” is; “The program implanted in us to ensure physical survival.”
The ego enters when the non-physical soul is placed in physical form. Although duality and the separate self are illusions at the level of spirit, they are very real facts in the world of physicality, and the job of the ego is to protect our bodies and keep us alive. The ego continually scans for danger, seeing the possibility of lions lurking around every corner and viewing other people with suspicion. In this way ego is similar to “instinct”, but contains a crucial difference. Ego has intelligence and evolves individually by collaborating with the mind in the attempt to understand the world, and to develop strategies for anticipating, preventing, or defending against threatening situations.
There is nothing inherently “bad” about the ego. As a matter of fact, in itself it is good. It protects us and allows us to operate safely in physical form. It also provides much of our ambition and drive. The Talmud – the compilation of Jewish debate and law – states that without the ego “a man would not build a house, take a wife, have children, or engage in commerce”. The ego becomes a problem when, because of trauma or consistent childhood hurts and abuse, its protective function goes in to overdrive and decides to take over all aspects of our lives in order to control our thoughts and action. It controls us through the narrative that it creates about who we are and how the world functions. It may tell us that we are not good enough, are unworthy, and that no one could ever truly love us. Or it may say that people are essentially bad and cannot be trusted, that affection and love are delusions, or that life is simply meaningless and random.
These are all constructs created by the ego to keep us from engaging the world and risk being hurt. And we all too often believe what the ego is telling us. Even if we’ve come to see that the things that we feared are not so dangerous after all – that the lions are really kittens - the ego tells us, “Yes, but next time it may be real. You never can be sure. Better to be safe and assume the worst than to be dead.” Then we live in a state of constant fear, exhaustion and anxiety, disconnected from our passions and from vulnerable connections to others.
We may resolve to see what has been causing us so much pain, learn that it comes from the ego’s fear, and find a spiritual practice that offers a way to defeat the ego – to finally shut up that shrill, accusatory voice, and find peace. And yet for most of us this does not work. We can have an amazing, powerful experience during meditation, prayer, social work, or study, (and just to be clear, these are all practices that I firmly endorse and do) in which we finally feel that the ego is gone, only to find later that same day that we have suddenly overreacted to a minor event – an unintended insult or normal stress. Then we feel discouraged and increase our determination to kill this nuisance once and for all. Instead of seeking the love and compassion that is the goal of all spiritual practices, our practice now becomes a battlefield -harsh and desperate.
The reason that the vast majority of us are not successful in battling the ego is because it is a living, conscious entity, and like all living things it desires to stay alive, and will fight back when attacked. This is especially true of the ego, whose entire purpose is survival. And because it resides inside of us we cannot keep a secret from it, so once we have declared war it will fight fiercely, and even be willing to sabotage us -its own host - in order to ensure survival. The more that we see it as an ugly, repulsive thing, the more it fights back, and the more we are determined to see its demise.
If we are to find peace with the ego, we need to completely reframe this dynamic. The truth is that the ego is not a snarling monster, but is more like a frightened child who has taken on responsibilities than it is not capable of managing. It has done this because it believed that no competent “grown-up” – intellect, emotions, and spirit - had taken charge, and fearing for our survival attempts to determine our choices, manage our love life, direct our careers, and even control our spiritual life. The ego, however, doesn’t have the skills to effectively address the nuances and complexity of these aspects of our lives, and doesn’t really want to take so much responsibility. That is why so many of us are exhausted after each day, and unconsciously try to give our poor overworked egos a rest by tuning-out with television, alcohol, drugs, work, meaningless sex...
The path out of this dilemma is not eliminating the ego, but loving it enough to liberate it from the inappropriate load of work that it’s assumed. We have an arsenal of tools for approaching the world, yet we may have been disconnected for so long from the wisdom of emotions and the guidance of spirit that we believe that the only trustworthy way to know anything is the machinations of the ego.
The first step toward wholeness is courage. We must get to a point where we finally know that we’d rather be eaten by lions than live our lives afraid of kittens. Living involves risks, but the ego’s strategy of keeping our head down only keeps us out of the game – depressed or bitter. This does not mean that we eliminate the ego, but that we restore it to its “consultancy” role, with gratitude and maturity. Once we make this shift the ego relaxes, knowing that it is safe, and that wise, experienced partners are on the job. It will take time for the ego to let go, but everytime that we take a chance, listen to our heart, or surrender to spirit, we loosen ego’s grip. Even if the risk does not pay off, we must return to the commitment to not live in fear.
With time we become sensitive to our internal voices, and can hear when the ego feels in danger and makes a “power play”. Then we can, with affection – like speaking to a child who had a bad dream – reassure it. I actually speak to it silently in words:
“Dear friend, I value you, and honor your role in my life. Without you I would not be safe from physical danger, and I rely on you to help identify these threats. But I also know that there are areas of life that you are not equipped to know: matters of love, of faith, courage, and purpose. I promise not to run off and take unnecessary risks, and I also ask that you learn to trust and collaborate with the other aspects of our being. I may make mistakes, but promise to learn from these mistakes. Is that agreeable?”
A small, sweet, young voice answers, “Well, I guess that’s OK”.
Deep spiritual practices do not encourage us to condemn or destroy the ego (or to condemn and destroy anything), but to recognize that we are more than this. When the ego is presented with wisdom and maturity it immediately softens, and we see that its screaming and manipulations are simply the tantrum of an out of control child who is looking for security and comfort.