Within the spiritual pursuits of our day, it’s rather common to hear people talking about ego. There’s talk about ego dissolution, ego death, ego shaming, ego blah blah blah. Really, it sometimes feels like there’s a ridiculous obsession with the ego — but I sometimes wonder if any of us actually know what we’re really talking about. Is ego just a buzzword, is it real — and is all the vilification against it justified?
Let’s try to find out! (because it’s fun)
What the Hell is Ego?
The word ego is latin for I. I, as in the first person pronoun — the me, the one writing this article from my perspective, or the one reading it from yours.
The modern concept of ego is something a certain eccentric psychologist named Freud came up with. I know there’s a lot of weirdness and mixed feelings about Freud, he did propose some crazy nonsense and that’s acquired him a rather dubious reputation from some — but in a lot of ways he revolutionized modern psychology, and much of the modern spiritual know-how seems to have been impacted by his work.
Freud proposed that the human psyche could be split into three main components: the id, the ego, and the super-ego.
The id (latin for it) is said to be the center of our animal instincts, our biological needs and urges. These are the most basic principles that are programmed in us from birth, and which are there to ensure our survival and reproduction as —well — animals.
The super-ego is made of the social conditioning imprinted on us by parents, families, and society. It’s a sort of programming that crosses generations — being mostly unconsciously transmitted as the values we’re taught to cherish and respect. These values can be money, parental obedience, proper sexual behaviour, subservience to religion, or patriotic idealism.
The ego comes in the middle of this. If our animal instincts and social conditioning are largely out of our control, the ego emerges as a mechanism for balancing all of that. We wouldn’t fare very well if we just followed our animal instincts, and we wouldn’t be of much use if all we did was obey a social program without question — and so the ego is here to give us a sense of reason and individuality.
The ego is, quite literally, what defines the self — the me as opposed to the generic bloke society pressures me into becoming, and the I as opposed to the rampaging animal I might be if all I followed were my hormones and instincts.
Ego Dissolution, Really?
In the spiritual realms, ego dissolution is a thing a lot of people get totally obsessed about. Everyone talks about it as if it’s the holy grail of spiritual achievement. Spiritual enlightenment, in all its glory, is touted as passing directly through the death of the ego — the freeing of one from the simple suffering of this life as an individual constantly fighting for assertion.
But what happens if we’re to actually dissolve the ego? What happens if we’re to truly lose our sense of self?
If the ego disappears, then the animal instincts and the social conditioning will take over. We’ll become wild animals chained by the shame and guilt inherent to the moralistic programmings we all inherit from our beloved ancestors. But wait — animality, shame, guilt — aren’t those the things we’re trying to fix through spiritual pursuits? Aren’t these what spiritual liberation is all about?
Yes, they are — and there are forces at play, trying to prevent us from becoming free and empowered individuals. These forces benefit from encouraging our deviant animal instincts while simultaneously shaming us should we ever pursue them. The only thing that stands in their way is the possibility of strong and healthy individuals who simply say no to the moralistic manipulations of socio-religious fabrics.
Spiritual enlightenment is, in my own interpretation, a process of evolution into a more empowered human being. It’s, on the one hand, the integration of the more animal aspects of our being as an imperative to life — and on the other, it’s freedom from the socio-familial conditioning that’s keeping us chained through morally-induced guilt and shame (the holy inner tyrant-critic, father of anxiety and spiritual enslavement).
The very definition of human empowerment, as I’ll propose, is that of becoming stronger and healthier at being individuals. It’s about building and reinforcing the ego — not about dissolving it — albeit doing that consciously and mindfully.
If we’re to aim at dissolving the ego, we’ll be working towards eliminating our sense of self and our individuality. In doing so, we simply plunge deeper into the world of psycho-emotional slavery. What’s supposed to happen then?
Oh, wait — it’s happening all the time, with all these crazy gurus telling us how we ought to live our lives, what values we ought to adopt, and what we’re supposed to expect after we die (I’m including neo-yogic gurus in this, just as well as your local neighbourhood priest or his glorious holiness the Pope). Ego shaming and destruction is the tool of choice used by spiritual tyrants in destroying the sense of personal identity in their followers as a means of having them obey.
Who else but the gurus themselves, and the hierarchies they have built, should benefit from their followers obeying without question?
The spiritual path, in the flavour that followed the wisdom of someone like Buddha, is all about self-empowerment. It’s freeing ourselves from slavery — the slavery which our inner animal, tyrant, and critic would have plunged into.
We want to be evolved beings, after all — not mere animals or slaves — don’t we?
The Myth of the Higher Self
Here lies the crux of the whole conundrum: what does it mean to evolve? What does it mean to be better, spiritually?
If we follow some the ego-bashing prescriptions out there, evolving means become more selfless and altruistic. It means dropping the pretentions of who we are, merging into universal consciousness and letting go of the pettiness of worldly pursuits.
There’s just one tiny little problem with all that: who wants these things? Who is it that wants to be better, to be more selfless, to rise above all and join the heavens as a being of light and divinity? Who chooses what constitutes a more evolved human being, and then follows to judge — ourselves as well as others — according to those standards?
Who else but my ego.
When we engage in ego-bashing, when we try to be better and more selfless in the name of spiritual enlightenment, we engage in what is just one of the many tricks the ego plays in trying to aggrandize itself. What better way to avoid destruction than to hide within the destructors? Alan Watts has a beautiful way to express this conundrum:
“When the police enter a house in which there are thieves, the thieves go up from the ground floor to the first floor. When the police arrive on the first floor, the thieves have gone up to the second, and so to the third and finally out to the roof. And so, when the ego is about to be unmasked, it immediately identifies with a higher self. It goes up a level. Because the religious game is simply a refined and highbrow version of the ordinary game: ‘How can I outwit me?… How can I one-up me?”
You see, if I come to judge myself as needing to be improved (for the greater sake of being better), who else but this same self is in charge of deciding that it knows what needs to be improved and what exactly constitutes improvement. This same self goes on to deem itself as capable of judging the results of those improvements — and so we’ve got a bit of a conflict of interest on our hands. The accused, the judge, the legislator, and the executioner are all the same person. What can we have, then, but one fancy game of ego pretending to improve itself in order to feel better about itself?
That, my friends, doesn’t smell very good. This is the ego trap of spiritual pursuits. It’s quite simply the unavoidable vicious trap of our insisting into believing that we are egos, that we have egos, or that egos are anything at all.
Because no, egos aren’t actually a thing at all.
The ego, as conceived by Freud, is not a real thing. It’s an idea — a tool for understanding the mind and to have fun sounding smart at parties (yes, it’s fun sounding smart at parties — don’t pretend it’s not!)
Similarly, the idea that who we are can be split into lower, higher, and divine selves is also just another idea. There’s much talk of illusion in the spiritual mumbo-jumbo — beautifully coined by the word maya. It’s sometimes taken to mean that the world, as we see it, is an illusion — but that’s not quite right.
The illusion is not in the world itself, it’s in the beliefs with which we try to grasp and seize this world with our minds. Thoughts, concepts, words, and ideas exist only in the mind. They’re useful and necessary, but they’re just abstractions for the real things. When we mistake the abstractions for the real thing, then we enter the world of illusion — and that world leads to suffering.
The ego is one such illusion trap. If I choose to vehemently believe in the existence of an ego, as something that thrives within me, then I inadvertently come to identify (at least in part) as this ego. I’ll start acting as if I were this ego. I’ll start hating myself for acting selfishly, I’ll be judging myself based on imaginary standards of altruism, and I’ll try to become something that’s literally impossible to become: an ego-less personality-less zombie. I’ll set myself on an impossible pursuit, and that is the true spiritual meaning of suffering if there has to be one — desiring the impossible.
If there’s anything wrong about ego, it’s not the ego itself — but the belief in that ego. If I believe I am an ego, then I come to inherently see myself as being separate and independent from all others. If I am to choose altruism as a way of life, then what am I doing but separating this self from what is not this self — all the while pretending it’s for the greater good. What does this achieve but to confirm and reinforce the idea of my own separate ego?
Even so-called egoless pursuits, when framed within a belief in the ego, will inevitably be egotistical in nature — because they imply judgment. It’s judgment of egolessness as being preferable to egoness, a masquerade disguising the desire for this ego to feel superior in pretending to be egoless.
Ego-shaming — the practice of reminding people how much they are in ego, as a means of trying to fix or improve them into higher spiritual beings — is perhaps the most blatantly scandalous, abusive, and hypocritical practice to be found in the spiritual world.
Freedom from Ego
Freedom from ego is certainly a nice thing, however it’s not going to be achieved by defining a set of standards towards higher moral or spiritual behaviour and then striving for those standards. That’s been done, it’s being done — it’s everything society and religion are already hard at work in fucking us over with.
If we’re to liberate ourselves from our ego, it behooves us to stop behaving as if ego was all and everything. The more we obsess about ego, the more we reinforce it. The more we obsess about anything, actually (in psychological terms), the more we reinforce whatever it is we’re obsessing about.
Fears are conquered by passing right through them. Traumas are healed by facing and reliving them little by little, under controlled circumstances. Ego is conquered, not by diminishing our sense of individual empowerment, but by reinforcing it.
I’ve written about this before: I generally conceive spirituality and religion as being diametrically opposed pursuits — with spirituality being concerned with empowering ourselves as stronger individuals, and religion being obsessed with quelling our sense of individuality and turning us into mindless slaves by promising things it can’t actually promise (obey the people in power, don’t ask questions, stay poor and miserable, and you’ll go to heaven — maybe).
If freeing ourselves from the ego traps set by society is, in my opinion, the whole point of spiritual pursuits — then how can we achieve it?
When we try to repress parts of who we are, psychologically or emotionally, we merely move these aspects of our selves to the subconscious. This is how trauma is formed — by experiencing intense emotional distress without an ability to process, vent, or understand it. The emotions stay inside, stuck and ready to explode should there ever be a trigger similar to what caused them in the first place.
The same is true for our sense of individuality. The more we repress our Freudian ego, the center which defines who we are as rational human beings, the more we merely move that ego to the subconscious and therefore out of our control. (Read: the more control we try to have, the more control we actually lose.)
In spiritual pursuits, consciousness is a big deal — but what does it mean? There’s sometimes talks of consciousness as a magical entity that can bring us to experience different realms of existence and perhaps even rising into communion with God himself! Maybe, let’s not have a theological discussion here — but I don’t like to indulge in things I can’t conceive as possible within this lifetime. I prefer to look at spiritual pursuits as something pragmatically feasible, as a means of healing real existential problems rather than fantasizing about misogynistic ideas of slavish virgins waiting for me in heaven.
For me, consciousness is simple: it means being consciousness — as in, not repressing or ignoring things that are right there in front of my nose. It means not pushing my experiences away when things get ugly, not closing my eyes and blocking my ears and going lalalalalala just because life isn’t going all nice and fluffy.
Consciousness means keeping my mind focused on reality even when it might prefer to escape into fantasy.
Because yeah, the mind likes to escape a lot — and because of that we repress a lot in our lifetimes. We repress fears, shames, guilts — all those things that aren’t fun and which we’d ignore in favour of feeling good. But here’s what’s perhaps the foundation of all my spiritual beliefs: that anything we ignore or repress will just grow and stick around and make life even more terrible than if we’d chosen to face it in the first place. This, if anything, leads to suffering in the most fundamentally spiritual sense.
Repression leads to trauma, and trauma is everything the Buddha was trying to heal in himself: he most likely suffered from PTSD, after being lied to all of his life about the nature of life and death, and suddenly finding out that, oops, he too was going to get sick and old and die one day.
If consciousness is a thing at all in spiritual pursuits, it’s because it’s the one great remedy to psychological suffering. It’s the only real way out of trauma and whatever other psycho-emotional pains we so suffer from because of how messed up modern societies are. Nope, it’s not about reaching higher planes of existence where only pleasure reigns — it’s about stopping to live our lives so confined by the fears and anxieties inherent with humanity having evolved awareness of its own unavoidable mortality.
Don’t Repress Your Ego, Grow It!
Ego — the I, the me, the self — isn’t something to be tossed away under the carpet — at least not for most people.
It’s said there are two paths to transcending our ego: that of dissolving it to nothingness, and that of growing it to include everything.
The first path is, in my opinion, very practical for monks who choose to seclude themselves comfortably in a monastery in the middle of the Himalayas. I mean comfortably, not in the physical sense, but in the psycho-emotional one. It’s rather practical to run away to the mountains, away from the nonsense of human civilization, for healing the psyche and coming to understand how it all works. Buddhist monasteries are basically closed laboratories for spiritual exploration — and it’s a hell of a lot easier to experiment in a controlled lab condition.
But if you’re reading this, my guess is you’re not sequestered away in a Buddhist monastery. You most likely live within the bounds of society and have to interact with myriads of people on a daily basis. Dissolving your ego into nothingness isn’t very practical — and I’ll even boldly claim it’s impossible.
The ego, much more than the reviled construct some would like us to believe it is, is the interface with which we interact with the social world. The I, with all the characteristics and attributes we attach to it, is utterly necessary when going to the store or to work or just hanging with friends at the park. It wouldn’t be much fun to hang out with a bunch of nobodies — or to go to the bank and find nobody to help with your account.
This second path to transcending ego, then, is perhaps the one most useful to those who choose to pursue spiritual liberation from inside human society. This path consists of growing our ego to include everything and everyone. We do this by growing our consciousness of all around us, in becoming aware of the tight interdependencies that connect each and everyone of us. We can then come to understand that there is nothing we can do unto this world which we do not also simultaneously do to ourselves.
This is the concept of karma: that every action immediately triggers a reaction. That whatever I put into this world, I put into myself — because I am not separate from this world. I am this world, and everyone in it.
I Am This World and Everyone In It
If I throw beauty into this world, then I will benefit from that beauty. If I sow crime or murder into the world, then I will have to dwell within the toxicity and corruption this undoubtedly creates. The little actions, such as smiling rather than bitching at a stranger who might have bumped me accidentally in the subway, all compound to make a huge difference in how the world is to evolve around me.
Little by little, we’re all participating in creating the world in our own image. If I act like a dick, then I’ll promote dickness all around me — and will likely end up with a bunch of dickish friends.
If, through spiritual practice, I come to grow my awareness of the consequences of my actions, then I become aware that there is no real separation between I and them. This is what it means to grow in consciousness, and this is basically the whole point behind the magic buzzwords that are mindfulness and meditation. It’s all one great way to see more of the world for how it is, as opposed to how we want to think it is a result of conditioning and belief.
It’s through plunging into the cycles of the world, and into allowing ourselves to fully and consciously experience all it has to offer — irrespective of preferences, likes or dislikes, joys or pains — that we come to free ourselves from the puny problems of the ego and go on to reach a higher state of spiritual being. Not by becoming nothing, but by becoming everything.
All of this, above all, is a strictly individual process. Your process is yours, and mine is mine. Anyone pretending to have a one-size-fits-all spiritual magic incantation is totally full of themselves — it’s just another flavour of the ego game, a competition into who’s righter than who — I speak to God and therefore you shall obey. Right, ugh...
And so forget all that bullshit, because it is bullshit.
Go along and make up your own mind. Only your very own experiences will ever speak tangible truth to you.
Don’t let anyone shame you out of your own individual empowerment.