The Case of the Wicked Ego
I was at dinner not long ago discussing a workshop I had been to recently. I expressed my disappointment that the facilitator had spent so much time railing against "the ego." I said that the ego didn't really exist and I didn't see why the facilitator spent so much time on something that wasn't really there. The man to my right thought for a few moments and then said with great force and conviction, "But the ego is real! It's a part of us. It comes from our DNA." This led to a long and boisterous conversation late into the night. Some interesting ideas came up that I thought it would be good to share.
As we go along our individual spiritual paths we naturally encounter parts of ourselves that we don't like. Sometimes those parts are petty, greedy, sarcastic, or downright mean. Sometimes they are ferociously angry, passive aggressive, or highly critical. Sometimes those parts lie, cheat, steal, exaggerate, mislead, swindle, or betray. They may show up as jealousy, resentment, envy, or suspicion. Or they may appear as subtle masks we wear to seem more than we think we are.
Although the Latin word "ego" simply means "I" and Freud used the term to mean the decision making part of the personality, in popular culture the behaviors that come to our attention in ways like the ones I've just mentioned often get lumped together as "ego." The ego is treated as that demonic part of ourselves that must be dealt with in order to advance spiritually. Somehow we must shrink it, eliminate it, overcome it, or simply love it away. For many, it seems that the spiritual path is primarily focused on dealing with this ego.
The ego, therefore, is seen as a negative part of who we are, something that we need to get past or eliminate. This means that we have as part of our nature something that fights or gets in the way of our good intentions, something that keeps each of us from being the good person that we know is deep down inside. Thus, the ego is seen as being responsible for us being less than our best and for getting us in the trouble we often find ourselves in. It seems that the ego, sometimes called the saboteur, is out to get us. It's going to make sure that we learn humility, fulfill our karmic debts, and keep us in our proper place.
I would suggest to you, however, that what we call the "ego" is in fact not a thing at all. Rather it is an effect, an effect of the resistances we have to being and expressing who we really are. When we are afraid of how we might be seen by others, we create masks that hide these "ugly" parts that we are ashamed of. These masks help us present ourselves in a way that we could be proud of, if only it were real.
Being afraid of who we are, that is, being reluctant to look at and feel the aspects of our being that we believe are imperfect or unlovable is the nature of shame. We carry so much shame that we forget that we have it. In fact it is so off our radar that we would deny that we have shame if anyone asked us. So we are ashamed of our shame.
I think it's useful to remember that we all have shame. And we all have parts of us that we think should be "better" in some way. But this is simply being afraid to say exactly how we are and being quite okay with that. I would suggest that the model of a great human life ought not to be some ideal that someone or some group of people have endorsed. I would suggest that great lives are ones where each person is fully, completely, and contentedly themselves. To try to be more than who you are is to be less than who you can be. You are just fine the way you are, and just fine the way you might become.
I like to use the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle. Let yourself be one of the puzzle pieces. Notice how you are similar to all the other pieces, but not exactly the same. You have some brown or gray paper on your back. You have some unintelligible colors on shiny paper on the other side. You have "bays" and "peninsulas" of protrusions and indents like all the other pieces. But your piece is different in subtle ways from all the others.
Now, in your mind, put all the puzzle pieces back together, but leave the "you" piece out. It probably is a very beautiful picture, but it doesn't look right without you. So as you put the "you" piece in place, notice that it wouldn't work if you were just like any other piece. It only works because you are unique. Without your uniqueness the beauty of the puzzle is just incomplete.
When we accept who we are, in our own uniqueness, then we can be content, peaceful, and happy. And when we do this, the whole sense of "ego" just disappears without any effort at all. No fighting, no pain, no sacrifice. Just sacred acceptance of our own unique nature.
Copyright 2016 Stewart Blackburn
Stewart Blackburn is the author of The Skills of Pleasure: Crafting the Life You Want. His website is: www.stewartblackburn.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.