The ego is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts in spiritual and psychological circles. This has often led to attacks on the spiritual definition and practice (since most seek to bypass or dissolve the ego) or even to spiritual seekers hating and vilifying the ego in themselves – and it’s just a concept!
This article is an attempt to clear up one of the common misunderstandings – based on the difference between the spiritual and psychological definitions. Yes, they are different, and most of the criticisms I see come from the mix-up between the two.
Before I begin, please understand that this is based on my experiences and research. There might be subtle misunderstandings, although I’ve taken every effort to make them as accurate as possible. I used to love writing about the ego but I’ve stopped simply because of these possible misunderstandings (which only an enlightened person can write without, I guess).
In psychology, when someone discusses the ego, most people immediately think of Freud’s theories. Freud’s ego is part of a structure that includes the id and the super-ego. What follows is an extremely simplified introduction (so please don’t base your essays on this ).
The id is often seen as a new-born baby. It is based on instinct, impulse, and the pleasure-pain principle. This means it will simply do what feels good and avoid what is painful, very often without caring about morals or other people. It is possible that when we do “something in the heat of the moment”, the id has overcome our inhibitions. What if some criminals, like certain megalomaniacs and serial killers, are highly id-driven people with very weak limitations – babies with adult resources?
And what are these limitations? They come as the ego and the super-ego. The ego restricts the id based on physical reality and physical survival. The super-ego, also restricts the id, but from a sense of right and wrong, and of concern for what others will think of us (social survival).
For example, imagine me walking down the street. I suddenly feel hungry and the first thing I see is another man eating a burger. Pure id would be to grab the food and eat it. But my ego would stop me based on reality and physical safety. What if that man attacks me? What if he has diseases in his saliva?
The super-ego would also step in, although for different reasons. It is wrong to take something without asking, or giving something in return. I might hurt the man’s feelings. Or he might think I am an asshole, and I can’t have that now, can I?
The ego mediates between the basic drive and all the different limitations, and ultimately makes me go and buy a burger of my own.
The End of The Psychological Ego
Most criticisms against spiritual work are based on the wrong definition. Most spiritual seekers will define ego work as undoing the ego, bypassing it, removing it, not believing in it anymore, or something similar. That is fine if we are discussing the spiritual definition, but critics think they are talking about the psychological definition.
Understandably, they then think we would all become giant babies, completely at the mercy of the id. Spiritual work, to them, is a cleverly disguised form of destruction and retardation.
(Strangely, I have not come across a critic who thinks we will turn into rule-bound machines, driven only by the super-ego. Maybe that’s not as scary?)
Ego as Self-Esteem
Another interpretation of the word “ego” is our self-image, or sometimes a set of survival and protection skills. This might actually be closer to the spiritual definition. Saying someone has a weak ego can mean that they have low self-esteem, and therefore cannot stand up for themselves, or have not learnt how to. The other end of this spectrum is the arrogant, selfish individual, who is also known as having a “big ego”.
This is another common criticism. Many people already suffer from a lack of boundaries. They cannot take care of themselves, or they cannot tell an abusive person to back off, for example. This stems from a poor self-image and a lack of ‘grit’. Are you telling these people they have to remove the ego even more?
Well, rest assured because spiritual seekers are talking about something different.
The Spiritual Ego
So what is the spiritual definition of the ego? To be honest, I don’t know. All I can give is my current understanding (other seekers will have other definitions, and I invite you to share in the comments). To me, the spiritual ego is a collection of thoughts, beliefs, and stories. These thoughts are given special significance because they are seen as “mine”. Without this attachment, thoughts are just thoughts, and they don’t have much power over our lives.
‘Sailor’ Bob Adamson, a student of Nisargadatta Maharaj, describes it beautifully – Thinking about fire doesn’t burn your brain, saying the word fire doesn’t burn your tongue. The word ‘fire’ is not fire. The thought ‘fire’ is not fire.
What does that mean? If someone was to walk up to me and tell me “Albert, you are a complete loser and a piece of s%!^.” Why do I get angry? What has been insulted? The thought, “Albert”? The word, “Albert”? They are not me, just like the thinking and talking about fire doesn’t burn you.
What is the mystical quality I have given this thought, that it hurts me so? This thought is believed to represent “me”, and is now worth being angry and upset over. Everything that is now imbued with this quality of “me” or “mine” now has the same power.
Someone questions “my” social status, “my” character, “my” religious beliefs, the quality of “my” work, “my” car, “my” lover, or whatever, and I hurt. I suffer. I cry. I seek revenge.
Is this not true? If we look closely at much of our suffering – not physical illness or injury, of course – this basic attachment and (mis)identification is the root cause. Think about the last time you were angry or sad, and trace it down to your thoughts. What was your last argument about?
Was it really because the dishes were left unwashed, for instance, or was it because “your” wishes were not obeyed? Was it really because you lost half an hour of sleep, or was it because he didn’t respect “your” right for a quiet night?
Even thoughts and stories that are inherently painful are clung to. The stories of “how she did me wrong”, or “how he betrayed me”, even though you haven’t seen that person for years, still goes strong in most of us. The mental position of “victim” or “martyr” can be amongst the hardest to drop, as we once discussed in Why Do We Cling To Unhappiness?
In my experience, this is the benefit of spiritual work. By recognising when we have been caught up in a false collection of thoughts and mental positions, and choosing to gently let go of our attachment, we begin to experience more and more inner freedom.