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 inherently destructive. At a seminar that I attended several years ago, which offered a lot of very effective and applicable guidance, the instructor told the attendees to visualize the abusive voice of ego as a snarling, slimy creature that creeps in the darkness. He said 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." 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 definition of "ego" that I like 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, the ego is similar to "instinct" but contains a crucial difference. Ego has intelligence and evolves individually by collaborating with the mind in an attempt to understand the world and 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.
The ego 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 with 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 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. But this does not work for most of us. We can have an amazing, powerful experience during meditation, prayer, social work or study, 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. 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 the ego. Once we have declared war, it will fight fiercely and even be willing to sabotage us -- its own host -- in order to ensure save itself. The more 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; it 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, spirit -- had taken charge. Fearing for our survival, the ego attempts to determine our choices, direct our careers, manage our love life and even control our spirituality. The ego, however, doesn't have the skills to effectively address the nuances and complexity of these aspects of our lives, and it doesn't actually want to take on 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 in front of the television, drinking, overworking, abusing drugs or even overdoing things that are usually helpful, like exercise and spiritual practices.
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 the only trustworthy way to know anything is the machinations of the ego and mind. The first step toward wholeness is courage. We must get to a point where 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 removes us from the game. This leaves us depressed or bitter. This does not mean that we eliminate the ego, but that we restore it to its "consultancy" role. 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 every time that we take a chance, listen to our heart, or surrender to spirit, we loosen the 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 reassure it, affectionately -- like speaking to a child who had a bad dream.
I silently speak these words to my ego:
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 understand -- matters of love, faith, courage and purpose. I promise not to run off and take unnecessary risks, but I ask that you learn to trust and collaborate with the other aspects of our being. I may make mistakes, but I promise to learn from them. Is that agreeable?
A small, sweet, young voice usually 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. We see that its screaming and manipulations are simply the tantrum of an out of control child who is looking for security, comfort and love.