“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”
– John Newton
Who are we? Are we just the sum of our thoughts, beliefs, life experiences and environmental conditioning? In truth, our real selves lie beyond our egos. The ego is a concept that is often discussed in both psychology and spirituality. Here, I summarise key concepts about the ego presented in the literature on psychology and spirituality based on the following books:
- A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
- The Ego Trick: What Does it Mean to be You? by Julian Baggini
- Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein
- The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by Ronald D. Laing
The ego is our conscious sense of who we are based on our body image, thoughts, beliefs and relationships with others. It is a mental construct that is created and maintained based on the illusion of separation from others. In the ego, we experience duality (right vs wrong, good vs bad, love vs fear etc.) due to our state of separation.
- The existence of the ego is an illusion created in the mind and is influenced by our sensory experience of the world. This illusion arises from a sequence of experiences and emotions that seem connected in our consciousness even though they are fragmentary. (The Ego Trick)
- Our sense of self is shaped by how we are perceived in society. Being validated and accepted in society is essential to a stable sense of self. (The Ego Trick)
- The sense of self may vary from culture to culture – in the West, the sense of self centres on the individual. Technology and cultural changes have an impact on our sense of self. We are moving away from a sense of a united and cohesive identity towards having multiple identities. (The Ego Trick)
The True “I”
The true “I” is the presence behind our thoughts, beliefs and actions. It is the consciousness that witnesses everything that goes on in our lives. Here, there is no separation from other people and the external world.
- The true “I” observes our stream of consciousness from the outside. (A New Earth)
- In Hinduism, there is a concept of an all-encompassing reality or deity called Brahman, which contains the true self. (The Ego Trick)
- In Buddhism, there is a concept of the non-self (Anatta) which suggests that there is no impermanent, unchanging substance that can be called the soul. (The Ego Trick)
- While psychoanalysis works to help an individual find out the true self, Buddhism is primarily concerned with unmasking the delusion that the self exists. In Buddhism the end goal is the understanding that the true nature of the self is simply emptiness. (Thoughts Without a Thinker)
Identifying with the Ego Leads to Pain, Suffering and Conflict
- The ego fuels the human tendency to hold onto pain and suffering, which only exist in the past. The consequences of an ego-driven self include overthinking, alienation and suffering. (A New Earth)
- The nature of the ego is destructive and contributes to violence and conflict within the person and in the world at large. (A New Earth)
Psychiatric Issues Arise due to a Mistaken Sense of Self
- Attachment to a mistaken sense of self is the root cause of many mental illnesses. Psychiatric issues may occur due to an inflated or deflated sense of self. (Thoughts Without a Thinker)
- Narcissism occurs due to an inflated sense of self and expresses itself through pathological self-centredness and need for admiration from others. It is displayed in terms of delusions, arrogance and excessive pride. (Thoughts Without a Thinker)
- Depression, on the other hand, is caused by a deflated sense of self. People with depression have nihilistic thoughts about themselves. It can lead to feelings of emptiness, alienation and guilt. (Thoughts Without a Thinker)
- Psychiatric conditions such as dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder) illustrate the subjectivity of our experience. In dissociative identity disorder, a person takes on different personalities in the mind at different times. (The Ego Trick)
- Most of us perceive our distinct personalities in childhood, leading to development of a safe sense of self. However, there are instances whereby the child develops a poor sense of self. (The Divided Self)
- Babies who fail to express their needs e.g. those that do not cry to indicate hunger are prone to develop a weak sense of self. They lack the strong instinct to express their feelings and seek gratification.
- If parents are unable to respond to the child’s expressions, it may interfere with the child’s sense of self.
- If a child only does what he is told and does not take initiative, it may be because he has a poor sense of self and is unable to distinguish his values from his parents’.
- People who develop a poor sense of self and are fundamentally insecure about their personality (ontological insecurity) cannot tell for sure whether they are real, whole and alive. (The Divided Self)
- Meeting real people can be helpful to ontologically insecure people. When we meet others, we often regard them as real. In contrast, isolation can have the opposite effect – for instance a patient was anxious when left alone as she feared she would dissolve whenever there was no one around.
- Social interactions can be challenging for such people. Approaching an ontologically insecure person with love or concern can threaten their sense of self.
- In an effort to preserve their identity, ontologically insecure people tend to split their personality. An ontologically insecure person hides their feelings to protect themselves from others. To preserve a sense of self, they split their personality and develop a false sense of self.
- Some people feel detached from their bodies, believing that their body belongs to the false self. This detachment from the body can cause them to become detached from the world at large.
- A divided identity can cross the line and become schizophrenia. This occurs when the inner self goes for years without being able to interact with the world outside, thus strengthening the delusional thoughts,
*Precautions to Take before Attempting to Overcome the Ego
- Spiritual seekers are often overzealous to overcome their egos in the process of spiritual development. Before we attempt to overcome our egos, we must first allow our egos to develop and mature. Our ego is gives us a sense of our individuality in this world. It is also necessary for our survival and functioning in this world.
- To fully understand ourselves, it is important to understand both the conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves. That is, we should aim to achieve wholeness by embracing both our conscious identities as well as our shadow selves – the rejected parts of ourselves that may remain unconscious to us.
- By thinking of our egos solely as illusions, we run the risk of developing a sense of futility in life. We begin to think that there is no purpose in existing or in forging relationships with others.
There are 4 Main Paths to Spiritual Awakening
Vedanta prescribes 4 major paths in reestablishing our connection with oneness:
- Karma Yoga: the yoga of action and selfless service
- Bhakti Yoga: the yoga of devotion
- Rāja Yoga: the yoga of meditation
- Jñāna Yoga: the yoga of will and intellect
We Can Free Ourselves from the Ego by Awakening to Our True Selves in the Following Process
- 1 Spiritual awakening – this may be triggered by an existential crisis, illness or part of the maturation of the soul
- 2 The dark night of the soul – we experience an existential crisis, depression and isolation from others when we first begin to question who we are
- 3 Spiritual seeking – we begin to explore different methods of healing increasing our awareness and obtaining healing
- 4 Momentary enlightenment (Satori) – we experience a glimpse of our true nature
- 5 Soul growth – our souls begin to mature and we begin to develop more spiritual discernment
- 6 Surrender, dissolution and deconstruction – when we understand our true selves fully, we surrender everything that is not part of our true nature
- 7 At the end of the search, we come to a place of unity with our souls and there is no further need for striving – this is a visionary and transcendent stage where we awaken to our true identity.
It is important to exercise spiritual discernment in our spiritual journeys. We must first understand ourselves in whole (embracing both our conscious identity and unconscious shadow selves) and allow the ego to develop and attain maturity. Then, we can safely begin to overcome the ego. After all, we are both human and divine; it is important to develop our humanity before our spirituality.
p.s. Leave a comment if this resonated with you. I love to hear your stories!
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