… and why we can transcend it but not live without it.
For some time now, in certain self-development circles, there has been a trend for practices that allegedly lead to abandoning or even destroying an ego—in the name of spiritual development. Those who follow these practices believe the ego is the reason for all the horrible things happening around the globe. Hence, getting rid of the ego will bring happiness.
Some people take it to the extreme and offer as an example a new born baby, which is ego-free, and suggest that this lack of ego is the sole reason for its happiness. Therefore, according to this belief, all people should be just like this baby. Not only is the ego perceived negatively among fans of spiritual development, but also among those not interested in spirituality or psychology, who use the term egoist to describe someone who is not particularly likeable. Similarly, the statements “you have a bigger ego than Paris Hilton,” or “your ego takes up the whole room” seem to indicate that a big ego causes problems; and the bigger it is, the more problems it triggers. Following that logic, the smaller the ego: the better.
Common points can be found in different psychological concepts of ego. It develops when a child is a few years old (infants have little awareness of their separateness when surrounded by chaotic stimuli), and from that moment the ego is responsible for the sense of self. It transforms sensorial experiences into observations, is responsible for the decision-making process and for balancing between a person’s needs and environmental conditions. It also helps to maintain the sense of continuity and cohesion of our own identity, which in turn enables us to perform complex tasks aimed at the same goal in the long run. In order to make it simple, I have decided to avoid philosophical debates on the exact moment of ego creation, or whether a particular behaviour is complex enough to be classified as such, and whether animals show signs of ego if they, for example, stock food for later. Let’s focus on the already developed ego.
It seems quite obvious that when the sense of self creates aspirations and attaches strong emotions to their realization, then the ego must also be responsible for any suffering caused by the failure in achieving those goals and fulfilling those needs.
An unhappy infatuation lasting for several months and ending in a suicide is seen only in humans. The poorly developed ego in animals makes them immediately forget about failures in love and prevents low self-esteem. Only humans use the defense mechanism such as aggression upon discovering one’s drawbacks, sometimes combined with trying to convince others that their failure is not the reality.
However, it is worth noting that such reactions are not caused by a strong ego—as is commonly thought—but an ego that is weak enough to have trouble handling reality. Making up untrue stories about one’s advantages, avoiding confrontation with one’s drawbacks, and bragging about oneself are signs of a weak and poorly developed ego.
One extreme example of such behaviour is narcissism: a complete lack of accepting oneself as equal with other ordinary people who have their own advantages and disadvantages; the need to aspire to unreasonable achievements (being the most beautiful, the smartest, etc.); and the need to convince oneself that all the planned achievements were reached when they were not.
One could think that an unattractive person walking down the street and shouting through a megaphone, “I am the most beautiful person in the world!” has an extremely strong ego. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ego of such a person is so weak that it is nearly impossible for them to confront the reality. The awareness of their true appearance would be unbearable for this person.
A strong ego is something totally different: it is such a powerful conviction of one’s real value that there should be no reason not to accept oneself. In this case, there would be no reason to elevate ourselves or avoid confrontation with our own drawbacks. It has been said that John Paul II had such an ego. Thanks to his deep humility, he was able to joke about himself and elevate other people’s statuses. At the same time, he could easily make decisions and perform complicated tasks, because an ego is a useful and powerful tool, without which we cannot live.
Let’s imagine for a second that the ego, which is necessary to perform many tasks, is abandoned. A person who decided to abandon his ego would behave just like a newborn baby, including uncontrolled defecation, and starvation without a caretaker. Such a person would show only physical needs, wouldn’t be able to perform even the simplest tasks, and their whole reality would seem to be chaotic—just like in our dreams.
Let me add that it is absolutely impossible to actually abandon one’s ego (short of brain surgery). The very idea of removing the ego is a paradox because an ego can only consider getting rid of itself if it first does not accept itself. As I have already mentioned, even if this were possible, and such a trend became popular, the consequences of this would be extremely unpleasant for the ego-holder and catastrophic for civilization.
It has to be noted that such ideas are not completely ridiculous, though. They simply come from imprecise translations of mystics’ writings that suggest observation and systematic work (i.e. strengthening ego) can help us to transcend the ego: not to identify with it and to make decisions from a more mature perspective.
It’s similar to overcoming the limits of our own body, which can be done by almost everyone in this country. An adult person easily recognizes when certain needs are indicated by the body in the form of hunger, lust, or a need to defecate. And they can quickly determine when these needs don’t have to be fulfilled immediately, or when they do. Such needs are treated as valuable information, which are either properly met (i.e. going back home to have dinner, or to use a toilet), or one resigns from fulfilling the need (i.e. when it is not possible to have sex with someone).
An adult person doesn’t have to get rid of their body, as the source of any suffering—just as some people treat their egos. Nor should they take action against their body by not eating or urinating for a long time. In the long run this would be more harmful. But unfortunately, people have learned to treat their bodies as though it is a tool, rather than identifying with it.
Therefore, what is worth doing when one is working on his or her ego is observation that leads to achieving more distance from the ego. When you observe your ego and how it works, you’re not identifying with it—you have freed yourself from it. That’s exactly the opposite of what happens when you try fighting and supressing your ego: you get even more lost in the ego’s trap.
Despite what some claim, proper spiritual development and work on ego does not lead to the disappearance of all needs and leaving work and friends to go to live in the Himalayas. Such behavior would be a comedy of errors, using the ego to fight itself and to fulfil new desires—desires of living “beyond the ego.”
Proper spiritual development leads to the observation of our desires, goals, and mechanisms, which in turn makes us aware of what we really want.
Obviously, all the harmful and unnecessary habits you had been identifying with will be rejected. I have never met a person who regretted this.
Naturally, you will move closer to your own desires. At the same time, if you really want it, you can fulfil your needs with greater strength, and all decisions and plans will be made easier than before. That’s because your ego gets stronger and no longer terrorizes you with its moods. It will become a perfect tool for those parts of you that are able to be truly yourself.
This approach is similar to the desire to drink a cup of tea. You follow the desire and pleasure of savouring the experience—being fully aware of it. The moment you realize that there is no tea at home forces you to accept it and either go to the shop to change the situation, or decide that you don’t really need it. In every single case, it’s your decision.
It’s all about reaching the next level, rather than the previous one. There is a great difference between the pre-conventional level (below norm)—seen in animals and new born babies, and the trans-conventional level (above norm)—seen in people where the ego has become a tool. At first glance, one could assume that a pre-conventional homeless person and a trans-conventional, self-employed entrepreneur traveling the world are similar to each other, and both are not at all like a conventional person working full-time job. However, it’s important to take a closer look to see the greater difference between them. Keep in mind that simply quitting your job will not make you a successful entrepreneur.