The Ego Revisited

The ego receives a bad reputation within many spiritual scenes. The truth is interdependence, they say, and the ego insists on its separateness. Ergo, the ego must die. Kill it! Annihilate every last trace of the ego and realize complete liberation!

Actually, this hardline stance against the ego isn’t as prevalent as it once was – thank goodness. With the help of communities like the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a healthy personal psychology is encouraged alongside the transpersonal and spiritual lines of development.

That’s not to say that this ego-hating tendency has been extinguished. As recent as a few months ago I had a conversation with a friend who had been teaching mindfulness at a University alongside a Zen teacher in the community. My friend told me that the teacher taught egolessness, in the literal sense, and that he thought it was achievable, and perhaps even healthy. This is, in my opinion, a wrong view.

Look what can happen when communities take this KILL THE EGO thing seriously. I recently read Andre van der Braak’s book Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, where he recounts his years as a senior student of the megalomaniacal Andrew Cohen (founder of EnlightenNext.org). “Impersonal enlightenment has to transform our lives;” writes van der Braak, recounting the teaching her received under Cohen; “we should banish any trace of a personal life. Our very reason for living should be dedicated to what Andrew calls ‘living for the sake of the whole’.” (van der Braak later concludes that ‘for the sake of the whole’ really meant ‘according to Andrew’s wishes.’)

Is this what the spiritual path is all about? Should we banish any trace of a personal life? Not at all. This teaching comes from a rather immature understanding of the role of ego in human development and the evolutionary process.

Take Ken Wilber, for example. His Integral paradigm involves moving through ever higher stages of development. Though rather than suggest that we are to banish the lower levels upon reaching a higher one, he adamantly affirms the idea that true developmental progress includes the process of transcending and including the lower levels. Otherwise, one’s identity becomes fractured, causing maladaptive beliefs and behaviors to arise. So if we are to move our identity beyond ego in a way conducive to true, healthy development, the ego has to be included.

Regarding the positive role of the ego in spiritual practice, the spiritual teacher and meditation instructor Anadi (formerly Aziz Kristof) has this to say:

“The traditional concept that the ego represents only ignorance and should be eliminated as such, [sic] has truly damaged a number of seekers. This misconception has created a real guild complex in the minds and hearts of all those who, for centuries, tried to eliminate the ego which they were. How can one annihilate who one is? The ego, in truth, represents itself a highly evolved state of consciousness, where the mind is able to create a self-referral. This is essential for further evolution as well as for spiritual awakening. […] It is ego which allows us to evolve and survive in the reality of time.” -The Human Buddha: Enlightenment for the New Millennium

According to Anadi, what truly separates man from other animals is the development of a self-referral (ego). Without the ego the journey toward higher consciousness would be impossible. In light of this, how can anyone think that the ego is like a wart or a boil that needs to be burned off before liberation is realized? In truth, the ego is re-contextualized when one awakens to their true nature – not abandoned. We learn that our identity may reach far beyond the small, constricted self in to a vast, open space of awareness which includes all things – yes, even the ego.

The next time you come across teachings about how evil the ego is, and how it ought to be annihilated, just remember one thing: the ego is just as real as anything else – that is, any-thing else. All things arise based on conditions. In order to awaken, you don’t need to annihilate your ego any more than you need to annihilate your left foot.

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3 Comments

Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Personal Development, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

3 responses to “The Ego Revisited

  1. Wow. Egolessness?

    I don’t get some people.

    Ego centric people created:

    Trains, cars, planes, ships, and more.

    Houses, skyscrapers, transport systems, logistics management, wealth that everyone enjoys, and more…

    …the list, always ends with, and more.

    I can’t help but find an empty list of egoless people who have created anything of value to society, let alone for themselves. But I guess an egoless person wouldn’t really act in their own self interest, instead they would be forced in some way to live through others or the group. This of course negates any determinant true self worth. If worth is only derived through others, and those others only through more others, where then, is the worth? Where then would the value stand in a group like that?

    Being too egotistical can be bad, but egolessness. Wow, that just sounds like a downward spiral to depression or mindlessness at best.

  2. Ian

    I’m currently reading a book by William Segal, a leading practitioner of the Gurdjieff Work, who passed away in 2000. He had this to say about the ego (in an interview):

    “I’m not certain I understand the whole question of ego and egoism. I think it is necessary for life and I think none of us are immune to it. From the moment we are born, it is cultivated within us and it has its place. I’ve ceased to think about the ego. It’s there. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s not “It” anyway. So I don’t bother myself about it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big obstacle, and a big help at the same time to getting what you want. Ego drives one, of course, and on the other hand, the ego blocks one.”

    I’ve also been doing a little wikipedia-study into some of the Vedic philosophies, spurred by the discovery of the term Ahamkara.

    I think the ego got a bum rap when all the eastern traditions got translated into English for the first time. We were looking for a translation of original sin, and this ego, this limited transient self-identity, seems to have fit the bill quite well for over a century. Time to got a bit deeper into it, I think…

    • Jackson

      Thanks for the comment, Ian. The quote you provided adds greatly to the topic, as does your comment regarding translating Eastern teachings for Western ears. The ego has become a kind of spiritual scapegoat for meditation practitioners. Let’s see what we can do to change that!

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