Friday, April 1, 2016

The term "ego" in contemporary spirituality

Someone asked me yesterday why I do not write about the ‘ego’ and what my understanding of that term is. It’s not a word I use very much as I have come to find it to be a pretty disembodied and experience-distant concept. Also, it is one of those words which usually carries with it an element of shame and blame, and is often used as a way to attack our vulnerability and humanness. But mostly, I have looked long and hard and never found such a thing in my immediate experience. Just to be clear, I’m referring to the term as it is used in contemporary spirituality, not in analytical psychology (that is a different conversation altogether).

It might be helpful to see ‘ego’ as a process, or a verb, rather than as a noun. Viewing it in this way can help us to not hold it as some reified entity that exists within us (surprisingly with a voice similar to Mom’s and Dad’s), and to curb its shaming qualities. ‘The ego’ is often spoken about as if it was some sort of ‘thing’ that takes us over – some nasty, super unspiritual, ignorant little person inside that is solid, continuous, and inherently existing – which causes us to be really lame, unevolved, and creates unending messes in our lives. It is something to be horribly ashamed of and the more spiritual we are, the more we will strive to ‘get rid of it.’ If we listen carefully, we may come to see that if the ego is anything, it is likely those voices yelling at us to ‘get rid of it.’ But how do we get rid of something that isn’t there?

When we slow down and step outside the world of conceptual spirituality, and attune to our actual present experience, do we find an ‘ego’ there? Or is the ‘ego’ a disembodied concept that further entrenches us in the dream of a solid, continuous self (one that is wretched and unworthy no less)? Another concept by which we can re-enact the abandonment and dissociation that we learned as little ones in our families of origin, in order to manage overwhelming emotions and dysregulating storylines?

One simple way of defining ‘ego’ – if we must – is any activity – conscious or otherwise – which leads us to turn from, abandon, practice aggression toward, or is in resistance to that which is present in our immediate, subjective experience. So if what is there in a given moment is sadness, or grief, or a constricted throat, or a heavy heart, or an aroused nervous system, or an unhealthy self-narrative, or a cascade of critical, ruminative thoughts… ego might be seen as that process whereby we move away from that experience, rather than toward it, which would be more of an embodied, yogic, compassionate, or contemplative response.

This movement away, which we might discover as the root of all human suffering, usually takes place by means of denying what is there, on the one hand; or indulging in interpretations of it, and fusing with it as who we ultimately are. Both of these strategies (corresponding to limbic fight-flight as well as to anxious-avoidant attachment) will inevitably lead to engagement with compensatory (addictive) behavior, designed to take us as quickly as possible out of our embodied vulnerability.

In other words, ego is a process of dissociation and splitting off, to use psychological language, in the attempt to prevent overwhelming anxiety from making it into conscious awareness. Or, in spiritual jargon, it is the attempt to prevent us from staying fully embodied to how open, naked, and groundless it really is here, where anything could happen at any time – completely out of control, untamed, wild, creative, non-solid – and not conforming in any way to our hopes, fears, or the way we thought it was going to all turn out.

If we want to get to know more about egoic process, we can start by getting really curious about those thoughts, emotions, and sensations that we will do just about anything to avoid. We can reverse engineer this inquiry by making the commitment to noticing when we are caught in habitual, addictive behavior, including complaining, blaming others, being self-aggressive, becoming caught in shaming ourselves, as well as the more generic list of overeating, getting lost in the internet, unconscious sexuality, hiding out from intimacy when we long for it more than anything (minimizing and pretending we ‘don’t care’), numbing ourselves with a marathon weekend of Game of Thrones, rapid-fire shots of tequila in the face of boredom or emptiness, etc.

As we notice this, with kindness we can make the choice to slow way down. And get really curious, daring to care more about our actual experience than in our interpretations of it, or in getting away from it. With new levels of openness and love – in a way that is totally non-shaming and honoring of how fragile this human heart truly is – we can ask ourselves: I wonder what emotional state I’m trying to avoid? In all of my aggression toward myself, turning from my experience, in all of the storylines about who did what to me and how wretched I am, etc… would I be willing, even for a few minutes, or seconds, to meet that feeling that has been trying to reach me for so long? To invite that one into the home of my heart, to come close, and to see what it is he or she has to say? To replace the abandonment with intimacy. In one moment, to make a commitment to end the aggression.

In this way, we can use the surges of ‘ego’ – whatever it is – as an invitation and fiery reminder to infuse our experience with empathy, with warmth, with compassion, and with presence. Declaring to ourselves and the world that all of our inner experience is valid, it is all the flow of energy and information, not pathological, and worthy of our care and holding. In this sense, ego is an invitation into presence. We can re-craft the narrative of ego in new and more integrated ways, rather than using that concept to indulge in re-enactments of the shame and blame that was hurled at so many in our families of origin. To use ‘ego’ as a special wrathful sort of doorway into wholeness.

Love will do anything to reach us, even create spiritual concepts like ‘the ego,’ in the longing that we will use even those to return home. So I suppose in this way we can salvage the use of the term ‘ego,’ at least for today.


  1. Thanks for bringing laughter to heart through words in the last paragraph. Love <3 Have a Wonderful weekend and may you be blessed.

  2. I heard someone describe 'ego' as a complex energy management system - designed to protect us from overwhelming amounts of energy, or anxiety as you say. This really resonated with me, as does the notion of ego as more of a process than a fixed thing. An ongoing and adapting (for better or worse) process of channeling, containing, controlling, and releasing the great mystery that moves through us.

  3. As Mary O'Malley says "I think back on all those years when I shut down my pain with food, drugs, and alcohol, and I know without a doubt that my compulsions were the survival system that saved my life!" Life wants to wake up to itself, but it is also ingenious in the ways it knows how to wait until it is adequately resourced to not destroy us in the process. It seems life wants us to be here too. Today seems like a good day to feel a bit of awe and gratitude for that.

  4. A friend pointed me to your blog today, knowing that I too stopped using the word "ego" in my work because it’s too laden with meanings that encourage self-hatred and discourage self-exploration. For me, redefining "ego" doesn’t help, as the word is weighed down with associations that will be very hard to change in the collective consciousness, let alone the collective unconscious. With this in mind, I think the word ego should respectfully be retired. (The Jungians can keep theirs ;) Anyone who has spent serious time in self-exploration would have to agree that what spiritual practices call the “ego” is process, and in fact (as Gene Gendlin and Jung saw it) the whole self is process. But for me, there are two challenges in redefining the protective process you’re describing as ego. The first challenge is that name “ego” itself will cause people to think that these processes are negative, bad, and shameful, etc. when there’s an utter coherence and intelligence behind them. (The problem isn’t the protective process itself, it’s that we haven’t been educated to work with ANY of our inner processes in a skillful way, and once people dub these processes as "bad ego" they won't have any motivation to learn how to work with them skillfully.) The second problem is that the process of “psychic takeover” behind the spiritual/new age definition of “ego” is very real and easily confirmed experientially (e.g., anger taking us over and driving us to do harmful things); this is the process we most need to understand and work with to live a more conscious life. This process of “psychic takeover” isn’t solely protective, which is why your redefinition of ego as protective processes doesn’t work for me. But this process clearly CAN get us into trouble, driving us to do and say harmful and unsupportive things that the conscious mind doesn’t intend. I think we need a much more nuanced understanding, languaging and appreciation of this "psychic takeover" process, accessible and non-judgmental language for it, and global universal education in how it works. And perhaps most of all, we need an affirming, non-pathologizing model of the self. To build a truly affirming model of the self for my work (and for my own self) the e-word had to bite the dust, and I don't miss it a bit.