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What is Ego?

Friend or Foe...


"Stay with the fear!" one Orthodox Christian elder told us last autumn in no uncertain terms. "That's what the archangel Michael told the other angels who, in the aftermath of the betrayal and rebellion of God's closest angel Lucifer, were wavering, doubting their commitment to God and feeling the pull of the seductive certainty that Lucifer was offering from his new abode in hell. He was tempting them with the end of all doubt, division and struggle, and offering them the chance to 'reign in hell rather than serve in heaven.' 'Stay with the fear!' Michael told them. 'Because on one side of that fear is the face of ego, but on the other side is the face of God.'"

A little over a year ago, long before we had decided on a subject for this issue of WIE, our editorial staff sat with twenty-five members of our spiritual community in front of a big-screen television watching an unusual movie recommended to us by our spiritual teacher. The film, titled Fallen, starred Denzel Washington as a police officer on the trail of a literal demon, a fallen angel who could at will take possession of the human soul merely by touching his victim. In one memorable and eerie scene, the demon, named Azazel, taunts Denzel Washington as his character stands on an urban street corner. A cold ripple moves through the crowd around him as, horrified, he watches this invisible demon move from one person to another . . . and then to another . . . and another. The frightening mark of this demonic possession is written across each successive face as an ordinary human expression gives way to a proud, malicious grin, the chilling smile of one who has laughed in the face of God, no longer respects any authority but their own and cares for no one but themselves. As the credits rolled on this intriguing movie, the room was abuzz with talk, because despite the fantastical plot of this paranormal police story, this villain was not one with whom anyone in that room was unfamiliar. At times, in the midst of the intensity of our collective spiritual life and practice, we had seen that same disturbing smile flash briefly across one another's faces. As a group, we even had a name for it: We called it the smile of the ego.

When we first had the idea to pursue the topic "What is ego?" for this issue of WIE, we immediately had some reservations. "Will it be too heavy?" a few of us wondered about an issue solely dedicated to exploring the nature of spiritual life's perennial enemy. And how, we asked ourselves, could we ever communicate the joy and liberation we had found in facing the elusive demon of ego, in doing battle with that impersonal force within that seeks to thwart our highest spiritual aspirations? But that initial trepidation soon gave way to fascination as we began to explore the multidimensional nature of this all-important subject that has perplexed religious thinkers for millennia and captivated every branch of psychology for the last century.

Indeed, what really is the ego? It is a question that goes right to the very core of who and what we are. The great enlightenment traditions have long spoken about the "enemy within" and about uprooting the need to cling to a false and separate sense of self. Their teachings encourage us to tame, transcend, purify—or in some cases slay—this pernicious foe of the spiritual heart. The Sufis talk about the temptations of Eblis, the great Satan, whose role it is to test us, and insist that we must do battle with the nafs ammara, or "tyrannical ego"; the Buddhists talk about narcissism, about the thousand and one forms of self-grasping, and encourage us to subdue the deep-seated vexations of the mind. In Judaism it is yetzer harah, our evil inclinations; in Vedanta, the "deadly serpent"; in Christianity, the mortal sin of pride.

But the psychologists define the word "ego" very differently. They identify it as the crucial self-organizing principle of the human personality, the command center of the psyche without which we could not function. According to Freud, the ego is the agile rider of the two horses of instinct and conscience, negotiating the competing demands of both inner and outer forces. Not only is the ego essential to human development, but as the controller of the fierce passions and aggressions of the primordial id or unconscious, it is responsible for creating and sustaining the very civilization on which all of our lives depend.

What is the spiritual seeker to make of these two seemingly contradictory definitions? Are they even referring to the same thing? With these questions in mind, we set out to discover everything we could about this well-documented yet enigmatic entity that seems to play such a pivotal role in all of our lives. We approached spiritual teachers from almost every major enlightenment tradition, talked to more psychologists than we could shake a Rorschach at (many of whom didn't make it into the final issue), spoke with numerous transpersonal theorists—the grand integrators of psychology and spirituality—and even interviewed a Hollywood director to gain perspective and insight on this powerful player in the human drama.

And as we saw this elusive phantom of the human psyche reflected in the multifaceted prism of modern and ancient thought, we wondered again and again: Is the ego the enemy within? Or is it the command center of the psyche? Or is it some mysterious combination of both? The therapists tell us to develop the self; the Buddhists say there is no self. The psychologists explain how the ego is created; the religions explain how the ego is transcended. And the transpersonal psychologists agree in some way with everyone and include it all in their theories of everything.

As we explored the wildly contrasting terrains marked by these two very different paradigms—from ego development to ego annihilation, from the wounded egos of modern therapy to the wounded pride of Satan, from the inner children of the New Age to the inner demons of an older age, from self-help therapies to radical exorcisms, from the ego defense mechanisms to the seven deadly sins, from being somebody to being nobody at all, from Freud to the Buddha and back again—one thing became extraordinarily clear: that the way in which we understand and relate to the ego has everything to do with the way in which we understand and relate to all of life—including spiritual enlightenment.

Is it all just a matter of definitions? An issue of semantics? A play of words? At first glance it may seem so, but as we learned in the interviews that make up this issue, the currents of these questions run far deeper than that. When we take up the challenge of enlightenment and dare to aspire to be a liberated human being, nothing could be more important than knowing exactly what we're up against. And yet, never has that question been more complex and confusing, and never has there been more disagreement as to what the most accurate answers actually are. Still, it is how we relate to the ego that colors and informs every choice we make on the spiritual path—what to accept, what to reject, when to move forward and when to step back. And it is those choices, made within every human heart, that will ultimately determine the results of our spiritual efforts.


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This article is from
Our Ego Issue