Back in the spring of 2000, when What Is Enlightenment? published its issue called “What Is Ego? Friend or Foe . . . ,” I was, if you don’t mind my “sharing,” in a terrible bind. At the time deeply committed to a career as a psychotherapist, I had spent years learning about, developing, and strengthening the ego—that fundamental sense of self and personal efficacy—in myself and in others. And for me, as for so many of my (boomer) generation, therapy was often much more than just something you did to feel better about yourself. It was a spiritual endeavor, a means of soul development, a way to discover and rediscover the “true self” on a path to nothing less than the full expression of personal potential in the quest for wholeness.
By the time I entered the profession, therapy had long since leapt off its Freudian couch. Over the previous few decades, it had expanded its domain into personal growth workshops and mindfulness weekends, had stretched into yoga ashrams, and had proliferated up and down the social class spectrum in the form of recovery groups (AA being the godhead, so to speak) as a spiritualized version of support for just about every personal issue you could name. I had expanded with it, starting out as your garden-variety neurotic client, then as a kind of therapy-based spiritual aspirant (following a profound realization of Oneness in a particularly cathartic session), then as a student (first in a “spiritual psychology” program and on to a master’s in social work), and finally as a therapist helping others work their way, one issue at a time, to their own spiritual heart. Therapy, in its myriad forms, had established itself in our post-traditional culture as one of the few places where you could seek meaning without trying to believe in some hopelessly outdated bearded-man-in-the-sky type of God, and I was right there in the middle of it all. A true believer, you might say.
So what was the bind? Somewhere along the way I had fallen headlong onto a spiritual path entirely outside the realm of therapeutic process—a path of enlightenment, or ego transcendence. Somehow, while faithfully nurturing my way toward wholeness, while occupied with all of those sessions and group meetings and workshops, while pursuing countless guided meditations and visualizations and “heart openings,” I had begun to consider the outrageous possibility of being absolutely free, or enlightened, for real—now. And that, I was learning, meant dropping all notions of needing to heal first, which meant ending all process, leaving the past behind, killing the ego. Though still a dedicated therapist by day, I had begun “moonlighting” in a different spiritual world that pointed to a daring possibility, where the rules increasingly seemed to oppose those by which I had lived most of my adult life until that point. Indeed, I had an “issue” that no therapist I knew would be able to help resolve.
In some ways it was all coming down to the question of the ego. What is it really? Are the therapists right that it is essentially positive, the individual sense of self that needs to be stroked and strengthened over time? Or is it, as the spiritual masters say, an illusion of separation to be instantly dropped as the only obstacle to wholeness? Or could there be, I hoped . . . a definition that would encompass all?
It was on this doorstep of contradiction and inner conflict that the nice fat What Is Enlightenment? issue on ego fell with a satisfying thunk. Back then, WIE came out every six months, and the entire issue would be dedicated to one rigorously researched topic explored through interviews with a vast array of spiritual teachers and experts—and this one was no exception. Drawing from the wisdom and experience of spiritual masters, transpersonal theorists, and psychologists, and even from the director of the acclaimed film The Devil’s Advocate, it covered the topic from top to bottom.
But one article, more than any other, promised an answer to my dilemma: “The Man with Two Heads,” a double interview with Sheikh Ragip al-Jerrahi, Sufi spiritual leader, a.k.a. Dr. Robert Frager, transpersonal psychologist and professor. For obvious reasons, I was intrigued with this radical concept: two separate side-by-side interviews with one person fully steeped in both the spiritual and the psychotherapeutic paradigms. And as the original introduction to the article indicated, the affable Ragip/Frager immediately agreed to the idea. “Sure,” he said. “You could call it ‘conversations with a schizophrenic,’ because I’ll probably contradict myself. When I’m wearing my Sufi hat, I often say terrible things about psychology.” Despite this frank acknowledgment of the contradiction in his roles, I thought, wouldn’t he have to come to some kind of an answer, a resolution to this essential life-directing question? Wouldn’t he be the one to provide a unifying perspective?
Well, yes and no. But rather than give it all away, I’ll leave you to discover for yourself what the esteemed sheikh/shrink had to say.
And as for me? It is now six years of spiritual practice and contemplation later, four years since I shut my therapy office door for the last time and came to work for WIE. But despite such a life-changing decision, after rereading this article and recalling that time of confusion and inquiry, I have to admit that the grappling with ego, in all its definitions and dimensions, seems just as crucial and as challenging as ever. My “bind,” of course, pointed well beyond a personal issue to a timeless spiritual question—albeit one viewed through a therapy-colored lens. And that question, for those of us who are attracted to spiritual life, seems to be nothing less than: Are we, despite countless psychological flaws, willing to drop ego and dare to be free, right now?
While no one can answer that question for us, there is help available for navigating this at once classic and contemporary terrain. That is why I chose to share with you, for this special edition of What Is Enlightenment?, the following pair of interviews. More than just a wise and educated guide, the “two-headed” Ragip/Frager is in fact uniquely positioned to illuminate the path of this all-important exploration. So I hope you will value, as much as I have, this eminently insightful and fascinating investigation into the nature of ego, the contours of human development, and the spiritual drive for ultimate transcendence.
by Wren Bernstein
» Continue to Part I: The Tyrannical Nafs
» Continue to Part II: Psychology Can Only Take Us So Far