An Insider's Guide to the
Perceptual Revolution

 
Embracing Ego

   Human cognitions are so rich in content that we cannot attribute our conflict in life to one type of thought or emotion.  There is a single common denominator, however, behind the most regressive conflicts that occur in human life: fear.  The internal processes that reinforce inner conflicts invariably center on some form of fear.  Whether we worry that we will experience loss, hurt, disappointment or a sense of inadequacy, fear is lurking in the shadows, spurring us on as we run through the same vicious cycle.

   Dualistic consciousness takes root in fears about the world around us.  Part is purely instinctive; part has been conditioned.  Most dualistic perceptions arise from an interwoven mix of instinctive fears and learned mental and emotional patterns.

The erstwhile protector

   The ego is a vast assortment of qualities within each person's psyche, which are chiefly characterized by defensiveness, competition, and apathy.  The ego, as I define the term, isn't a single cohesive force in the psyche; it is more of an idea construct, that encompasses many qualities arising from different patterns of instinct, reason, and conditioning.  The ego is not some monster that, once we can identify it, we will defeat with a single well-placed blow.  It is a collective entity—thousands of different qualities that are loosely connected by their underlying beliefs and agendas.  By nature, these traits often work against the realization and embodiment of people's highest ideals, so the ego lies at the root of many of the most challenging problems of the human condition.

   First off, the ego isn't all that we are, nor is it our deepest nature.  It is a group of potentials which all people deal with—one way or another.  People have many other potentials, of course, some of these inherently oppose egoistic qualities.  There are also potentials which seem to transcend the ego, thought patterns which have a deep transformative effect that bring one's consciousness beyond the ego-based hang-ups altogether.  To illustrate this, imagine that a situation in which a friend has done something which makes you angry, yet you intensely respect the person and do not want your friendship to suffer.  This creates a distinct conflict between the feeling of animosity—an egoistic emotion—and your endearment to the person.  One option that you could take in this case is to become caught up in your anger, which is likely to provoke a competition when you finally express it to the offending party.  This would probably be the ego's vote, because it tends to seek solutions by asserting force.  A second alternative is to suspend the anger because you do not want to damage your relationship.  This might work better than Plan A; on the other hand, what if you still believe, deep down, that the anger was justified?  In this case, you will have put yourself in a victim role, which might actually damage the relationship more deeply than a brief argument.  This passive approach is at odds with the ego's inclinations, but this does not automatically make it the best option.

   Most important to remember is that the ego isn't somebody else's problem!  Who among us could honestly say that he or she has never felt a sensation of pleasure from overpowering another person?  Who has never had the chance to learn something, but knowingly pretended that the opportunity wasn't there?  Who hasn't taken comfort in feelings of victimization, even though it made them feel worse and kept them from solving their real problems?  In every person's identity, there is some version of the force that I call ego; no one is exempt from its influence.  To my knowledge, I have never known someone who didn't have to deal with internal forces which drive them to perpetuate their own conflicts in a seemingly perverse and self-defeating design.  These inner obstacles vary from person to person because of diverse factors such as past history, temperament, and (dare I propose) a person's unique spiritual nature.  However, all people grapple with a drive toward dealing with conflict on one hand, or taking solace in entropy or regression on the other. 

Confronting the tyrant

   Just because ego-inclinations are there doesn't mean that people have to give in to them, or be plagued by them all their lives.  It does mean, however, that we all have to deal with the ego's existence in some way or another.  We can analyze it, condemn it, engage in a dialogue with it, project it onto gods or other people, let it control us, or try to destroy it. 

   I've studied many perspectives on the ego, from psychological theories, to religious writings from around the world, to modern-day self-help books.  Certain approaches to the ego seem to have a truly beneficial and enduring impact on people's lives.  I've pondered long and hard on what raises these above the rest, and what I've come up with is that they aim at a lasting reconciliation.  The most effective approaches to the ego don't view egoistic attributes as something "bad" to get rid of; instead, they see those traits as things which we don't completely understand, which work against our highest ideals. 

   The ego's impulses often have an underlying wisdom, but the ego itself does not have enough knowledge to process these and then act accordingly.  For this, we must utilize higher faculties, and step outside the box of duality that the ego would impose on the psyche.  Thus, let us ask whether there might be a third option, which could supersede the ego without just doing the opposite of what the ego would choose.  What if, instead, you recognized that your anger is the ego's way of trying to tell you about a threat to your personal security?  From this point, you might ask whether the security in question is a petty matter--such as an object that you covet or a superficial measure of self-esteem--or whether the affront hit upon something more essential, such as a personal boundary that you need in order to function well in your life.  At this point, you can decide whether the issue is even worth pursuing, or whether it was just a silly episode that will pass now that you have seen it as such.  This thought process does not deny the ego, but nor does it give the ego control over how you ultimately deal with the matter.  Rather, it honors the ego's job, which is to signal the alarm when something may be amiss, but it also honors the more balanced, self-aware facets of yourself that can decide the best way to proceed.

   Sometimes, “higher” qualities in the psyche annul an egoistic impulse altogether.  For example, imagine that you despise a person for something they've said or done in the past, but then one day, you find yourself in the midst of an epiphany: you try to see their perspective, and suddenly understand something more about them that transforms your disdain into sympathy.  Certain emotional qualities have a miraculous ability to quell the ego's desire to dominate the inner landscape.  Joy, fulfillment, imagination and compassion are just a few examples of these higher virtues.

The root of all evil?

   It could be argued that the ego's attributes are the source of many harmful acts, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it arises from some inherent malevolence in human nature.  Viewing evil as a force which exists simply for its own sake easily becomes another mental trap that we construct for ourselves.  Believing in the devil, demons, or other malevolent forces at work in one's life can externalize evil to the point that people no longer believe they are capable of it.  C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, conveyed a quite different view: that most forms of ignorance arise from a darkness within ourselves—a side of our nature which is compelled to perpetuate our most regressive beliefs and actions, even though we know that doing so actually hurts us and those around us. 

   Many people believe that only a malevolent god (or gods), or only certain individuals, embody a primal evil, and that all other apparent instances of evil are acts of ignorance.  I find this hard to accept when I think of the fact that everyone, at some point, seems to indulge in dominating another person without regard for the impact.  There is a distinct pleasure that comes about when we cause suffering in others.  These tendencies are vicious in the truest sense of the word, and no one seems to be free from the temptation.  Our choice in the matter isn't whether we have a dark side or not, but how we deal with it. Ignorance may be the common denominator at the heart of all apparent evil; even Lucifer's rebellion began with an Angel's choice to ignore the promptings of the Divine.

Who is the ego? (Hint: you.)

   The greatest pitfall in trying to understand the ego is the desire to think of it as something "other" than our true identity.  Since the ego, at times, emulates the very antithesis of virtue and reason, it is often more comfortable to think of it as an outside presence which misleads us, or an inner aberration that "isn't who I really am."  On that score, there's bad news and good news: the ego is who you really are, but fortunately, it isn't all that you are.  You can only reconcile yourself with the ego insofar as you own up to it—not as "something else," but as part of "me."  Trying to shun the ego, punish it, or surgically remove it, is like running on ice.  To resolve its existence, we need to see it as an integral part of the self.  This demands an approach that is, above all, guided by compassion.

   The scary, mortifying truth is that the ego is an aspect of one's true self.  I don't mean to imply that people are doomed to be ignorant, callous, anxious and afraid for all their lives.  Reconciliation is not the same as escape or annihilation.  What I mean to say is that ultimately, you cannot escape who you are.   Somewhere, in the inner world that you carry through your journey on this Earth, are living facets of self-awareness, peering out at the world from the very perspectives which you most condemn.  They are with you right now; do you shun them, or do you ask them into the place where you allow yourself to grow in the light of spirit?

   Alienating the ego achieves nothing but repression.  Granted, the qualities which we emulate in place of the ego may be more constructive, less perverse, and more content all around.  The rub is, believing that we can simply do away with the rest of us and make these "perfect" qualities our only true self chokes off a large part of our being.  Every time we choose to repress what we don't like about who we are instead of processing it with an aim of inner growth, we suffer in the long run.


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© 1999, 2003 by Lucius R.  Ringwald.  All rights reserved.