‘’That which appears without only appears because it exists within.’’
‘’What is not here is nowhere.’’
Ego is a word or concept that is bandied about quite frequently and I thought I would do some delving into perspectives on it, mainly, though not exclusively, from the point of view of Yogic philosophy. Of course there are many takes on Yogic philosophy, and mine may contradict generally-held tenets (or not). I am using this piece to explore my own ideas on the subject and those ideas are open to change and modification. Also I may easily be misinterpreting the import of various teachings and am open to various opinions…
The Ego as ‘’enemy’’ is a feature of both Eastern and Western religions and has led to various results in the population, from guilt and fear and self-loathing amongst those who espouse the idea, and angry rebellion or nihilism amongst those who reject it. The hair shirt idea is very much part of western religion, but the annihilation of the Ego is associated perhaps more frequently with Eastern modes of thought. Some schools of thought in the East are very strict, advocating complete subjugation of the idea of a separate ‘’self’’, while others recognise that we are all more or less ego-bound here on earth and must therefore wisely use this inescapable fact as best as possible to evolve.
For some reason, we have tended to define Ego generally in a negative way, as if it must always mean conceit or pride or vanity and so on. Ego gets a very bad press, when in actual fact, in its truest sense, it simply means that part of ourselves that relates to the world but that remains distinct from the world and the others in it. It is our individuality – which is surely not an evil idea in itself.
Spiritual teachers often denigrate the ego as being contradictory to spiritual experience, as somehow consisting of a veil of ignorance that we have drawn over our soul’s intelligence. It is described as the ‘’false self’’, the ‘’little I’’, and so on – almost always as a negative. But I would offer that it would be almost impossible to function as an incarnate being without ego. That it is not negative. That it simply is. Just as appetite or the need for sleep ‘’is’’. And like anything that ‘’is’’, it should be understood and accepted, rather than suppressed or rejected.
Briefly, the concept of Ego (Latin meaning ‘’I’’) as a psychological construct (in the western sense) arose most coherently with Freud in the nineteenth century, (coexisting with Id – pleasure-seeking, unconscious Instinct, and Super-ego – a rationalising self that keeps Id in harness). Generally ‘’Das Ich’’ (the Ego) is seen in this model as ‘’conscious’’, though we may in practice conceal our true motives from ourselves.
It is (perhaps) interesting to note that Jung’s personal evolution of spiritual beliefs arose when as a young boy he read his father’s religious books and realised how maliciously human and wrathful and vindictive that ‘’God’’ appeared to him to be in these stories. As an older man, he described this as discovering that this God was almost wholly representative of the less attractive aspects of human ‘’Ego’’ – and hence his rejection of the religion of his birth.
In Yogic terminology, Ego correlates with Ahamkara…a word that means ‘’I-ness’’.
Whereas it is said to create an illusory sense of ‘’I’’ as separate to all others, it is also an intrinsic and inescapable part of our Soul.
According to Samkhya philosophy, Brahma (which comes from the word Brinh, meaning to ‘’expand continuously’’), gave rise to Mahat (which means Supreme Intelligence or Omniscience), which gave rise toAhamkara (Individuality – the individuation of Consciousness). This Ahamkara (which is a higher form of Ahamkara than the individual ego, though not unrelated) in turn gave rise to the Elements – Tanmatra (that is, Matter). So Ego development was a wholly necessary part of matter coming into existence from consciousness, in this philosophy at least.
Ego is also a part of the four-fold Samkhya description of Mind as Buddhi (Intellect- to be aware of), Manas(Rational, Analysing Mind), Chit (Memory, to see, to be a seer) and Ahamkara (Ego, Individual Identity). This is the Antah Karana – the Inner Tool or Instrument– with which we must all inevitably work.
This Ahamkara or Ego is constantly influenced by the Gunas, which loosely translate as threads or strands, but could be understood as Vibrations or Qualities of Nature. The Three Gunas are known as Sattwa, Rajasand Tamas.
Sattwa represents truth, purity, simplicity, light.
Rajas represents passion, action, self-centredness.
Tamas represents stagnation, laziness, dullness.
But Rajas and Tamas have positive qualities too. All action is Rajas, and where would we be without action? Walking is Rajas. Eating is Rajas. Rajas is intrinsic to our lives. And Tamas can provide stability, which can be very necessary. It means we are not swayed by every change that comes.
Hardly ever are we as humans driven by purely Sattwic motives. Our Egos are always under the sway of some combination of the Gunas. We would have to exhaust fully all our desires and complexes in order to become completely Sattwic, and even among sages this is rare.
Without a well-developed and healthy Ahamkara we would not be able to differentiate and discriminate on our spiritual paths – we would be malleable, gullible, lacking in discipline and will.
I am not suggesting that we aught not try to rise above our ego’s passions and demands at some stage – we should – but we should accomplish this gradually. If we force it we will almost certainly be subjected to influence from repressed neuroses. Self-acceptance, accepting ourselves EXACTLY as we are NOW, is more harmonious for the mind, because constantly striving to overcome our ‘’egos’’ is too much of a burden – it causes worry and constant dissatisfaction.
It is often suggested that unexpressed emotions must find some outlet and that they do so in physical and mental ailments. No matter where we are, no matter how we find ourselves (more or less bound by ego), it is always a good starting place. No matter our faults or egotistical desires. If we live lives that go against our inherent natures, in a misguided attempt to be ‘’good’’, it is said to be ‘’Adharma’’ (in opposition to our natural soul path). Accept everything, but with AWARENESS.
Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras says that the basic tensions of the mind are caused by ‘’ignorance of reality, egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death’’ (V 2.3). It is ignorance of reality (for example, regarding the impermanent as the permanent, the non-self as the self) which leads to ego, ego leads to attraction or likes (raga) and aversion or repulsion(dvesha), and these attractions and dislikes in turn lead to fear of death, which Patanjali says is a dominating force in all people, even those who are very learned.
However, desiring liberation from this causal chain of evens is also a ‘’desire’’ – it arises always from the Ego (inevitably), so it is the force of an ego-driven mind that we use to lead us eventually towards transcendence.
It is also the Ego that works in cooperation with our Soul when for example it delegates the responsibility of ‘’finding guidance’’ from our ‘’Higher Selves’’ – Ego does this. Ego lets go. When it knows it is safe to do so, Ego lets go, and is not the possessive monster that persistently fears change that we might have thought it could be.
‘’This is the paradox of creation, that on the one hand ego binds us to the plane of objective experience (It is only on account of Ego that you relate to the things around you) and on the other hand it exists as the nucleus that has to be exploded to awaken unified existence….Sattwic Ahamkara is responsible for the notion ‘’I am’’ AND acts as a catalyst in the process of self-realisation…..Ahamkara can be considered both the source of limitation and liberation’’
(available if you look for it on Scribd)
According to the book Tattwa Shuddhi (for example) Ego will always remain while we are incarnated, but through the practice of sadhana (spiritual discipline) we can gradually ‘’refine’’ it, as in, dis-identify with its lower functions.
This process of dis-identification involves the cultivation (through meditation for example) of the Witness orSakshi (the inner seer) who accepts fully what it has become aware of and is merely witnessing. There is no suppression or guilt, but a gradual distancing.
No matter how much we dis-identify however, ‘ there must always be an Ego in operation. It is an indispensable part of the mind-body complex…without the Ego the mind-body would become totally chaotic…The Ego itself is not bad; it is OVERIDENTIFICATION of the individual with the ego that causes all the problems’’ ( from….Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya )
If you think of one possible story (that I kind of like) of why we were manifested, i.e. so that God could move beyond God’s aloneness and experience the multifarious forms, then it is our individual unique egos that make that divine experience varied. If we were undifferentiated, maybe God would be bored of his/her creation? How would He/She experience the infinite viewpoints if we did not have Egos? If we are healthy we integrate all aspects – Ego, Id, SuperEgo, Conscious mind, Subconscious, Unconscious….Subtle, Gross, Causal, We don’t throw the baby out with the bath water..
And by being the best unique individual we can be, we inspire others to shine too.
There are different aspects of Yoga designed to ‘’deal with ‘’ different aspects of Ego. Karma Yoga is the Yoga of Action. We all work. By virtue of our existence we work, even to feed ourselves, dress ourselves. Karma Yoga means we continue to act in the world – to work – but we gradually become detached from the fruits of our actions. We allow our Ego to act in the world but gradually become as selfless as possible. It is the action in the present moment that is important – we try to drop our ‘expectations’’ (for reward, recognition, satisfaction etc.). Just pure, unmotivated action. It is a gradual process and very suitable for the active body or mind
Bhakti Yoga is another possible method – we surrender our Ego’s emotions towards worship of God. We channel the emotions so that they become uplifted, and not the servant of Ego. It is suitable for people who feel drawn naturally towards devotion, although having said that we can all do with parts of all the different Yogas, even if we choose one as predominant. Raja yoga aims to detach from Ego by inquiry into the nature of the mind. Kriya Yoga is a set of techniques that we practice even while the mind wanders, i.e. regardless of Ego demands.
In fact all Spiritual paths have this aim of quelling the Ego to some degree.
My point here is that we aught not quarrel with our minds (Egos). A healthy well-developed Ego allows for stability in the character, for the development of values, for a defence against being overly swayed by others, for independence, for self-esteem, for freedom from neuroses, and in fact we need to have a healthy Ego first if we are ever one day to ‘’overcome’’ it. Transcending a vague or poorly developed Ego may lead to us experiencing mental ill-health.
‘’You have to be somebody before you can be nobody’’