We’ve reached a tricky stage in the evolution of consciousness: the ego has discovered there’s a wider reality beyond its high walls and barbed fences. It’s under attack and in no mood to back down without a fight. Let’s have a closer look at this pesky ego and see if we can find its weak spot.
We believe we have one ‘I’ or ego, but in reality our personalities are fragmented. Impulses, feelings, and thoughts swirl through us, all with an ‘I’ attached. We say I am happy, I am angry, I am hungry, I am bored, I am a Senior Sales Executive…
We attach ‘I-statements’ to everything we experience, we take possession of them.
There’s a self-concept to go with every part of your life, every feeling, thought, role you play or circumstance. They come and go with the changing weather. You’re never the same person for more than moments at a time.
We place the idea of the ego, or an overall controller, at the centre of our consciousness to make it easier to relate to the world. It gives us one reference point and the sense that we’re in control. Imagine how complicated it would be if you couldn’t be sure who you were from one minute to the next. It’s so much easier to collect it all together under one roof, or central filing system, and declare it ‘me’ – I am all this.
It gives us a monolithic consciousness, but this makes us vulnerable to upsets, undercurrents, sudden upheavals and revolutions. We never see the ‘enemy’ coming because we’ve forgotten it’s part of who we are, projected and disowned. In reality, we’re made from an army of ‘I’s. As James Hillman says in Re-visioning Psychology:
“..the nature of psychic reality: not I, but we; not one, but many. Not monotheistic consciousness looking down from its mountain, but polytheistic consciousness wandering all over the place, in the vales and along rivers, in the woods, the sky, and under the earth.”
The concept of ego is useful and necessary. We believe it allows us to make sense of our experiences, and it gives us a sense of control and ownership over our lives. But this isn’t really true.
The ego isn’t in control.
Feelings, thoughts, and events, come and go, and you identify with them. Do you control what you feel or think? If you watch yourself through an average day you’ll discover how little control you have over your emotional responses to the things that happen, and what you think about them.
We also believe that if we can remember what we were doing yesterday, we must be the same person today as we were then. But so much has changed! Can you honestly say you are the same person now as you were five minutes ago? It may appear that nothing much has changed, but once you start really thinking about it, can you be sure? Are you the same person you were when you were 5 years old, 15 years old, 35 years old, last year? When did the changes occur? Change rarely happens in one-off cataclysmic events, after which everything is instantly transformed. Usually change happens in increments and you don’t even notice it. We overlook the tiny changes until they overtake us.
This belief in ourselves as the central controller of our lives and experience is undermined when the psyche starts to shift to the next level of development. When you begin to dis-identify from the ego you feel like you’re losing control. The ego sees this as a kind of death, which is why it resists. It can be even more scary because the society and culture you’re embedded in worships the ego and sees anything that goes beyond it as regressive, flaky or plain mad. As Ken Wilber says in The Atman Project:
“It is very rare, however, given the ‘level’ of present-day society, for any individual to evolve past the mature ego stage. Because the average mode of the self sense in society at large seems to be early, middle, or late egoic, then past that point the force of society as ‘pacer of transformation’ tends to drop off. Thus, individuals who grow beyond the egoic stages have to do so either on their own exceptional talents or through special professional assistance.”
In other words, most people only grow as far as society will allow them to grow. But by this stage the ego has done its job, you have grown as far as you can. The ego develops in order to raise the individual out of unconsciousness, and once this has been achieved it becomes redundant. The ego is now ready to be superseded by something else: the Self.
Who Do You Think You Are?
The ego is built from concepts and ideas, so when the next level begins to emerge into consciousness, you may feel that some of your basic assumptions about life are being attacked. Anything that has been formulated into a concept will be up for grabs, undermined, and torn to shreds. The ego also likes to have power through being in control and working towards goals, so anything that undermines your ability to stay in control or achieve your aims will feel like threats to your identity.
As long as you refuse to face your mortality and let go into the Self, you’ll be in a state of arrested development. But you’ll have plenty of company. The vast majority of the world, probably most of your friends and family, are all functioning through their ego. The downside is that you’ll be stuck with the fears and problems of the ego. You’ll be identified with something that’s always changing. Thoughts and emotions come and go. The body ages, lets you down and eventually dies. Even the roles you play in life change, the people you love can leave or die. Everything you rely on to make you feel safe will end.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that where there is ego there is fear.
To compensate for your insecurity you try to nail everything down, make it more permanent. But you can’t make permanent what is always changing, moving and evolving. The ego is doomed to failure. You’re trying to achieve the impossible, you are trying to cheat death.
This is the crux of the problem:
Identifying with your ego separates you from life. You believe that your body and mind are separate from other bodies and minds. If you think you’re separate from life, you feel scared of life. So you put a lot of energy and thought into building defences against life and to avoid the fear of death. And now here you are on the edge of a new, unknown level of reality where you’re required to let go of everything you believe to be yourself. How can you possibly do it?
If you’re so insecure that your defences prop you up, and the only thing between you and the loony bin is a carefully constructed reality based entirely on self-deception, which happens to be reinforced by all your family and friends and the society you live in, how are you going to let go? Why would anyone in their right mind deliberately throw themselves into what appears to be a void of terrifying emptiness?
This is why we cling so fiercely to our egos and try to stay in control. But it’s exactly this clinging that creates the belief that you’re separate from everyone else. The psyche, and life, are a unity, and will work to show you that you’re wrong. Life will send events your way that dissolve the structures of your life and your ego. You fall in love with the wrong person, or even the right person, you go mad, get obsessed, contract cancer… Life creeps up on you and whispers in your ear:
“You’re not who you think you are.”
So what can you do?
You must build an ego that is strong enough to ‘die’.
You can’t let go of something if you feel you never really had it in the first place. You have to feel like it’s not a real loss before you are willing to give it up. For example, if you try to give up smoking and it doesn’t work, it’s probably because you didn’t really want to stop. If you really want to stop smoking, you will, because it doesn’t feel like you’re giving something up that you still want.
It’s the same with the ego. You have to be willing to accept you’re not in control. It’s almost like you have to wear yourself out first, make yourself sick, until you’re so sick and tired of being sick and tired you would do anything to escape it. All your favourite attachments and distractions have to wear themselves thin so you can see through them.
In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler describes the Japanese temples that have demon statues outside to guard the entrances. One hand is held up, ordering you to stop, but the other hand welcomes you in. If you’re put off by being tested, or by your perceived limitations, you’ll never make it past the entrance, or to the next level. You have to look deeper, past surface impressions, to find out what’s really going on.
“It takes a strong heart, a steady intelligence, and a visionary imagination to go in the direction of life.” – Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul
Next we’ll explore how to transcend the ego in: Witness Self