… an Option
Does the ego need to die? Is the concept of ‘ego death’ really serious about meaning a “complete loss of subjective self-identity”? Is it a good idea to lose “attachment to a separate sense of self and self-centeredness”? How does this notion make you feel? When I first came upon this concept my ego sank. I am more than willing to be less self-centred – but not feel a separate sense of self? This seemed to fly in the face of the lesser-known non-denominational spiritual wisdom that says we incarnate to individuate and to experience as individuals.
The better known esoteric and eastern spiritual teachings of the 19th and 20th centuries use the term ‘dying to yourself’. They say that death of the ego is essential to spiritual growth and enlightenment and is the only sure way to get aligned with your true self – the soul.
What they don’t say is whether it’s achievable in a lasting sense or even realistic. Yes it’s true. Your true self is smothered under layers of ego shells or ego facades. But when you look at this and the ego death approach from arm’s length, it does sound like the law and order mentality of our ego-based society from which we are trying to evolve.
For example, in the mystical branch of Christianity called Gnosticism, the ego is said to be in total opposition to the true self which is consciousness or the divine spark inside every human (like a pilot light that must not go out).
Gnostic teachings describe ego as a multiple entity (ie. fear is one ego, anger is another ego, pride is yet another ego) and that “the egos” exist as a force outside a person that waits in the wings for the internal conditions of a person to be favourable to the entry of one of these egos. This would be in the form of a weakness like when a person’s guard is down (for whatever reason) or they lose self-awareness at a point in time and their attention gets hijacked by a fascination, like a daydream.
But this approach implies that a person lives in a battleground where they need to be constantly on guard of invasion or in fear of being triggered. This is not an ideal state and is why I found the Gnostic view of ego, while being a valuable piece of the puzzle, presented only a part of the full picture.
To be fair it’s not that the Gnostics were wrong it’s that these theories were developed in ancient times when less was understood about human psychology and the psyche. Because the only ego understanding that came to light since that time was the behavioural psychology theories of Sigmund Freud and later Carl Jung (early 20th century), it’s easy to see why progress has been slow or stalled in the understanding of ego.
While standard Christianity (the lite version we are familiar with today) claims we are born sinners, this assumes our default nature is an ego state which immediately puts a person in a position of weakness. It implies we have to be something better than what we are, that we have to strain for an ideal even if that means to go against our grain.
Why this cannot work.
It presents a wrong assumption about what the ego is in relation to the soul. The ego self is simply the false self assumed to hold all our identity when in fact it’s a veil that covers the true self the soul.
In fact, the ego is the soul’s handicap. It gives soul the scope to greatly accelerate his or her spiritual growth because it poses so many mental and emotional challenges. That is why in the spiritual dimensions a physical life, like on earth, is greatly valued as an accelerator of personal evolution. If people knew this they would appreciate and leverage their life far more no matter what their circumstances.
So the ego death approach, defined as a loss of individual self, clearly places our identity as belonging squarely with the ego. It almost suggests that after ‘death to the ego’ you dissolve into the light of consciousness upon physical death. This makes true spiritual commitment far less appealing than it should be because it’s associated with surrender instead of liberation.
In true spirituality the reverse is taught. It is said that we are already divine in origin but have lost our way under the amnesia of being born into a physical body as a newborn baby with only the warm and watery memory of the womb and getting pressed into the cage of an ego mind. That we get tempted into bad by falling for the survival traps of the coarser existence in the physical dimension and the materialistic dog-eat-dog world.
So instead of having to fight an ego hydra, we are surrendering that primitive part of ourselves to our higher self in complete trust and even joyful abandon. The more we do this the fewer ego veils are left by the time we die when the final stripping away of the false self occurs. All that’s left to do in life is embark on a journey of discovery of the true nature of ourselves, let go, trust the universe, and trust that we are innately good and not innately bad.
This is why when I studied with the Gnostics and applied their approach of ‘disintegrate the ego’ I would at times experience inner turmoil or a tug of war with myself. I would make some progress only to slip back. When I thought I’d caught my ego red-handed it managed to slip some part of itself into my shadow to lurk and pounce on me when I least expected.
When you step back and look at both approaches of the Gnostic multiple egos and the Christian hapless sinner, the frameworks that Christianity and Gnosticism provide put a spiritual seeker on a back foot as it downplays self responsibility.
The idea that one should confess in a confessional (Christianity) and be absolved of sins, or meditate on an ego face (Gnosis) from the rogues gallery of egos – is like giving someone fish but not teaching them how to fish for themselves.
In truth, the multiple ego of the Gnostics is really the multiple ego faces that are present in any person. But instead of existing outside the person, ready to pounce, it is part of the onion layering of the individual. So the battle is really a struggle within.
Ego itself has one consistent trait and that is to avoid taking responsibility. It will happily make a splinter of itself to blame and spurn. When a person won’t face up to a flaw in their character, they go into denial, and that part of the ego quietly slips into the shadow because it’s been rejected by big mama ego and we get an ego face that only shows itself under certain triggers.
Ego death is short-sighted
It ignores that a person can transmute or shrink their ego and create a more direct link to their soul consciousness by tapping into their heart intelligence.
My personal experience is that there is indeed a higher self (soul) and a lower self (ego) which inhabits the physical body of the human.
Intelligence of ego lives in the mind.
Intelligence of soul lives in the heart.
For centuries we were advised to ‘follow your head not your heart’ as the mental challenges presented by mind is far less intimidating than the challenge of working through emotions. Amazing it is to learn that we were supposed to use our head and heart in unison together. The head is the workhorse while the heart is the sanity check.
How to tell between ego and soul thinking?
Ego is closed in and based on fear and limitation. It follows the thinking:
‘If only things went my way, I would find peace’.
Soul is based on unconditional love and abundance, and has preferences rather than attachments. It follows the thinking:
‘When I have inner peace things tend to go my way’.
I had personal experience of following the ‘death to the ego’ approach and it wasn’t long before I hit a ceiling with my spiritual growth. The ego is master of pretense and masks. You may think you have ‘died to yourself’ but it’s very likely your ego has created an illusion and at the same time embeds itself deeper in the subconscious mind. What produces more lasting results is to not wage war with it but accept and work with ego to release it whenever it challenges you.
Unfortunately, many spiritual and religious teachings equate ego with a sense of self and self identity. This could be due to the fact that the teachings of Freud was given more prominence than the teachings of Jung who recognised ego and soul as making up the whole self.
The over-focus on Freud’s view neatly bypasses the legacy all humans have and that is we have a soul which is the store of all the higher abilities, virtues and aggregation of our ego lives on earth. Notice that this whole stream of spiritual psychological discourse barely mentions the soul with the result that it throws into question whether the soul exists in a tangible form.