The ego is getting a bad reputation.
There seems to be a popular conception in some spiritual circles that the ego must be battled — that it is inherently destructive. At a seminar that I attended several years ago, which offered a lot of very effective and applicable guidance, the instructor told the attendees to visualize the abusive voice of ego as a snarling, slimy creature that creeps in the darkness. He said to imagine holding a ray gun that shoots pure light, zapping the creature and driving it out. “Say, ‘Take that!’” the instructor urged, “and tell it that if it ever comes back you’ll zap it again.” In a recent interview with a well-known spiritual teacher, when asked if there is anything good about the ego, he flatly said, “No. The only thing to do with the ego is eliminate it.”
Perhaps this message comes from a loose definition of the word “ego” in which it is simply a dump yard for all the delusional stuff that makes our lives miserable. If so, then the word has no use because it will mean something different to each person. A definition of “ego” that I like is “the program implanted in us to ensure physical survival.” The ego enters when the non-physical soul is placed in physical form. Although duality and the separate self are illusions at the level of spirit, they are very real facts in the world of physicality, and the job of the ego is to protect our bodies and keep us alive. The ego continually scans for danger, seeing the possibility of lions lurking around every corner and viewing other people with suspicion. In this way, the ego is similar to “instinct” but contains a crucial difference. Ego has intelligence and evolves individually by collaborating with the mind in an attempt to understand the world and develop strategies for anticipating, preventing or defending against threatening situations.
There is nothing inherently “bad” about the ego. As a matter of fact, in itself it is good. It protects us and allows us to operate safely in physical form. It also provides much of our ambition and drive. The Talmud (the compilation of Jewish debate and law) states that without the ego “a man would not build a house, take a wife, have children or engage in commerce”. The ego becomes a problem when, because of trauma or consistent childhood hurts and abuse, its protective function goes in to overdrive and decides to take over all aspects of our lives in order to control our thoughts and action.
The ego controls us through the narrative that it creates about who we are and how the world functions. It may tell us that we are not good enough, are unworthy and that no one could ever truly love us. Or it may say that people are essentially bad and cannot be trusted, that affection and love are delusions or that life is simply meaningless and random. These are all constructs created by the ego to keep us from engaging with the world and risk being hurt. And we all too often believe what the ego is telling us. Even if we’ve come to see that the things we feared are not so dangerous after all, that the lions are really kittens, the ego tells us, “Yes, but next time it may be real. You never can be sure. Better to be safe and assume the worst than to be dead.” Then we live in a state of constant fear, exhaustion and anxiety — disconnected from our passions and from vulnerable connections to others.
We may resolve to see what has been causing us so much pain, learn that it comes from the ego’s fear and find a spiritual practice that offers a way to defeat the ego — to finally shut up that shrill, accusatory voice and find peace.
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