Our ego has caused so much trouble that, when we first encounter its manipulations, through awareness, it seems to beg the condemnation of a heretofore uncovered criminal enterprise. We might feel cheated or betrayed by our own pathology! We might think, “My God, all those years under its control. Lost!” When the dust of our first understanding of the ego settles, personal responsibility and healing can begin. This will be hard if we energize the ego further with blame and judgment, it s own tools. To avoid this trap, we can choose to come into the present and develop the witness of what is happening right now. The past is manifesting through our present behavior. Spiritually speaking, when we correct our current unskillful behavior, we turn the past into a teacher and healer. Suddenly it has purpose, and it is healed as well.
Over the years there have always been defenders of the ego, ready to attack anyone who maligns this part of our being, and, yes the ego has it uses. For one thing, it helps to protect us from physical threats. But, since it usually operates in an uncontrolled, unconscious atmosphere, it actually overprotects us. It has become an over energized and over enthusiastic savior, a tyrant. It sees threats everywhere and advises us to always be on the lookout for danger; it creates fear to make sure we get the message. Because the micro informs the macro, this is true of nations as well as individuals.
The usual response to the ego, now that we have identified this culprit, this gangster, is to try keep him under lock and key until, when we become enlightened, he will be executed or disappear. Who has not dreamed of or tried this fruitless approach? It is very possible that those of us who feel they have succeeded in this quest are living in both denial and illusion since the ego is a part of us. The real answer to the question, “the ego friend or foe,”of course, is “both.” In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Prince Hal, talking of his secret, self-responsible plan for personal growth and maturity says “like bright metal on a sullen ground, my reformation glittering o’er my fault, shall show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.” What would we do without the “the sullen ground,” the benchmark we use to gauge our spiritual progress? Thus even as a foe the ego has an important function. It is a friend when it engages in its basic, physical ,protective function, it is a foe when it engages in ever reasonable doubt, calls up inappropriate fears, and tries to persuade us we live in a totally dangerous world.
The ego is an important part of being human. In her book about spiritual intelligence, SQ21, Cindy Wigglesworth says, “Powerful passions and desires can cause terrible suffering to others and ourselves, there’s no denying the problem. But it seems to me that our natural emotions are only a problem when we’re consumed by them. The solution is not to repress or deny or eradicate our human nature, it’s to be conscious of our deeper nature as well. Desire is the fuel of life. Wanting things to be better pushes us forward to new challenges. Passion is the spice of life. Feeling strong emotions wakes us up from the numbness of normality. Do we really need to sacrifice experiences that are integral to our humanity in order to wake up to our essential divinity? I don’t believe life is that perverse.”
The key then is to be “conscious of our deeper nature” and not to be “consumed by our “natural emotions.” When we become consumed by these emotions, we are, as I say, “lost in the story.” We can be sure we are completely in the thrall of the ego. When we are conscious, we are aware of this state of affairs, and we can choose to come back to the present and to our own path, to personal responsibility and inner work and to new action that is more compassionate and kind. This is not a denial of passion, it is accessing consciousness and, as Rumi reminds us, consciousness is “the same in ecstasy and in self hating fatigue.”
There is one thing for sure, the ego does not need our help or our endorsement. It is doing fine on its own. The world is in the bounds of the ego. It is the ocean we swim in.
When I think of our relationship to the ego and those who would ask us to celebrate it somehow, rather than simply accept it, I am reminded of the piece from Normandi Ellis’ beautiful translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead* called Fish Stink.
“It is true that fish stink. It is also true that the river is beautiful. But the river would be beautiful despite the fish. What is noxious remains so.
That is not to say that shit is not useful when buried in the wheat field. Bread made from the field tastes sweet, wine from the arbor sweetest. All things serve a purpose, but that is no reason to glorify what is abominable. A man must still watch where he walks and keep his sandals clean.“*
* Ellis, Normandi. Awakening Osiris, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Phanes Press, 1988