‘Ego’ for many of us becomes a term of abuse for self/other and source of shame. Here’s a radically different and far more accurate/useful take on this….
Here’s the text for those who have difficulty seeing Facebook links:-
‘Someone recently asked why I do not write about the “ego” and my understanding of that term. It’s not a word I use often as I have come to find it to be a pretty disembodied and experience-distant concept. Also, it is one of those words which usually carries with it an element of shame, often used as a way to attack our vulnerability and humanness. But mostly, I have looked long and hard and have never found such a thing in my immediate experience.
It might be helpful to see “ego” as a process or verb, rather than a noun, countering the idea that it is some reified entity that exists within us, surprisingly with a voice similar to early, misattuned attachment figures. The “ego” is often spoken about as some “thing” that takes us over – a nasty, ignorant little person inside who causes us to be really lame and unevolved. Above all else, it’s super unspiritual, something we must work hard to “get rid of.” If the ego is anything, it is likely those voices yelling at us to “get rid of it.” But how do we get rid of something that isn’t actually there?
When we slow down and step outside the world of conceptual spirituality, attuning to our actual present experience, do we find an “ego” there? Or is the “ego” a disembodied concept that we learned one day? Please don’t take my word for it. Turn inside and see.
One simple way of approaching “ego” is as any activity which leads us to turn from, abandon, deny, or practice aggression toward what is present in our immediate experience. If sadness, rage, a constricted throat, a heavy heart, an aroused nervous system, or cascade of critical, ruminative thoughts appear, ego would be that process whereby we move away from that experience rather than toward it, which would be a more embodied, yogic, or compassionate response.
This movement away, the essence of so much of our emotional suffering, takes place by denying what is there, on the one hand; or fusing with it as who we ultimately are on the other. Both strategies (corresponding to limbic fight-flight as well as anxious-avoidant attachment) inevitably trigger engagement with compensatory (addictive) behavior, designed to take us as quickly as possible out of our embodied vulnerability.
In other words, ego is a process of dissociation and splitting off, in the attempt to prevent overwhelming anxiety from spilling into conscious awareness. Or, in spiritual language, the attempt to protect us from just how open, unknown, and mysterious it really is here, where anything could happen at any time. We could lose our jobs, a loved one could die, a lover could leave us, our hearts could break, we could forget why we’re here, and the meaning in our lives could dissolve in front of our very eyes.
If we want to know more about ego in an experiential way, we can start by getting really curious about those feelings we will do just about anything to avoid. We can make the commitment to notice when we are caught in habitual, addictive behavior, including complaining, blaming others (or ourselves), unconscious self-aggression, eating when not hungry, etc. – anything, really, to avoid feeling.
It can be icky to turn toward the panic, claustrophobia, restlessness, and sense that things are just not safe. But we do so in any case, slowly, not out of some masochistic compulsion, but out of curiosity, self-compassion, and a longing to love and care for ourselves in a new way.
What is it that I’m trying to avoid? What aspect of my vulnerability am I needing to bail out on? Would I, even for a second or two, be willing to shift the momentum and meet that which has been trying to reach me for so long? To invite that one home and see what he or she has to say? To end the cycle of abandonment.
In this way, we can use the surges of “ego” – whatever it is – as an invitation and reminder to infuse our experience with empathy, warmth, kindness, and breath. In this sense, ego is an invitation into presence, a special, wrathful sort of doorway into wholeness.
Love will do anything to reach us, even create concepts like “the ego,” in the longing that we will use even those to return home. So I suppose in this way we can salvage the use of the term “ego,” at least for today.’
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling Exeter since 1994