The human psyche is one of life’s greatest mysteries.What is our innermost essence? What is our life force? Is the idea of who we are a product of the mind, social conditioning, and the thoughts we have? Or are we spiritual beings, both material and divine?
The psyche encompasses all it means to be human. It originates from the 17th century Greek word, psukhē, which translates to “breath, life, soul.” Clearly, more than one approach is needed to tackle such a broad subject.
In psychology and theories arising from the West, the ego plays a crucial role in the psyche. It forms our self-concept and is an essential part of human cognitive function. Conversely, on the spiritual path the ego can be an obstruction to enlightenment. If left to its own devices, it can become a monster that needs to be tamed and transcended. My view falls somewhere in the middle.
In this article I’ll attempt to explain the ego’s role in who you are. Then, I’ll turn to spirituality to highlight how the ego can limit your potential, and what you can do to combat it.
Me, Myself And I — The Ego And Psychotherapy
The word ego originates from early 19th century Latin, translating directly to I. The ego is synonymous with Sigmund Freud’s theory on the human psyche. Freud was a renowned neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis in the early 1890s, in an attempt to understand the workings of the human self-image, the I. As well as explaining our motivations and behaviour, psychoanalysis was also used to help treat mental health disorders.
Freud’s theories on the mind have permeated popular culture for good reason; the belief that our thoughts, emotions and motivations are powered by a rich inner universe — most of which we are unaware of — is still relevant today. This inner universe is theorised by Freud in a branch of psychoanalysis, known as ego psychology, which splits the human psyche into three distinct levels of consciousness — the id, ego and superego.
The Id, Ego And Supergo
According to Freud, the subconscious id is the most deep-rooted aspect of the human psyche. It’s our animal instinct. This chaotic aspect of mind is stored deep in the subconscious and seeks instant gratification by following pleasure and avoiding pain. Aptly, Freud coined this the “pleasure principle.”
The ego is an unconscious aspect of mind that acts as a buffer between the id’s overzealous quest for pleasure and the reality of the external world. Aptly (x2), Freud coined this the “reality principle.” Though still looking to satisfy the id, the ego does so in a much more rational, logical manner. In this context, the ego is positive. Let’s call this the “don’t be a dick but still want nice things” principle.
The third and final aspect, the superego, is governed by social conditioning. Moulded around the ages of 3-5, the superego is driven by societal and parental values, and often strives for perfection. This conscious aspect of mind is further split into the conscience (feelings of guilt) and the ideal self (I “should” be like this or like that).
Carl Jung And Ego-Consciousness
This concept of ego was built upon by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung. In many ways, Jung bridges the gap between Freud’s model of the psyche and a more Eastern approach. Jung believed that while the ego was the centre of the both the psyche and human consciousness, it wasn’t the magic ingredient in the recipe of human life. Instead, he highlights the limits of the ego and placed a lot of importance on the subconscious.
“Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents.” Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self.
Jung entered more spiritual territory by acknowledging a mystical element of the psyche that wasn’t necessarily governed by biological drives. But Western theories still highlight the ego as part of our core identity. Granted, the ego plays a crucial role in how we function in the external world, but it doesn’t satisfactorily explain what makes us human.
Freud and Jung pinpoint that there are elements of our psyche that are out of our control. A driving force that influences our decisions. Now, here’s where spirituality kicks in — what are these mysterious elements? Are they simply biological drives built into our DNA? Deep-rooted conditioned aspects of mind? Or is there something greater?
Moving Beyond The Mind — The Ego And Spirituality
“We are living in a material world.” Madonna.
Though quantum physics increasingly merges scientific theory with spiritual concepts, Western theories of the ego are limited to the material world. The central argument of materialism is that only the physical realm exists. If you apply materialism to the concept of what-makes-us-us, then we are exclusively physical beings. Our brain, made of physical matter, contains the mind, and the mind is the source of human consciousness.
The importance of spirituality is that its focus is beyond the material dimension. When you look beyond the material, the concept of who we are dramatically expands. Looking at the psyche from this perspective, we realise what-makes-us-us isn’t the thoughts we have about ourselves, but instead an expansive awareness behind those thoughts, the witness of our inner world.
In Eastern philosophy, this is our true identity. We are connected to a spiritual, divine dimension of pure awareness, pure being, God (eek!). Our psyche isn’t part of a greater whole, it is the greater whole, with no separation in between.
The Ocean And The Onion
Now it’s time for a colourful metaphor.
Think of the universe as a cosmic ocean of consciousness. Each and every one of us, on the deepest level of our psyche, is a part of this ocean. The ego prevents us from seeing this reality by deceiving us into believing we only exist materialistically. When we identify with the ego, our self-image helps create the illusion that we are individual and separate from the ocean. We believe what-makes-us-us is the mind, squished into the confines of grey matter, flesh and blood.
Continuing the aquatic metaphor, let’s imagine the ego as an onion, floating on the cosmic ocean. The egoic onion (I’m sticking with this) consists of layer after layer of thoughts (“I’m useless”), beliefs (“there is no God”), opinions (“Bristol Rovers are the best team in the world”) and memories. Identifying with this self-image means living a life whereby the vastness of the entire universe self-deceptively contained in an onion.
Identifying With The Onion And Negativity Bias
The egoic onion explains why spiritual practice emphasises the importance of not identifying with the ego. The onion is minuscule reflection of who you really are. I mentioned above that the ego is integral to functioning in society, and that is true. The issue isn’t the ego, but how you identify with it. Identifying with the onion wouldn’t be awful if it were fresh, pragmatic, logical, rational and selfless. But most of our onions are tainted by a negativity bias, as hypothesized by Paul Rozin’s and Edward Royzman’s 2001 study.
As well as the thoughts and beliefs we have about our identity (“I’m unlovable,” “I’ll never be happy”) and the external world (“things never go my way”), negativity bias also taints our memory recollection, another significant aspect of the onion’s “who am I?.” Rozin’s and Royzman’s study discovered that the potency of negative experiences is much higher than positive, which means our memories of negative events are much stronger. Our onion’s are naturally glass-half-empty.
So not only is the identifying with the onion drastically limiting our potential and cutting us off from the vast ocean of awareness, it also convinces us we’re not really that great. We live our lives convinced we’re the onion, and the story we create of who we are often discounts the positive. Yes, onions can be mature, logical, caring, successful, inspiring and all sorts. We can work on improving our own onion. But an onion can only ever excel in the material world. It is never our full potential.
Identifying with the egoic onion is a global phenomenon. We live in a mass illusion, which Buddhism refers to as maya. For American psychologist Charles Tart — who is known for his work in the field of consciousness — this is a “consensus trance” that is “much more pervasive, powerful, and artificial state than ordinary hypnosis.”
We’re a limitless ocean believing itself an onion. Is that not a shame?
How Do I Mind My Ego?
“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.” Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
There are two important elements to consider. The first is that you are not the onion and your potential is unlimited. You are not thoughts or beliefs, but instead, part of a greater whole. That greater whole contains peace, tranquility, love, and all nice things. Understanding you are part of the ocean and not separate can liberate you.
The second element is the importance of the onion in the functioning of day-to-day life. I’m aware that I am much, much more than Ricky. But Ricky (sorry, I) has a value to offer the material world. I’m in a unique position where I can become aware of my own divine nature (as we all can be with spiritual practice), and I can balance my material duties (personal growth, achieving goals, etc) with the knowledge that who I am will forever remain the same.
I do not crave to make the Ricky onion perfect, but through channeling divine traits (such as compassion and love) my onion will grow. Spiritually speaking, I believe the ultimate aim is a healthy, mature onion combined with the understanding of our ever-present, divine, spiritual nature. Again — the egoic onion isn’t the monster. It is vital. But understanding you are much, much more than the onion will liberate you. Seeing the onion allows you to ignore the traits that won’t benefit you, and enhance the ones that will.
To become aware of the onion, meditation is vital. Taking a step back and witnessing the part of the psyche that contains the ego is highly valuable. But always remember: You are not the onion. You’re the ocean. And the ocean is vast. And it’s here. Always.