Skip to content

Defining The Spiritual Ego

Posted in Ego

ego
Explaining who you really are.

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.

Related:  The Ego Erodes When Enchanted By The Stars

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 video below explains how to transcend the ego, whilst remaining grounded. 

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.

Related:  Buddhism And Body Image — Applying The Middle Way Philosophy

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.

How do you relate to who you really are? Let me know in the comments section below.


Like what you've read? Share below:

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Very beautiful! Thank you for sharing this with us and keep going with spreading the positivity <3

    April 20, 2019
    |Reply
    • Ricky
      Ricky

      Support like this helps keep me motivated to keep going — so thank you!

      June 5, 2019
      |Reply
  2. Alexis
    Alexis

    Hello Ricky,

    I would like to start by thanking you for sharing all this valuable info and metaphors about the ego. It really helps.
    I am fairly new to all this, but I always had the feeling that there is something more than that; even if I never really explored it.

    When my dad passed away, 14 months ago, I started questioning everything in my life (life, work career, relationships, etc) and started spending a lot of time alone with my thoughts, trying to find some inner answers.

    Over the past month, my emotions have been intensified and I have been literally submerged by a big variety of them (like a roller coaster). Suddenly, I have also started to feel a very big attraction by nature (note that I was raised near nature and always loved it, but this time I felt different) and in generally all those existential questions have become stronger that ever. Initially, considering also that I have some basic knowledge on psychology, I started believing that I was going through a depression, but there, in the “symptoms”, the feeling that something was “waking up” (?) inside of me didn’t match. I started doing researches on the internet, because to be completely honest, I was very worried and thankfully in my research, I came across to the so called “Spiritual Awakening”. It was the first time that I was hearing about that and while reading more about it, I have figured out very quickly that these “symptoms” along with some others that I had, were signs that I was waking up spiritually. I continued reading and watching different videos related to all this and for the past week I took the initiative to start meditating every day. Like I said above, I am very new to all this and my meditation is done as per various readings/videos that I have seen. I don’t know if what I do is correct, but I think that from the moment that I spend time with myself into that condition, it can only be beneficial. If there is one thing that I find easy to do (easier at least from what I was reading about), is to keep under control my mind and thoughts (concentration). Very often my thoughts, like everybody else I guess, have the tendency to deviate/escape, but I am comfortable in bringing them back to “order” and continue contemplating to whatever I have in mind at that moment.

    Apologies for this very long introduction, but I am just trying to give you a background of my situation. So, my question is the following. What is the best approach to work on your ego during the meditation? Do you start the meditation by thinking about something specific that you want (i.e childhood memories or a specific emotion that you have at that specific moment or something else) and start digging/”dialogue-ing” with yourself or do you relax and let the thoughts flow inside of you and you work with whatever comes to your mind? What’s the most effective way according to your experience? If you could share some advise insight on that it would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you in advance,

    Alexis

    P.S: In 1.5 weeks I will be joining a meditation event here in the city where I leave and hopefully from there I will be able to find a spiritual guide/master/teacher who will be able to walk me through this spiritual journey.

    May 29, 2019
    |Reply
    • Ricky
      Ricky

      Alexis — firstly, thank you so much for sharing your story and I’m sorry to hear of the death of your father. Your journey is beautiful and moving, and touches upon the tenderness of the spiritual path. Grief acts as a big precursor to the awakening process, and you’re absolutely right with the link between depression and spiritual awakening. I now understand depression acts as an “alarm” to wake up to our true nature.

      In response to your question, I intend to write a follow-up to this article eventually, as there’s a lot of misunderstanding around the ego, and its role. Ego isn’t bad, per se — in fact, a healthy, functioning ego is vital for our day-to-day functioning.

      However, a lot of spiritual terminology in the West confuses “ego” with “egoic”. The spiritual path is to cultivate heart-centred, soulful expressions of being whilst limiting and overcoming egoic tendencies.

      The more separate we feel we are, the more we mistake our self-image as “who I am”, the more “egoic” our traits — these behaviours are fear-based, centering around an illusion of identity (I am an individual, separate from the world and others).

      As we progress and experience our true nature, our “self-image”, or understanding of ourselves, updates. We then integrate and form a healthy ego; an ego informed by spirit, held lightly not as “who we are” but a function of the mind.

      So, in terms of overcoming egoic traits, the path of meditation requires we become aware of them, firstly. Personally, meditation and self-enquiry allows me to witness attachments, the ways in which my identity was formed. Detecting these attachment is an ongoing process — the key is noticing when egoic traits occur, and choosing not to respond when they “flare up.”

      For example, during a disagreement, we may spot a thinking pattern of blame and victimhood, and feel ourselves respond in anger. Through meditation and mindfulness, we can detect this, not confuse it with truth, and choose to ignore this process and instead respond with compassion and understanding.

      As ego only functions as a mind-made entity, many meditation practices work to overcome it. I’ve used a number of techniques, from mindfulness of breathing to loving kindness to Vipassana (most recently). Play around, find one that works, stick with it for a while.

      For spiritual growth the key is using meditation to increase concentration and awareness of the inner-world and using awareness to detect egoic traits and to overcome them. For this, I use journaling, reflection, introspection in addition to time spent on the mat. Combined, this transforms the process into a “project” of discovery on the Self.

      I hope this helps, for now. Thanks again for your valuable input and I’m wishing you the best of luck in your spiritual journey — how exciting for you!

      June 5, 2019
      |Reply
    • Madhavi
      Madhavi

      Hi Alexis,

      Thank you for sharing your journey.

      Curious to know if you found what you are looking for. I follow a meditation path but not sure if you would be interested. It is the most subtlest I have come across so far. Please let me know if you need further info.

      September 14, 2019
      |Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.