I think the Ego has received a bad rap in the development of our cultural “enlightenment philosophies.” The Ego has become a word that is used to point to something internal that must be tempered, punished, put down, or even nullified in order for us to fulfill a higher purpose. In my own readings I have found this usage of the Ego to be damaging. Though this might not be the intent of certain authors, it makes me feel that I have something sick that I carry around with me and no matter how much I try, I cannot fully overcome. I am no expert in Psychoanalytic theory, though it seems clear that the Ego serves an extremely important function in the way human beings interact in the world. The Ego is a function. It takes the base drives and desires that are most primal and enables us to enact them in a secure way that is connective to the people and world around us. The Ego is a tool of transcendence that elevates thoughtless impulse to meaningful action. Halleluyah!
As Ego is often equated with the Self, I think we can see the Self in a similar light. I try not to use the Ego/Self so casually and certainly not connected with words such as nullification or pathology. On a recent meditation retreat (Awakened Heart Project), the thought arose, “Cutting off the Self is like severing the end of an electrical cord.” Without an Ego we cannot access meaning or connect with broader states of mind – psychological or spiritual.
What has been feeling more integrative is to translate the New Age use of Ego/Self as the false sense of separateness, which is perhaps only one small sliver of the Ego function as Freud intended. I do think that our culture has become so individualistic that we struggle to empathize with the suffering of another without thinking “Thank G-d that is not me!”, nor truly rejoice in the celebration of another without thinking “Hey G-d! Can’t that be me!” There are times (not always) when this sense of being separate should be put down, admonished, or even nullified. Mindfulness is a compassionate way of keeping separateness in check.
My meditation teachers (most recently Rabbi Jeff Roth, Sylvia Boorstein, and Norman Fischer) helped me to see that separateness can be overcome by paying mindful attention to the accessible workings of the Ego/Self – the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise when you turn your gaze inward. It’s a jungle in here! Erratic pains and pleasures move and shoot through my body. Baseless judgments erupt attacking people that I have never spoken with. Moods swing like a dysfunctional pendulum. The insight hits home, “I have so little control over what is going on inside of me and it impacts my actions tremendously. This goes for everyone else too.” The walls of separateness melt against this tender connection when understanding that, as Sylvia taught, “All of us can mostlyonly act how we act.” In this process, the Ego/Self does not disappear. Rather it is affirmed and strengthened as an ever-changing process that helps us to unite our internal and external worlds.