By Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD
What is “ego”? Is “ego” something bad that should be eliminated? I’m hearing this question a lot these days, so I decided to do some research.
I discovered that there are two very different definitions of “ego.” The Freudian term “ego” refers to “the organized part of the personality structure” (according to Wikipedia) which includes conscious awareness. Then there is the Buddhist ego, which seems to be what my questioners are wondering about. “Ego, in the Buddhist sense, is quite different from the Freudian ego. The Buddhist ego is a collection of mental events…” (from “An Overview of Buddhism” by Mike Butler)
I found a number of writings in which “ego” in the Buddhist sense is treated quite negatively. The message is, this is something you’d be better not to have. For example: “The deepest meaning of ignorance is the believing in, identifying with and clinging to the ego, which as we have seen, is nothing but an illusive mental phenomenon.” (“Ego and Desire,” www.mathri.com)
Eckhart Tolle is one of these writers. In his book A New Earth he writes: “The ego tends to equate having with Being: I have, therefore I am. And the more I have, the more I am. The ego lives through comparison. … The extent of the ego’s inability to recognize itself and see what it is doing is staggering and unbelievable.”
So, according to these systems, there is something called “the ego” — and it is spoken of with such disdain and contempt that one naturally concludes the ”ego” is bad and should be eliminated.
A Process, not an Entity
Now, if you read these writers carefully, you see that none of them actually advocate saying to a part of one’s self, “Bad ego! Go away!” Buddhism has an eightfold path that involves building up positive practices such as right view, right intention, and so on. Tolle recommends an awareness process that emphasizes the present moment. (And he says, for example, “There is nothing you can do to become free of the ego.”)
So why is it that when we read these writers we have the strong tendency to treat a part of ourselves as bad and assume that trying to eliminate it would be a good idea?
I believe it has to do with the labeling process itself. What is essentially a process has been given a name—a noun, a label. Add the contemptuous tone, and you have a classic “exiling” of an aspect of self.
If the problem is labeling, then what is the solution? I’d say we need to shift our language—and the new language brings with it a shift in how we understand, treat, and interact with the phenomenon in question.
Rather than saying, “My ego says…” or “That’s just my ego wanting that,” let’s say instead: “Something in me says…” or “Something in me wants…” By saying it this way, we begin to get curious about what is going on with it, from its point of view. We take the first step toward an inner relationship that can lead to its transformation.
And if there is some part of us that has an objection to doing that, we can turn with curiosity toward that as well. We may discover that a part of us doesn’t want us to be curious and compassionate toward that part called “ego” because it holds the belief that the “ego” part is incorrigibly, unchangeably bad and wrong. I can’t help but notice how alike that is to some social and political beliefs: “Don’t even talk to that person (or that type of person) because they are [LABEL].” Thus we stay stuck, inwardly and outwardly as well.
Fear and Ego
I remember hearing a noted New Age author being interviewed on the radio. She said, “Fear is the ego’s way of keeping us small.” From my way of thinking, that sentence contains assumptions that are unlikely to contribute to transformation. In other words: when you see the world that way, you stay stuck.
How remarkably everything shifts if, instead of saying “fear,” we say, “Something in me is afraid.” Then we start to get curious about what would happen if we get to know it (this something) better. The same kind of shift happens when we treat “ego” as a process rather than an entity. “Something in me seems to want to keep something in me small.” How interesting! I wonder what’s going on for it, that it would want to do that. (And I won’t find out by reading books or listening to lectures about “ego.” I have to go inside and invite this part into a conversation where I will be the listener… because I don’t know in advance what the answer will be.)
Presence and “Ego”
Presence, or Self-in-Presence as Barbara McGavin and I are now calling it, is the embodied ability to be in compassionate, curious company with whatever arises in us. “Whatever arises” includes what is called “ego.” As Self-in-Presence we are not judging as bad or good, not evaluating, not labeling. Judging, evaluating, and labeling are “partial-self” experiences that perpetuate the struggle and therefore the stuckness. As Eugene Gendlin puts it, “We think we make ourselves good by not allowing the feeling of our negative ways. But that just keeps them static, the same from year to year.” (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams, p. 178)
When we’re identified with a part of ourselves that feels the need to judge and label and eliminate other parts, then we are stuck. Tragically, we are behaving in a way that is intended to save us but will not succeed.
Please understand: I am not saying that Buddhism leads to being stuck! Our ways of misunderstanding or misapplying it seem to be the problem. There may also be problems with some ways that it is taught, but that is not for me to say.
Here is what I do know: Any inner aspect of experience is on our side, trying to help us, no matter how negative it may seem and even be in its current behavior. This includes what is called “ego,” what is called “critic,” and what is called “mind.” It is in the compassionate company of Self-in-Presence that the life-forward energy of any part of us can be tapped into and carried forward.
This article appeared in The Focusing Connection, January 2009