By Brian Luke Seaward
When Joseph Campbell travelled the world collecting stories, myths, and fables that solidified his understanding of what he called The Hero’s Journey, he was made aware of the occasional hero who was caught up in the glory of the quest, overtaken by greed, and who refused to complete the journey by returning home. They were labeled fallen heroes. We live in times with many fallen heroes – people who will not give up selfish pursuits and who refuse to settle themselves in a wise and mature self. They are part of what has created a great deal of the current disruption in our world: we are suffering from a kind of personal and societal sickness because of ego-centered greed. Wisdom keepers from many healing traditions offer this sage advice: The healing process includes taking an honest look at the role each of us plays in our own suffering. So, what do we have to take an honest look at? What is the “ego”, and how does it cause suffering?
Sigmund Freud may have been off the mark with many of his theories, but he was right on target with his work regarding the ego. First and foremost, the primary role of the ego is to help us navigate in the world and provide for ourselves. It is directly tied to our sense of self-worth, identity, and purpose. It guides the choices we make for how to live. Everybody needs an ego!
At the start of the 20th Century, Freud described our personalities as made up of three aspects – the id, the ego, and the superego, theorizing that they work together to create who we are and how we behave. The id, the foundational layer, relates to our basic needs and drives and is designed to provide for our physical survival. It is instinctual, primal, and unconscious. The ego, as Freud said, mediates for the id and interacts with the external world to provide for the interests of the individual self. It weighs the cost-benefit balance of acting on the id’s impulses and dealing with the reality of the world around us. The physical id may want us to grab that ice cream cone out of someone’s hand but the ego will block that drive to keep us out of trouble. The superego, as the term indicates, rises above the ego and directs our actions according to moral standards and ideals, values that go beyond the practical operation of the ego’s everyday reality. The superego is concerned with right and wrong: values, standards, and morals that we are usually taught and take on as we grow up. Both the ego and superego civilize us, taming our basic physical nature. But today, it seems to me, the superego is not developing the way it once did. The ego with its strong I-me-mine motivation often dominates and there’s not much attention paid to traditional moral standards. We don’t talk much any more about the conscience. It’s just all about the “I, me, mine” motivation in our highly competitive, aggressively self-seeking society. Selfishness, arrogance, narcissism, greed, heartlessness, vanity, and rudeness are just some of the many ways the ego reveals itself in unhealthy behaviors and causes suffering.
We have to develop the ego – we can’t just do away with it. There are those who insist that all of our world problems would disappear if we only got rid of the ego. And there are many who engage in various meditation practices trying to do just that. Yet, in the words of author Deepak Chopra,“Trying to have the ego get rid of itself is perhaps the greatest control drama of all time.”
There are two main blocks to our working well with the ego. One, described by medical intuitive Caroline Myss, is unconscious resistance to healing and change. We can actually resist gaining wisdom and becoming well. She found that some people who asked for her help, actually did not want to heal. It turned out that their identities were so wrapped up with the disease that (unconsciously) they did not want to let it go.
The second block, described by Carl Jung, is the operation of the shadow side of our personalities. That’s the side that’s involved with what we don’t want to recognize – the insecurities, projections, thoughts, and behaviors that are unbecoming to the realized self. But the shadow also includes aspects that can be gifts from the undeveloped self. Jung taught this: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. Everyone is our mirror. Our own reflection in others shows us not only who we are, but also how to be better.” Jung knew that to advance our knowledge of the self we had to embrace the shadow, acknowledging that we have an unbecoming side. Then we can work diligently, being realistic (using the ego) and following moral and spiritual knowledge (using the superego) to deeply understand ourselves.
There’s a saying from the Eastern philosophical tradition, “The hardest opponent you will ever face throughout your life is yourself.” It might be too simplistic to say that the world’s problems can be explained by unhealthy egos, but taking time to create a healthy ego does benefit us – and those around us.
Here are some ways we can begin working for our own highest good and the common good for everyone:
- Meditate Daily. Meditation can be described as a process that domesticates or tames the ego. When we quiet and focus the mind, we can limit the many distractions and interruptions produced by everyday living and reach new awareness of what goes on within the self. Make time each day to become quiet and still the mind. Start by minimizing external distractions (such as cell phones). Then, notice what you sense when you breathe. If your mind wanders (and it will), bring your attention back gently to your breathing, again and again. Start with a few minutes most days and watch how this develops your ability to be present and aware in the moment.
- Shift from Me to We Consciousness. In its role of self-preservation, the ego can be selfish and self-centered. A healthy ego, however, steps back to become inclusive, honoring the premise of unity consciousness (all for one). Make a practice to think and behave in the vein of unity consciousness, also called the path of service to others.
- Practice Ego/Soul Balance: As the expression goes, “The ego reacts, the soul responds.” In life-or-death situations, reactions are essential, often heroic ones. Yet these moments are rare. In most ordinary situations there is time to pause and respond, and to make truly wise choices. This is a healthy practice – we learn to balance the ego and the soul.
- Practice the Art of Forgiveness. When you make a mistake, own it. Seek forgiveness and then learn from the experience. With a healthy ego we learn to not only seek forgiveness when we have hurt others, but also to find self-forgiveness as well. It can be a waste of time to get lost in feelings of guilt or shame.
- Learn to Laugh at Yourself. In an age of countless unmet expectations, it is easy to get angry and lose your cool. Yet, in many circumstances, we can briefly see the humor by saying,“A year from now, this will be funny….” But don’t wait a whole year – laugh at yourself now. In doing so, you defuse the situation, refine the expectations, and put the ego back in its place as our protector. Learn to laugh at yourself, but not at the expense of your self-esteem.
6. Live in the Present Moment – not in the past or the future. A healthy ego
has learned to live in the present moment rather than either to get stuck in
the past which can generate feelings of anger, or to fast-forward into the
future imagining events that trigger fear.
* * * * *
Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D. is the author of the best-selling books, STAND LIKE MOUNTAIN, FLOW LIKE WATER; STRESSED IS DESSERTS SPELLED BACKWARDS; and MANAGING STRESS (10E). He is the executive director of the Paramount Wellness Institute located in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached through his website: www.brianlukeseaward.net
The image that leads this post is by artist and photographer David Lewis.