If Sigmund Freud is to be believed, the Ego is one of the most important parts of a person’s psychological make-up. It is what we perceive ourselves to be, and as such the great ‘reflecting dish’ by which we interpret the world around us.
If certain members of the spiritual community are to be believed, then the Ego is a nigh-impassable hurdle which stops the vast majority of people from achieving enlightenment. We are told to “let go” of this sense of ourself, and with it all of our preconceptions of self-worth and self-loathing and to drop the barriers the ego imposes between us and the unity consciousness of the universe.
Personally, I’d say that the truth of the matter is somewhere in-between.
Sigmund Freud, a man of dubious credibility due to a long history of spousal abuse and drug-use, is the founder of modern psychology. He posited a lot of theories in his time, and in contrast with other psychotherapists and theorists, such as Karl Jung, they practically defined the theory of the ego, which has become one of the key factors in the definition of psychological theory even now.
So, before we go into any mumbo-jumbo let’s actually look at what the Ego “is”. Freud defined the Ego as: “part of personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego and reality.” Now, what does this mean? Basically, that it’s the Ego which keeps us from acting on our basic instincts, like animals. It’s the thing which makes us socially acceptable, and defines the way in which we interact with other people. It is what makes us the members of society we’re meant to be.
Now, does that sound like the kind of activity we traditionally associate with egotism?
Egotism and egotistical behaviour are a completely different kettle of fish. The idea that the Ego is a negative thing comes not from the possession of an ego, as everyone on Earth has one by the very fact that they are human, but rather the over exaggeration of one’s Ego until it causes your sense of self-worth to outstrip the value of others. It is the very notion that you are in some way superior, simply by the merit of being you, because you’re a super-special individual rather than a couple of hundred pounds of dying meat.
Sure, self-worth is important. If you dislike yourself, and devalue yourself as a person then you’re at risk of becoming depressive; there’s nothing wrong with having some self-esteem, in fact that’s even commendable. It’s when your Ego grows so large that you begin to think other people are lesser than you that you become a problem. It is this non-technical version of what we understand as the Ego that spirituality deals with.
The spiritual version of the Ego deals almost exclusively with the understanding of the self, rather than a component of it. “The meek shall inherit the Earth,” the Hindu theory of ‘Ahamkara’, the Buddhist understanding of ‘skandhas’, all are connected intricately and show how followers should treat others. Now, I’m sure a part of this is a simple control system- removing followers’ self esteem to the point that they become submissive and do anything their religion says, but part of it at least is very very valid.
Think about it: How many people do you know that you view negatively because they seem like a big-headed, self-obsessed asshole? Someone who you think values themselves in a manner so ridiculous that their impression of you seems instinctively insulting? Someone who values themselves so much more than they do anything else, because they have the deluded idea that they are the most special snowflake?
It’s gonna be at least one.
So why do we hate these egotistical individuals? Well, part of it is to do with the Freudian idea of the Ego, and part of it relates to the spiritual view of the ego. As Freud and Jung understood it, the Ego helped us define the way in which we transcended our base nature and interact positively with other people- people considered to be Egotistical usually defy the regular conventions of social practise by being patronising or condescending, and people hate that. They do this because, to their mind anyway, their knowledge vastly outstrips that of those around them. They are, after all, the best person ever- and anyone who challenges this is probably just jealous of how super special awesome they are.
So, why is this “wrong”? Why does believing that you’re better than other people mean that you’re a worse human being than someone humble? Well, this is where the spiritual element of the Ego comes in; largely due to the perception that those who are obsessed with the self often consider themselves “too good” to act with compassion.
Look at Jesus- pretty cool guy, zombie Jew and carpentry expert- he was considered by many, many people in his lifetime to be the king of the Jews. He was also, pretty obviously, enlightened- never hurting anybody, and in the end he made the ultimate act of selflessness and allowed himself to endure a torturous death for what he believed would help mankind. Now, in spite of all this he was still the kind of man who washed the feet of prostitutes, and didn’t consider himself to be any better than the convicts he was crucified with.
What a guy.
This attitude isn’t unique to Christ either- Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Jews all have the same basic tenements when it comes to the ego. They all consider it to be an unsightly abomination which elevates us above our peers and causes us to neglect not only our spiritual side (worshipping ourselves as Gods) but also our fellow men. They demand that we put our selves to one side and concentrate on helping others, and not one of them says that we should feel pride for doing so. It’s just the right thing to do.
So, why do we, men and women- who do not feed beggars or save the world- believe ourselves to be better than one another? Well, that’s a topic for another time, but in brief it’s a mixture of contempt for others, misinformation, control systems, social rebellion and plain and simple capitalistic self-interest. We are raised to care about ourselves, to compete with our peers rather than collaborate with them and try to make our own lives good before helping others. No matter who we are- whether we claim to be enlightened, or just some asshole- we are still only human.
Let’s change that, shall we?