Once on retreat a lama surprised me with this key: “Ego is not bad! We all have one and we need our ‘positive ego’ in order to find the energy to do our practice and progress on our path.”
Shared Human Experience
In all social groups in society and also in spiritual circles we tend to not want to be a certain way. Maybe we want to be all the good stuff: kind, generous, loving, humble, peaceful, supportive, and whatever else. But we notice again and again that we are not really there yet—not all the time anyway. And also we might notice that we are interested in things that don’t fit our ideal in the slightest and that we get really judgmental and selfish at times. I guess we all have our story there.
We have different ways of dealing with this discovery. Here are just a few:
• We can hide what should not be and try to fit our ideal even more.
• We can throw up our hands and try to forget about the problem, deeming it unsolvable.
• We can be honest about our incoherence and with curiosity, try to join our shared humanness to the path of development as best we can.
• We can develop acceptance and maybe even humor around the fact that we are not as we would like to be, finding maybe the greatest humor about where we are quite far off.
• We can develop love towards ourselves and a heightened, forgiving awareness about areas that are painful to us.
• We can share our struggles and discoveries with others and support each other in our natural growth.
• We can make a kind of light-hearted sport of moving towards positive change, even tracking what we want to be aware of more and how we’re progressing.
There are many ways that this strange and sometimes paradoxical human experience can be explained. Psychologically (at least according to Freud), we have the idea of the social conditioning of civilization (the superego) versus our natural animal drives (the id), with the ego in the middle, managing the tension and trying to harness the energy. In many spiritual traditions, we are understood to be spiritually incarnated beings who have to navigate both spiritual and worldly realities. There an ego is in the middle too.
We can think of the ego as the main navigating force we have. It’s nothing bad at all, it’s our base, our starting point. No matter how old we are and no matter how much we have consciously engaged in our development, we are an ego too, along with whatever else we are. This is our shared experience.
What Egos Like
One thing egos like is being important. Important in their opinion, appearance, idea, presence, activity, etc. On the spiritual path we are developing egos. Some even say: no ego, no path. However, not fully understanding this point, very easily we start to deny our ego-ness as we strive to fit an ideal. Since that ideal is not who we are on a daily basis, we experience a split between the actual way we are and how we want to be. That split is a tension, and it causes irritation on the inside that shows up on the outside and disturbs our actual development. And if we don’t relate well to the tension, this can put us in danger of not seeing ourselves and others as we are, and of living in judgment of one another based on our held ideal.
That distancing judgment is an affront to our deep and very vulnerable need to be seen, to feel connected, understood, appreciated, and loved. We are social beings and if we are not closely related with others we can’t develop well. These needs coexist with, collide with, and suffer from the sometimes strong interests and tendencies of our ego. If our needs are not respected and nourished we can lose energy and even hope.
However, if we can accept that we are where we are, that we have our negative sides, that we long for connection and love, that we like to be seen, understood and appreciated, then we don’t have to deny our ego. Even more, we can join energies with it as we live as friends together. The interest of our ego can serve us as good fuel in our tank.
With the energy of our honesty and our kindness towards ourselves and others, we can live with more appreciation and less judgment. We can live with more authenticity, humility and openness, with more real friendship with ourselves and others. This is very supportive to our well-being and also to our development. We can actually feel that we are okay as we are and don’t need to try to fit our ideal. Strangely, this helps us fit our ideal without even trying. Thus we can begin to grow easily from where we are as less of our precious life energy gets lost in self-criticism, fear, shame and doubt. So much more energy, activity, joy and humor can be part of our daily life. Along the way, we might find peers with whom we learn to love and share our humanness together.
“Watch how your mind judges. Judgement comes, in part, out of your own fear. You judge other people because you’re not comfortable in your own being. By judging, you find out where you stand in relation to other people. The judging mind is very divisive. It separates. Separation closes your heart. If you close your heart to someone, you are perpetuating your own suffering and theirs. Shifting out of judgment means learning to appreciate your predicament and their predicament with an open heart instead of judging. Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” – Ram Dass
Together let’s enjoy more of this developing openness and the good support of our positive ego.