Human beings are on an evolutionary arc, progressing individually and as a species toward a ‘self-actualized’ fulfillment of our unique nature. With all the criticisms I have already directed against the personal ego – that conceited blowhard who craves validation, praise, glory, and immortality – it might come as a surprise for me to acknowledge it as the legitimate center around and in relation to which the whole project turns.
Cloud beings, tree beings, dog beings, monkey beings: all of these are distinct manifestations (cloud, tree, dog, monkey) of a single mystery (being). But none of them have created religions designed to awaken and elevate their own deeper natures, to leverage their evolutionary leaps into higher modes of life and contemplate their communion with the universe. The haven’t because they can’t, and they can’t because they lack a separate center of personal identity from which such a grand perspective might be taken and such a magnificent program of self-transformation conceived. They lack egos.
As far as we know, only human beings have egos.
My main issue with the ego has to do with its habit of hijacking our individual development and evolution as a species, pulling it off course into a tangled thicket of odd fixations. Even religion has gotten recruited into its service, idealizing our tendencies toward pettiness, vanity, judgmentalism, and out-group aggression in a deified image of ourselves. As religion degenerates into a hierarchical system of social control, it ceases to function as a program for the transformation of human beings into self-responsible creative agents.
Especially in its absolutist theistic forms, religion is rightfully rejected as a sick and dangerous fever of neurotic self-obsession.
These arrests and setbacks in the development of ego and its religion do not warrant our blanket condemnation of them, however. Indeed if my general theory is correct, then the dismissal or termination of ego (and its religion) runs the risk of subverting the larger project of human fulfillment. To the degree that we are successful in eliminating them (convinced we are finally progressing beyond them), the absence of ego and its religion could bring our career as a species to an unhappy end.
Directing your attention to my diagram above, let’s keep our eyes on that feature in the middle labeled ‘personal identity’. Rather than being the perfection and end-all of our development as individuals, the achievement of a separate center of identity (ego with its personal world) is really a middle stage between an animal prehistory submerged in instinct and a spiritual higher state awakened in wisdom. As Freud helped us see, ego management is a rather tense affair, as the individual tries to balance the ambition of ‘me and mine’ against the conscience of a tribal ‘us and ours’.
Somewhere in that tension the individual ego needs to maintain membership (as ‘one of us’) while also honoring the inner promptings of the higher self. If a tribe supports the emergence of creative authority in the individual, then a transformative breakthrough of this order will be encouraged and celebrated, rather than condemned as it often is in repressive social systems.
This is typically where that deified superego of the tribal deity is used by the group to denounce, quash, and uproot the ‘sin’ of vainglorious self-regard – a character trait which, oddly enough, is protected as belonging by exclusive rights to the deity.
But the ego brings its own resistance to the project of human transformation. A good number of those ambitions are formed around the drive for security, a frequency of nervous state that correlates to an environment perceived as safe and supportive. Because none of us gets through infancy and early childhood without some insecurity, our focus gets set on attaching ourselves to those anchors and sources of security that will keep things from falling apart.
As we go, we construct our web of personal meaning (i.e., our world) around these anchors and sources, incorporating them into our identity and way of life.
It’s no wonder, then, that what I earlier called the inner promptings of our higher self, to break through the attachments that comprise for us the emotional structure of reality, might be strenuously resisted by the ego. To the degree that animal security finds significant compensation in personal identity, further progress of development into spiritual maturity will be felt as heading in exactly the wrong direction. Such a ‘breakthrough’ would be tantamount to a ‘breakdown’ of security, control, order, and meaning – the very death of ego!
One strategy often used in justifying ego’s resistance involves lampooning spiritual maturity as not only heretical, but as also a blatant refusal of personal responsibility. For ego to maintain membership in the social system of attachments, an individual needs to uphold certain moral obligations and subordinate his or her own needs to the will of the group. Any sign of the individual’s loosening allegiance to tribal rules and orthodoxy – asking too many of the wrong questions, expressing doubts and misgivings, pushing on boundaries or challenging assumptions, feeling empathy for outsiders and voicing an interest in the broader concerns of life on earth – such potential disruptions of the consensus trance are quickly discouraged as forsaking what is true, right, and good.
When an individual possesses sufficient ego strength (where the personality is stable, balanced, and unified) and the time is developmentally right, an access point will open from the realm of personal identity, to a mode of conscious life momentarily free from the constraints of ‘me and mine’/’us and ours’.
Once the breakthrough is gained, an upward turn along the arc will involve a self-transcending leap beyond identity, while a downward turn from this same point proceeds by a self-releasing drop beneath identity. This inward-and-downward turn is also the mystical turn where consciousness sinks back contemplatively into the grounding mystery and ineffable source of our being. The upward-and-outward turn is the ethical turn where consciousness rises into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness, consilient leaders on the advancing wave of evolutionary change.
My stair-step diagram could be interpreted as anticipating a future state of spiritual maturity where ego (that troublemaker) has been finally outgrown, discredited, and permanently left behind – along with its religion. But by now it should be clear that according to this theory ego plays a much more integral role in the longer project of human self-actualization.
Even though it is purely a social construct (and substantially unreal, as the Buddha noted), the delusion of our separateness (which is a function of ego consciousness) is the very thing all higher religions provide insights and techniques for breaking through.