Because the adventure of becoming somebody requires its own separate workspace, the entire project along with its product, a unique identity named “I” or ego, has prompted two very different judgments on the matter. Conventional religion typically regards the separate ego – conceived as estranged from its proper and original communion with god – as in need of rescue and reconciliation. More psychologically oriented spiritualities, on the other hand, often treat ego consciousness as an illusion to be dispelled on the path to enlightenment.
In this blog I try to chart a middle way between these opposites. This middle way is not about a third perspective on the problem of our self-conscious identity, but seeks rather to show how these others are on to something, but in fact misunderstand their own central insights.
Ego is a social construction and therefore not real, in the sense of having an essential nature of its own. Its construction advances by a process called sublimation, where the native consciousness and instincts of the body are trained into conformity with our tribe’s moral code. Naturally spontaneous impulses are thereby restrained (held back) and redirected into channels of behavior that are obedient to its definitions of a “good person” and “right action.”
The approved result of this social engineering is our individual persona, the identity (literally a mask) we present and carefully manage in the company of others. Prohibited, discouraged, and unacceptable aspects of ourselves, on the other hand, are suppressed (pushed down) and kept “off stage,” where they gather into our shadow.
If the split in our personality between the welcomed persona and the alienated shadow is severe enough, we can get caught in a neurotic spiral of insecurity, guilt, shame, and self-doubt. Inevitably these rejected parts of ourselves get projected outward onto others, where we feel justified in passionately condemning and attacking them without having to acknowledge their true source.
Now, that’s all a mess, or it can be, and it begins to make sense how some religions and spiritual traditions might regard ego itself as the chief problem. Either deliver it out of the body and safely to heaven, or else disqualify it as nothing more than a seductive mirage.
A middle way defends the importance of ego consciousness in the big picture of human evolution, but identifies it as a staging point on the longer course of our spiritual awakening. Without the establishment of a unique identity, separate from others and standing on its own center of self-conscious reference, consciousness itself would remain fully immersed in the web of existence (see my illustration above).
The image of a web is the perfect representation of the way things are. Science, too, has confirmed, again and again, how the universe is not merely “made up” of many parts but is itself a “whole system,” where nothing is truly separate from everything else. Our body, as a sentient, organic, and material system in its own right, is inextricably “wired into” this fabric or matrix of existence.
So, by sublimating a small portion of the body’s consciousness into a “side show” of reflexive self-conscious awareness, the resulting construct of identity (ego = “I”) comes to inhabit a delusion of its own separate existence.
Ego, therefore, is not something that can be rescued, for the simple reason that it lacks an essential nature – it isn’t real, but only a social construction. But because our self-conscious identity is to some extent a captive of its own neurotic disorders, there is some sense in which it is in need of salvation. So, conventional religion is on to something, although it makes the mistake of making ego’s salvation the main focus of concern.
On the other side, the spiritual traditions correctly see that personal identity lacks an essential nature. But they make the mistake of dismissing it as nothing but an obscuring illusion to be renounced and thrown aside.
In fact, it is from this admittedly illusory and delusional position of ego’s separate existence that consciousness has the opportunity of returning to reality, along two complementary but opposite paths. One path descends from ego’s center of identity and deeper into the grounding mystery of our embodied existence – thereby also deeper into communion with being-itself.
This is the realm of “soul,” which in many religions is confused with the ego; or perhaps it is rather that ego impersonates the soul out of envy of its peaceful repose in the ever-present (eternal-immortal) ground of being.
A second path doesn’t drop away from ego, but instead uses its position as a jumping-off point where self-consciousness can connect and join with others in transpersonal unity. This liberation beyond the confines of our delusion of separateness involves a fascinating dialectic: of leaping beyond personal identity even as it is taken up and included within a higher wholeness.
This mode of consciousness does not rest quietly in the depths of our being but is instead expressive, outgoing, relational, and creative – in a word, communal – which is why it is named “spirit,” from an ancient root meaning breath, air, and wind.
What are called “soul” and “spirit,” then, are complementary modes of consciousness: as it releases from ego and drops into a deeper communion with being (soul), or transcends ego into the higher wholeness of genuine community (spirit).
It should be obvious by now that the “farther reaches of human nature” (Abraham Maslow) depend for their realization on the construction of a personal identity and its executive ego, which paradoxically consigns us to an existential situation where we are alone in the middle of everything and confronted with our own Nothingness. Think of how much of our best art and philosophy find their inspiration in the tensions of this paradox.
It is precisely this situation that some religions have been hard at work to rescue us from, and which some spiritual teachings have advised us to provisionally regard but ultimately deny as a symptom of “fallen consciousness.”
I want to show that ego consciousness is, in fact, an advanced stage in the evolution of consciousness itself. But instead of rescue or denial, what we need is sufficient ego strength to drop away and leap beyond ourselves for an authentic engagement with reality.
As the ancient myths have been telling us for some time, our pursuit of personal identity and meaning is but a stage on a longer, much higher adventure.