How Ego Became a Dirty Word

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing…

When did “ego” become a dirty word?

To the best of my understanding, in its original concept, ego meant simply that part of human consciousness which indicates “I”. It was understood to be the ability to distinguish one’s self from others; the awareness that comprehends personal experience. Over time, that original concept enlarged to include egotism—that is, conceit, vanity, or an inflated sense of self-importance. But, at its inception, the idea of the ego was simply that of self-awareness, and of personal identity–an ability which small children begin to develop at about age two.

Yet, somehow that harmless perception of a consciousness which distinguishes the self from others has mutated into a appalling concept; shameful at best, destructive at worst.

While I cannot lay all the blame for this divisive idea on a slew of philosophical books of recent vintage, I do believe they are responsible for perpetuating the concept that there is something inherently reprehensible about the normal human ego. Frankly, that makes little sense to me. Without a sense of separateness, of individuality, we cannot function in the world.

A healthy ego protects. It tells me unequivocally that, no matter what some nitwit says of me, I can make the decision to not believe their words. A well-regulated ego says to one, “Just because I am requested, ordered, to do this by a superior, I need not necessarily do it. I am an individual. I can make my own decisions regarding the rightness or wrongness of the order.” A wholesome, balanced ego is a shield against poor decision and immorality.

Nor, despite the best arguments pondered by those who despise the term, is a normal ego an obstruction to empathy. To the contrary, knowing that I have endured a difficult, painful or troubling experience allows me to look with compassion on others who are undergoing something similar. The “I” that identifies as an separate entity recognizes and therefore empathizes with all the other “I” individuals who are enduring anguish.

Sadly, the concept of a healthy, balanced ego has somehow become almost inextricably confused with egotism. But the two are not the same. “Nothing in excess”, the Greeks are reputed to have carved on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the advice is as apt now as it was those thousands of years ago. An overweening or inflated ego is an excess. It is narcissism, selfishness, and self-absorption. It is a bane and antipathy to sympathy and concern. It does, as those self-same philosophical books decry, express itself in the attachment to things; it warps the personal identity into a mere exponent of possessions or achievements.

Those who lambast the idea of a personal ego seem to maintain the position that our very separateness also separates—separates us from each other, and from the divine within both ourselves and others. Again, that concept makes little sense to me. If I am I, then I am the Divine expressing as this wondrous, personal, individual being: myself. I am a perfect creation from the hand and mind of the Creator. To be in any way separate from my divine self is simply not possible; to think so is total hubris.

And if I recognize that divine and spiritual center within myself, then I must recognize it in all others, who are all also perfect creations of a perfect Creator.

I believe we came, were sent, into this world to experience life as individuals. In doing so, I recall that, in some versions of the myth of Hercules, Zeus desired to know what it was to live as a mortal. And so he fathered a son, Hercules, who would be both god and human. As the creator, Zeus was inextricably interwoven to everything; he was all he had created. But, through his son, he could comprehend what it was to be separate and apart from all he had created; to live as an individual; to be mortal.

Kept in check, regularly examined through conscience, and recognized as a personal identity having nothing to do with one’s possessions or achievements, the ego is a marvelous thing, leading us through a lifetime of personal awareness in conjunction with our spiritual core. Far from being undesirable, it is yet another impeccable creation bequeathed us by our Creator.

Spirituality is Big Business

When I was in my early twenties, I picked up a slim paperbound booklet that discussed a technique called Treasure Mapping. I think I paid about $1.50 for it. (I was not very affluent in those days, so I certainly couldn’t have paid much more.) The technique illustrated in the booklet would today be understood as making a vision board, and I found it fascinating. “Pictured Prayer”, the booklet explained, was simple and produced excellent results.

I gathered together the necessary accessories, all of them easy to obtain and inexpensive: photos clipped from magazines, glue, pens, construction paper — and created my first vision board. I’ve used the technique many times in the intervening years, often with surprising success. I have sometimes come across my old, discarded vision boards and realized with satisfaction that nearly everything I pictured on them had come to pass.

But recently I saw an announcement for a class in vision board making. The cost for the two-hour course, which included all materials, was $150.00.  I thought back to my $1.50 booklet, and the years of photos clipped from magazines or downloaded on the computer, the poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, stickers, or occasional scrapbooking supplies – and realized that I probably hadn’t spent $150 on all my Treasure Maps in the 40 intervening years.

In that distant era, even as I learned vision boarding, I learned to meditate by selecting library books to read about meditation techniques, listening to tapes borrowed at the library, and asking advice of those who meditated regularly. After hours of dedicated practice I found the method that seemed best for me and made meditation a lifelong practice. Today, though, I could chose to spend anywhere from $10 weekly for an hour’s guided meditation at a local new age shop, or up to $60 for an on-line course complete with an instruction manual, interactive forums, and (this one still puzzles me) a certificate of completion. I could purportedly learn the hands-on energy healing system of Reiki entirely on-line, without ever setting foot in a master teacher’s office. I could pay $10,000 for a spiritual retreat with a self-professed guru. I could complete an on-line course to become a “spiritual master” in any one of a half-dozen different disciplines – and, having completed the course, be surprised with the information that there is yet another, higher level available that could not be revealed to a mere novice, but only to a seasoned acolyte. And, of course, that newly-revealed level could be mine for only an additional $59.95!

Americans, it seems, do not believe that anything, even spirituality, has value unless it is paid for – by cash, check or charge, rather than blood, sweat and tears. You need not put real effort into learning as long as you are willing to sit at the feet of a “master” and fork over money – and plenty of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate costs connected with teaching classes or holding retreats! Retreat attendees have to be fed and housed, and the teacher’s time has to be compensated. A class venue doubtless has costs attached – rent to be paid, utilities to be provided, class materials to be printed. But the hubris of charging $150 for an hour spent “instructing” students how to paste pictures on poster board, or to chant, hold crystals, or meditate, veers (at least to my way of thinking) about 180 degrees north of genuine spirituality.

Once the provenance of moguls of big religion, spirituality, too, has become big business, and a lucrative business, at that. Native American spirituality is taught by those who have not one iota of genetic material from the original inhabitants of North America, and their students pay the sun, moon and stars for the privilege. Instructors with no passion except that for feathering their nests promise to incite a passion for life in their unwitting students, and coin money as they do so.

My personal advice to anyone seeking a spiritual teacher is simply this: remember, first, that you are your own best teacher. There has never been a better or easier time for self-learning. Explore cautiously, keeping both an open mind and a weather eye, but explore. Read, watch videos, learn, practice. And if you find you need assistance to progress on your chosen path, or feel ready for that retreat, or believe a class with others might help – do your homework. Seek out a teacher who is validly a master teacher in her or his discipline, who is passionate about passing knowledge on to others, and who, mostly importantly, lives in such as manner as to demonstrate the value of the subject in which they will instruct you. If a cost is associated with the instruction, investigate what the payment covers, and decide if it seems reasonable, reimbursing the instructor’s costs and time and other essentials, or keeping a center in the black, but not intentionally generating massive profit.  And only then decide if the price is genuinely worth paying, or if you can find methods less financial and more truly spiritual to gain instruction in your chosen discipline.

But the finest spiritual instructor will always be the one you find in two places: your own mind, and your own heart.

And if all else fails, you can always make a Treasure Map.

The Spiritual Buffet

I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and attended parochial school for eight years. We attended Mass most mornings; our first course each school day was casually dubbed “Religion”, during which we were instructed in the theology of our faith. “Why were we created?” I chanted, word perfect, as a six-year-old.  “We were created to know, love and serve God.”

I left the Catholic faith as a teenager, so I have no idea if the tenets of that religion are taught in the same way today as they once were. But in the 1960s, we children were instructed that only baptized Roman Catholics would actually make it into heaven after death.  That was it.  Nobody else got past the Pearly Gates.  Children who died before baptism, infants miscarried or stillborn, our nice little Protestant playmates down the street, the millions of other non-Catholic souls inhabiting the planet–if they weren’t a baptized Catholic, they weren’t getting in.  Instead, we were instructed, they’d be shuffled off to an unlikely realm dubbed “Limbo”.  There the soul would be perfectly happy – but God wouldn’t be there.  (The sheer hubris of claiming the existence of a dimension where an omnipresent divinity did not exist was never quite explained.)

Consequently, since only Roman Catholics were getting in the door for their interview with God, we good little Catholics needed to do our missionary utmost to make sure that everyone on the planet ended up Roman Catholic.  The world would be a Perfect Place if only that were so.

Young as I was (and leaving entirely aside a religious history that included the Inquisition, not to mention the as-then unrevealed existence of pedophile priests and Magdalene laundries), I still tended to doubt this very exclusionary view of goodness.  Sitting there on my hard wooden chair in elementary school, I secluded my uncertainties carefully within my own thoughts.  Why, I wondered, would we each have been given a brain and thereby the ability to question if we were not intended to use those attributes?  And if we all reached different conclusions, then didn’t that very individuality contribute to the magnificence of creation?

It would be decades before my viewpoint was confirmed, by no less a spiritual personage than the Dalai Lama himself. Sitting in an amphitheater, listening to him speak to an enthralled audience, I heard him explain what I had known all along: spiritual diversity existed because we humans were created as individuals.  We would not, he told us, eat at a restaurant that served only one dish; just so, spirituality had to serve all the inhabitants of the earth, in all their magnificent variances.  It had to come in many distinct varieties, flavors, temperatures, and seasonings.  It had to differ because we were each different.

Despite my rejection of Catholicism, I have no quarrel with my schooling in the faith, which gave me many gifts that I would not otherwise have (not the least of which is an exceptionally well-trained memory which can still chant the theological lessons learned 50-plus years ago). Nor indeed have I any dispute with any faith that does not promote cruelty or destruction,  or seek to bind individuals with the chains of  “one true way”.  I have no argument, either, with those who chose not to believe.  Atheism and agnosticism are also personal decisions, and every bit as valid as belief.

My adult self has fully come to accept what my child self, in innocence, already comprehended: that perhaps if we can all ever accept each other’s chosen paths as right and true, as good and whole and perfect for the person who maintains them, then this sad old world of ours might truly become, at last, a Perfect Place.

Reincarnate

I have believed in human reincarnation throughout most of my conscious life. Amazingly, I can even pinpoint in memory the day when, as an eight-year-old, I realized that I completely accepted the concept.

It was spring, near Easter, and I was sitting in church on a weekday morning, attending Mass at my Roman Catholic school. I was seated near one of the beautiful stained glass windows that frequently took my mind off the incomprehensible, still-in-Latin mass.  I even recall what I was wearing (as we didn’t wear uniforms at Holy Name in the early 1960s): a little yellow-striped seersucker skirt and top, brand-new, of which I was inordinately proud.

And as I sat there, mind wandering from the Mass, I realized that I didn’t question whether I had lived before; I only wondered, “But if I’ve lived before, why can’t I remember?”

I reached my 20s before I actually researched the concept of human rebirth, learned the difference between a belief in reincarnation and transmigration, read the multitude of accounts of those who had proof of an earlier life, and, finally, began to experience dreams which seemed to reveal brief moments of my own past existences.

For someone who does not accept the theory, all of this undoubtedly seems like a great deal of nonsense. And that’s fine. It would be a very boring world indeed if we all followed precisely the same path.  I’ve also reached the conclusion that some of us do choose to live but a single existence in this human plane (which is, after all, sometimes pretty close to Hell).  I’m sure there are souls which select the path of personal spiritual growth working wholly on the Other Side.

But the gift I have been given by a lifelong belief in human rebirth is a source of knowledge and a sense of comfort. I have a clear explanation for why certain individuals, certain situations, have been drawn into my life, sometimes over and over.  I understand that there are reasons, causes, and motivations behind the seemingly-random and often cruel events of life.  And I accept complete responsibility for my situation, knowing that I chose this life and these lessons – that my life is, in a sense, a do-over, and one which I requested.

I recall reading of one author in the 1950s who, having experienced memories of a past life that she found it impossible to deny, nevertheless found the whole concept horrifying. She used her memories in writing a novel, but she wasn’t at all happy with the idea. I understood her aversion.  The knowledge that we have made the choice to return to this life, might choose to do so again, can be harsh.  But there it is: I cannot un-believe something which walked into my consciousness in early childhood, and which simply makes such good sense to me.

Yet sometimes, I admit, when in the midst of grief and utter misery, I must acknowledge the sad truth: that believing we have only one life to live would actually be easier.

So very much easier.