Why do so many spiritual traditions emphasize the death of the ego? Why does psychology discuss the importance of a healthy ego and strong self-esteem? Is it even possible to find a workable middle ground between these two apparently opposing ideas? Yes, it is!
Especially if you understand that the two schools of thought are essentially talking about two different things – two types of ego.
The ego that spiritual traditions want to tame is the part of us that sees the “self” (ourselves) as separate from the rest of the world. This can make progress in a religious tradition virtually impossible. This “self,” or “false ego,” believes there’s not enough of anything to go around. It assumes that the purpose of its existence is to assure survival – by fighting to make sure its (your own) needs are met.
The false ego’s presence can be recognized by its win/lose, right/wrong, self/other frames of reference. It oversimplifies, and its reality is constructed of your own past experiences. When you need to be right, or you rush to protect your reputation, or you identify yourself based on your achievements, or you strive to be the first on your block to reach the ego-less state of Buddhist Nirvana… you can be sure the false ego is in charge at that very moment. It’s your mind running in conditioned patterns.
The goal of our spiritual tradition here – whatever it is – is to let the true self, which knows it’s an expression of “all that is” – become dominant, and direct your life. The self (“good ego”) exists in a state of peaceful acceptance of every nuance of the infinite variety and complexity of the universe, and knows there’s always enough of everything to go around. To this ego, the healthy ego, your past is just a story.
The healthy ego that psychology promotes is not so much a function of the rational mind as of awareness. While rational analysis of the past might help us to reach this state, the fact remains that once you’re there the past has little force or importance.
The National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE) defines a person with a healthy ego as someone who “trusts their own being to be life-affirming, constructive, responsible and trustworthy.”This ego knows it’s wonderful, but would never consider itself better than anyone else.
Master and servant
For the sake of simplicity, let’s call the healthy ego the “self,” and its more troublesome counterpart the “ego.” Ego, which in Western culture can turn into that problematic “false ego,” also has a place in the natural order of things. Somebody has to know how to cook dinner, organize a schedule and drive the car. So it seems reasonable to assume that the ego started out as a way to navigate everyday reality – in other words, to function in the world. The ego actualizes the self’s directives. Obviously, at some point it started to believe that it was the master, rather than the servant.
The way to keep your Ego from blocking your spiritual development, then, is for your self to become a strict – yet benevolent – master. You can start by giving your ego a really specific job description, and then checking frequently to assure that ego stays busy running the self’s “household” (everyday life) to perfection. See it as a high-level butler: efficient, impeccably trained, and devoted to seeing that the self’s expression out in the world, and its surroundings, are all it can be.
The key is that it must always work at the directive of the self (the “healthy ego”).
Like any staff person, your ego will thrive if it receives regular recognition and praise. Your ego just planned a week’s worth of menus? Give it a pat on the back! It navigated a tricky process in the office? Give it three cheers on your way home! It knew enough to refer a potentially explosive emotional confrontation to the self, rather than taking over in fear or anger? Definitely time for a suitable reward … like chocolate!
Working as a team, your “self” and your “ego” can navigate your soul’s journey with panache. Eventually, a relaxed sense of fun will set in, and the healthy ego will just naturally lead you to a balanced life and “being.”
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