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"I am messy, and I am whole."
Suzanne Selby Grenager (SGrenager@aol.com) writes "The Art of Living," a monthly column for SpiritSite.com.
Suzanne is a writer, teacher, and life coach who helps people achieve their dreams. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Yoga Journal, and she has contributed to Healing Journeys: The Power of Rubenfeld Synergy.
Suzanne Selby Grenager,
"How Do You Know It's Not Just Ego?"
(Editor's note: In Suzanne's latest column, below, she provides many excellent insights about her concept of the "ego." Readers should realize that that the word "ego" can refer to very different things in the context of different spiritual paths.)
Since writing the last column, "So Who’s Ready to Shine?" I’ve gotten some provocative questions and comments from a few of you. They are about the role ego plays in our becoming powerfully, gloriously our selves. Before addressing them, I want to be straight with you about my qualifications, or lack thereof, to address this pesky, demanding topic.
I am blessed with a bright, lively mind and so, by extension perhaps, with the mixed blessing of what I’d call a strong ego. I mean by this several things. First, I have a fairly clear and established sense of myself, and a commensurate ability to make my way well in the world. These qualities I appreciate. Second, I mean that "I" have a propensity for creating intense desires—and the fears that go with them. For a spiritual seeker, looking to be free of attachments, those aspects of a "strong ego" aren’t quite so delightful.
Finally, I mean that I am ambitious and proud and sensitive by nature, qualities we might associate with having a "strong" ego. For the most part, I like these traits of mine, not least for the passion of which they speak. I like that I am here, now, fully present—body, mind, emotions, heart, soul, and yes, ego, in all its gory glory. I am messy, and I am whole.
I confess I’ve had little theoretical training in the origins and workings of the ego. But for the 25 years I’ve been "awake," or self-aware, I’ve been paying close attention to how my ego operates. Indeed, I suspect all of us who like to be conscious become experts in the art of ego management, or of ego observation, anyway. What else is there to do with a conscious mind sometimes but watch the ego try to jerk us around?
After the last column appeared, I got a long, thoughtful email from a reader who’s written before, named Donna. She wrote, "your column made me think more about the distinction between thinking, acting and speaking from my ego, versus doing all that from my higher self. This idea of being in the world, but not of it, is very tricky," Donna writes, "because of the ego’s insatiable needs.
"Do we have an ego only to see how well we transcend it?" she continues. "What is its function otherwise?" Great questions, Donna! I appreciate that you asked them of me right after I read an illuminating discussion about those very matters.
The discussion I refer to was in "What is Enlightenment?" That’s the excellent magazine founded by Andrew Cohen, the spiritual teacher whom I’ve written about here before. In the Spring/Summer 2000 issue, entitled, and with the theme of, "What is Ego?" he interviews Jack Engler, a brainy, down-to-earth transpersonal psychologist and philosopher, who’s also a Buddhist scholar and practitioner.
Engler coined an interesting expression you may have heard. "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." I’ve understood this to mean that we human seekers need a strong sense of who we are—a strong ego, if you will—in order to be able to let ego go (or more accurately, to let living largely from our ego go). We need a firm foundation from which to make that daring leap into the unknown beyond ego/mind’s beliefs.
In the Cohen interview, Engler reminds us that "in the psychoanalytic tradition, ego has an entirely "positive connotation. It’s a collective designation for…very important psychological functions…from thinking to feeling to reality testing—a whole set of capacities that are essential to human life."
So, to answer Donna’s questions directly, our egos are not merely there to see how well we can transcend them; indeed, we couldn’t transcend them without them. Ego development is critical to our evolution from helpless children to independent, full-blown (not to mention self-actualizing) adults. There has to be an "I" for us to move beyond—and an "I" to make the move beyond!
For as Andrew Cohen goes on to say in the interview, "…ego in this (psychological) sense is…the self-organizing principle that obviously has to be in fairly good working order if one is going to be able to do any serious spiritual practice."
If we need a "working" ego simply to create a spiritual practice (and I agree with Cohen we do), then how strong must our egos be if we are to derive serious benefit from our practice? From what I can tell, spiritual transcendence requires a remarkable level of emotional maturity and self-confidence, the fruits of a healthy, well-developed ego.
Another woman, a friend named Ellen, was questioning me recently about coaching, the work I do over the phone with people wanting to enhance their lives. Ellen asked me this, perhaps the crowning question about the pursuit of our dreams, "How do you know it’s not just ego?" The concern she expresses is, of course, similar to Donna’s, above, about whether she’s acting "from ego versus…higher self" (my italic).
These remarks bring to mind what my friend Dennis said to me years ago, as I too was fretting about whether something I wanted to do was driven by my (then rather fragile) ego. The gist of his smart, and typically smart-ass, comment was this: if I wait until my ego is free and clear—of whatever I make up that it needs to be free and clear of—I’ll never do much of anything worthwhile.
What’s more, he implied, letting my ego stop me was giving it as much power as letting it drive me forward. Either way, the part of me I imagined was "purer" than ego was not in charge.
I have often remembered those helpful comments when consumed by doubts and fears of impending grandiosity or narcissism. Dennis meant, and I now understand, that there is nothing wrong with operating from ego in the first place. It shouldn’t—indeed, it can’t— be "helped." One could even say it’s inevitable, since ego is likely to be with us, more or less, till death do us part. So why worry about it? Far better to befriend ego, give her what she most wants and needs. And that, I’ve come to realize, is soul food.
Yep, soul food. Ego needs to take nourishment, and grow strong, from our sincere efforts to fuel our souls. In other words, so long as what we want to do is heartfelt, ego will be healthfully fed—and pacified—by our doing it. Then, when everything is more or less lined up, harmonious, within us, ego becomes our ally, able to help us flourish, rather than hampering, or detracting from our experience.
But, as Ellen wisely asks: how exactly are we to know in any given situation, what’s driving us? How can we tell whether our desires are driven by something deeper, and potentially more satisfying, than "just ego"? I look forward to addressing that challenging question next time.