Freud was the first person in the West to identify personality, id, ego, and superego. As long as you have a body, you will have an ego. At a core level, ego gives a sense of physical separateness from other people. For example, food that goes into my mouth doesn’t nurture any of the cells in your body, so we are physically separate beings. At a level of consciousness, however, we can see we, in fact, are one being. It’s like we are two islands, physically separate but part of the being of Earth. The ocean level keeps the islands separate, but if the ocean level drops far enough, two adjacent islands will be seen to be part of the same landmass. Similarly, you have a level of awareness of your body’s separateness from other bodies, and ego maintains this separateness of individuals. Yet, oneness prevails when you look at the right level.
In the total absence of ego, conditioned human beings function in strange ways. People with schizophrenia have a serious lack of ego, for instance. If you said that you were hungry, a person with schizophrenia might say, ‘That’s not possible, I just ate.’ Not recognizing that there is a physical separateness is a dysfunction of ego. To function properly, to protect your body and feed your body, to help it grow, there needs to be a part of our personality that will do that. Ego is available, and it takes on that role. If there were other ways to do it that could be taught in our culture so that egos wouldn’t have to be strengthenedÖ, maybe that is a future possible. But in fact, this powerful and sneaky sergeant at arms (ego) is not even widely recognized by our culture. People are not taught to discipline it unless they opt for a spiritual path that recognizes the block that ego places on spiritual growth. So absent any effective education in our culture about ego and how and why to discipline it, the ego runs amok and takes on duties reserved for the authentic self. The ego is like the mail clerk who thinks it can run the company. It’s a terrible CEO, it’s a terrible CFO, and it’s a terrible COO. But it can be a good sergeant at arms when it is properly disciplined.
Often later in life, when people begin awakening to higher spiritual awareness, they realize they have this monster inside of them. Ego has played some useful roles, but over time, it has developed this hugely inflated sense of its own self-importance to the extent that it will harm the person to retain control.
Remember Ram Dass he said that the ego is like a carriage driver. The horses represent your physical body and senses and carriage while your Authentic Self is the passenger riding inside. There’s been very little time that the Authentic Self has shown up, maybe an hour on Sunday or at some personal growth workshop for a weekend. But in our culture, there are few practical methods, recipes, or training to identify the ego or to discipline it to let the Authentic Self show up most of the time.
The French Jesuit, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote that ‘The true self grows in inverse proportion to the growth of egoism.’ So if the ego gets bigger, the true self gets smaller. For you to come into a fullness of your true self, the ego must be diminished, but it can never go permanently to zero as long as you are still in your body. The transition from boss to the gatekeeper and from large to small can be hard for the ego, and as a result, your ego can make things hard for you. Think about it. The ego has been running the show-driving the carriage and thinking it is in control. Making the shift to being just a hired hand is quite a shift, and it fights back, seeking to maintain its control of the person. In the fight, the ego uses outside the Marcus of Queensbury rules (the formalized, gentlemanly rules that govern the sport of boxing). It doesn’t fight fair. The ego uses anything and everything that it can without scruples and will definitely hit below the belt or poke you in the eyes.
A friend was in the Peace Corps:
I once had a friend who was in the Peace Corps stationed overseas. He heard a program in Thailand where at the age of 18, the young men were given a choice. They could either go into the army or get on a train, go up into the mountains, and serve as a mendicant monk at a Buddhist monastery. They would have to give up all their possessions and have only a begging bowl and a saffron robe. When they’d wake up hungry on a cold morning in the mountains, they’d have to go out barefoot with their begging bowl, hoping to find a villager who’d give them some food in return for the monk’s help later in the day herding some animals or digging an irrigation ditch or whatever was needed.
My friend decided that he really wanted to have that experience. It would be the grand spiritual adventure of his life! So he arranged to muster out of the Peace Corps in Bangkok. He had a few weeks to wait because this program only took the young men up into the mountains every six months. Bangkok is a big party town, so he partied! He smoked dope, had lots of sex, drank alcohol, and pretty much got wasted. He did all the things that the ego loves to do, which he would no longer be able to do when he went into the mountains.
As the time came near for him to go on this grand spiritual adventure, he started to fall ill. Each day he got sicker and sicker and sicker. On the morning that he was supposed to leave for the mountains on the train, he couldn’t even get out of bed. Luckily, his Thai friends were very familiar with these phenomena – how ego can fight dirty and sabotage what is best for the authentic self. They knew he had been sick, and four of them showed up at his youth hostel with a stretcher. They rolled him onto the stretcher, protesting and moaning, put him on their shoulders, carried him down to the train station, and unceremoniously dumped him on the floor of one of the cars! My friend was lying there helpless, twitching in pain, unable to move or get off the floor until the whistle blew, the car lurched, and the journey began. In that very instant, every single one of his symptoms was 100 percent gone!
His illness, pain, and suffering were totally manufactured, given to him, stabbed into him by ego because ego did not want to undergo that level of surrender and loss of control that his spiritual journey would require. So is ego, your friend? Would your friend do that to you? Make you so sick you couldn’t walk? I don’t think so! People ask me, ‘Can’t you have a peace treaty with your ego?
Can’t you negotiate with it?’ Well, you’re welcome to try, but every time I’ve seen somebody do anything other than firmly discipline their ego, it stabs them in the back and figures out some way to ruin one or two days of their training through lack of sleep, distraction, anger or illness or other tactics.
You can’t make ego your friend; it is always your opponent. One time a trainee created a courtroom scene and read the charges to a person about what he was angry about to start the forgiveness process. Then he invited high deities to join him, and they banished the ego. Well, he felt sorry for the ego, so he took the ego and put it into his heart, which turned out to be a terrible idea, and it soon led him to such heart pains that he thought he had a heart attack.
This man had been struggling with a dualism within himself the first two days of the training, and it wasn’t quite clear what it was about. He was very aware of having many dominance-related sexual fantasies. On the third day in the feedback chamber, after he had befriended his poor ego, he became aware that for 77 years, he had denied his own attraction to men and that he was actually a gay man. He accepted that aspect of himself with love and no judgment in the state of a high alpha – he ‘came out’ in the chamber. As he went through that acceptance process, energy rose in his spine like the energy of a young man. He was embracing his authentic self. As this rush of positive energy began to course through his body, his ego, which he had put in his heart, interpreted this newfound life energy in a very negative way. It made him afraid he had a heart attack, and it absolutely chased him out of the chamber!
When I saw him, he was holding onto a door, balancing himself, and had turned gray. So if you put ego in your heart and try to be its friend, it can make you think you have a heart attack! At the same moment, he was being chased out of the chamber by his ego; his brain waves had totally shifted from his intake pattern of lots of scratchy beta to these obvious alpha brain waves. They were like the brain waves of an entirely different person, with more alpha than he had ever had. Ego opposed his new self-understanding, so it chased him out of the chamber with the fear of a heart attack to prevent him from attaining further self-understanding. We were able to talk him into going back in the chamber, and he went back in and was able to continue this huge shift in his self-awareness toward his authentic self.
So you can see why I don’t think ego can be negotiated with. Ego views it as a battle to the death because what the person is seeking is transcendence, and any time you go into a transcendent state you leave ego behind. It’s called ego death. It isn’t really death for the ego, because as soon as you come back from the transcendent state ego starts up again. But ego doesn’t like having any amount of discontinuity in its control of you. So, it fights back with its favorite weapons, the Five Hindrances + forgetfulness.