What if I like my ego?
I’ve struggled most of my life with low self-esteem. Lately, I’ve been reading about Buddhism and getting really confused when the concept of ego is mentioned. I find the idea of killing the ego frightening because I know how hard it is to build belief in myself. Is the ego always bad? Does it have to be killed in order to progress in life?
The major religions do presuppose that participants have healthy egos. For example, in Christianity, the call to “love God and your neighbor as yourself” presupposes self-love. Similarly, Buddhism assumes people have established a healthy self. After all, you must have a self that is whole and complete in order to let go of one.
David Richo, a popular seminar leader at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, explains it this way: “The healthy ego—what Freud called ‘a coherent organization of mental processes’—is the part of us that can observe self, situations and persons; assess them; and respond in such a way as to move toward our goals. We do not let go of this aspect of ego, but build on it. It assists us in relationships by making us responsible and sensible in our choices and commitments. The neurotic ego, on the other hand, is the part of us that is compulsively driven or stymied by fear or desire, feeding arrogance, entitlement, attachment and the need to control other people. Sometimes it is self-negating and makes us feel like we are victims of others. This neurotic ego is the one we are meant to dismantle as our spiritual task in life. Its tyrannies frighten intimacy away and menace our self-esteem.”
The major religions all include disciplines (practices such as meditation, confession, etc.) designed to support the development of a healthy ego and dismantle the neurotic one. These religions also provide guides—spiritual directors—who can accompany us on our way. Unfortunately, modern people are increasingly unable to make steadied commitments, particularly in the area of religion. The contemporary activity of celebrating a holy day from one religion, a prayer from another and a ritual from a third while brushing aside devotion to rules, laws and committed practice, simply circumvents the process of spiritual development and delays the dismantling of the neurotic ego. Many psychologists, particularly those who are also invested in Buddhism, argue that this practice of “buffet religion” provides participants with a quick emotional high (akin to addiction) each week, but fails to inspire any lasting spiritual transformation.
I’ve been reading about saints from various religions. Other than service to the poor, what makes the saints any different than you or me?
Plenty. “The saints were not people with the greatest education or even the largest results,” wrote spiritual author Bruce Miller. “But they did have a couple of traits in common which were almost invisible: What they said correlated almost 100 percent with what they were and what they did. An amazing invisible power may be released when a person’s words and inner self finally match.” I don’t know about you, but I frequently fall short of that description!