Ego - what ego?

I have been pondering this word “ego” for many years now. It crops up a lot in spiritual circles and in the personal development world… but what do we mean?

When someone says something like “it’s just my ego getting in the way” or “so and so has such a big ego” I realise that something in me cringes slightly. Not from embarrassment but more from a sense that it doesn't fit what is happening at the time and for me, can point to lack of empathy for what is there.

I often end up saying that our poor ego gets a bad name!

Speaking from my own experience (rather than any academic or psychological/spiritual definition of ego) I have never found “an ego” - that is, some kind of discreet entity that lives inside me doing its ego thing. It simple is not like that for me. But before you might think I am saying I have gone beyond this… I will add, I have found many processes in me that could be called “ego like” if you wanted to label them. They are many…trust me. And as i notice them i sense they are not even things really, but more like processes. And I am open to the fact that maybe there is an “ego” as yet unfound!

It seems to me that to call all that “ego” is an unhelpful label that might create distance and a lack of empathy and curiosity for what is actually there. It can be a useful shorthand perhaps but to actually begin to change those deep seated self oriented processes, I think we need to get beneath the label of ego and sense freshly what is there.

What do I find when I do that?

Well, I find what Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin call “parts” or “partial selves”. Again these are not fixed things (like inner child or inner critic) but more like processes. They have continuity of course and we may feel them like they are constant in their nature, but my experience shows that they are not fixed like that and in fact they love to be related to with fresh curiosity and empathy. Just like you would not like someone to come up to you and start telling you what you are and why you are here, and calling you names, it is the same for those parts inside. They want authentic, real empathic company. I doubt any part of you would enjoy being called the inner critic or even the inner child. They are not really “bits” like that.

And these parts have a wanting for us in some way. If we are not conscious of these wantings, then they can “take over” and start to run our life. What I have seen is that these wantings come from a deep sense of something missing (usually from our childhood but not always). It is so easy to then live our life from this place of missing and wanting. This is at least one thing I think we mean when we say ego. For me an example would be how I can behave as a participant in group events. It often starts with a vague feeling I am not good enough, or like I don't belong…I might then start trying to impress someone or wanting some special attention from someone (usually the teacher or leader if it’s a teaching environment)… Deep down what I am wanting comes from an older experience of missing being accepted and loved as I was in childhood. This gets played out in approval seeking behaviours in the present. This is the kind of thing I would have called ego a few years back, yet if I do call it that my curiosity stops and nothing really changes. I suppose for a moment i might feel relief. Instead if I really sense what that part of me is feeling and then wanting right now, and meet it with empathy then things can change. I need both to be in empathic connection and in the present moment with how it is…from there the steps can come.

And I know this is a simplistic example. We are usually more entangled by different parts, perhaps swapping from one to the other in a moment, perhaps then criticised by other parts of us. It can get very complex.

So how else could we be?

Well, we could act from “self” or “self-in-presence”. This in some approaches is labeled “the adult” but I think it is more profound than that. We can act from a holistic sense of what feels right for me as a whole (not just parts of me) and the situation (remember, we live in a context and our body knows this). If we are not being driven by a part, then we can sense the bigger context and act with awareness of the other beings in it. The holistic sensing and knowing holds both awareness of us and all our parts and holds awareness of others and the bigger situation. And this can be done at the same time as really holding those parts of us that are scared or wounded or wanting love for example. They come along on the journey and are not pushed aside or belittled. Living from wholeness (my name for it) feels so different than living from a part of us. It feels more open, pliable, flexible, resourced and free… and a word I like… “undefended” How wonderful!. And again, it is not a static thing - it is a creative way of being… open to each unfolding situation we find ourselves in.

and it begins and ends with curiosity…

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