“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits
in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” ~ Helen Keller
For several years I led a men’s group at a “New Thought” church.
The minister was a woman and the message was decidedly encouraging me to become a “sensitive new age guy.”
Marianne Williamson in Return to Love says: “The spiritualization process in men as well as women is a feminization process. Through openness and receptivity on the part of human consciousness, spirit is allowed to infuse our lives, to give it meaning and direction.”
So, what about my innate male tendencies of assertion, discernment and responsive action? For the answer I turned to Asian theology and its basis in balance and harmony.
When the Buddha received enlightenment, he realized all was perfect. Yet the world we live in can seem harsh and hostile as described in the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Nature red in tooth and claw.” Surely there must be a balance between the prospect of bleak destruction by the physical world and a deeper sense of security offered by the eternal divine.
There is a lot of discussion in Buddhist communities about ego being the core cause of suffering. Could it be that our ego has functions in both our secular and spiritual lives and that some symbiotic relationship exists? In my work with male spirituality, I explored the concept of “sacred ego,” which reestablishes the assertive, yang impulses in the proper function of creating receptive yin space, much like the fu lions at the temples. When these forces are embodied, we can venture beyond our normal comfort zone, relying on our personal sense of ego to protect us from the real harm around us and provide the “sacred space” for our spirits to venture into the natural world.
In Buddhist Asian cultures, the temples and shrines always have a pair of fu lions guarding their gates. The lions are presented in pairs, with the female on the left and the male on the right. The male lion has his right paw on a ball, which represents the “flower of life.” The female is essentially identical but has a single cub under her left paw, representing the cycle of life. Symbolically, the female fu lion protects those dwelling inside, while the male guards the structure. Sometimes the female has her mouth closed, and the male open. This symbolizes the enunciation of the sacred word “om.” They symbolize a respect for the balance of the natural and the sacred.
The lions take over the function of the human ego, providing protection against evil forces while the person enters the sacred space unarmed and unprotected, open childlike to the numinous. The ego is not abandoned but transferred to the fu lions temporarily while the person is defenseless and vulnerable. The Christian and Catholic church have a tradition of “sanctuary” where one can enter and be safe from the physical world while within the sacred walls of the church. The balance of healthy human ego with the metaphysical connection to our deeper psyche or collective consciousness, that Jung speaks of, is that healthy dance of energies that spiritually conscious people are capable of to some degree or another.
The concept of ego has both psychological and spiritual meanings. Generally it is the “I” or self of any person; the capacity of thinking, feeling, willing, and distinguishing oneself from the selves of others and from the objects of our thoughts. There is a decidedly yang, assertive nature to this energy. Damage to the ego through psychological or neurological effects can be very debilitating as witnessed in those suffering from schizophrenia and narcissistic disorders—two extremes of the scale. In a psychological and physical sense, the ego is what keeps us grounded in the reality of the moment and aware of the threats to our physical well being. A well functioning ego is necessary to maintain life in the physical world.
In a metaphysical sense, ego is the separation of the personal mind from the meta mind or eternal mind. It is the “I am” of worldly needs compared to the “Thou art” of the eternal scheme of things. This is the more yin, receptive spiritual energy that Marianne Williamson mentions. So how can the ego be expanded to include the metaphysical, yet maintain the basic protection required in the physical realm? How does one maintain that state of ambiguity, accepting of the physical necessities of survival, yet be aware of the infinite possibilities?
Eastern mystics teach that we have at our core a psyche or spirit that is pure, undefended love. As humans, we experience this core as either expanding or receding in response to our ego cues of threat in our environment. If consciously connected to our spiritual core, our ego can then ferociously come forth to meet external challenges and create a sanctuary for our spirit to emerge into this world. If the physical threat is diminished, a healthy ego can recede and our spirit can flow freely.
Neglect and abuse can result in over-stimulating our ego defenses causing our focus to become fixated on protection rather than nourishment. Those with damaged egos become “broken spirits,” not that their spirits are actually broken, but their ego defenses are so weakened that their spirits have to recede to find sanctuary, sometimes so much so that a psychotic break occurs between the shattered ego and the furtive soul.
It is almost a martial art to stay centered and poised, able to either erect or demolish defenses as needed, able to do so in real time and at a appropriate level in response to real threats. Truly balanced spiritual beings have the ability to create a large area of sanctuary in their worlds and able to furiously protect that space with loving intent. The Tao is this intertwining of the receptive with the assertive—yin and yang—a strong ego firmly balanced by an infinite source of spiritual energy. Grace is sensing exactly what level of assertiveness is required to safely bring spirit forth in hostile surroundings.
Any metaphysical discussion of ego should include an awareness of the sacred functions that it provides. In our modern, secularized world, the connection of the ego to the psyche is often blurred, and the ego becomes inflated, disconnected from its sacred function. But the opposite too can happen, where one can naively jettison the ego function and become disconnected from the natural world and the struggles of human existence. It is the balance of our natural and spiritual natures that is important, each with their own sacredness. This balance is the “perfection” that Buddha comprehended. It is this balance, this natural sense of grace that can enable us, as Helen Keller suggests, to bravely “behave like free spirits in the presence of fate.”
Author: John Hardman
Editor: Travis May