“Please allow me to introduce myself…” ~ The Rolling Stones
Anyone who has experience with self-examination in the form of therapy or recovery from addiction has most likely been exposed to some talk about the human ego.
Countless self-help and spiritual books discuss this topic and the usual portrayal paints a picture of a harmful, almost demonic part of the psyche that tends to create endless problems for the individual.
The sage from India, Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950), whom Ken Wilbur calls the greatest sage of the 20th century, is quoted as saying, “The ego, or separate identity, is at the root of all suffering in life.” More contemporary and close to home, Eckhart Tolle makes the claim that the ego-dominated mind is the greatest threat to all life on this planet.
In this article and those that follow, we will explore the much-maligned ego with a detached and impartial curiosity. We will look at it from biological, physiological, and evolutionary perspectives in order to gain a deeper understanding.
We will see why such ominous claims have been made regarding its destructive and harmful potential, and future articles will show it can be “tamed” and utilized as a tool for change and intentionality.
The definition of ego
Let us be clear about what we are discussing. There are numerous definitions of “ego,” a word that originates from the Latin word meaning “I.” In his book Awakening to the Dream (2001), Leo Hartung provides the following list:
>> One’s identity
>> One’s consciousness of one’s identity
>> An inflated feeling of pride or sense of superiority toward others
>> One’s personality or character
>> One’s self-image
>> One’s thread of memory that gives us a sense of continuous presence
>> A combination of socio-conditioning and genetic programming
>> An autonomous center of consciousness and volition inside a body
>> A dreamed-up character played by the true Self
>> A mistaken identity where the universal I am is taken to be a personal “I am”
And so on. These definitions describe the common concept of what may be called a unique and separate self. That is not what we will be looking at here.
For the purpose of this writing, we will not be limited to discussing the concept but rather we will be considering the actual process or processes that comprise the ego. Seeing the ego as a working process whose end result is a unique and individualized self allows us to have a different perspective.
Any process can be broken down into its operational steps and these can be analyzed. As we go forward we are looking at the ego as a process or method, rather than an entity itself. The end result of this process is the creation of the mask. This mask determines what sort of person (the word person is derived from the Latin word “persona,” meaning mask) needs to show up in order to have perceived needs met.
The processes of becoming a person
In his book, The Untethered Soul (2007), Michael Singer does a masterful job of describing the Buddhist concept of “clinging” to what he calls the primal activity of the psyche (one of the basic activities or fundamental processes used by the ego). In this process, the mind gathers data from sensory input to begin the building of identity.
Naturally, the first input will usually come from a child’s parents or caregivers. We “cling” and “build” (Singer’s terminology). Certainly, there are genetic components that contribute to individual aptitudes and tendencies, however, the self-concept is derived primarily from mental constructs and memory. This process of internalizing objects or ideas from our environment to build a “self” could be called external identification, and it is one of the ego’s tactics common to all humans.
The other primary processes of the ego include comparison, competition, resentment, acquisitiveness (possessiveness), secrecy, complaining (fault-finding), shame, the need to be right, and the need to be important. These are the tools the ego uses to create a unique identity for the individual. These mental activities are generally associated with discomfort that manifests as restlessness and a baseline level of fear. The mental state generated by the ego’s functions could also be called suffering and dis-ease.
It is the dis-ease that results from the ego-dominated mind that many of us are familiar with. We have seen it in ourselves and others; we have seen the damaging effect on relationships and the world around us. Yet it is curious how, as a species, we have arrived at this state.
One might ask why the ego processes have become so pronounced, so problematic both on the individual level and in humankind as a whole. We see around us that nature appears to have an innate intelligence that is reflected in the intricate design of cells and organelles as well as the laws of physics that govern the movement of celestial bodies. Given these observations, it seems odd that such a destructive force as the ego has become so powerful. Let us consider how this may have happened.
The physiology of the ego
Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, in her groundbreaking book and TED talk, My Stroke of Insight (2006), describes how a blood clot causing a stroke temporarily disabled the left hemispherical functions of her brain. This resulted in the disappearance of her ego.
The left hemisphere of the brain is normally associated with logic, sequential time, linear thinking, and mathematical skills. During the period of her disability, she describes feelings of oneness with all the energies of the universe and an indescribable expansiveness that she calls Nirvana.
We can deduct from Dr. Taylor’s experience that left-hemispheric activity creates the processes that result in a “logical” idea of who we are and supports the individualization of the human being. Considering that this part of the brain is responsible for sequential memory and using logic to organize and comprehend our sensory input, it makes sense that this is where the ego resides. This confirms the theory that the ego is both a physiological and psychological process.
One of the largest organisms on the planet is a grove of Aspen trees than can cover a large portion of a mountainside. Standing inside one of these forests, we see individual trees, not the giant organism that shares a common root system. The evidence of our five senses allows us to interact with the physical world around us and helps us to feel safe and satisfy our basic human needs. The left hemisphere of the brain interprets this data and constructs a mental picture or understanding utilizing memory and the mind’s ability to correlate data. Yet, just as with the Aspen grove, the information provided by our senses is limited and does not allow us to see the entire picture.
Our senses inform us that we are separate from our fellows. You have feelings, experiences, conditioning, genetic, and physiological differences that set you apart from me. The brain must make sense of this sensory input, and the logical conclusion from this evidence is that I am a separate individual. It is the role of the ego processes to define what this separate individual is and thus create an identity (or mask) for each one of us.
The evolution of the ego
Empirical evidence tells us that the most obvious purpose of life is to replicate—to pass along its DNA to the next generation so that it can continue to do the same. Darwinian evolution states that “all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce” (Wikipedia). Evolution is the process of the maximization of fitness for selectability, reproducibility, and the survival of a species. In the words of Ray Dalio (Principles, 2017), it is “the single greatest force in the universe. It is the only thing that is permanent and it drives everything—from the smallest subatomic particle to the entire galaxy.”
The implication must be that the ego has played a role in the evolution of humans. To understand what this might be, let’s look at the traits that are evolutionarily selected by nature to help perpetuate a species. In particular, we will consider courtship behaviors and adaptations that increase the likelihood of mate selection and reproduction.
The mating behavior in the animal kingdom has hundreds of examples of one or both of the partners exhibiting bright colors or unusual activity in order to stand out and attract the attention of the opposite sex. This can be seen in snails, octopi, fishes, reptiles, birds, and even insects. Plants also demonstrate tactics to increase the likelihood that their seeds will become fertilized and dispersed.
Considering that the role of the ego is to differentiate the individual, it is not a big leap to understand how this plays a role in mate selection and reproduction in the human. The processes of the ego create a unique “somebody” that will stand out from everyone else. It may be a smart self, an athletic self, a funny self, a quiet or loud self, etc. When we reach reproductive age and are ready to mate, those qualities that differentiate us are what tend to make us uniquely attractive to someone who desires those qualities in a partner. The end result is an individual who stands out for the mate in order to promote the transmission of the DNA to the next generation.
So here we have the important evolutionary role that the ego has provided for our species. How then has it become such a problem for us?
The ego disorder
To summarize what has been discussed up to this point: the ego is an evolutionary biological, physiological, psychological function that resides in the left hemisphere of the brain that helps us to make sense of the apparent separation from others, and works to create an individual “self” that will enable us to have an identity and promote the reproductive process.
How then did it become such a villain that causes such suffering and is targeted in 12-step meetings, rehabilitation centers, mental health facilities, and self-help books as the source of our woes? We can look briefly at the last 250 million years of the evolution of human society for the answer to this question.
Prehistoric man assembled in small hunter-gatherer bands consisting of groups of perhaps 10 or 20 individuals. In such a setting, the work of the ego (to make an individual stand out) was relatively easy. It would require minimal (if any) effort to be differentiated in a group of this size. As the old saying goes, it’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond. How much harder would it be to stand out in a group of 40 people? Four hundred people? Four million people?
The current global population estimate in early 2020 is roughly 7.6 billion people. How much harder must the ego processes work in this size of a group in order to create an individual who stands out? Although we may not be competing to stand out with the entire world population, the pressures of social media, television, advertising, and other modern technologies contribute to the challenges to the ego.
Working any muscle regularly, lifting heavier and heavier weights, for example, will cause the muscle to get bigger. Even the heart muscle of a competitive long-distance runner will enlarge, causing a condition called myocardial hypertrophy, which can be dangerous and even life-threatening to the individual.
What appears to have occurred over the last quarter of a million years with the population explosion is a hypertrophy of the ego processes. Perhaps a fitting name for this condition would be “ego-itis.” Because it has had to work so hard to accomplish its task, it has grown in strength and size, and now, like the overgrown heart, it threatens our health and survival. Its enlargement causes its processes to be more pronounced and over-reaching in the mind. The result is the current pandemic of a great sense of separation and the accompanying fear and dis-ease.
Taking this objective and scientific approach to the phenomena that we call the human ego is helpful. In this case, as in many others, a genuine understanding tends to diminish negative attitudes and perceptions. The ego is just doing what it has always done to enable the survival and perpetuation of our species, hence the title of this article, “Sympathy for the Ego.”
Attempts to rid ourselves of or engage in combat with the ego are most often futile and perhaps misguided. Awareness is the best remedy.
In future articles, we will explore how to utilize the ego’s activity with intentionality for personal creativity and transformation.