“Identification with your mind (ego) creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments, and definitions that blocks all true relationship… Thinking has become a disease. Disease happens when things get out of balance…. Note: the mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
Ever since Eckhart Tolle wrote his ground-breaking book on healing the human condition, just about the same time that interest in Buddhist and non-dual spirituality/psychology began growing in our culture, there has been an idea among some who are seeking to grasp these elusive but immeasurably valuable concepts, that ego is a bad thing, even that it is to be gotten rid of. In and of itself, of course ego cannot be a bad thing and certainly cannot be eradicated. Any conscious creature has an ego. It is the necessary mental faculty of the more advanced nervous system organisms for interacting with their environment and fulfilling needs, while expressing individuality.
The squirrels in our yards demonstrate individuality, and have rudimentary egos, but squirrels interacting and gathering nuts is a distinctly different level of egoic action from human beings creating economies, governments, religions, technologies, universities, and works of art – or worrying about what others think of us, what we think of ourselves, or whether we are we good enough. Ego in a human is the realm of thought and emotion, of language and mathematics, of tools and invention, of complex social interaction and creativity. Ego is also the seat of human neurosis.
Speaking metaphorically, the ego creates a kind of shell or filter around our inner-core of conscious Beingness, or True-Self, as Buddhism terms it. This core is, if you will, the light, the energy, of what Eastern philosophy believes is the individualized manifestation of the great Universal Consciousness. It is, as Buddhism puts it, our “original mind,” clear and wise and compassionate, and this core mind of Being knows its connection with the Source of Life and all Life. This is why it knows harmony and connection as our and THE underlying nature of all things and the true experience of spirituality. Ego knows none of this. In place of true spirituality, ego creates religions for worship of egoic constructs of the divine, one person’s different from another’s, the differences separating them, sometimes even making them hate each other.
A neurotic personality, then, is one in which the minor and major traumas of experience have thickened and shaped the contours of a person’s egoic shell in particularly distorted ways so as to filter consciousness energy in a manner which distorts experience coming in and expression going out. This is where the problem with ego begins. The result is the shaping of a personality manifesting a reality distorted by anxious, depressive, paranoid, narcissistic, or histrionic, etc. styles of perception and expression.
We can see that ego, in modern humans, is typically very much out of balance within the totality of a person’s mind when its fear-based ideas and emotions begin to take up much of the person’s attention through their life. And what is it afraid of? Simply stated, not being enough. It is filled with, as Buddhism calls them, “delusional” egocentric ideas about who we are and what the world is. These delusional ideas drive us more-or-less insane and can become more-or-less destructive, depending on the degree to which distorted ego-experience has come to dominate.
Humans have such a problem as mental illness because our society, our economies, governments, religions, technologies, universities, and creative endeavors have come to be principally in the service of that which created them, human ego, and are made of ego’s delusional ideas. Contemporary life largely functions as virtual realities spun out by competing persons, institutions, and pursuits that are quite anti-human and anti-life, self-perpetuating for their own power and glory. Getting caught in this unending world of top-dog-underdog, zero-sum gaming, can and does drive us humans quite crazy without our even realizing it, thinking all this is “normal.” Only the extreme examples of insecurity caused by egos out of balance get acknowledged and then called neurosis or mental illness.
The functions of ego – thought and emotion – become badly out of control as ego assumes supremacy in our minds, taking over our sense of self and reality, creating mental imbalance, for ego really is not up to the task. Ego, when it takes over a personality, is riddled with insecurity, in a sense, knowing itself to be a sham, yet unwilling to admit it. Importantly, these dysfunctional ego states happen even more crudely and dangerously in whole cultures or societies, creating macro-egos. A feedback loop is established of unhealthy individual egos creating unhealthy macro-ego societies and social institutions, creating more unhealthy individual egos, making even more unhealthy macro-ego societies, and so the madness escalates.
To understand ego, it MUST be understood that ego is a faculty. It is in a sense a “thing,” much like our hands are faculties and thus things, and when a person experiences their identity through ego they experience themselves as a thing, an object, and all the world about them as objects. The more intensely an individual perceives and operates from this distorted view of life as competing separate objects, the more imbalanced such a person becomes, and this misperception is at the very core of the tragedy of human experience. We are no longer experiencing ourselves or the world as alive and interconnected; rather, we experience ourselves as not enough and the world as not enough and the neurotic distortions of anxiety, depression, anger, insecurity, greed, and alienation take over our lives.
So, as we approach the question of how to cure neurosis, we have to look, as Buddhism does, to energizing and strengthening that which is the essence of mental health, the healthy consciousness core of a person, sometimes called witnessing awareness. Then, this clear and mindful energy of awareness can soften, smooth, and clarify the ego-shell, wisely and compassionately seeing its distortions, both regarding ourselves and the world. Then, through the miracle of this mindful examination, the ego begins to heal, allowing the ego to function more naturally as is Creation’s intention, a faculty of mind with extraordinary creative capabilities.
Ego then can release its claim as our identity and is restored to its appropriate place and function as the intermediary human mental faculty between awareness and the world, a kind of filter and creative capacity. It is no longer directed by its own distorted intention to make more of itself based in its trauma and fear of not being enough, but rather as a skillful and faithful servant of awareness. This brings perception and expression that is closer to the true nature of reality and is thus, less neurotic. These faculties of hands and egos can then be in service of higher truths than the malign intents of a traumatized and delusional ego.
Our salvation and sanity lies in recognizing and energizing our core consciousness, this True Self, what some might call Spirit, as the very essence of who we are, bringing it forth in healing and balanced relationship with our ego. Now, no longer so blocked and distorted by a dysfunctional, frightened, and traumatized ego, our core Self, or Spirit, can radiate from our center of Being. We can connect with the underlying nature of Spirit in all that is around us, even penetrating the distorted egos of our fellow humans to see and connect with them at the level of their true core and Spirit. We are now no longer lost in our false sense of separateness, but rather restored to our sense of connection with all that is. We are restored to our natural spiritual and mental health. We are no longer afraid we are not enough or that the world is not enough for we now know we are an individual expressing and experiencing the One that is All. As the best way to defend against pathogens in the physical world is to strengthen the body’s immune system, so too, awareness is our psychological immune system warding off neurotic distortion, allowing us to experience the difficulties of life not as traumas but as challenges to our deeper Nature, which when met, strengthen us. Our “spiritual” practice then is to engage the moment and the activity of the moment as if our full whole-hearted presence as awareness and our sincerity of action is the key to spiritual and mental health, for it is. Our healthy spirit and primal intelligence can then be in creative and healthy relationship with our ego and the world, manifesting what in the East is called an enlightened being, which is, in truth, simply and naturally, a mentally and spiritually healthy human being.