There is a lot of mis-information in so-called spiritual and religious circles concerning our ego-mind. This is probably partly due to the simple mis-translation of ancient languages into modern ones, as well as the fact that just because a teaching is ancient, doesn’t make it correct.
When we look at the sources of many modern day religious and spiritual practices, almost all of them were borne during times of social change, traumatic wars, migrating tribes and a long period of transition from a nomadic to a settled way of life.1
The development of these diverse spiritual and religious practices were an attempt to understand ourselves and the changing world around us. How much of this was simply wishful thinking, or projecting onto nature man’s own confusion, we will never fully know.
However, dogma passed on from generation to generation, is still dogma.
The development and maturation of the human ego-mind is a remarkable process, and it is a fertile area for study in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy.
In very simplistic terms, the main stages are:
- Young Child
- Young Adult
- Mature Adult
- Elderly Person
- Dying Process
In stages 1 to 4, the ego-mind is very much in the grow and building phase, stages 5 and 6 lead to a maturation, which includes a critical understanding of the ego-mind’s boundaries and limitations, and assuming we get there, the wisdom of age in stage 7.
It is still a complex process which is not fully understood, as we all develop in the context of our cultural environment, so psychologists can never ‘scientifically’ study a person developing in a laboratory environment free from social influence.
Transcendence of the Ego-Mind
One of the key features of mystic traditions, in the Hindu, Christian, Sufi and other traditions is that of awakening, or enlightenment. Indeed the tales of yogis and their transcendental bliss states can be a powerful trigger for an interest in their yoga practices.
So, what is this, and why has it led to an unprecedented attack on the ego-mind?
I think an analogy may help here to get a deeper understanding, in modern terms, of what this is like, and what it is not.
If you imagine for a moment that you’re sitting comfortably in a spacecraft, ready to take off from planet Earth to explore the surrounding Universe. During the spacecraft’s launch, you experience the thrill of the lift-off – all that energy rippling through your body. And a visceral sense of excitement of such a unique journey.
As you leave the Earth’s atmosphere, you marvel at the beauty of the Earth: Its swirling clouds, blue oceans and recognisable land masses.
Then, as your journey progresses, you see the Earth in context to the surrounding black space and dots of star-light, and you sense at one and the same time, its aloneness and that is a part of a greater whole.
Your journey continues, the Earth is now a tiny spec in the vast ocean of a galaxy of stars. It starts to become a memory, and as your turn your full attention to the surrounding vista of galaxies, the unending and awe-inspiring vastness of it all finally begins to sink into you.
If we use the Earth as a metaphor for our ego-mind, some points to draw from this analogy are:
- The ego-mind is not destroyed and it is not evil
- We experience the ego-mind in context to the whole of consciousness (i.e. the Universe)
- There is still a ‘sense of self’ and a personal awareness within this awesome vastness
- Nothing has actually changed, only our awareness and understanding of ourselves, life and our place in it
Rather like the Earth’s gravitational pull has to be managed for the spacecraft to make this trip into the wider Universe, the ego-mind has to be managed in our quest for enlightenment. It is here that the ego-mind gets a bad reputation, and it can be mistakenly seen as something to be destroyed or conquered. However, the above analogy is a very good way of seeing why this is a very bad idea. Just as the Earth needs a gravitational field to exist, we need a healthy ego-mind to stay sane and to function successfully in this world.
They key lies in understanding the incredibly subtle process of managing our ego-mind. And I would suggest that the more mature and balanced a person’s ego-mind, the less difficult this process is.
A Myth That Comes To Life
Many cultures have mythical tales about regal kings or famous prophets, who, it is hoped, will return one day to save their put-upon peoples in times of duress. This person (usually a man for some bizarre reason), it is hoped, has the wisdom and compassion to rule justly, with vision and intelligence.
In some ways, the transcendence of our ego-mind can be likened to a puppet Prince being replaced by the return of the King – our true spiritual nature. What we have conveniently forgotten, is that it is us who created and put in place the puppet Prince to run the show, and when the King does finally return, the Prince is still around and is as relieved as anybody else.
1. The Great Transformation, by Karen Armstrong, 2006, Atlantic Books (UK) / Random House Inc. (USA).
© David R. Durham
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