A nuanced look into the human psyche
Author: Benedict Newton
The ego is often seen as an obstacle on a spiritual path. But the problem is rather its disharmonious development, not the ego itself. Benedict Newton shows this by using Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche and Indian yoga teachings.
What is the ego and why does it occupy such a central place in our lives? Whether or not we are aware of the ego and how it functions, we all perceive and structure our lives from the ego perspective to some degree. At times it exerts a tyrannical or torturous control over our daily existence.
For most people involved in spirituality, their ego is one of the biggest confusions.
It is very common for people to think of the ego as something negative, something that must be defeated or destroyed.
One can find many such ideas in interpretations of spiritual teachings and in a variety of books and articles. A quick internet research will reveal many such articles relating to the death of the ego. And also the necessity of this process on the spiritual path.
A nuanced look into the human psyche© Adobe Photostock.
But is the ego really our enemy? Do we have to wage a war against an invisible enemy that prevents us from becoming enlightened and spiritual beings? Is there a part of ourselves that must be eradicated from existence? If so, who or what will do the eradication and who or what will be eradicated? Paradoxically, we might say that the greatest confusion and
the biggest enemy of the ego is the ego itself!
IT, SUPEREGO AND EGO
Most people today are aware of the ego, at least as an idea or concept, and each of us knows that we have an ego. Thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud in the 1900s and his structural model of the psyche. In this he identified three constructs that came to be known as the id, the superego, and the ego. The term ego entered modern psychoanalysis and thus modern usage.
Each of these three constructs refers to a defined role within our psyche. The id is defined as the set of uncoordinated instinctual or animalistic tendencies. The superego has a critical or moral supervisory function and acts as our conscience, and the ego is the regulating and organizing part of the structure that defines our individuality or personality.
If we want to learn more about the ego, we should first note here that it is part of a hierarchical structure. Part of a triad that forms what we call the psyche, the set of elements that make up the mind. Therefore, it is necessary that each of these components of the psyche plays a specific role. Its unique in the coherent and harmonious functioning of the human organism. Analogously speaking, there is a clear chain of command, and a psychologically stable functioning human being adheres to this hierarchical chain of command. Each construct within the human psyche cooperates in its correct and harmonious functioning.
MANAS, BUDDHI, AND AHAMKARA.
These three constructs that Freud defined have a clear correspondence in the yogic teachings of India in what is known as antahkarana, the cognitive instrument – the psyche of Freud’s research – and its main functional components: Manas, Buddhi, and Ahamkara. Manas, the lower, instinctual mind that categorizes our experiences and stimuli according to the duality of nature. Buddhi, the intellect and Ahamkara. Which is the sense of individuality or personality.
To understand the functioning or ego and the other constructs of the mind or psyche, we will now look at the spiritual perspective and understanding of these three components of the cognitive instrument (antahkarana). Freud’s id, which we will refer to from here on as manas – the Sanskrit word for mind – is the part of the cognitive instrument that connects us to the external world. It is the simplest part of our individual consciousness. This part of our consciousness refers to the subconscious or lower mind. It connects to the sense organs and acts as a filter between our perceptions and the external world. In traditional yoga teachings, the emphasis is on “stilling the mind”. To bring the vibrations of the lower mind, manas, under control. And thus gain control over its inherent fluctuating tendency.
A discriminating view into the psyche of the human being© Adobe Photostock
This level of the mind is often referred to as Mercury, because just like Mercury, this part of the mind is in constant motion. Highly unstable and subject to duality, temptations and desires. Every sense experience passes through manas and divides into two broad categories. Either an acceptance or a rejection of the experience, phenomenon, sensation, person, etc. with which we interact.
The level of consciousness associated with this function of the cognitive instrument is the animal or instinctual level. There the need to provide, protect, and reproduce is the instinctual and unconscious impulse that we can easily recognize in the animal kingdom. At the human level, this function is simply to compare any two aspects, one as a reference point and the other as something we want to categorize. We do this by comparison until the aspect or object we want to know is given an appropriate category or label.
AHAMKARA: THE EGO AND ITS INDIVIDUALITY
The next element in the cognitive instrument or psyche is what Freud called the ego. Ahamkara in Sanskrit. In the hierarchical structure of the cognitive instrument or human psyche, manas is below the ego and as such subordinate to it. But what is it that gives the ego such a bad name in spiritual circles? One could say that this controlling position of the ego is consequently the origin of many of the problems one associates with it.
So let’s take a look at the “villain” of the piece: the ego. What exactly is the ego? Why do we have one, and what is its purpose? From the perspective of psychology and spirituality, the ego gives us a sense of self, an awareness of individuality and personality. Essentially, it is the function that enables each of us to perceive “me” and “everything else.” In other words, the awareness of consciousness, thoughts, feelings, emotions, personality, body, etc., with which we identify ourselves as “I” or “I-ness” and everything else that is not “I”.
It is this actual self-awareness or awareness of our existence that is the vehicle for the formation of our personality. Also the pillar we form our perspective of life and the world around. We can observe that consciousness and ego blesses the human species. It can even be seen that this tendency towards individuality reflects on an evolutionary and anthropological level. Through the greater degree of differentiation and variation in the human species, compared to other species in the animal kingdom.
It is that the emergence of the ego function plays an essential role in the evolution of the human species. And also the ability to master and control the instinctual, animal nature. At the same time it prepares us with the ability to consciously explore, understand and identify with the external reality that surrounds us. It creates a unique worldview based on our conditioning. Also our experiences, beliefs, desires and cognitions.
This awareness of uniqueness and even the desire for uniqueness at the level of the human psyche is what sets us apart from other species. It is even the unconscious motivating factor for the increasing diversity of the human experience.
Of all the species on this planet, we have the most diverse experience of life and lifestyle. And yet, ironically, we are also the species that laments the lack of diversity.
With a need for more and more differences, options and diversity. To be recognized and accordingly accommodated in all areas of life.
WHY IS IT CALLED THE ENEMY?
From the spiritual perspective, the ego (ahamkara) is the instrument of the self (aham).
Therefore, the ego (ahamkara) plays a very important role in our human existence. Also as the initial reflection center of our spiritual existence. Even from this simple perspective, it should become relatively easy to understand that the role of the ego in our human existence is a necessity. There should be no reason to want to destroy the ego or let the ego die. Thus if we took even a moment to think about what that would mean, what it would mean for our lives and existence if we were without identity and had no way to have a reference point for our human experience, it would be very clear that the existence of the ego fulfills a fundamental role in our lives.
© Adobe Photostock
Then where does all the belief come from that the ego must die? Or be destroyed in order to awaken spiritually?
In fact, this is a mistaken belief that also comes from the ego. It is a wrong perspective on life. The ego is a center of our existence, but it is not THE center. As long as we live on the level of consciousness that connects to the ego, we will always have this basic feeling and attitude of separation and isolation from the reality surrounding us and everything else.
About the author
Benedict Newton is a spiritual practitioner and teacher who focuses on yoga, tantra, and Kashmiri Shaivism. His interests include philosophy, psychology, and theology, and he explores the connections between the modern psyche and traditional teachings.
This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Das Ego ist nicht der Feind