The ego, life, and Funkadelic
When I began my journey into spiritual practice, I found myself awash with many myths about the process and purpose of spiritual practice. One prominent myth that persisted in my practice for years was that in order to experience joy, contentment, or satisfaction, that I needed to "destroy" or "conquer" the ego. At first, I was not even sure what most people meant when they referred to the ego. Typically, I had heard of it as the root of selfishness, arrogance, or lack of consideration for others. I had also heard it mentioned in reference to self-obsession, competitiveness, and stubbornness. It also takes the blame when we talk about desires, guilt, shame, and the need for control. With all of that baggage and more, I found it truly endless as a source for confusion and struggle, and hardly had any idea what it actually is, aside from the nail upon which all my worst qualities hang. So, naturally, I was motivated to rid myself of that thorn, and imagine myself light, free, and so spiritual that even animals would flock to me - sort of like a Disney princess, only without bursting into unplanned lyrical expositions of my wonderful life set to sweeping music. What I learned as I continued to study, practice, and question what I had learned about nearly everything, is the ego is the scapegoat of spiritual misunderstanding.
The word ego has different meanings in different contexts. In the psychological sense, the ego is the part of the mind that meditates the unconscious and conscious and is responsible for the sense of identity. In the philosophical or metaphysical sense, the ego denotes the subject in the context of the objective world, and historically this has been a difficult conceptual framework to build models of understanding. We might say that the spiritual sense of ego lies somewhere between the philosophical and psychological views. In the spiritual sense, we can argue that in existence, there is a structure to the way all things are organized, and we are no exception. The sense of I that we ordinarily experience is a composite of the variety of layers of identity that we create depending on our own personal, genetic, cultural, and energetic conditioning. We create these identifications in order to relate ourselves not only to the outer world, but to the unique relationship we, as an individual, have with life itself.
Life is not only something that is present biologically within us as an individual, but it is also universal in the sense that life itself has no clear and obvious limits in how, when, and where it can express itself. Most of us understand life as a scientific phenomena that demands certain specific conditions for biological life to exist. Beyond the Earth-centric carbon-based model of life, we actually have no sense of what life actually is. One way to understand life is a self-organizing intelligence that adapts to reproduce and continue to exist throughout a multitude of forms and functions. Life, then, is a grand and unique mystery that unfolds singularly through the vehicle of our individual being, and universally as a principle in the entire cosmos.
With this more broad and nuanced context, the sense of I is an interface between localized specific conditioning within the unit of the individual and the vast potential capacity for the cosmos to express life. If the ego is that interface that helps us orient to our relationship with life itself, it seems foolish to want to destroy or eliminate it. The function of the ego is a bridge between the infinite and the finite (in the metaphor, life is the infinite, and the senses of I are the finite). Neither the sense of I nor life remain static; change is a fundamental principle of existence. Our efforts to attempt to resist change are part of what creates identities. We construct these psychological, conceptual, and energetic boundaries to protect or preserve the places where we can feel safe, in control, or certain of who and what we are, and what life actually is. To a degree, these constructions are necessary and useful in order for us to function in this world. After all, we've become so organized as a social organism that not having a strong sense of I can be a "disadvantage," if we hope to assimilate into current frameworks. However, no matter how many barriers we create, the infinite remains unchanged. Life, the universe, the cosmos continues churning out galaxies, particles, and everything in between.
The wisdom of spiritual teachings is that the barriers and obstacles we create in order to contain ourselves are ultimately the cause of keeping us from deeply being able to enjoy and appreciate life itself. So rather than focus on destroying the sense of I, our practice becomes more fulfilling and effective when we seek out places where we are or are not open to embracing the joy of experiencing life. For example, if we close ourselves off from experiencing or interacting with anger, grief, or confusion, we also close off those avenues for life to meet us, delight, us, and carry us into a deeper relationship with our own nature. Life, after all, is our nature.
Inspired by Funkadelic - Can You Get To That?