Developing your Ego as Spiritual Practice

We should get rid of the ego. Or should we? I beg to disagree. Of course, it depends on what you mean by ego. If you refer to ego as a way of perceiving yourself as separate from the world, then it makes perfect sense to see through that limited way of perceiving reality. If you refer to ego as habit patterns that arise from the perception of separateness, then it absolutely makes sense to put new habits in place that arise from your deeper connection to the world.

Having said that, there is another aspect of ego that needs to be addressed. The term ego is used in much of the psychological literature as a reference to the structures that underlie our experience of reality. Even though it is possible to transcend ego and perceive oneself as a limitless being that includes the totality of all existence, there still are structures in place that support that experience. As long as we have a body-mind, our experience will be influenced by mental structures. Without these structures, we are screwed. In fact, it is not possible to exist without some form of mental structure. Even the smallest infant has some structure to support their experience. Throughout our development our mental structures grow in complexity. This increases our ability to perceive more of reality. There are things that simply cannot be seen from one level of development. So our mental structures decide what kind of experience is available for us.

To give some sense of what this means, lets take some examples from ego-development theory as described by Susanne Cook-Greuter. In the earliest stage of childhood, the presocial stage, we are not able to understand that other people have an inner life. In this stage the thoughts, emotions, and intentions of other people do not exist. They are not yet visible for us, they do not exist for us since the structure of this stage of development does not support that kind of experience.

Eventually, we of course start to understand that other persons have an inner life. However, our own perception of our inner world is there merely as an experience. We are not really able to take an outside perspective on it until later on, at the self-conscious stage. An inner life viewed as an object that can be reflected upon, rather than merely as subjective experience that one is immersed in, is only visible from a certain level of development. For some people this capacity of introspection occurs in adolescence while others never develop it.

At the first of the postconventional stages of development, the individualistic stage, yet another feature of reality that was previously hidden for us starts to become visible. We now are able to perceive the relativistic nature of all constructs. We start to understand that what a certain phenomena looks like depends very much on the perspective of the observer. Truth becomes in part something that is created in the eyes and minds of the beholder. This advanced perspective is not accessible for earlier stages of development.

At the first of the post-post-conventional stages, the construct-aware stage, we are not only aware of that constructs are relativistic, we also see that they never really correspond to a reality out there. In fact, we become aware that even the constructs that describe who we are only have a vague relation to actual reality. Our self-identity is more fluid. Somehow we sense that we are being co-created in relation to the circumstances in every moment, rather than viewing ourselves as relatively solid individuals, as is characteristic for earlier stages of development. This kind of fluid self-identity and awareness of the limited validity of constructs is only accessible as an experiential reality from this stage of development and on.

In the construct-aware stage it starts to become clear that the underlying reality, the ground of being, is our true nature, that there is no way to ultimately separate our self from the rest of the world. In the next stage, the unitive stage, we not only clearly understand this but we are also able to live in peace with the seeming polarity between the formless world of non-separation and the everyday messiness of the world of form. This ability is not accessible from any of the preceding stages.

So, to return to our original question, should we get rid of the ego? My answer has three parts: Firstly, let us continuously do what we can to move into higher stages of ego-development, thereby gradually eroding our sense of separation. Secondly, let us repeatedly see through the ego by means of practices that induce higher states of consciousness, such as meditation. Thirdly, let us refine our habits to not only serve our small self but also to serve the greater whole, which is our true self anyway.

Everything is Imperfect as it is

I know, saying something like that in times of postmodern spirituality is almost like spitting in the church. Everything is perfect as it is, right? Yeah, absolutely. This is true and can be verified by anyone through the use of an appropriate method, meditation for example. However, the opposite is also true. In the world of form, no such thing as perfection exists. In the relative dimension of reality, everything can always be improved.

In an earlier post on this blog I wrote about perfectionism. Recently, when my coach pointed out the imperfect nature of reality, I burst out in laughter. It struck me how the whole notion about perfectionism is a completely impossible endeavour. What would the perfect blog post look like? Even if I’d polish a certain post for ten years it would still be fundamentally flawed. That goes for everything in life. Whatever I create will be imperfect. And yet, at the very root of it’s being, this blog post is perfect. In fact, it was even perfect before I started writing it.

This gives me an opportunity to comment on one of the fundamental aspects of higher stages of development, as described by researchers such as Susanne Cook-Greuter and Robert Kegan: The ability to hold apparently conflicting perspectives. In any given polarity, earlier stages of development tend to identify strongly with one of the poles. Some examples of polarities: Either what I do is perfect or it is not. I am either competent or incompetent. The universe is either friendly or hostile. I tend to prefer comfort rather than experiential intensity. In contrast, at higher stages of development, we are aware of that two poles can exist simultaneously. We include them, make space for them. Sometimes we open up for the tension between the polarities to give rise to new emergence and sometimes we focus on the integration of the opposites. In any case, we do not give exclusive privilege to any one pole within our experience.

What is the practical use of this perspective? One possible way to approach higher stages of development, according to professor of developmental psychology Rob McNamara, is to refine this capacity to embrace polarities. When you notice that you are caught in a certain perspective, such as perfectionism, have a look at the opposing perspective. In this case, it could be imperfection. Another opposite of perfectionism that came up for me is “letting go”. When you’ve identified the two poles, feel into both of them separately. You can play with them a bit, perhaps going back and forth a few times. Is there something that want’s to emerge from the space between the poles? What happens if you give space to both of them simultaneously? Some kind of integration might emerge, however, that is not what is of main importance. The main benefit is that doing this is likely to increase your capacity to be with polarities, thus facilitating your movement towards higher levels of development. Feel free to play with this, and if you do, it would be awesome if you would post about your experiences below. Have fun integrating!

Getting Intimate with our Deepest Fears

I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life. It’s a really crippling trait to have. So many awesome projects were never started or died in the crib because of this trait. So many life-serving impulses were not followed, so many things were not said. I recently realized that perfectionism really is a defense against the horrible pain associated with the notion of “not being ok”. What if someone sees what I’ve created, what I’ve done, and lets me know that I am fundamentally flawed for making such a ridiculous thing, whether it be a blog, a painting, a status-update on facebook or the way I move on the dancefloor. The emotions that arise even at the thought of that are some of the most intense and scary ones that I can imagine. In a sense it really seems to be about the threat of annihilation. Being seen as not ok seems to be able to trigger something close to a fear of dying. There is a perception of something really intense that I urgently want to get rid of and that at many occasions makes me want to disappear altogether.

Evolutionarily this makes perfect sense, since for most of our history as humans not being accepted by our group was pretty much equal to death. If we were not viewed as acceptable members of the group we were most likely expelled. This would mean death or at least most likely a profoundly unenjoyable life since we are deeply social creatures. When I was bullied in school I was not really faced with death. Our genetical conditioning has not changed as quickly as our life circumstances, however, so that sort of exclusion and the consistent message of “you are not ok” probably triggered a fear of annihilation in me at the time. In any case it led to intense discomfort and a strong fear of rejection that I’ve continued to carry with me throughout my life.

Perfectionism has surfaced very strongly in my attempt to write this blog. It is close to impossible to get to a satisfying result when I want things to be perfect. I brought up this topic with my coach. He said: “Let’s go towards that which is most threatening!”. He recommended me to really be with the intense emotions associated with not being ok when they show up. Actually, he recommended that I would do that with all kinds of intense emotions, both the positive and the negative. He suggested that I’d take a break when things get really intense and just be with what I feel, ride the wave until it passes.

This does two things, according to him: Firstly, it increases our ability to be with intense emotions. They get less threatening, we know that we can do whatever we need to do regardless of what we feel. The second thing is that it gives our body a possibility to metabolize the experience. If we do not allow ourselves to feel, what happens is that these emotions get stuck in the body until they are felt through and released.

I’ve been doing that a whole lot during this past week. Several things have happened. I have had a more vivid experience of aliveness throughout the week. I’ve felt more. I’ve also noticed myself doing things without trying to control the outcomes as much as before. There simply has been more trust in that I can be with whatever kind of negative emotions that might arise as a result of how people respond to my actions. This gives me more freedom since I do not have to protect myself from the pain of not being ok at all cost.

For example, yesterday evening I sent a message to a friend to express some appreciation. This is something I do not do very often since it arouses exactly this fear of not being ok. What if she finds my message really pathetic. Maybe my words do not touch her at all. Maybe she misinterprets my intentions thinking that I’m flirting with her rather than just sharing some honest appreciation. Anyway, there was a sense of aliveness connected to pressing the send button and a sense of boring safety connected to deleting it, so I sent it. I did not get any response from her so far today. I have assumed that it probably did not land in a sweet spot in her. Maybe one of the fears I mentioned above was true. At several times when this has come up during the day an intense sensation of shame has arisen. However, I have not tried to suppress it or get rid of it. I have let it be, riding the wave, and every time the wave has turned out to pass swiftly and not to be dangerous at all. The sense I get is that being able to be with my emotions in this way really increases my freedom. Since I get more confident that I can be with my reactions I can also take greater risks. Maybe I will even be able to publish this blogpost without working it until perfection!

Higher stages of development are central to this blog, so how does this tie in with that topic? Here’s some thoughts on that. In the unitive stage of development we live very close to experiential reality. Susanne Cook-Greuter speaks about “the undifferentiated phenomenological continuum”. As I understand this, it means that we do not differentiate so much between ourselves and the world. We actually experience ourselves as intimately connected to and constantly co-created by the immediacy of every moment. This leaves us with a more open, raw field of perception. Allowing ourselves to feel the whole spectrum of our emotional lives could be seen as a way to imitate the natural experience of someone at the unitive stage.

If you would like to use this as a tool for increasing your aliveness and ability to embrace more of experience, as well as for growing into higher stages of consciousness, here is how to do it:

Whenever you find yourself feeling something quite intense, something that you would rather avoid, make space for fully experiencing that. Be fully present with the embodied emotional texture of the experience. Stay with it until the intensity passes. This might only take a few moments and it might also take twenty minutes or more. You will probably need to stop what you are doing, maybe sit or lie down, and only do this as long as is required. Let go of mental activity whenever it appears and return to the direct, non-interpreted, embodied sensations. You can also experiment with doing this while engaged in activity, especially if the circumstances do not allow you to take a break.

Be aware that this will increase your capacity to feel more in general. This means that you will likely experience more pleasure, and you will also likely experience more of the painful, challenging emotions. Your capacity to be with these emotions, however, will also have increased, rendering them somewhat less threatening. Life will always consist of different kinds of intensity, some of which we are more inclined to welcome than others. Making space for all kinds of intensity is one of the hallmarks of the unitive stage of consciousness.

You are warmly welcome to share your experiences from experimenting with this in the comments section below.