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.