There seems to be a great deal of confusion in understanding just what Buddhism means when it talks about transcending the ego. Part of the confusion arises due to differences in usage, and part of the confusion arises as a result of ego having a variety of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Yet another source of confusion is that Buddhist teachers are often teaching from the perspective of absolute truth, not relative truth. Identifying the ego so that it may be transcended becomes problematic in the absence of a working definition.
In order to sort this out, it will be necessary to take a wider view than merely defining ego in a concrete way. At its most basic level, ego is Latin for "I." Freud never used the word ego in his writings; he used the German pronoun das Ich, the I. So in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the ego is synonymous with the sense of an unique self, an I. This has become the most common usage among the general public. Among specialists, ego is often used in a slightly less general way to refer to the organizing principle of the psyche that acts as an intermediary between the self (as subject) and the world. In this sense, then, ego is an object that can be observed by a subject, the self.
A more precise explanation, however, might dispel some of the confusion. If we use a simple model of human development that moves from simple to more complex, with each stage transcending and including the previous stage (assuming an absence of pathology), we then see how ego develops in relation to other elements of the psyche, such as the self and the Witness. A basic nine-stage developmental model (many of whose broader stages can be broken down into one or more sub-stages) moves through the following fulcrums:
F1, sensorimotor: material self (autistic self)
F2, impulse-emotion: body-ego
F3, representative mind: transition from body-ego to persona (early ego development)
F4, concrete operations (rules & roles): full emergence of ego
F5, formal operations: mature ego
F6, post-formal (existential): integrated self
F7, psychic (vision): soul
F8, subtle (archetype): soul becoming aware of spirit (Witness)
F9, causal (formless): emergence of spirit
Beyond the causal realm, all forms of separate identity are subsumed in non-dual consciousness.
As the self develops through each of the basic fulcrums, it becomes more complex and expansive in its capabilities. To simplify the process, fulcrums 1-3 may be considered prepersonal (pre-egoic), fulcrums 4-6 may be considered personal (egoic), and fulcrums 7-9 may be considered transpersonal (post-egoic). Most of Western psychology is concerned with the first six fulcrums.
The first three fulcrums are often considered egocentric, which does not mean ego-centered since the ego has not yet emerged. The term egocentric is used to refer to the absence of any differentiation between self and the world -- the world is experienced as an extension of the self. Egocentrism persists all the way through the end of fulcrum six (becoming weaker at each new stage), when the self begins to move beyond its own concerns and is able to hold the needs of others as equal to its own needs.
Buddhism is concerned primarily with the final three fulcrums. While many Buddhist meditation techniques actually work to strengthen the ego, the higher teachings work to bring forth the soul consciousness and spirit consciousness (Witness) that transcend ego development. More on this in a moment.
Ego development might be better understood as a "frontal" line of development in that its role is to act as an intermediary between the outside world and the self. Soul development occurs concurrently with ego development, but can only become an element of the subjective self when the ego has reached the final fulcrums of its growth. [However, a peak experience of higher-level consciousness can occur well before the self has reached that level as a stable entity, but the experience will be transient and unable to persist as an element of the self since stages cannot be skipped.] The Self (or Witness) also develops concurrently, and like the soul cannot become an integrated aspect of the self-sense until all the preliminary stages have been integrated.
When Buddhism talks of the ego as illusion or as neurosis, the point of view is that of the Witness, the highest aspect of the self-sense. This is where much of the confusion comes from in understanding the ego. At the deepest levels, the ego is illusion -- our truest Self is one with Spirit, non-dual, perfect. So Tibetan Buddhists refer to the ego as dak dzin, which translates as "grasping to a self." Sogyal Rinpoche is fairly blunt in his disregard for the ego, which is also equated with the self.
Ego is then defined as incessant movements of grasping at a delusory notion of "I" and "mine," self and other, and all the concepts, ideas, desires, and activity that will sustain that false construction. Such a grasping is futile from the start and condemned to frustration, for there is no truth in it, and what we are grasping at is by its very nature ungraspable. The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on grasping shows that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. From this secret, unnerving knowledge spring all our fundamental insecurities and fear. (Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 116-17)
However (and this is where Buddhist teachings are difficult for Westerners), we must also function in a world with cars and telephones, and more importantly, other people. We need ego to navigate the daily elements of our lives.
Strangely enough, some Western psychologists -- Mark Epstein (Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and Thoughts Without a Thinker) seems to be the most well-known, and therefore, the target of my disdain -- have adopted the ideal of no-self, that self is illusory, as a primary goal in therapy. It's hard to imagine anything more dangerous and short-sighted for the majority of people seeking therapy. In order for a person to approach the experience of no-self, there absolutely must be a solid and well-formed ego in place or any existing pathologies from earlier developmental stages will manifest in possibly dangerous forms. The mantra for this process as a project of therapy is "regression in service of the ego." Epstein rejects this project, as well as Ken Wilber's formulation of developmental levels and the process of ego development (Spectrum of Consciousness was the first articulation of Wilber's model, which has been fleshed out in The Atman Project and Integral Psychology), despite the near-universal acceptance of this model in psychology circles. Everyone from Jung to Piaget, Kohlberg to Gilligan, Kegan to Aurobindo have shown without a doubt that human beings move through distinct developmental stages, that each stage transcends and includes the previous stage, and that no stage can be skipped without the occurrence of pathology.
In order for anyone to enter the three highest fulcrums of development, all of the previous six must have been mastered and integrated into the self-sense. If there were any developmental traumas along the way -- and there are always are -- they must be addressed and healed (this is the meaning of "regression in service of the ego"). We must often re-experience the emotional elements of the original trauma in order to release the blocked energies and integrate the experience into a healthy ego. Likewise, we may need to symbolically address the original trauma through the acquisition of new skills or behaviors that mirror the original trauma -- for example, learning to breathe through anxiety attacks and calm oneself can work to alleviate the fear of helplessness that originally gave rise to the anxiety. Finally, some traumas are profound enough that we develop split-off parts of ourselves, often referred to as subpersonalities, which act as protectors from the original trauma. Over time they can become autonomous complexes in the psyche, acting outside the control of the ego. If any of these issues are present, they must be healed or they will manifest as pathologies in each of the succeeding fulcrums, including those of the soul and the Witness.
When we embark on the spiritual path, no matter what religion we hold as truth, transcending ego becomes the path to experiencing God or Spirit or Nirvana -- whatever you want to call it. Yet, even when we succeed in transcending the ego and, for example, the center of gravity for the self-sense lies in fulcrum eight, that of the soul, all of the previous fulcrums remain as integrated elements of the self-sense and are available as behavioral options for problem solving. That is to say, even if we have transcended purely egoic consciousness, if we must deal with someone who is attacking us we possess the option of responding in kind -- we still possess a body-ego capable of defending itself in order to preserve its physical integrity. The difference would be that rather than addressing the violent person with an equal degree of violence, we might try to subdue him or her without causing harm (as is taught in Aikido).
Having taken up the spiritual path, having done a lot of inner work to heal past traumas, and having adopted mindfulness practice as a way to move beyond ego, how do we identify what is ego and what is not ego?
Most simply (for the purposes of meditation), ego is that which is connected to samsara -- the world of suffering. Ego clings to the things of the material world, to its sense of who and what it is, and most crucially, to the notion that it is separate and unique. Because manifest reality is ultimately an illusion and is transient, we experience suffering through our attachment to that which is not real. Yet the closer we come to undoing the ego's hold on our lives, the harder it will fight to keep its control. Breaking free from ego is the toughest work we will ever take on as part of our spiritual lives. For this reason, many teachers highly recommend that anyone undertaking this work have an experienced "guru" to help him or her through the process. Wilber suggests that teachers must be tough -- a Rude Boy or Rude Girl who will not be nice in the face of ego's resistance and who will be ruthless in his/her compassion for our freedom.
In the next installment, I will address the ways we can identify the workings of the ego in our lives and how to work with the ego through mindfulness, especially as exemplified in the Shambhala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.