We hear the word “ego” a lot these days. But what the heck is the ego and why does it matter? I think the ego is a very misunderstood concept. We’ve popularized the term by saying things like, “he has a big ego” or “it’s just my ego” but we don’t really understand it. Add that to the fact that the “ego” is viewed differently by eastern philosophy and western psychology and now we’re really confused. Let me help unpack it just a little bit and tell you why to care, especially if you’re a leader.
Western psychologists view the ego as the sense of self that we develop over time since childhood, it’s the sense of “I am”, a solid sense of who we are. The word ego is from the Latin root meaning “the self which acts, feels or thinks”. In everyday life we are aware of a self that is geared toward worldly functioning and we have a consistent sense of I-ness.
In Eastern philosophy, namely Buddhism, ego is viewed not as a thing but as a process. This is important because rather than viewing the ego self as a solid thing, in an eastern view you can never find the thing it doesn’t exist because it is actually a process that it always happening. If we look closely, we find that the familiar I consists mostly of thoughts and images. Our experience of self is rarely fresh or immediate but instead filtered through concepts or images of who we are.
From this perspective, the ego is problematic because it actually cuts us off from our essential nature. When we are caught up in the command center of the ego-the thoughts, habits and identifications which we hold to be so true-the part of ourselves which is vast, expansive, and more essential is less accessible. The practice of meditation trains us to become more aware of a sense of self which is much deeper and resourceful than the thought patterns we usually identify with.
Yet the danger here is to throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak (such an unfortunate saying). One of the most useful teachings I’ve ever heard was from John Welwood, the great American psychologist, who said that in order to overcome the ego as being the central headquarters of our lives, we actually need to appreciate it and have a strong sense of self. In other words, we need to have a strong sense of self before we can see that its not who we are. The trap of many spiritual approaches is that we think we can dive right in to selflessness and egolessness without actually having the ground of ego.
I tried this myself. The groundlessness of the Buddhist emptiness teachings made perfect sense to me as someone who came from an unpredictable and destabilizing childhood. Not having a sense of self was actually very familiar to me since I had always identified myself with whoever was around me as a strategy to be loved.
I had to learn to develop a strong sense of self and “grow up” in a way that gave me a sense of ground, then I could more effectively work on letting go. Rather than thinking about ego as a concept of east of west-we could relate it to our everyday experience of being aware of how our thoughts and patterns are not who we are and yet we need to pay attention to how we function in the world as an ever-evolving self.