Nonduality and the Multiplicity of Ego

"If my devils leave me, I'm afraid my angels will leave me as well."

--Rainer Maria Rilke

In spiritual circles these days there's a tendency to demonize ego, as if it's a malevolent force that looms over our lives and whose sole purpose is to thwart our attempts to wake up. But ego is neither malevolent nor singular; in each of us cohabit multiple egos that vie for attention and satisfaction. If we dismiss the feelings and voices inside us as merely ego, we reject whole parts of ourselves and diminish the fullness of who we are.

The term "ego," which is simply Latin for "I," was used by Freud and his followers to refer to the reality function in the psyche, the force that mediates between the needs and urges of the primitive id and the outside world. Without ego in this sense, we wouldn't be able to function in the world of relationships and work. 

But in the nondual wisdom traditions, ego generally refers to two distinct but related functions: our self-concept, or self-construct, the collection of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, memories, and stories that we take to be me; and the tendency to identify with and attach to this construct. If you ask most people "Who are you?" the answer they give is their self-concept; if you impugn or attack this self-concept, their reaction is self-clinging, the activity of ego. Self-clinging is the glue that holds the self-construct together and keeps it functioning in a conditioned way.

Again, neither aspect of ego is wrong, it's just misguided and obscures the truth of who we really are. When we demonize and dismiss ego, we drive it into the shadows, where it continues to operate subliminally and may take on even more power to control our lives. Our true nature, awakened awareness, has no problem with ego, just as it does not push away or reject any experience that arises. Just let ego--indeed, all things--be as it is, as you rest in your natural state of awakened awareness. In the process, you will become familiar with all the many impulses, thought processes, and stories that constitute what we call ego.

In fact, when you stop pushing away or suppressing ego in an attempt to be more spiritual--and/or out of fear of succumbing to it--you will quickly discover that "ego" is actually not singular at all. On the contrary, multiple egos rattle around inside each of us, expressing themselves in often conflicting and contradictory ways. We acknowledge this multiplicity when we say something like, "A part of me wants to do the right thing, but another part keeps undermining my attempts to stay on path." Or, "I knew she didn't intend to hurt me, but the child inside me felt rejected."

In Western psychology these mini-egos are called sub personalities, ego states, feeling-toned complexes, inner voices, or simply parts. Neo-Freudians say they're formed over time in childhood as we internalize our most important relationships with significant others, known, rather infelicitiously, as object relations. For example, if you were constantly made to feel stupid or ineffectual by one of your parents, you would develop a part that always feels inadequate, no matter how hard you try. Perhaps the best known of these parts, or object relations, is the inner child (or children), which is so often invoked and addressed in individual therapy.

Each of these parts has its own autonomy, its own unique thoughts and feelings based on its own idiosyncratic version of your life story. When we talk about ego, we need to keep this multiplicity in mind. Ego appears in many different forms and guises, with many different stories to tell. Part of us may feel afraid in a given situation, another part angry, and so forth. If we attempt to do battle with every one, we become like Hercules in Greek myth, trying to cut off the Hydra's head only to have two more appear in its place. Instead, we can welcome them as they arise, acknowledge them, perhaps even take a little time to listen to what they have to share, extend love and compassion to them from the truth of our being, and then let them pass through without identifying with them. I'll have more to say about ego(s) in a future blogpost.