It is fashionable within what is commonly referred to as the New Age Movement to regard the ego as an enemy. It is thought to be the root cause of all suffering and, as such, the chief roadblock to spiritual enlightenment, making it imperative it be, if not destroyed, at least transcended, lest the spiritual sojourner be tripped up by its many guises.
In some traditions, it is even thought that one can’t reach total enlightenment at all until they destroy the ego—a process which can take countless incarnations to achieve.
But is the ego getting a “bad rap” or is it merely misunderstood? Further, what role does it play in spiritual development, if any, or is it entirely detrimental to it?
Before we can determine whether the ego is friend or foe, we must first define exactly what, precisely, the ego is. The term “ego”—from the Latin for “I”—means different things to different people. For most people not familiar with psychoanalytical definitions, it’s fair to state that “ego” is generally considered a pejorative term somewhat synonymous with arrogance or conceit.
To say that someone has a “big ego” then, is to suggest that a person possesses an air of superiority that he or she lauds over others. No wonder, then, that the ego is commonly perceived to be a foe to be vanquished, especially in New Age circles.
However, this is a misunderstanding. According to Webster’s dictionary, the ego is defined as: “the self, especially as contrasted with another self or the world.”
In other words, the ego is that part of our psyche that gives us our sense of individuality or uniqueness, creating our unique sense of identity along with an inherent sense of separation from others around us. In this, then, developing an ego is considered a natural and inevitable part of coming into the flesh. To many in the New Age movement, however, this has been nothing but a disaster. It is the emergence of the ego that is considered by many to be the point at which humanity first lost its sense of being part of the divine consciousness of the universe, ushering in all the ills that are inherent with losing that link.
In other words, when we came into the flesh we lost “ourselves”—or, more precisely, our sense of oneness with nature and each other—and suffer emotional and spiritual pain as a result. As such, the ego is generally perceived to be something we need to rid ourselves of if we are ever to return to our “true” nature and find joy and happiness.
Is the Ego Good or Bad?
Of course, the ego has often been the source of much suffering on this planet (and continues to be so). The question, then, is not so much why we have an ego, but what do we do with it? Is it something to be endured, admired, or repressed?
While there are several ways to answer this question, the response I believe to be the most credible is that we have an ego because it is God’s only means of experiencing itself. To put it another way, our ego is the means by which God can experience things practically rather than only conceptually.
In other words, how can it know what “hot” is unless it has something other than hot—in this case, that which we would call “cold”—to compare itself to, and how does it do that from within the realm of pure spirit where there is no such thing as temperature? Obviously, to experience “hot” and “cold” in a practical manner it needs to enter into the realm of physically—in effect, limiting itself by placing itself within the context of space and time where such things as temperature exists.
Further, the ego permits God to experience things like “rich” versus “poor,” “tall” versus “short,” “love” versus “hate,” or “fear” versus “courage” on a daily or even minute-by-minute basis. It’s all a part of how God (or Source, Spirit, Universal Consciousness, etc.—whichever you prefer) experiences itself by entering the world of duality, without which it would be impossible for it to do so.
It’s the old “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” analogy: God can’t experience itself without coming in physicality, and he can’t do that without creating an ego, and he can’t restrict what that ego does and still have the freedom to experience the full range of human experience, and so we often suffer from the effects of that ego, both collectively and individually. It’s a package deal, so to speak.