The advice comes in different forms. It’s very pronounced in the Christian tradition. The New Testament letter to the ancient church in Philippi (chapter 2, verse 3) says it this way: “Think of others as better than yourself.” Throughout the letter to the ancient church in Rome, Paul writes repeatedly about dying to self to be alive in Christ.
In various Eastern religions and philosophical traditions, a similar concept is presented. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is clear that ego prevents success. I suspect that it’s from this work that the concept of “the war with the ego” developed. But more properly in Zen Buddhism, the ego is to be transcended. From this perspective, spiritual growth is understood as moving beyond the limitations of self as an individual consciousness to understand that consciousness is part of all sentient beings. This is similar to the Pagan concept of our being drops of water in the ocean.
Each of these traditions conveys in various ways that importance of not allowing our sense of self, our goals, and our desires to be the center of our lives. Instead, a healthy, balanced, and spiritually whole individual lives with the awareness of the interconnections that form the web of life. As individuals and as the whole of humanity, we are merely a part of that great web.
But there’s also a problem with the wisdom that calls us to transcend our egos, to think of others as better than ourselves, to count self as nothing more than a part of the whole. The problem is simply this: in order to transcend the ego, one needs to have a sense of one’s own ego.
Many people today have a broken ego, a shattered sense of self. Rates of addiction, domestic and societal violence, conditions like PTSD, and many other societal realities like entrenched poverty and malnutrition prevent people from developing a healthy sense of self. Appropriate ego development requires the ability to understand oneself as a unique individual, to be able to regulate challenging emotions like fear and anger and to live with a sense of internal security. Let’s be honest: many people can’t do this. Further, competition and consumerism impede people from having a sense of internal security because they push us to be and to have more than we already do.
When spiritual or religious teachers insist that people transcend ego when their sense of self is fractured or shattered, the result is spiritual abuse. Such abuse is prevalent in both organized religion and among a variety of practices invoked by spiritual teachers.
In terms of ego, how can one make sense of spiritual growth and development? Like any other aspect of our lives, spiritual growth and development is a process. It starts at the beginning and evolves forward over time much like learning to play a musical instrument, becoming a chef, or living a healthy lifestyle. Within my own Christian tradition, the beginning point is conveyed in the sacred story of the Hebrew book of Genesis. The sacred story conveys that all creation is good and that humanity is profoundly good. The very breath of the Creator animates us and we have been made in the Divine image. When the essence of that sacred story becomes part of who we are in a deep way, then we are able to affirm our own existence as individuals with dignity. That’s a healthy sense of ego. The sacred story continues to show how those with a healthy sense of ego transcended that limited sense of self for others and for the life of the world. This is a process which takes time. For most of us, it takes at least a lifetime.
Perhaps it’s from this perspective that the Tibetan Buddhists are insistent that the beginning of compassion is self-compassion rather than compassion for others. That’s really not different from the teaching of Jesus: to love others as you love yourself.
© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.