By Kandace Hawley
A Jungian perspective on why we need to rethink and honor ego.
Throughout my years of doing yoga, reading Eckhart Tolle, and participating in all sorts of spiritual traditions, I have often heard that the ego is the ultimate villain of my mind, that it’s responsible for every single negative thought or feeling that I have.
I have been told that the ego’s only concern is self-preservation and survival. It’s responsible for maintaining the “I” as the center of my existence. It sits tall and pretty in its delusions, and its agenda is to make me feel small and untrusting—all in an effort to keep me safe and preserve my existence. Therefore, the spiritual goal (as I was told) is to minimize or do away with ego all together.
Now, while I think the ego deserves some of its vilification, I know it doesn’t deserve all of it. Yes, it is true that the ego is concerned with survival and self-preservation and, with that, it’s often overzealous in its efforts to keep us safe. But to blame it as a source of all internal negativity maybe taking it too far. After years of doing Jungian analysis, I have discovered that the roots of many of my negative thoughts, patterns, and feelings is not the malicious ego; rather, the tendrils stem from personal experiences, trauma, and inner archetypal realities. For example, during times when I feel triggered or angry at a particular person, it’s not because my ego is just doing its villain thing; it’s indicative of an emotional sore spot that’s crying out from my depths for attention.
According to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, the ego is the center of consciousness. It straddles between the conscious and unconsciousness, and it dictates what goes where. Think about it this way. The ego is a necessary container so that you can be a you. Without the walls and boundaries of the ego, you’d feel like everything and nothing at the same time. And yes, while this does create separation, where I feel separate from you, it’s also necessary to the human existence. Imagine being consciously aware of every single part of you, all the way down to each individual cell. It’s a maddening thought, isn’t it?
However, one of the reasons why the ego has such a bad reputation is that in its role as the executive, the ego can get too powerful, thinking that it’s the be-all of consciousness, that it’s the one running the show. Yet, we all know this is not true. It’s actually a tiny rider on a much larger and much more powerful elephant. The elephant in this case being our unconscious.*
Jungian psychology says that neurosis is a symptom of a misalignment between our ego and the unconscious. In other words, the rider and the elephant are not getting along, and specifically, the rider is either ignorant of the elephant beneath it, or it is trying to steer the elephant in ways it doesn’t want to go. This sort of ego dominance never bodes well for the individual and part of the spiritual quest for Jungians is to align the ego with the unconscious, or in other words, to align the rider with the elephant so that they work together. And to do that, we have to bring unconscious material to consciousness—and that process involves the healing light of the ego awareness.
The ultimate goal here is not to “reduce” ego. Rather, it is to shift us away from ego dominance and strengthen the ego so that it can contain the forces of the unconscious. In the beginning, as riders, we first realize that we are supported by a much larger force, and it can be painful. But over time, we learn how to understand, listen, and respect that force. We realize that there is no controlling the elephant, only working with it so that over time we can help contain, steer, and harness its sheer power and force for a greater purpose. This process requires both surrender and strength from us. In other words, it requires that the ego abdicates its tyrannical throne to serve something greater than itself.
However, as mentioned, this process does not happen without pain. Those who have gone through a spiritual awakening know the shattering pain the ego experiences when it realizes that it’s not the totality of consciousness—that it’s just a rider on an elephant. All of this can be very disorienting and devastating. It can feel something like this: Imagine you’re dancing on stage and the world is your audience. Then all of a sudden, you look up and you see that your limbs are suspended by strings and it’s not you that’s controlling your movements; rather, it’s a puppet master. Then you realize that you were never a dancer. You were always a puppet. This is often when people lose connection with who they thought they were and what they thought their lives were about. This bruising of the ego is part of the pain many experience when they awaken spiritually.
On the upside, this is all part of the ego’s role in healing. The process brings things out of the darkness into the light of consciousness so that we can become whole. Yet, there is no “coming to consciousness” without ego, for it contains all that we know and all that we are aware of. Therefore, we do not reduce the ego as the end goal. We actually strengthen it so that it can contain more of the self, or more of our soul.
So what do you think? Does the ego deserve its villain status? Or have we used it as our spiritual scapegoat?
*Author’s note: The analogy of the rider and the elephant was inspired by Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Righteous Mind where he unpacks and explains the relationship between two systems of human cognition/psychology.
Kandace Sheri Hawley is an educator and writer who believes that every individual holds the key to their own truth. Her overall aim is to enable people on their own path to self-realization and discovery. She runs a podcast called “En Soma,” where she combines her academic background in education with her studies in Jungian Theory from GAP, along with her years of experience in analysis to share perspectives on spirituality, philosophy, society, and existence in general. You can find her at http://www.ensomapodcast.com.