The Game of Life

Why You Should Have an Ego

We're often told that having an ego is a bad thing—even that we should overcome or even delete our egos. But what if an ego turns out to be a really, really important thing to have?

Why You Should Have an Ego

Originally published on Ultraculture.

Since I got into spirituality, people have been laying this kill your ego trip on me.

The Ego is a concept created by Sigmund Freud to denote "the organized part of the personality structure that includes defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions." It was part of Freud's unique internal cosmology, and has no direct analogue in Vedanta or Buddhism, which have more complex terminology for the self.

The Buddha, of course, came to a realization that there is no actual individual self. The idea that you have a unique, core, true self is—according to the Buddha—actually a kind of cognitive illusion created by the interconnection of phenomena.

Now... both of these concepts got mashed up by 1960s psychonauts who started taking potent LSD, and entering states in which they momentarily perceived their selves as, well, cognitive illusions. Afterwards, they tried to explain their experience first in Freudian terms ("I realized the ego is a lie"), and then with a bit of Eastern mysticism ("The Buddha said the self isn't real and that's what I saw on LSD"). These then got mashed together as the general idea that you have an Ego, which is Bad, and that if you delete it, you become Good.

(Because psychoanalysis and Buddhism aside, Western people are Christians deep down, and what we're really looking for is a communion wafer and some penance and lashings to make us better people. Hence acid and killing our egos.)

These days, we now just have people running around saying You have a big ego and You need to turn your ego off and the like. This:

a) Is not actually based on any sound theology or psychology;

b) Has nothing to do with aiding others to gain insight into the illusory nature of the I-making faculty. It does, however, have everything to do with critiquing other people's outward personalities and therefore control.

You have a big ego is a covert game by which spiritual, New Age and occult seekers police each other's actions.

It actually means You're not doing what I think you should; Your actions do not jibe with my ego; or even Immediately cease thinking for yourself or questioning, and think and behave only as I or the group leader wish you to. It means You are not following my/the group's script.

Delete your ego is, of course, a primary game played in cults, and a primary way in which compliance among cult members is achieved and enforced. Corporate America studied this in detail, and has applied similar techniques to organizational psychology and human resources in order to control employee behavior.

So let me say this again:

You have a big ego means you are not on script. Delete your ego means get in line.

Now, is overcoming the false self a critical part of spirituality? Yes, it is.

But in terms of group dynamics:

Yes, I have an Ego. Yes, I have every right to have an Ego. My ancestors crawled out of the protoplasm, evaded sharks, flopped about in tidepools, climbed into the trees, learned to use tools, endured millenia of brutal warfare, disease, invasion, rape, degradation, abuse, misery, starvation and migration and somehow survived it all because they believed that they mattered and they would overcome whatever their environment threw at them no matter what, so that I could sit here today with the privilege of coming to self-awareness, let alone the hard-won freedom to express those thoughts to others on the Internet in a relatively danger-free existence. All of that freedom and luxury is won not by the lotus blossom but by the sword.

I have a right to have likes and dislikes, to be angry or negative when I want, to have lust, greed, pride, envy, sloth and the rest. These are part of what make me human. To amputate my basic humanity doesn't serve me at all: It only makes me compliant, docile, easy to manipulate by others.

And this is as a white, middle-class, American male—near the very top of the global race/class control pyramid. How do you think women and people of color feel when you say Stop having such an ego when they raise their voices, express outrage, anger—or anything at all?

In this context, You have a big ego starts to sound like You don't have a right to speak.

During a seminar on Ishmael Reed, my college literature professor Louis Chude-Sokei told me something I've never forgotten: That under slavery, the general scientific belief was that Black people did not actually possess souls, and that this narrative was constantly repeated and driven home as a control mechanism. This was one of the major reasons that soul music became so critically important. It was also a major reason why Black people were generally deeply underwhelmed with the 1960s idea that people should kill their ego.

(A point of study is what happened when members of the Black Panther Party were invited to acid group therapy and hot tubs at Esalen... and the white, upper-middle-class hippies discovered that acid wasn't actually a magic cure-all for millenia of oppression, racism and rage, and that no communication breakthrough across group lines actually happened.)

So this is a key point:

I have an ego. I have a right to my ego. I can turn off my ego if I like, or leave it on if I like, but what I do with my ego is fundamentally nobody's business but my own. Spirituality need not and should not hang an Open Season sign on your sense of individuality and self-worth.

Cherish your ego. Follow your own script. Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law.


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