Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Self Deception and Ego

As a follow up to my previous post, "Prejudice and Self Deception," I would like to develop some thoughts about the ego, and the part it plays in deceiving us into believing that its illusions are truths. But first I need to describe, and try again to clarify, what I mean by ego. It may help if I use a variety of analogies. Of course analogies have their limits, but if I can get across the feeling of what I am trying to say, perhaps some progress can be made towards mutual understanding.

The anatomy of the ego can be said to consist of our thinking function, our feeling function and our senses. Dr. Paul Brunton has written extensively on the ego and, if memory serves, follows this structure. It is also strongly implied by the lower Sephiroth of the Tree of Life, the central glyph of the psychological/spiritual structure of mankind used in studies of the mystical Qabalah. If the anatomical structure of the ego is important, then even more so is the physiological workings of the ego. Once again, Dr. Paul Brunton has written at great length on this subject in his diaries.

If it can be said that the ego is the engine that drives us forward in our endeavours, and this surely cannot be doubted, that engine can also be put into reverse. Furthermore, all engines need to work within safe parameter values, they need to be governed and controlled. They must always play a secondary role to the driver. Consider another, analogous, source of power, the nuclear power station. Let the controls be obstructed or removed, and total meltdown is the result. Anyone who has suffered the advanced effects of addiction, or who has lived with those problems, knows about the resulting effects, about the undeniable, spiritual devastation or meltdown that follows from rampant egoism. I pick that particular problem because I know something about that subject, but there are many more problems that result in insane behaviour caused by giving the ego licence to behave as it will.

I always need to remember and recognise that although great good can be achieved by harnessing the power of the ego, that energy needs to be harnessed and reined. Without those controls, what can happen? It would appear that the ego searches, neverendingly, for something to latch onto. When that happens, that on which it latches loses any autonomy and becomes identified with the ego. How many times have we heard someone say,

"I am angry!" or "I am happy!" or "I am" anything that comes to hand.

The truth is that no-one is either one or some combination of their personality characteristics. It is legitimate to say that I feel anger, or that I feel a sense of happiness. That is not the same as total identification with anger or happiness. It is this physiological structure of the ego that leads us into accepting illusions as if they were truths. These may seem trivial examples of the identifying or owning power of the ego, known in the East as Ahamkara. So let me present some other examples.

We know that people have a tendency to become identified with their thoughts, their achievements, their work, their particular roles in life - family, professional, political, and many more - and material possessions. Where does 'road rage' come from, but from an identification of the Self with a car, as if the Self is the car? Let's up the anti! Where has the persecution of minorities large and small come from, but from an identification, an owning of a philosophy - good or bad - by the ego. Ahamkara! In each case the engine of the ego is twinned with pride/arrogance and other unsavoury characteristics of our personality. And what lies behind the Eastern (and not necessarily Eastern) problem of 'losing face'? Do I need answer my question? 

The point is that we are not our thoughts; we are not our feelings; we are not our bodies and senses. We are something else!

Let me approach the problem of self deception from another angle, a more God-oriented but not necessarily religious point of view. And this is particularly relevant to those who follow, or who wish to follow, a contemplative lifestyle. Let me quote some words by Ruth Burrows OCD:-

"We are born to die, yet have a tenacious attachment to our natural being, a need for the created world and a will towards happiness, security, fulfilment as we conceive these things. Instinctively we want to live life on our own terms, in our world, not God's. (my italics). Even when we think we want God [or union with the divine Ground of our Being-ness], it is as often as not with our own conditions, our own expectations [the conditions and expectations of the ego].  [my brackets]."

"Mystical contemplation is not the reserve of a small elite; ............it is for all. Sadly we block [that process] God. We do not want God [the process of mystical contemplation]; we want ourselves [our egos] and a God who fits our own requirements. Moreover we are not prepared to do what we can to clear the way for him."

I have, as I indicated it was my intention, tried to get across the feeling, or is it passion, of what I am trying to say. I have tried to speak from the depths of my own terrifying experiences of my ego. There will be many, some may even read these words, who have not indulged in the foolishness of my mistakes. But my mistakes are mine to live with, and from them I have learned much. Every day of my life I am aware of the need of my ego to attach itself to, and own, whatever lies within its reach. In the end truth will not be found in anything I write, but in the experience, painful or otherwise, that life chooses to teach me.


  1. the realisation that i am not my feelings is indeed a powerful one.

  2. Agnieszka; It is indeed! And it frees us up so that we can exercise more control over our inner selves. Glad you found this helpful.

  3. Thanks for this continuation Tom. I'm glad if my question was instrumental in motivating you to elaborate. There's nothing at all I can argue with or question about the whole of this post.
    It would take a much longer and face-to-face conversation to clarify the point I was trying to make in my last comment in which I was taking a specific view of 'ego' as applied to my personal experience as an artist. I'm familiar with the descriptions of ego in the excellent sources you mention and am in tune with them. I would probably need to draw an illustration (in Augustine's "God Interviews" mode) to express adequately what I mean. Sometimes, for me, words get in the way! Thanks again for diving deep into this mystery-filled ocean.

  4. Natalie; It would seem that we have inched forward, at least. I really do think that this may be one of those subjects that requires face-to-face conversation. Well, that can be arranged, I hope, next springtime.

  5. The ego-self is endlessly creative in its ways of isolating itself. It is also highly skilled at co-opting anything, in particular spiritual principles. Our natural tendency is to think 'I am a person with spiritual insight and understanding'. The ego frames 'understanding' as an object to be owned, as yet another toy to buttress or exalt itself with.

    You're right that if we're truly interested in awakening, we need to go beyond distractions and their power over us, and we need to remember what really matters. We need to confront ourselves on our almost endless capacity for creating spiritual distractions by exalting experiences (everything from the subtle visions of meditation to the wildest visions of an ayahuasca or LSD journey) while enjoying the isolation of the ego-self that these experiences allow for, and ultimately reinforce.

    It's a tough road to navigate, yet it's good to share the journey with someone as thoughtful and caring as you.

    One other point I think to mention from recent experience is just how hard it is to give up the thought 'I am in pain'. I've read about teachers who can put that aside too, but I'm nowhere near that level of spiritual maturity.

  6. Susan; Thank you for your comment, and I agree with everything you say. On your final point on pain, it must be okay to say that I am experiencing pain. It might be pushing one's luck somewhat if one continually insisted that one was a pain in the..... whatever. But, yes, it's nice to share the journey with fellow travellers.

  7. I love being here with all of you so much, for just as one thing written sparks a memory or feeling that connects (so many AHA! moments), another springs forward to take its place.
    Let me suggest that even "The Journey Shared" is in fact an ego connection, giving insight into its most basic nature, yet how can any of us do better than to acknowledge this is how comradery feels?

  8. Halle; You are of course quite correct in seeing "The Journey Shared" as an ego connection. I have to say that until your comment, I hadn't seen that. I have never doubted that the ego had good reasons for being, one of which must be for us to be released from total isolation, and to be able to communicate. In that regard, all creatures have access to this facility. But is also highlights how difficult it can be to detach spiritually from our egos, and allow room for our Higher Selves to move closer to some form of, if not manifestation, then conscious contact. But the game is worth the playing is it not?

  9. It would seem at this point our Higher natures are out of touch. Yet one can hope that at some other level we have no conscious access to, you and I are working together. Perhaps in another dimension we are having a good chuckle at our little egos trying to figure ourselves out.

    So, as the "only game in town" ours is indeed well worth playing Tom. ;-)

  10. Halle; I love the image you create in this comment of us having a good chuckle on some other dimension. Where would we be without a sense of humour?