Dear Donagh…, I notice you often talk about ego and always negative.  Is it such a bad thing?  If it is such a bad thing why didn’t we hear more about it in the past? I'd prefer it any day to the collective mentality, to everyone letting on to be different while really being the same, going to the same places for holidays and wearing the same clothes and watching the same tv programmes.  There are very few individuals around…. What the world needs is more ego, not less….  I'd like to hear what you have to say about it when someone like me casts doubt on it.  J.K

Thanks, J.K, that’s a good question.  Is ego such a bad thing?  To begin at the beginning: it’s the Latin (and Greek) pronoun for ‘I’.  There’s nothing wrong with any pronoun in itself.  The ambiguity lies in its reference.  When I say ‘I’, am I referring to my real identity or just to my self-image?  Jesus often referred to himself (“I am the bread of life… I am the good shepherd… I am the way, the truth and the life….”), but it’s impossible to imagine him presenting a ‘face’ to the public.  The trouble is that our own masks cling so close to us that we are normally unaware of them as masks, and so we take them for reality.  “This is who I really am,” we say, but it is usually just a narrow selection of self-images and memories that I have allowed to define me.  My ego is not the identity God creates in me, but the one I create for myself (in collusion with other people). This contraction of my true identity can't be a good thing.  

I remember a children’s game where you had to have rapid dialogue with someone while avoiding the words ‘yes’, ‘I’ and ‘no’.  But trying to be free of ego is much more difficult than avoiding the word ‘I’.  Mind you, it might not be a bad place to start!  A Taiwanese confrère came to our community to learn English.  He was a beginner, so it was a long and difficult haul.  After a time I asked him what his impression of English was.  With great diffidence and politeness he eventually said, “English is all ‘I’.  Every sentence, ‘I’.  And it is written with a capital letter – like God!”  After that, I began to pay attention to the way he said things, not judging it now as just faulty grammar.   One day at the beginning of Summer he said, “Today, for the first time, short sleeves!”  And did you notice? – no ‘I’.  In very many situations the ‘I’ isn’t necessary; it is something added. 

The ego is a subtle enemy, partly because it is not an enemy on every occasion, and partly because our very struggle against it only strengthens it.   Yes we do need egos; we need them as we need names: for handy reference and for general convenience.  But when we were born we had neither names nor egos.  The real self is part of the whole world, but the ego is an attempt to create a separate self.  Construction begins early: when a child enters the No phase.  Through saying No, the ego gains strength.  As we grow up we learn that we have to modify this, or conceal its uglier aspects, but the basic structure remains intact.  It is very difficult to dismantle.  Try this image.  Think of how a jackdaw builds its nest in a chimney.  It keeps dropping in sticks till one of them lodges itself by chance across the empty space.  The next stick lodges more easily, and soon every stick lodges there as they build up to a secure platform.  Any downward pressure will make it even more secure.  It seems quite solid, but it is sitting on emptiness – an emptiness that the jackdaw no longer notices.  We are sitting on emptiness, an emptiness that we rarely glimpse or want to glimpse.  We maintain our nest, our ego, because we have invested everything in it.  We keep adding to it all our life.  If we hear great things about ‘enlightenment’ we may want to add that too.  Such effort only wedges the ego more tightly, making it more and more secure. 

You asked why we didn’t hear more about the ego in the past.  We heard a great deal about it, but not under the name ‘ego’.  There were images and stories from the gospels, for example about the seed falling into the ground and dying, because otherwise it would remain alone.  So real were these sayings that Jesus himself was a perfect example of them.  In the history of Christian spirituality there has been an extensive vocabulary of words like ‘self-denial’, self-abnegation’, ‘detachment’, even ‘emptiness’, and ‘nothing’.  Many of them would send a chill up your spine.  But it doesn’t matter greatly which terms we use, so long as we keep our eyes open and our minds clear. 

You contrasted ego with “the collective mentality, with everyone letting on to be different while really being the same.” You put it very well.  I remember an ad for car accessories: “Does your car look like a thousand others?” it asked.  Of course it does!  Quality control sees to that!  So you know they are talking to you.  Then they roll out their offer: “Get some of our accessories!” – which of course they produce by the thousand!  So really your car will still look like a thousand others!  And they’d make it a million if they could.  These little bursts of ‘creativity’ are all mass-produced, just like the cars.  The ego too is always pretending to be different while being profoundly the same.  It is not in contrast with the collective mentality; it feeds the collective mentality.  Since it is based on nothing real it models itself by imitating others.  It doesn’t represent individuality at all.  A real individual would live from his or her true nature and wouldn’t worry about being different – nor about being the same!  

Let’s keep the search going, J.  Best of luck.

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