According to Freud, the ego is a component of the personality structure that takes charge in order to mitigate instinctive impulses generated by the id and ensure socially acceptable behavior. Of course, socially acceptable behavior doesn’t necessarily equate with loving behavior.
Our society often condones and even encourages competition, looking out for number one, endless consumption over the sensible sharing of goods, as well as a complete disregard for environmental concerns and the welfare of others. It freely operates on the basis of greed and corruption, which is probably why Jesus said he was in the world but not of it.
We want to keep in mind that a healthy ego does do a great job of helping us fit in and find acceptance within our peer groups, yet it doesn’t necessarily take us to a deeper level of communion with God and others. I’d like to suggest there’s another aspect of our being not identified by Freud which does take us to a deeper level.
In fact, just as ego keeps the id in check, this aspect of our being – our divine nature in Christ -keeps the ego in check.
In other words, once we’re more or less done with the work of finding our place in society, the next step is to find our place in the body of Christ who represents greater wisdom and love.
The real work of Christian spiritual life, therefore, is to circumvent the will of the ego with the greater will of the Divine.
The problem is the ego prefers to be in charge of everything. It doesn’t necessarily want to allow Christ (love) to take the lead. If it did, it would be absolved of its primary function. That’s why the hardest lesson to learn is always not my will, but thy will.
Even Jesus, working with his own anguish and natural desire to live, had to pray this prayer three times in the Garden of Gethsemane. Not my will, but thy will. He too had to circumvent the will of the ego with the will of the Divine.
So, what does circumventing the will of the ego look like in practice?
Circumventing the Ego in Practice
Through silent prayer and meditation, we begin to see our agendas, our impulses to get up and start doing, the way we’re always in such a rush to get to the next thing – not to mention all of the repetitive thoughts flying around in our head as we attempt to orchestrate the best solutions to our many perceived problems.
With practice, we see the way we play out conversations and strategies in our mind, trying to prove that we’re right, smart, beautiful, and good. We see the endless self-improvement campaigns we run. How we relentlessly plan the next thing we’ll do to gain acceptance.
This is all the ego in action with every last desperate attempt to resolve the same old problems with some clever solution. Frankly, the whole thing is exhausting, which is generally what breaks us.
In prayer and meditation, we learn to recognize at all for what it is. Then, we simply let it go, which is hard on the ego because it always wants to come up with some grand solution, even to the problem of itself!
This is what one of my teachers, Tenzin Wangyal, calls the smart ego. It’s like ego saying to itself, “Oh, yes, I see now what the problem is. It’s me! All of my grand schemes and attempts to control everything, always trying to make everything better. Okay, got it. I’m the problem. Now…let me see what I can do about that.”
And so, the ego carries on.
What ego is really saying here is whatever you do, don’t stop trying to fix things. Don’t admit defeat. Why? Because ego is happiest when it’s trying to make things work. And that’s the thing with the ego. There’s always more work to do.
There’s never the possibility of simply allowing the work to be done through you.
In silent prayer and meditation, we see all of this without judgment or reprimand. Then we let it all go. Over and over and over again, we let it all go and keep coming back to our quiet center in stillness and silence with an open heart.
Doesn’t sound like we’re really doing much, though, does it? And that’s the point. Instead of doing, we’re allowing it all to be undone.
Circumventing the Ego in Everyday Life
In day-to-day life, it looks a little different. In daily life, as we go about our tasks, we want to catch the ego in the act of exerting control. We catch it, and then we pause for just a moment to say, “What would you have me do, Lord?” or “You take care of this one, Lord,” or “Not my will but thy will.”
It’s incredible how invigorating this can be. To actually see the usual workings of the ego, spinning out its solutions, trying to solve it all, and then simply give it a rest. To just say, “Nah, I’m going to sit this one out. You guide me, Lord.”
What we discover is quite profound. Inspiration always comes when the ego gets out of the way.
That’s why we say…
You guide my actions, Lord. You guide my words. You tell me what I should do right now, and until you give me a clear directive, I’m just going to stay out of it.
And we say it over and over and over again as we retrain the impulses of our ego.
What an incredible gift!
To realize you don’t have to solve everything. You don’t have to be in charge all the time. Because you know there are greater forces at work, greater than you can even imagine. So, let go, relax, listen, and follow the lead of your heart. Follow the still small voice of God within, knowing that it speaks exactly what’s needed, exactly when it’s needed.
Thy will be done.
Wonderful analysis of a crucial component of this contemplative business!
Haha…yep, this crazy contemplative business which hopefully eventually makes us all a little less crazy. Thanks, Roger.
Thank you so much for this! It’s divinely timed for me. My ego has decided I shall read portions of it daily for the next few weeks in prayerful requiem.
Thanks so much for sharing this with me, Dean. I typically write about what I am currently learning and practicing. It helps me put it all together and make sense of it. My heart feels happy when another person benefits from this process. I pray many blessings for your readings over the next few weeks. May we grow together in divine love.