the founder of psychoanalysis, grew up about a half hour walk from here in the nearby town of Pribor, Czech Republic. Freud is a controversial figure in our efforts to understand the mind, but he made invaluable contributions—particularly regarding the ego, which is at the heart of so much of our struggles in life.
The ego is one of the three foundational constructs in Freud’s structural model of the psyche. The word ego is also often used to mean the I, the self, or the soul. It is necessary to make a clear distinction here. Take the common saying, “he or she has a big ego.” This statement implies that a person has a view of themselves that is fundamentally untrue. This is an interesting idea to contemplate—how can a person see themselves and other people feel that this way of seeing is false? The implication is that the ego is mistaken. It is also common for people to have an ego that defines themselves in a negative way, so they see themselves as less than they are in reality. Negative “I am” statements fall into this category such as, I am ugly, I am stupid, I am a nobody, I am a loser, etc.
According to Freud, the ego attempts to mediate between the most primitive parts of our brain (the amygdala, which Freud called the id) and reality. This aligns with modern science— there is a constant barrage of external events, and the ego is responsible for summarizing, interpreting, and judging so that we can respond appropriately. The error Freud seems to have made is to think that our consciousness resides in the ego. For Freud, the I, the self, the soul came from the mind. Freud’s theory is hard to resolve— in his view, both the true “I” and the often mistaken “ego” exist in the mind.
We are now seeing scientific theories arise that offer a different possibility. These alternate theories seem to back the experiences and practices of yoga, buddhism, and zen. The idea here is that the ego exists within the mind, and the I, self, or soul exists beyond the mind. A common description now being used is that our minds and bodies are like a television set, and the I or self is a form of energy that cannot be created nor destroyed and that expresses itself like a TV signal through the body and mind.
To me, this theory, where the ego exists as a mind based sense of self that often makes mistaken assumptions, and the true self as something beyond the mind, makes a lot of sense. It also fits clearly with my personal experiences. If this theory is true, our process of maturing as human beings then becomes—can we transcend our egos and our mind based sense of self to become aware of our true self—a self which has been there all along. In other words, to fully mature is to realize our consciousness is becoming aware of itself.
A question then arises, if consciousness has always been there, why aren’t we conscious from the moment of birth, and why do we have an ego?
The answer appears to be that as form manifests, as we are born, develop, and grow, it takes time for the expression of consciousness to be understood. We simply are not mature enough or capable enough as infants and young adults to make sense of our deepest nature. As a species many of us have not developed enough to make this realization. One could live a whole life, even now, and not come to this understanding of self.
The self-preservation instinct is always with us. When there is real danger, the neural pathways bypass the thinking portions of the brain and we spring into action. In other cases, when there is only the possibility of danger, our egos have time to get involved. Assumptions and evaluations are made, which our minds then take to be the truth. particularly in youth, off-hand comments can become life-long false beliefs.
When I was a child, some children said I was goofy looking. My ego accepted this as truth. Over the next 15 years, any compliments on my looks, the ego told me don’t believe them, the truth is you are goofy looking. My ego said these compliments were from people who must be feeling bad for me. It took a long time to get beyond the ego and realize the truth – that judging looks is meaningless.
We all go through a significant period of life, starting in youth, where we identify with the ego. We think that this mind based sense of self is who we actually are. It is by becoming aware of our thoughts that we begin to break the cycle of identifying with the ego. As we begin to dismantle the ego by seeing the truth of situations, the ego tries to find ways to sow seeds of doubt, expressing that even deep truth can not be believed.
It is through practice and self inquiry that we begin to break the cycle of identifying with the ego. Once we make the leap to understanding ourselves—the I, the self, the soul as being beyond the mind, we begin to access our true power. Transcending your ego is an art, and we all need to become artists. We are all capable of making this realization, and the sooner we do, the sooner we make the world a better place.
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