A common spiritual trope is that we should get rid of ego. The word can even make us cringe or feel guilty. We try to suppress parts of ourselves, but to operate in the world we need a personal sense of self. When kept in its place, a healthy ego is extremely useful. It helps us get things done and express the unique gifts of who we are.
Ego can feel separate, unloved, and threatened, afraid of intimacy and afraid to let love in. On the useful side, its basic job is to defend us. We can allow it to relax its guard, feel less separate, and support our higher selves. But to insist on “no ego” is just an egoistic mentality struggling with itself. We can approach all ego actions with openness instead of judgment and channel them to serve the heart through authentic engagement and love. Whether you are coming from ego or from your heart is the central question regarding lasting fulfillment in life.
Khan defines ego as “the imaginary identity of an overstimulated nervous system.” He characterizes an overstimulated nervous system as having a closed heart, a noisy mind, low self-esteem, with an ego that runs things like an overcontrolling commander-in-chief.
We can learn to engage and integrate the ego as a competent lieutenant, who helps us get our needs met, while taking direction from the higher self. Gradually, we can unravel and heal our battered nervous systems. The keys are radical acceptance, compassion (including self-compassion), honesty and emotional receptivity. Just like its fears, the ego cannot be defeated, cured, or overcome. It evolves through our commitment to love ourselves and each other. When we let ourselves feel grief, rage, terror and other emotions, we can free the ego to better serve our soulful hearts.
The ego is only capable of conditional love and tends to be transactional, and that’s OK under many circumstances. When the immature ego, weak and conflicted, is in control, however, it blocks fulfillment. According to spiritual mystic Matt Kahn, the ego can be thought of as the “soul in incubation.” We process ego stages of development in trying to attain security, pleasure and power. It’s only when we get stuck on one of these three lower levels of consciousness that the ego’s control bites us. (Eckhart Tolle refers to this as the “pain body.”) The soul, or higher self, is a wave on the cosmic sea, connected to all. Unconditional love comes via the soul, via a heart-centered higher consciousness.
Whether we know why or how, everything is here to help us in making the transition from ego-centered to heart-centered. “While the ego judges each feeling solely on how painful or pleasant it is, the soul views each emotion while it lasts as an opportunity to love itself,” writes Kahn. Instead of fighting our ego, let’s learn to embrace it, listen to it and from that, grow and learn. In truth, through all the changes we can’t control, through all the pain and suffering of its dissatisfactions, the ego is evolving to serve the heart. Although it hurts sometimes, love is our only fulfillment and more than worth the price.
Matt Kahn is a spiritual teacher, healer and author. I had the good fortune to interview Matt Kahn on my Pathways Podcast and to attend his three-day retreat in Portland Oregon.