If there ever was a word that carried enough emotional baggage to sink a boat, “ego” would be it. We all have one, but it is far easier to both see and criticize in others than it is to identify and get to know better in ourselves. Recently I’ve been wondering: What is ego? And given that we all have one, what purpose does it serve in our lives?
Once I started asking questions, I realized that I wasn’t really sure what ego was. It did, however, seem to me that it must have a purpose beyond driving a wedge into our most intimate relationships. I decided to spend some time getting curious about my ego and doing some research. I turned to the Baha’i Writings, my favourite poets, philosophers, psychiatrists and my friends. As I dug and sifted through the literature and had conversations about the ego with friends, some salient themes started to emerge. The more dialogue I have, and the more research I do, the more conscious I become that my understanding of the ego and its’ purpose is changing and evolving on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis. As Baha’u’llah says in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, the speed at which we move through the various stages of understanding is only limited by the degree to which we allow ourselves to be distracted by the transitory things of this world: “[T]he severed wayfarer…may cross these…stages in seven steps, nay rather in seven breaths, nay rather in a single breath, if God will and desire it.”1 Be that as it may, I’m fairly certain that I will be grappling with my ego for a long time to come. Fortunately spiritual growth continues through all the worlds of God.
But back to the ego. It seems to me that the best way to define it is by describing the purpose that it serves in our lives. Initially I thought that simply not having an ego would be most ideal, but the more I read and reflect, the more I feel that the ego is actually essential if I want to grow spiritually because it challenges me to strive to better myself. It is this daily striving that facilitates growth. Shoghi Effendi says,
… the complete and entire elimination of the ego would imply perfection—which man can never completely attain—but the ego can and should be ever-increasingly subordinated to the enlightened soul of man. This is what spiritual progress implies.2
So in a sense, the ego is a force that, when harnessed, can push us beyond the limitations of our selves. It is not the ego itself that is the tool, but the effort we exert to overcome it. Shoghi Effendi continues,
Life is a constant struggle, not only against forces around us, but above all against our own ‘ego.’ We can never afford to rest on our oars, for if we do, we soon see ourselves carried downstream again.3
I have found it interesting that in discussing the ego with friends, the metaphor of an oarsman consistently rowing and directing the boat’s course to avoid the risk of being carried away by the current is one that many have shared with me. Modern western culture prizes individualism and competition—often to the detriment of spiritual growth. As Adib Taherzadeh says in The Revelation of Baha’u’llah,
Human society at present exerts a pernicious influence upon the soul of man. Instead of allowing him to live a life of service and sacrifice, it is highly competitive and teaches him to pride himself on his accomplishments. From early childhood he is trained to develop his ego and to seek to exalt himself above others, in the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power.4
Directing so much energy into exalting ourselves above others inflates the ego and convinces us that it, rather than the soul, is our true self. When we encounter challenges in life—which could be an opportunity for growth if seen with the eye of detachment and perception—our ego feels threatened and can trigger a reaction that undermines the potential for improvement. Abdu’l-Baha counsels us: “If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life,”5 and “…seeking the approval of men is many times the cause of imperilling the approval of God.”6 In The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Adib Taherzadeh shares his interpretation of the challenge that Baha’u’llah’s Revelation has issued to every individual:
…to kindle a fire within his soul and burn away every trace of self so that the concept and the very word ‘I’ may totally disappear from his being. Indeed this is one of the most profound teachings of Baha’u’llah. When a person tries to exalt himself, to celebrate his own name and aspires to become famous he is, in fact, going right against the plan of creation. Such an individual hinders the flow of the bounties of God to himself. Although outwardly he may be considered a great success, in reality he has failed to fulfill the purpose for which he was created. When a man attains to real greatness, he then recognizes his helplessness, unworthiness and impotence. And when he becomes truly learned he genuinely discovers that he is ignorant. It is then that he can manifest the attributes of God within himself and impart them to others.7
Moving beyond the ego sounds inspiring in theory, but I was left wondering what this would look like in practice. Once we acknowledge that we have an ego and define what it is and what purpose it plays in our lives, how do we go about utilizing it in positive ways? I came across a few suggestions. One was the idea of learning how to engage our ego in an ongoing dialogue of sorts, channelling a power that could undermine our wellbeing into a transformative force for individual and collective growth. In a talk that He gave in Paris, Abdu’l-Baha describes this process of conversing:
A man may converse with the ego within him saying: ‘May I do this? Would it be advisable for me to do this work?’ Such as this is conversation with the higher self.8
The more in-tune with our egos we become, the more gracefully we will be able to utilize them to advance our spiritual development. I am under no illusion that this is easy. It seems to run contrary to every human instinct. In searching for a written description of this process, I came across a talk by Shoghi Effendi about his appointment as Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, in which he says:
I didn’t want to be the Guardian of the Cause. [In the] first place, I didn’t think that I was worthy. Next place, I didn’t want to face these responsibilities. . . . I didn’t want to be the Guardian. I knew what it meant. I knew that my life as a human being was over. I didn’t want it and I didn’t want to face it. So . . . I left the Holy Land, and I went up into the mountains of Switzerland, and I fought with myself until I conquered myself. Then I came back and I turned myself over to God and I was the Guardian.9
Coming face to face with our ego (consciously or unconsciously) in order to give our higher nature the space in which to thrive is an experience that we all have to some degree or another, but I imagine that how this process unfolds will vary greatly from person to person. My ego and I are still in the early days of getting to know each other, so for me it means becoming very attentive to the interactions and situations in which my ego is triggered, learning how to listen to its objections and fears with compassion, and then consciously choosing how I want to respond, based on a deeper sense of awareness. Some days this is more easily done than others. My hope is that with daily practice I will become more skilled at distinguishing when my ego is directing my course, and when my soul is holding the oars. And when my ego is undermining my spiritual growth, I pray that I will be able to listen to its’ concerns with kindness, and then graciously but firmly invite it to step out of the way. What about you? What purpose do you think your ego serves in your life, and how have you grappled with, and overcome it?
- Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, page 40-41 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, Living the Life, p. 11 [↩]
- Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 114 [↩]
- Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Vol 2 p.40 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 138 [↩]
- Star of the West, June 24, 1915 [↩]
- The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 44 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 179 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi quoted in Youth Can Move the World, page 33 [↩]