Monday, November 20, 2006

Whoops, Where'd Ego?

Reader Curious George, mischievous little primate that he is, asked an obvious -- which is to say good -- question yesterday about the ego: “I think it would benefit your readers to hear an explanation of why ego exists in the first place. (It seems absurd that it should exist for no particular reason.)

“What purpose does ego serve? How did it come about? Can it be transcended safely? It seems clear that ‘slipping the surly bonds of ego’ is a good thing in the creation of art. Is it so in all areas of life?”

To answer the last question first, I would respond with an urgent No! Please don’t! For the majority of people, the problem isn’t actually an excess but a deficit in ego. The ego is definitely here for a reason, even if it is ultimately a partial and contingent thing that is always in need of reform, or at least countervailing influences.

This latter point is something that Ken Wilber stresses (or at least used to -- his thinking constantly evolves, and I am not familiar with his current work). But he used to emphasize that a healthy ego was a prerequisite for any kind of spiritual practice, for if you ignore it, it will eventually come back to bite you, as we see in the accounts of so many “spiritual masters” or just rank-and-foul preachers who misbehave in all sorts of naughty ways. Wilber’s main point was that a robust and healthy ego is needed, because it is the “launching pad” for spiritual growth; which is to say, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.

There are many different angles from which we can examine this problem of the ego. For example, just last week I discussed the traditional idea that the first half of life should be spent focussing on worldly attainment (the ego, so to speak), while the second half of life marks an inward turn toward spiritual growth (the Self).

As a psychologist, one is generally dealing with problems of the ego, although there are clearly cases when the impasse is more existential (universal to egoic existence per se) or spiritual (i.e., time to move beyond the ego) or biological (a chemical imbalance that causes dysregulation of the ego and its functions). But again, the problem is not generally a need to “transcend” the ego. Rather, it is a deficit in egoic functioning: a dysregulation in identity, in mood, in impulses, in relationships, etc. One of the evolutionary purposes of the ego is in fact to “regulate” and organize psychic life, so almost every form of mental illness involves some kind of dysregulation of the ego. Strong egos needs to be built brick by brick, not discarded prick by prick.

Which leads back to the question: what is the purpose of a healthy ego? I don’t mean to ramble, but that’s a tricky question, because it depends on the context. First of all, the ego is literally “two-faced,” in that it is both an individual and a social being. In the former sense it is a solitary entity enclosed upon itself, while in the latter sense it is defined by its social relations. In more traditional societies, there were and are all kinds of cultural mechanisms that prevented the ego from becoming inflated and detaching itself from the group. However, this also enforced a kind of conformity that prevented the fulfillment of one’s unique inner potential. In the modern world we have the opposite problem: few checks on the most pathological dreams of the ego, which soon leads to the glorification of frankly antisocial (“countercultural”) attitudes and behavior.

When I say “traditional society,” we don’t actually have to go back that far even in America. For example, how different would economic relations be if you and the owner of your company both worshipped at the same church or synagogue each week, both hearing the same messages about generosity, or charity, or brotherly love? Religion used to be a completely communal activity, which by definition countered the self-centered aims of the ego. As such, much modern spirituality, because it tends to be individualistic, can easily accommodate the needs of the ego, and therefore become a means of self-deception and ego-inflation.

This change has become quite dramatic in just my lifetime. For example, when I was a kid, when someone hit a home run, they would humbly circle the bases with their head down. The batter would never make a show of it by lingering at the plate, admiring the trajectory of the ball, or dawdling around the bases, much less jumping up and down and pointing at himself. If you did this -- except in extreme cases, such as hitting a walk off home run in the World Series -- you could be sure that in your next at bat, the opposing pitcher would knock you down, both literally and figuratively. This is a fine example of the “community” tempering the obnoxious narcissism of the ego.

Look at what happens today when someone scores a touchdown. The purpose of scoring used to be winning for the team. Now it is to draw attention to oneself, like a delighted infant. The last player I remember not doing this was Marcus Allen. He said that he was brought up to act as if he had seen the end zone before.

The identical thing has happened in the entertainment world. At some point in past 30 or 35 years, there was a definite shift in the attitude of most performers. Instead of being on stage in a respectful and subservient manner to please the audience, the audience was there to literally worship and glorify the artist.

Look at the Beatles. They ended each performance by literally bowing to the audience. One of the reasons they stopped performing in August of 1966 was that they could not deal with the bizarre idealization of the audience. For them, they were still innocent enough -- still the product of an earlier time -- to simply want to play their music to appreciative ears. All the other nonsense of “Beatlemania” was not just superfluous, but annoying and even disorienting, as it would be to any remotely emotionally healthy or even just minimally insightful person who realizes he is not worthy of such adulation, much less worship. It should be disturbing to the recipient, to say the least. (In Bob Dylan’s enjoyable autobiography, he devotes a chapter to the absolute nightmare of the idealization he received in the latter half of the 1960’s.)

But today, as I said, the situation is entirely reversed, and entertainment has literally become a form of substitute religion, in which sick celebrities comfortably take on the role of idealized demigod instead of shrugging it off with embarrassment. People now want to become ”artists” not for the joy and privilege of creativity in the service of transcendent beauty -- which is its own reward -- but simply for fame, which is nothing more than a collective pathology that glorifies narcissism (and is the death of art, needless to say).

Remember, the narcissist cannot be a narcissist without a community to mirror his grandiosity. In a culture that was not already deeply sick, we wouldn’t know the names “Paris Hilton” or “Britney Spears” or even “Katie Couric” (to pick a supposedly “respectable” name out of thin air; it could be most anyone with great celebrity but no talent). If I could ask them one question, I suppose it would be, “why are you not constantly embarrassed?” Either that, or, if they were slightly more self-aware, “how do you conceal your contempt for the idiots responsible for making a talentless person such as yourself so wealthy and powerful?” I mean, what kind of ignoramus watches CBS News to inform themselves about the world? Don’t people at CBS or Time magazine know that their success depends upon legions of dolts? I’m sure some of the more cynical executives must, but cynicism is just another variation on narcissism.

It seems that talk of the “ego” mostly comes to us through Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Yoga, since we in the West have discarded our own perfectly acceptable ways to conceptualize the spiritual pathology of the ego, which centers around pride. In Christianity the ego is not so much transcended as vigilantly monitored and reformed. The classical virtues -- temperance, prudence, courage and justice -- had to be developed in order to counter the “natural” trends of the fallen ego, i.e., pride, envy, sloth, greed, etc. Thus, traditional culture provided a built-in transcendent purpose to existence. No wise person mistook the ego for a finished product, much less something to be celebrated or worshiped.

Here again, the loss of our own wisdom tradition has led to deep pathologies that are enshrined in massive political movements. In the past, Dennis Prager has mentioned that one of the most beneficial lessons of his religious upbringing was in teaching him that his greatest struggles in life would always be with himself. All forms of leftist victimology turn this perennial, self-evident wisdom on its head, and teach that your greatest struggles are outside of yourself, with society.

I should add that this latter attitude is literally addictive, in that it easily becomes a primary ego defense mechanism that prevents growth, insight, and self-examination. Why examine the self when you know in advance that it’s someone else’s fault? Why engage in the hard work of becoming a better and more moral person when all you have to do is join a political movement and displace your personal responsibility to the collective? You may be a selfish creep, but at least you're against global warming!

Last night I caught a few moments -- it was all I could tolerate -- of the famous leftist Tom Hayden and some other aging hippie on C-SPAN, hawking (or doving, I suppose) a moronic book on pacifism. The reason why he has learned nothing in forty years is that his ideology guarantees that he will learn nothing. He believes the same foolish things at 66 that he did at 22 or 23, when he wrote that unreadable monument to “new left” pomposity, the Port Huron Statement.

That crockument begins, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit...” It should more accurately read “we the grandiose, the entitled, the egomaniacal, lacking even a modicum of gratitude or historical perspective, the recipients of unprecedented wealth, prosperity and opportunity, looking for a way to screw up the world we inherit, will, in our adolescent hubris, undermine the very conditions that made the priceless largesse of Western civilization possible....”

To be continued.


Anonymous said...

One of the smartest things I've heard from Benedict XVI is that people don't engage the Vertical [not his terminology :-)] by persuasion, threats, or logic. That the Vertical turn is effected by two factors. Art. And Saints.

Just another way in which we are turned "on our heads": Entertainment. And Celebrities.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your answer to my question of last post, and I eagerly await installment 2 on the ego.

I suspect that I may have an ego dysfunction; in my music and writing I am constantly aware that a part of me is hoping that I achieve some renown and riches from my efforts. Another part of me looks at that hope with a bit of disdain, knowing that the song or story should be given as a gift. Even the disdainful part is wistfully aware that it wants at least a taste of glory.

And, all parts of me crave an audience. To write a story and then wad it up and burn it would be inconceivable to me, yet to the egoless creator/artist, it would be enough to offer the smoke only to God.

And there are other dysfunctional areas.

Anonymous said...

It's been my experience that many very decent people have a dysfunctional attitude about who they are and what they can be, based on a sort of false humility. False humility (not fake humility) is a misguided idea which is as pernicious and evil as any dark deception.

I've always maintained that the humblest and healthiest thing a person could do was believe what God says about him. I'm not saying I've been able to assimilate all that that can mean, but it's been instructive to watch others try to interpret that idea only in the horizontal.

I'd say more but, gosh!, how does one chime in on this thread without sounding egotistical?


Anonymous said...

Curious George - fear not. It is possible to work through all of that. It's beginner's fear. First of all, you have to realize that in order to become an expert at writing or music or anything really, requires MUCH work (and seat glue) unless you're some kind of prodigy, which most of us aren't. The fears you describe are also probably keeping you from advancing, or even getting started or taking it seriously - afraid to put anything on paper, thinking you need to be an expert before you can write. I recently read a quote from a professional, something like - every writer writes about 100,000 words of crap to get 10,000 words of good stuff, so you might as well go ahead and start writing the crap and get it out of the way.

And as you continue to work on creating your stuff, you will see eventually that you are learning and growing from it also. A couple of books I suggest - they are on writing mostly, but a lot of the points can relate to any creative endeavor.

"If You Want to Write" by Brenda Ueland, and

"Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg

These books also address your ideas of expectant fame, etc. Nothing to be ashamed of or worried over - I think all of us want our work to count for something.

Anonymous said...

George, as to your idea of the "egoless creator/ artist", I think that writing stories solely to be burned up as offerings to the Vertical, while occasionally a worthwhile pursuit, somewhat defeats the purpose behind gifting humans with creativity and talent. It is not necessarily a bad thing to derive pleasure in the pleasure others take from your creations. The problem lies in confusing yourself with the Creator, and believing, when you receive praise for your works, that you are elevated beyond all other humans. Even if you are one of the greatest authors/ painters/ musicians that ever lived, you are still human, and deeply flawed in all the ways we humans are. Being the greatest etc. that ever lived does not make you *more* flawed than anyone else either (I know that some celebrities feel as though they suffer more than everyone else, and accordingly think their problems matters more than anyone else's). As long as you remember that, it is easier to remain humble in the face of your own greatness ;-)

Anonymous said...

Desire for "fame" (loved by the world) is the result of an inversion of the desire to be loved by God. The difference is that the former is scarce - available only to a limited number of people - by definition, while the latter is abundant - available to all who but seek him.

Anonymous said...

What could we possibly give God but the voluntary submission of our ego (will) to His?

NoMo said...

Simple mind, simple nomoniker. Isn't ego simply the agent that exercizes my will? The "me" in "mine"? The intelligence that sees itself as being a self? Ergo ego I go...following after the Maker. Hmmm, does the Maker have an ego? If He is a person, why not?

alan - beautifully put.

Anonymous said...

When we intend to submit to the will of God, we run the risk of making the wrong decision. And in the end, we have not submitted to Him, but to those who claim to know His mind.

mean aunt said...

michael a. It helps if you ask God directly in your own words. (Cutting out the middle-man?)

Anonymous said...


I once attended a party thrown by a woman I know which was primarily attended by people from her English Literature Department at the University of Pennsylvania (she was a grad student at the time).
One of the professors in attendance had recently published a book and people were gathered around, some actually kneeling before him, listening to him tell of his book and the research which had gone into it. Later in the party after the crowd had died down around him I found myself in a postion to engage him in conversation and asked him about the book. (I hadn't heard what he had been discussing earlier)
He asked me if I had read the book and when I said I hadn't, he literally turned himself bodily away from me and acted as if I weren't there, even though he was talking to no one else at the time. I guessed that I hadn't offered the proper amount of deference in order to get in on the conversation.
I later found out that his book was written about the seedy side of New Orleans where he actually went into the most perverse bars and clubs the city had to offer in order to "research" his work and develop its characters. I guess I can't fault him on his choice of cities because if one is going to write about decadence and perversion, New Orleans would be the place to go, at least in the U.S..
This elitist attitude seemed pervasive throughout the gathering with the new author at the pinnacle of pompous.
Anyway, I wrote it off to an encounter with a perverted alcoholic with a masked inferiority complex who needed an excuse to rationalize his "research" project, so he wrote a book. I ended up spending much of the rest of the party, conversing with one of the more interesting guests, the spouse of one of the department secretaries who turned out to be a plumber. :)

Anonymous said...

There is nothing in the world wrong with wanting to be recognized for your creative work. In my experience it's next to impossible to put pen to paper, or chisel to stone without entertaining the hope that you'll be creating a masterwork that will immediately vault you to the heights of fame and fortune. Wealth is a good thing, and so is the hope that you can acheive it doing something you truly love to do.
The flip side of all this is the fear of failure, or worse, mediocrity.
Creating something involves risk. Big risk. You can't judge your own work. Neither are your friends a reliable source of criticism or evaluation. And in my experience, no one will ever say to your face, "Hey dude, that was really second rate." The only way to find out for real if you have the stuff is to put it out there. The jurors will let you know if your art has a chance. The editors who send you the rejection slip will let you know if your writing has potential. The folks who listen to your demo will tell you if you rock or not. They're not always right, of course. The greatest of the great get jurried out, rejected, turned down zillions of times before they hit the big time.
And rejection hurts. Bad. I remember working seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day for sixty six days to complete a stone sculpture. I literally had blood and sweat invested into that rock. It was accepted into a juried show, and lost to some guy who took a pile of plastic army men and melted them in the oven. That's when I made the investment of tears. Now I can laugh about it. Trust me, it wasn't amusing at the time.
When we create for the sake of creating we are truly acting in imitation of God. We are channeling our own small share of the Divine, making it manifest on this temporal plane. Writing a story that no one ever reads. Playing a song that no one ever hears. Making a drawing, a painting, a sculpture that no one ever sees. Conceiving a child, and then visiting Planned Parenthood... You see the parallel?


Arthur Dent said...

Leggo of my ego.

Bob, keep up with the great perspectives and thinking. With that said it seems we are split into two, not one, cosmos.

I really like your point of view. Your POV hits on target and resonates.

Anonymous said...

You could file this under "spooky" I guess, but I believe that in terms of spiritual musical language, our audience is not just people. While we are worshipping God, we're not alone; music really can offer us a foot (or an ear) into the spiritual realm. On several memorable occasions I swear I have heard angels adding their otherworldly harmonies to my simple piano efforts. It makes my hair stand on end, and is more electrifying than turning the amp to 11. Experiencing that kind of universal praise to our Maker can take care of ego dysfunction in a hurry. It is not me that plays; I am being played. It's uplifting, expanding, and immensely humbling, and paradoxically causes personal ego to nearly disappear.

But these days I'm in a bigger 'worship team' (a term I abhor) now, playing for lots of people, and oddly, I never hear the angelic choir even though our music is polished, sincere, and heartfelt. I attribute it partially to the 'better' equipment we now have. Everything is pro quality, much louder, perfectly EQ'd, crossovered, and subwoofered, and tuned to the house, reaching every corner so everyone can participate. As a result, I fear that we have squeezed out any harmonic room for our guardians. So I find myself longing for the rare times when we can shut it all off and just lift our voices with simple instruments. I have to remind myself that it's the still small voice I need to listen to, and really not much else.

Anonymous said...

In the 60s I knew Tom Hayden as a hippy, anti-war protestor and leader of student demonstrations. He looked the part....long hair and Salvation Army clothes. He was going to bring the country to its knees.

I left California and lost track of him until I read that he had married another war protestor, Jane Fonda.

In the early 80s I was passing through Santa Barbara where the Fonda/Hayden clan resided. There, in the airport, was Tom. He was in an impeccably tailored sport coat, Gucci loafers, a $100 haircut, and the air of royalty about him as he held court with some admirers. What a change from the student Bolshevik!

I also saw some of his book presentation last night. Now that he's no longer Mr. Fonda he looks a bit down on his luck, a tad seedy, worldly weary, and no longer talking of bringing the country to its knees. Quite pathetic.

Anonymous said...


Is there a possibility to view your work on the web?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for asking. Oddly enough I don't have any of my sculpture digitally photographed. I do have some scans of my Celtic work, but none of it is posted anywhere. And unfortunately the whole artistic impulse just flatlined in me three or four years ago. For over fifteen years I always had a project on the boards. It was a passion with me. And for some odd reason it all just crashed rather abruptly. I was actually in the middle of a project, and I just put down the tools and walked off. The Voice just sort of said, "It's over." I tried to jump start the creative energies a few months ago by starting a Celtic piece but my heart wasn't in it, and I couldn't work up the enthusiasm or the discipline to continue with it. The last vestige of creative output fizzled out when I completed my toyshelf epic, "Doesn't Play Well With Others". (Google DPWhome. Blogger is weird about posting url's) I really don't know what will come along to fill the void.


Anonymous said...

Good luck JWM!

Anonymous said...

Seems to me the art of being human is all about balancing the ego. Too much and you come off as arrogant. Too little and you'll pay too much for your next used car.

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