Ego and Ego’s Job

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Excuse me in advance for mangling Freud, but let’s talk about ego today. Ego gets a bad rap. We can all probably appreciate an occasional id moment, when we just want what we want, for no good reason; and we think we should put the superego in charge most of the time, but ego? Who needs it?

I think it was Stephanie Thomas (back when she was a yoga teacher) who first introduced me to the idea that the ego isn’t bad. She gave me a couple pages from a book, which I still have somewhere around here, and when I find it I’ll come back and tell you the name of it and who wrote it. For now I’ll just say it really struck me by saying that we don’t need to destroy or starve the ego, but purify it. There was a list of ways to purify the ego, but, more to the point, the reason for doing so is that the ego has a purpose and we need it. Update: I found it! See this post.

At the same time, I was reading A Course In Miracles, which is not so kind to ego. But I did learn to recognize when ego is in action, which is, surprisingly, most of the times I’m unhappy, especially when I’m unhappy with another person. Somebody getting away with something unfairly? It’s ego that cares. Somebody slights me? Ego. I’m not living up to a vague expectation that somebody laid on me so long ago I don’t remember who did it or when? Ego is the part of me that tortures me mercilessly for my failures. In ACIM, ego is an illusion that will disappear when we recognize the truth, which is that we are one with the Divine, which is defined as Love, and that any belief in the possibility of separation or harm of any kind is an error.

Later, Caryn Robson gave me Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, and Tolle echoes ACIM on ego. He teaches that all we have to do is notice, with full attention, and those egoic thoughts dissipate.

But that idea of ego as neutral, even useful at times, stuck with me over the years, and I’ve come to see ego as essential, when it is working toward its purpose. When deprived of the opportunity to do its job, ego goes looking for something else to do, and that is when problems pop up.

What is Ego’s job? Well, I do believe that we are essentially one. But we are present in three-dimensional space, living within limitation and linear time. We have reason to believe this is an illusion, but it’s pervasive and seems to be built into the structure of this particular neighborhood of the universe. Why would we choose to come here? (Did I forget to mention that we choose to come here? I’ll have to explain that another time, I have a massage this afternoon and I need to get some housework done before I go, so I don’t have a lot of time to write right now.)

Suppose we come to this quirky neighborhood, dressed up in a funny costume in which we look like a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute imitation of a stereotype older than history. I’ve got a part to play in this charade, and the Director suddenly jumps up with a megaphone and says, “Hey you! Get up on the stage! This show is depending on YOU!”

What? I don’t even know my lines! Then I remember, the script is written in my heart. My body knows the blocking if I don’t think about it too much. It’s all here, in me. It’s in you, too, in all of us, but we’re all in different costumes, with different parts to play, and nobody but me is right here, ready to make an entrance onto this very stage at the perfect moment, which is now.

And the one who knew all that, who never forgot, who used every trick -berating, cajoling, lying, kicking me in the ass, whatever it takes- to get me up on that stage, no matter how anxious I am, how determined to know every line, entrance, and exit of every character by memory before I even peek out from behind the curtain, how certain I am that the understudy could do a far better job: the Director is the Ego.

What if I don’t do it? What if I’m too busy? This costume is poking me and I can’t hear the cardio-teleprompter when I’m this uncomfortable. And there’s so much backstage work to be done, I’ll get up on the stage tomorrow, or next month, or next year. After a while, Ego gets tired of waiting, and goes looking for something else to do. Ego’s gift is this: Ego knows that I am important, that I have a unique contribution to make to the world. Ego insists that I share my talents. If I won’t be in the show, I can instead correct everybody’s grammar. I can satisfy myself by going over other peoples’ mistakes in my mind, and how I would do things differently if I were in their place. If I won’t acknowledge my importance as in individual, Ego will show me all the ways that I have failed others, hurt them, disappointed them, and therefore deserve all my lack of success.

Oh dear Ego, tireless friend, I’ve been hearing your message. We don’t have to say whose habitual mispronunciations have been grating on my nerves, or which crotchety old biddy’s lectures have been testing my patience. These people, whom I love, are not the problem, and there is one solution: I have to get up on the stage.

Time to start writing again.

Here's my writing studio. There's a bit of work to be done.

Here’s my writing studio. There’s a bit of work to be done.