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The Egoic System and the Nurture of the Heart
by Cynthia Bourgeault
In a world shaped by the humanism of the Enlightenment, the human self has become central. For traditional metaphysics, however, the true nature of human selfhood is revealed only is the circumferential position of the personal ego circling around the axis mundi, which is its mystery. The path of spiritual progression is a return to the Center away from the self, and the search for the roots of our peripheral existence in God at the Center.
Modern psychology stresses that to live we must have a proper sense of self-worth and a corresponding ego stability. Understood developmentally, this is correct, at least for a temporal duration. On the other hand, it appears that spiritual literature both ancient and modern casts the ego simply as the villain. While the nomenclature varies throughout Sacred Tradition, the roadmap is remarkably consistent. There is clearly a someone or a something in us that inherently opposes our spiritual progress, and the breakthrough to transformation can come only with the exposing and dismantling of this pretender. In one interesting twist of this traditional perception, one popular New Age manual dramatically asserts, “The ego wants you dead.”
The double-difficulty in recovering a proper metaphysical hermeneutic, however, is that we must contend not only with contemporary misinterpretations of the ego, but with a further layer of difficulty introduced by the militaristic metaphors through which these perceptions have so often been expressed. Carefully read, the esoteric traditions seem to demand something else quite different from the popular notions conveyed in such terms as “sinful self-will,” “Maya,” “illusion,” “nafs,” “the false self,” and “dualistic thinking.” They demand something which follows closely after “ego-stability,” a form of “egoic death” that leads not to the ego’s violent destruction, but to its utter transformation.1 The unfolding of the true Center of selfhood is not accomplished through some form of violence forced upon the ego by means of militaristic subjugation. True conquest of the heart can only be accomplished through surrender in love. All traditions have known this, including the ones that have made use of militaristic metaphors.
But in the light of that simple, lived reality that no inner knots disentangle without love, there is reason to be suspicious of spiritual warfare as a paradigm for transformation, particularly in our own media-sensitive era in which, to an unprecedented degree, “the medium is the message.” Given both the excesses of our religious past and the poverty of the contemporary world, we need a less oppositional, more productive way of describing the egoic process—one that also brings us more closely into line with a proper metaphysical knowledge of the unitive dimension of the Sacred Tradition and its understanding of spiritual process.
The Ego as an Energy System
In this article, then, the term “ego” (or ego stability) has a limited and observable meaning. It describes a feedback loop, a specific kind of human processing system designed to extract an essential life nutrient from the environment: something that we might call vital energy.2
Along with the physical food we eat and the air we breathe, vital energy is crucial for our human survival. Absence of any one of these three “foods” results in death: in the first case by starvation; in the second by suffocation, and in the third by attrition: the depletion of the vital energy, or will to live. While we may not be used to thinking in these terms, most of us are all too familiar with the syndrome itself: the deepening listlessness or failure to thrive when the psyche can no longer draw any zest or purpose from life by means of the Spirit.
As an energy loop intended to maintain the reservoirs of psychic wellbeing, the egoic system makes use of that unique (so far as we know) feature of the human mind: self-reflexive consciousness, or the ability to stand outside oneself and perceive in the third person. From this “third person” vantage point, one’s sense of identity presents itself in terms of a unique selfhood, a personhood defined by specific traits and needs.
Between these two poles energy can start to flow, and this subjectobject polarity becomes the driveshaft of the egoic system. The impression of “having” a discrete identity, informed by certain attributes and imbued with certain gifts and talents that need to become fully expressive if one’s personhood is to be whole, sets up a feedback loop by which the reflexive self projects itself onto the world in terms of its wants, needs, and expectations; and then sets forth with its programs and objectives for implementing these. To the extent that we succeed, we experience enlivenment, the sense of our life being meaningful and worthwhile. To the extent that we are frustrated, we experience diminishment and discouragement. Rather than being enhanced, our vital energy is depleted.
It is significant that in his text Light on the Ancient World Schuon also refers to the ego as a system through which we engage in our individual “projects,” and uses vivid language to describe its mirage-like, self-reflexive tendencies: The ego is at the same time a system of images and a cycle; it is something like a museum, and a unique and irreversible journey through that museum.
The ego is a moving fabric made of images and tendencies; the tendencies come from our own substance, and the images are provided by the environment. We put ourselves into them, whereas our true being is independent of them.
From the perspective of transformation, the point spiritual teachers are constantly reminding us about (although in language often unintelligible in these terms) is that this energy system essentially runs on the pain/pleasure principle. The egoically generated self seeks pleasure— experienced as the enlargement or affirmation of its selfhood; and it avoids pain—experienced as the diminishment of selfhood and depletion of its vital elan. The quest for spiritual fulfillment on the basis of this feedback loop is known in Christian tradition as “the peace that comes from the flesh,” and the elders of the cenobitic desert tradition warned serious spiritual seekers to beware of it.3 In our own psychologically sophisticated era, however, the peace that comes from the flesh (rebaptized as “wellness”), has emerged as a fundamental principle of mental health. It is taken as a self-evident truth that the experience of enlivenment, vitality, and serenity is a sign that one is living life rightly, while the onset of depression, frustration, emotional or physical malaise, is a warning that something is inwardly amiss. What is usually not seen is that this kind of inner self-steering is normative only within the egoic system, which will always judge the accuracy of its psychic heading by the quality and quantity of well-being that is produced.
The Enlightened Ego
To the extent that one’s self-image is in touch with reality and relatively free from domination by unconscious neurotic programs, we can speak of having a “healthy ego.”4 A healthy ego is typically described as one that can move confidently and sensitively toward meeting its needs for meaning and enlivenment, while respecting the rights of other people to do the same. It is a system working at peak efficiency, and, as stated above, virtually all our psychotherapeutic models of wellness (and increasingly, our religious ones as well), aim for this goal. Thomas Keating, a well-known Benedictine monk, in his popular teaching on “the false self system,” makes use of just such a model as he shows practitioners how to identify and plug the energy leaks caused by “afflictive emotions” i.e. by the loss of vital energy that goes with the frustration of the “emotional programs for happiness.” If the false self is equated with these unconscious, neurotic programs, however, it is all too easy to infer that the opposite of this— i.e., the healthy ego—must be “the true self.”5 This mistake clearly obscures the possibility of a deeper metaphysical awareness of our true, Supreme Identity, and distorts traditional spiritual practice as well.
As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of selfworth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual wellbeing, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego.
In contrast, I would refer to the perennial teaching expressed by Schuon in Echoes of Perennial Wisdom: “Holiness is the sleep of the ego and the wake of the immortal soul— of the ego fed on sensorial impressions and filled with desires, and of the soul free and crystallized in God. The moving surface of our being must sleep and must therefore withdraw from images and instincts, whereas the depths of our being must be awake in the consciousness of the Divine, thus illuminating, like a motionles flame, the silence of the holy sleep.”6
Bread from Heaven
In his Meditations on the Tarot, hermeticist Valentin Tomberg distinguishes between two types of vital energy, which he calls bios and Zoe. While interrelated, bios is defined as the natural life energy flowing horizontally from generation to generation, and Zoe is the vivifying energy from above “which fills the individual in prayer and meditation, in acts of sacrifice and participation in the sacred sacraments.”7 In the classic Biblical sense, Zoe is “bread from heaven”—soul-food of a far higher order. Using Tomberg’s terms, one could say that the ego is perfectly adapted for its job in life: drawing the energy of bios to maintain the vitality of the human organism. But as such, its limit is physical death. Once the soul has separated from the body, the ego’s role as the functional seat of human identity is at an end. It perishes, along with all sense of selfhood tied to it.
There is within us, however, a latent faculty, another feedback loop capable of drawing the energy directly from Zoe, “the love that moves the stars and the sun,” without having to download it into the egoic pain-pleasure loop. It moves without regard to pain and pleasure; pleasure does not enliven it and pain does not diminish it.
It is not a hyper-vitalization, a peak experience. In fact, it is not an experience at all, since it lies beyond the experience/experiencer dualism—and hence, in spiritual tradition is frequently perceived as a “nothing.” It has no inherent reservoir of vitality; it cannot feed or maintain itself apart from the direct infusion of the holy. Its permanent seat of selfhood is in the realm of contemplation, the unitive heart. When an active self is needed to “do,” it moves outward from this center, using its egoic system the way a karate master uses a trained hand to deliver the appropriate blow. When it is not in motion, it has no independent selfpropulsion; in this respect, it is far more like a plant than an animal. Comfort or discomfort mean nothing to it, happiness or unhappiness, life or death; it lives beyond the opposites. Its food, as Jesus says, in St. John’s gospel, “is to do my Father’s will.”
If this sounds somewhat like a dubious blessing, it is understandable why such a small handful of spiritual seekers have actually accepted the call to venture beyond the egoic safety net. Even the words classically used to describe this other feedback loop—”surrender,” “true resignation”—sit uneasily with the modern temperament. They sound a bit too much like handing over the reins to one’s autonomous selfhood and personal wellbeing—which, of course, is exactly what is being asked. The only way the ego can picture such behavior is in terms of “delayed gratification”—a renunciation of pleasure in this life in order to gain its reward in the next. But it is not like this, not at all. The “reward,” if such a term must be used, is to participate here and now in “the love that moves the stars and the sun. “ Once the heart has tasted this love, all egoic self-feeding feels like junkfood. For the realm to which the ego is called and through which it is transformed is the world of the Spirit as manifest principle. It alone can shape and give new definition to this “creature,” the ego.8
The Birth of the Heart
The ego is not an enemy; it is a necessary developmental stage in the journey toward full human personhood. When a baby begins to crawl, it is a great milestone, but if she is still crawling at age five, we speak of arrested development. The same is true, I believe, of the journey toward personhood. The egoic system is necessary in order for us to exercise our true human destiny, at least as it is understood in Western spiritual tradition: to magnify the glory of God through the lens of individual particularity. “You are the mirror in which God recognizes himself,” as the Sufi tradition expressively puts it. On the Western spiritual paths, the egoic system is not a mistake, or an illusion,9 but potentially, at least, the expressive vehicle of God’s astonishing dynamism and wonder. As long as we are in the human body, we will need to make use of it, and to wield it well.
Such use of the ego, however, can only occur from a place within a human being deeper than the ego itself—what the tradition calls, “the level of the heart”—which knows itself illimitable and undivided, a part of the Godhead.10 “Knows itself,” however, does not mean that this knowing is a new fact or belief about oneself; that would be egoic thinking. Rather, it is a way of “knowing from,” a coinciding with this deepest wellspring within the heart.
It takes a long time before this enlightened heart is truly ready to emerge as the permanent seat of identity. Partly this is so because the heart is not merely a metaphor for one’s innermost being, but is in fact embodied: a muscle for spiritual perceptivity and for “digesting” the far more highly concentrated energy of Zoe. The Eastern Orthodox tradition locates this spiritual heart within the fleshly heart, but much of the rest of the Inner tradition places it in the region of the solar plexus or diaphragm, and hence sometimes speaks of spiritual work as a “strengthening of the nervous system.” Once activated, its particular attribute is a capacity for “doubled attention”—not at the level of holding one’s mind on two things at once, but at the level of being held, magnetized, in the presence of God while at the same time completely present to the outer demands of the situation at hand.
Steadily, patiently, we practice. Meditation, regarded in virtually every spiritual tradition as the gateway to transformation, teaches us how to detatch our sense of selfhood from the egoic feedback loop and open ourselves directly to the infusion of divine life. Particularly in a practice such as Centering Prayer, where the emphasis is not so much on concentrating the mind as on surrendering the will, there is a direct and even palpable nurturance of this attention of the heart; one can literally sense this magnetized heart coming alive within. And as the capacity for “doubled attention” grows within us commensurate with this heart, we are able to apply it more and more consistently in the outward circumstances of our lives, learning how to extract the vital energy of divine being from whatever comes our way, even in the midst of reversal and diminishment.11
At first it feels like “a place we go to,” this heart of God, the still point in the turning world of our being. But more and more it becomes “the place we come from,” the light of God within which replenishes our being from its own endless source. And when this spiritual heart has reached a point of development that it can sustain itself outside the egoic womb, then, like an infant carried full-term, we are ready to be born into the miracle of full human personhood.
Turning Stones into Bread
Freedom from one’s feedback loop is symbolically described in the gospel accounts of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness, particularly in the first temptation, the refusal to “turn stones into bread,” or feed himself by his own egoic capacities.12 What is often overlooked in discussions of these narratives, however, is that Jesus’ encounter with temptation takes place only after his baptism, where he first receives the revelation of his true identity: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). First comes the unfolding of the true identity; then comes the casting away of all that is not essential to it.
Traditional metaphysics expresses this transition by saying, “The way towards God involves an inversion: from outwardness one must pass to inwardness, from multiplicity to unity, from dispersion to concentration, from egoism to detachment, from passion to serenity. The world scatters us, and the ego compresses us; God gives us recollection and dilates us; He gives us peace and delivers us.”13
All this, of course, in due season. Although much of the language of spiritual tradition has been cast in images of violence— of taking heaven by storm, and an athletic asceticism intended to overcome the ego—this is usually turned on its head by the ego’s usual backwards way of mistaking means for end. Asceticism will not produce the heart; it is only a picture of the new eating habits of the soul who has learned to feed directly on God. But the real point working in our favor is that this evolution is intended: i.e., the glory of God is the human being fully emerged into his or her own ground and able to release the energy formerly bound up in egoic self-maintenance to the sheer dance of divine abundance. This transformation goes against the grain, but it is intended. When the heart is ready, it cannot but emerge. Our real goal in the spiritual work, then, is not to dismantle the ego—which will fall away in its own time when the fruit is ripe—but simply, quietly, patiently, to nurture the heart.
The author wishes to express her appreciation to Dr. Lynn C. Bauman for his supplementary reference material and editorial assistance in preparing the final draft of this article.
1 Contemplative practice across the sacred traditions ultimately aims at the withdrawal
of ego-activity. Jesus said, “He who would save his life (psuche—psyche) must lose
it.” Islamic tradition counsels those on the spiritual path to “die before you die.” In a
recent text Kabir Helminski, Sufi master in the Mevlevi order, says, “The ego is the
enemy of our true existence. Fortunately the ego can be tamed by love, not devalued
or annihilated, but tamed and put into the service of the essential self. If we learn to
make a clear call to the Source of love, how could that Source not respond to our
call?” (The Knowing Heart, Shambhala, 1999, 52.) John of the Cross in his own century
also argued that “He who knows how to die in all things will have life in all things.”
The Tao te Ching at least a thousand years before him knew that “to die without
going under means eternal presence.” All these approaches do not suggest violence
so much as the path to the experience of unity and love as a path of self-surrender, a
dying so as to truly live.
2 This term may be equated perhaps to prana energy, or the nafs al-amara, which are
forms of vital energy not yet transformed by the force of Spirit. See also Tomberg’s
distinctions between bios and Zoe, ahead (p. 4).
3 See, for example, St. Anthony: “You must hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life so that you may be alive to God.” The Desert Christian: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, ed. Benedicta Ward (New York: Macmillan, 1980, 3-4). Typically viewed from our contemporary cultural reference points as “body-hating, worlddenying asceticism,” Anthony’s statement actually points to a far more vibrant and subtle way of being awake in the world, of drawing life energy directly from its imperishable source. On this point, see my earlier article, “Fingers of Flame: Christianity and the Spiritualization of the Body,” Gnosis, 29 (fall 1993), 42-48.
4 The term, of course, is of modern, post-Freudian vintage and would be incomprehensible to the ancient traditions of spiritual psychology, from whose perspective it would appear an oxymoron. Traditional psychologies distinguish between a lesser and higher Self, but whether this lesser self can be equated with the ego is a matter of considerable disagreement among contemporary schools of psychological thought. For a lucid attempt to sort out the confusion, see Rama P. Coomaraswamy, “Psychological Integration and the Religious Outlook,” Sacred Web, 3 (summer 1999), 37-48.
5 The lack of a mechanism for identifying and letting go of “pleasurable emotions” caused by the appeasement of false self programs is a curious weakness of Fr. Keating’s teaching.
6 Frithjof Schuon, Echoes of Perennial Wisdom (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Books, 1992), 11.
7 Valentin Tomberg, Meditations on the Tarot (Rockport, MA: Element, 1993), 277-8.
8 For, as Schuon says, “Between the human microcosm and the Divine Metacosm there stands the macrocosm which, in relation to the human subject, represents ‘the Principle manifested’ or ‘the manifestation of the Principle’. There is no common measure between man and God, between the ‘I’ and the “Self’. In order to become conscious of the ‘Self’, the ‘I’ has need of the intellect, which in man is its direct manifestation. In an analogous fashion, what necessarily stands between the formal creation and the Uncreated is the supraformal or formless creation, the world of the Spirit.” Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts (Pates Manor, Bedfront, Middlesex: Perennial Books, Ltd., 1987), 174.
9 In point of fact, I would call it a mirage, using Tomberg’s helpful distinction: “A mirage is not the same thing as a pure and simple illusion—a mirage being a ‘floating’ reflection of reality—but it is ‘floating’—i.e., outside the context of objective reality with its moral, causal, temporal, and spatial dimensions.” (Meditations on the Tarot, 630).
10 For a succinct description of this “level of the heart,” see, for example, Kabir Helminski: “Beyond the limited analytic realm is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative, and creative capacities; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification, because they are operating best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection to the Cosmic Mind. This total mind we call ‘Heart’ The human heart has its proper field of function beyond the limits of the superficial, reactive ego-self. Awakening the heart, or the spiritualized mind, is an unlimited process of making the mind more sensitive, energized, subtle, and refined, of joining it to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” Living Presence (New York: Jeremy Tarcher/ Putnam, 1992), 157-8.
11 Without this active phase of the practice, meditation by itself is largely ineffective as a vehicle for transformation—”a high class tranquillizer,” as Fr. Keating puts it.
12 For a brilliant explication of the Temptation narratives along these lines, see Maurice Nicoll, The New Man (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 23-7.
13 Schuon, Echoes of Perennial Wisdom, 3.