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Inquiry and the Ego: Listening to All Our Voices

By Fiona Robertson.

There’s a lot of talk in spiritual circles about the ego, the problems it causes, and how to deal with it. Ego is seen as the cause of our suffering, the root of conflict and pain. But what is the ego, exactly? And does it really deserve such pejorative labelling?

In Latin, ego simply means ‘I’. Over time, the word has accrued many and multi-layered meanings. In my experience, the ego isn’t a single, uniform entity, but a collection of voices or self-identities, each with their associated drives and feelings. We could say that the ego is the stories we tell about ourselves, the selves that we believe we are, whatever their flavour. We might believe, for example, that we are someone who is not good enough, or wrong, or better than others, and we act in the world as if that was the case. We could also say that the ego is the inner, critical voice (often called the superego), the part of us that judges, cajoles, exhorts, criticizes. There’s inevitably an interplay – usually conflict – between these two parts or voices. The self believes itself deficient, and the superego judges and demands and strategizes and plans in an attempt to somehow fix or deal with the perceived deficiency.  We’re all familiar with the inner dialogue that ensues when these two voices or parts are engaged in a struggle with each other:

Deficient self: I know I won’t get this job. I’ve always been terrible at interviews because I get so nervous. 

Superego: Can’t you pull yourself together for once? Why, after all this therapy and meditation, are you still so anxious and lacking in self-esteem? And why are you still eating too much? 

Deficient self (feeling even more deficient): There’s clearly something really wrong with me. I’ve never been good enough, and all of this just goes to prove it. 

Superego: Right, well, I’ve got a plan. Let’s start dieting tomorrow, and book onto that ‘Big Up Yourself’ course that you saw online the other day. Then perhaps you’ll be able to be the person you should be. 

We all know the drill. These kinds of inner conversations can go on interminably. And when we discover spiritual teachings, a third voice is often added, one that denounces both of the other voices, and that believes it should get rid of or ignore or somehow disallow whatever it perceives as the ego. It’s hardly surprising that we find ourselves completely entangled in all of this, often feeling bewildered and at the mercy of these seemingly unstoppable and argumentative voices. It can feel as if they are fixed, unchangeable givens that we somehow have to manoeuvre around, overcome, or vanquish. When we find ourselves unable to do so, we heap yet more judgement or shame upon ourselves.

When we inquire, we can begin to pick apart the threads of conflict, and give space and time to each of these ‘ego’ voices. Not only do we meet the pain of the deficient self, but we also hear the anguish of the superego and its valiant efforts to keep it all together, to make sure that we get through life as best we can. The superego, after all, often does what the deficient self feels it could never do, as these extracts from my journal reflect:

The deficient self says: That Fiona (superego Fiona) has been clever, and interacted with people, looked after me, talked when I didn’t know how, kept me in line, kept me motivated, kept me from the pain before I could really face it. She couldn’t do all that without despising my weakness, hating my pain, and loathing my failures. 

The judge in me speaks: I’ve been trying to protect you. I’ve been so afraid for you. I’ve been so angry with you for being so stupid sometimes. I love you, but I’m resentful of you…resentful of your sweetness and prettiness, resentful of your gentleness and kindness, resentful of your dreaminess and your imagination. Nothing would get done if I left it to you. Everywhere would be untidy, and a mess, and dirty. I’ve just been so exhausted, having to look after you. Sometimes I hated you, I just wanted you to leave me alone and to stop having needs and wants, and to stop needing me. 

Here’s the thing: both of these voices are essentially part of the self structure that developed in childhood in response to whatever circumstances we were in. Both, ultimately, came into being to protect us on the deepest level. It may not feel like it when your superego is berating you yet again, but it is there for the best of intentions. It took its cue from the people around it, believing that if it could somehow be more like them and less like itself, it’d be okay. We introjected the behaviour and beliefs of the adults in our lives, creating a mesh of inner demands, commands, and expectations against which we measured ourselves. Years ago, while doing some inner work at a retreat, I discovered that my superego solidified definitively when I was around eleven years old, and its primary concern was to make sure that it avoided making my mother angry or displeased (something that happened frequently, to my detriment). When seen in this light, how can we possibly continue to label the ego in all the ways that we do?

As we inquire, and the stories of deficiency unravel, we meet the pain that lies at their core. As we do so, the inner voices of deficiency and judgement begin to quiet. This happens not because we make an effort to control or dispel them, but because once the pain is truly felt, the voices are no longer necessary. Their job was to ensure we didn’t feel the pain, because when we were young children it was impossible for us to do so. The job of the ego was always to ensure that we were kept safe, to ensure that the pain stayed under lock and key. Yes, this suppression is ultimately deeply unhealthy, but we don’t need to blame the jailer just because the prison system itself is flawed. Rather, as we open the prison gates, the jailer – along with all the inmates – is also freed.

Gradually, we find our inner voices – the parts we often refer to as ‘the ego’ – become more benign and unified. In my psyche, the previously harsh voice of judgement seems to have been replaced by a wry commentator. One morning recently, as I was switching on the kettle for the first cup of tea of the day, I found myself caught up in anxious thoughts. The commentator merely said, Starting early this morning, are we? The kind humour made me smile, and the anxious thoughts – left uncriticized and therefore not needing to defend themselves – simply ebbed away. The ego itself, like everything else, is made up of words, images and sensations and feelings. As it unravels, it becomes naturally healthier, neither needing to proclaim our deficiency nor criticize ourselves or others. We discover that it is not the enemy, but simply self-fragments that, once tended to, effortlessly transform.

Backlash: Lash Outward, Lash Inward…

By Melanie Grey.

Newton’s third law of physics states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I was sitting in the passenger seat on a long drive the other day and I found myself beginning to review an unpleasant event that had occurred.  I don’t even remember the details.  What I do remember is, that along with seeing the way I handled things, all the judgements I had of everyone, etc, there was this other aspect of my reaction that had gone unnoticed at first.  I was lashing outward in a big way, yet in this slow motion review, I noticed an energetically forceful, rapid fire, lashing inward toward myself.  It had been hidden beneath the fire of all the outward-directed judgements.

This was the first time I’d seen so clearly the intimately entwined nature of these two energies—the one that extends outward from me to others, to life in general, and the one that immediately turns inward digging the knife into my own heart.  I’ve known that’s a tendency of mine, but never realized that they are almost simultaneous so that the latter, the attack inward, can go unnoticed for a while.

After that day, I began watching for this—the instantaneous self-criticism and self-loathing that might be hidden beneath all my outward criticism.  It was everywhere.  Everywhere.  It seemed that one never happened without the other.

There was a mixture of relief and sadness as I digested this.  Relief that it was coming into view and sadness at how long this has been in place, draining life force.  Sadness for all the tongue lashings I’d logged in over the years—both toward others and toward myself.  Relief that now, with growing awareness, there was a chance for some peace.  And not peace in the form of forcefully trying to sanitize this reaction, but peace in the form of welcoming this two-pronged reaction into my heart.  Relief that, as I now know from experience with inquiry, I had just unlocked another door behind which all kinds of gems awaited me.  As these unconscious tendencies transition into the clarity of awareness, all kinds of treasures issue forth.

And there was also this exquisite tenderness that began to emerge.  Tenderness for those two ends of the reaction… for their sincere attempt to protect something, someone.  After all, why else would an attack occur—whether outward OR inward?  These two felt like Siamese twins, figuratively fused at the hip. One outward-directed energy wanted to protect the one who was “good and right (i.e. not bad, not wrong)” and they attacked any aspect of external experience that seemed to endanger the good and right self.  The other, inwardly-directed energy attacked the perceived bad and wrong self, also wanting to protect the good and right identity.  It was a non-discriminatory attack fest!

My upbringing came into view.  I grew up trying to be the good, good, good girl in a family where obedience and submission were expected and speaking your mind was discouraged.  The need to be right was modelled by one parent while the other parent modelled being wrong and inferior. What perfect training for me to learn to lash outward to defend the self who needs to be good and right while simultaneously attacking another conflicting identity of being wrong and inferior.  Wow, what confusion!

Confusion, yes, but there’s also a beauty to this and a predictability that I’m now seeing more clearly.  The beauty is that as I inquire into these conflicting identities I find more of the puzzle pieces that I’ve used to create the puzzle of my life.  The predictability is that there are often pairs of reactions, needs, identities, etc.  Freedom for me lies in seeing and beginning to embrace ALL the elements, both sides of any pair, in this motley composite of experiences that I call “my life.”  And perhaps this is a reminder for me to check the underside of each puzzle piece so as to not miss another clue of how I’ve constructed my reality.