Ego As Map To The Soul

Posted by Bill Miller on May 5, 2016
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It seems currently popular within pop-psychological, spiritual, and New Age philosophical circles to bash on the "ego". The ego is often characterized as a false self, sometimes even portrayed as a hostile force - an other - that attempts to trick or trap one into self-limiting, self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior. We are variously urged to move beyond, disbelieve, dissolve - even work for the "death" of the ego. One might wonder why such a malevolent force would have evolved or emerged in the first place.

Much of the confusion likely arises from the same source as most philosophical disputes: people defining a word differently but assuming they are talking about the same thing. Accordingly, "soul", "self", "ego" - what do these mean? As popularly used, "soul", having many ancient religious and mystical connotations, is perhaps the most controversial. In its simplest form, I think of the soul as one's unique, individual, subjective point of consciousness - one's "window" on the world - apart from any history, experience, learning, and inherited or acquired physical and psychological traits. If anything survives the passing of one's mortal form, this would be it. But I guess we won't know for sure until we get there.

The "self" then, would be the above, plus one's unique accumulation of experiences, judgments, values, opinions, and physical and psychological traits. Are you Male or Female? Tall? Timid? Aggressive? Handsome? Sickly/healthy? Republican? Caucasian? Abused? Lucky? … and thousands more. These are what make you identifiable as "you" and not someone else. Yet interestingly, as we age and go through the various assaults of life, many of these things will change radically over time. Yet even decades later, most of us will still be identifiable as "us". Perhaps this somehow points back to an essential soul.

Finally, I think of the "ego" as the agent who takes the traits of the self, then uses them to navigate the world. Daily life is so complex that it would be daunting to give a completely novel response to each and every situation, so the ego constantly uses the above traits as a sort of "map" with which to navigate the day. "Oh, I shop here and not there, like Chinese food but not Mexican, know how to do these things and not those, vote this way and not that, am liked by these people but rejected by those" -- perhaps hundreds of choices and actions per day.

This map-versus-terrain analogy is actually quite profound. It is impossible even for residents to know every nook and cranny of a city like San Francisco, so it is helpful to use a simplified map that shows only the essential features we are interested in (usually the street layout). A map that was detailed down to every pothole and blade of grass would become impossibly unwieldy and offer little utility beyond the city itself. Furthermore, it would be difficult to keep such a map up to date, since the physical city is changing every moment. And of course, when the map and the physical data conflict, it would be absurd to insist that the map is true and accurate, while the actual city is "wrong".

So too, the ego is a simplified version of the self. It is our working map or model of who we are, with the essential features (i.e. our tastes and preferences) highlighted for ease of use. Yet whereas the difference between San Francisco and a map of San Francisco is obvious, it is much easier to confuse the ego with the self/soul and thereby take the ego as the sum total of who we are. This is the point where self-limitation sets in. "I can't do 'X' prevents one from ever learning 'X'. "I always do things *this* way" precludes a perhaps new and better experience. "I don't like this person/ food/ experience/ opinion" holds back the possibility of personal growth and development as well as greater harmony with other peoples and places.

As with the inaccurate city map, the great problem sets in when one becomes preoccupied with burnishing the ego, whether or not it conforms to the underlying self. If the map to your vacation spot portrays a lush garden resort, then you arrive to find yourself at Chernobyl, you will likely not be happy. So too, some people (celebrities and politicians for example) seek to promote an ideally optimized image of themselves, only for us to later learn the underlying reality from court documents and tabloids.

In the final analysis, I suppose it is a daily challenge for each of us. Most of us would like to be well thought of -- to have people appreciate our virtues and disregard our faults. And there might at times be a temptation to "cheat". How far one stretches the limits may be unique to each situation. One may want to appear talented on a job interview, but it would be awkward to be hired, then called upon for talents one does not possess. One wants to be well thought of, yet the prevalence of celebrity addictions and suicides suggests the gap between who we are and who others think we are can sometimes become unbearable.

Once again, it probably comes down to honest self-reflection, awareness, and self-knowledge. Having some sort of practice - mindfulness, meditation, journaling, counseling, maybe even a good "B.S." session with friends - is certainly helpful.

Endnote: Does it matter whether we all agree upon definitions like the above? I do believe the next step in human evolution will involve a more collective experience of consciousness. When minds and hearts are in harmony, a resonance is created that makes the whole greater than the sum of the individual contributions. Shared understanding is likely one component, and may bring us a step closer to realizing our collective potential.

Posted by Bill Miller | Tags: ego,soul,self,mapversusterrain | permalink

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