I first encountered the term ‘ego’ when I was studying psychology. It’s a Freudian term, and in that sense it pretty much means your reality interface. There’s the id, full of repressed things and animal impulses, there’s the superego which is a bit like your inner uber-parent forever pushing you to do more, and better. The ego mediates between these two inner aspects, and between you and the rest of reality.
Like a lot of terms, it’s been borrowed and re-used, and this has caused me some confusion. When religious people talk about the dismantling of ego, they are not, as far as I can make out, suggesting the taking apart of your Freudian-style reality interface. This comes as no small relief to me, I had been troubled by why anyone would aim for this! People use words in such unhelpful ways sometimes. What I believe has happened here, is that the word ‘ego’ has been appropriated as a translation for the word ‘atman’ which features in Buddhism and describes a certain part of the personality. This is all a great deal of challenge for me because my grasp of Buddhism is, at best, tenuous, and my exposure to New Age thought around ideas of self is not what it might be.
So what is the ego? I’ve just been reading Alain du Botton’s book on Religion for Atheists (highly recommended) and what he describes as ‘ego’ sounds a lot to me like the Freudian notion of ‘id’. Full of fear, hunger, neediness, grasping after anything that might fill the breach, irrational and unreliable, the contemporary ‘ego’ is that which distracts us from living fully and being in the moment. Compare that to my first comments about the id. Linguistically speaking, it’s a bit of a shambles, not to mention perplexing. I’m relieved to be less confused. The assertion that we should seek to limit, if not dismantle our egos has, frankly, troubled me. I quite like my reality interface! But apparently it was never about that.
In Freudian language, the id can be used almost interchangeably with the word ‘unconscious’. In terms of modern psychological thinking, this language and the concepts it represents are woefully out of date. However, in religious and therapeutic language, it still has currency and relevance. There are aspects of the brain that are never conscious – the functioning of your pancreas and spleen will never be likely to intrude on your awareness. Other than that, what we have are a lot of things we may never properly consider. It’s not ‘unconsciousness’ in an inaccessible sense, more in the sense that there are a great many things we don’t really look at or think about. We can look at them, and think about them. By challenging them, we cease to be governed by parts of our self we imagine we cannot access and know nothing about. It makes for an easier sort of life, on the whole. Never being mystified by your own emotions and actions confers a great deal of benefit.
The id, as a concept, covers all the things we have repressed as being unacceptable – effectively all that we refuse to consider, and all those animal inclinations, to fight, feed, flee, reproduce… the urge to violence and greed could be seen as part of this. All the basic survival stuff that needs mitigating by more civilized ideas. I think considering the impact of these urges, and how we relate to them, can be very helpful. I think much of what we tend to ascribe to the unconscious, all those things we do and claim we don’t know why, would be available to us, if we stopped to look.
I do not think that ‘ego’ is the right translation of ‘atman’. I think on the whole it might have been a bit more useful to take the original word and use it, with explanations, rather than borrowing another word and trying to meld the two together. Languages do not translate neatly, especially not the language of concept. Assuming one word can be mapped neatly onto another is often more trouble than help. But, it’s where we’ve got to. ‘Ego’ as a word is also laden with connotations of big headedness, self importance. And while humbleness can be a consequence of belief, for someone who starts out pretty humble, the association of ego and self importance can take emphasis away from those ‘unconscious’ urges that could stand a much closer investigation. Atman seems more like emanations from the id into the awareness, unmitigated by a suitably strong ego, or fears generated by the superego, that the frail ego is equally unable to handle. I think. Which would make the experience of atman not the consequence of ego, but the absence of a suitably strong ego, from a Freudian perspective.
In the meantime, I think the moral of this story is that words are crude tools that need using carefully.