Tag Archives: id

The meaning of ego

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 In terms of modern psychological thinking, this language and the concepts it represents are woefully out of date.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.


Conscious, unconscious

How aware are you of your own motives? What drives you? Do you find you’ve done or said things and not known why? What does your unconscious mean to you?

For a long time, years in fact, I’ve worked hard to be as fully conscious as I could be. To know what I was doing and why. To know myself. I considered that essential for self growth. I’ve got to the point of having to acknowledge that so far, I’ve not been doing a great job. There were too many things I refused to accept and acknowledge about what was then around me. In so doing, I distorted my sense of self. But it remains an aspiration to be as self aware as I can manage.

What is the unconscious? Is it the place of denial and letting yourself off the hook? Are we talking about Freud’s id, animalistic and selfish, pushing us to do things for less than honourable reasons? That’s not the sort of unconscious I want.

What about dreams? The rich and magical flows of inspiration and creativity we have aren’t tidy, controlled and known things. Inspiration flourishes in the unconscious. Somewhere, between the questing after self awareness, and the denying of some aspects of my reality, I lost track of that. I should have noticed, because for years I barely dreamed, and when I did it usually involved the same dull handful of anxiety nightmares.

I’ve been trying for a different understanding of my own unconscious, seeing it not in ‘id’ terms as something to tackle, but as a dark river that flows underneath what I do. A place of magic, strangeness and potential. Something to be open to, not something to fight. One of the interesting consequences is, having deliberately and consciously shifted my understanding, my unconscious has also changed. I’m dreaming again. Rich, vibrant, startling, inspiring, unsettling dreams full of colour, emotion, and experience. I wake up in the mornings with my head full of all kinds of strange things, and my heart lifted. When I dream in wild and vivid ways, I feel better. It doesn’t have to be obviously meaningful, so long as it is intense.

There is something in me that exists in ways I am not fully aware of. To be entirely conscious would kill it. I have learned that it does not thrive in environments where I am not honest with myself. Too much misplaced blame and having my intuition messed with did not help. Being open to the unknown within me is a whole new journey. There is so much of who I could be, I realise I do not know at all. Potential, awen, the insanity of poetic vision, the delirium of dreaming. I do not need to know all of that so thoroughly that I control it into not existing. I can have self awareness without sacrificing the magic of unconsciousness. I can dream and still be a realist. I can imagine, and recognise truth.

During the period of my life when I was trying hard to suppress and reject all the things that come from magical unreason and dreaming, I was at my least true. Rationality and reason are not the only things in a human mind that matter, and they need balancing. I lost that balance. In trying to be too sane, I became unsane. (not insane, just ill). I mention this because I fear it’s all too easily done, and if I can discourage others from going too far into wanting self control, then all well and good.

We are, I have come to realise, not supposed to know, or understand everything. The trick is knowing what to unravel, and what to keep mysterious. I’m working on that.