Saturday, July 23, 2011

Spirituality 10

The Ego

Teach an tSolais, Árainn Mhór, Samhradh 2011
As I have explained many times before in these pages, one meaning of the word "Ego" was given by Sigmund Freud, its being one of the three constructs in his structural model of the psyche.  In that model the ego, or conscious self,  tries to mediate between the instinctual drives of the ID and the moral remonstrations of the Superego or conscience.  I have described this structural model of the psyche or soul or mind here: Freud's Structural Model.  As I reflect on this I am reminded that this structural model has a parallel story or even paradigm in Plato.  I wonder was it from there that the founder of psychoanalysis got his inspiration for his structural model.  Anyway be that as it may, Plato told the following story:

The Chariot Story or Allegory:

In a dialogue called Phaedrus, Plato uses the Chariot Allegory to explain his view of the human soul. He does this in the dialogue through the character of Socrates, who uses it in a discussion of the merit of Love as "divine madness".   We read therein about a brave Charioteer driving a chariot pulled by two winged horses: one of those horses is noble and of a highborn breed while the other is quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore, the driving is difficult and troublesome, and the Charioteer has to be made of stern stuff.  Now, in Plato's parable or allegory, The Charioteer represents intellect or reason, or the part of the soul that guides it to truth.  To put this in other words still, one horse represents the rational or moral impulse or the positive part of passionate nature (e.g., righteous indignation), while the other represents the soul's irrational passions, appetites, or concupiscent nature. The Charioteer directs the entire chariot/soul, trying to stop the horses from going different ways, or pulling against one another.  He attempts to steer both into a sort of workable harmony so as to proceed towards enlightenment.  Needless to say, this is a very difficult task that requires the Charioteer's consummate skill and indeed courage at the reins.

In other words, we can see the parallel immediately with Freud's structural model of the psyche.  After all, psyche is the Greek word for mind or soul or animating principle of life.  Checking out the Greek etymology, we read that the basic meaning of the Greek word ψυχή (psūchê) is "life". Derived meanings included "spirit", "soul," "ghost", and ultimately "self" or today what we would call the "conscious personality."

Anyway, the obvious parallelism would be that the Charioteer corresponds to the Ego, while the winged horse that wishes to head towards the heavens, the rational, noble winged horse corresponds to the Superego while the impulsive, irrational one that wishes to rush towards the earth is the Id.

There is another parallel idea, I believe, or rather a parallel story in St John's Gospel, which I'm interpreting as purely metaphorical rather than literal one as is my wont, where the evangelist refers to the fact of Jesus' increasing in our lives while we ourselves (that is, our egos) decrease.  The background of this saying comes just after the opening of Jesus' public ministry.  The news of Jesus’ miracles and teachings was spreading like wildfire throughout Judea and Galilee, and John’s disciples wanted to know what he thought about this newcomer everyone was calling the Messiah.  (John 3:26)  John’s response was clear, concise and powerful.  He declared, “He must increase, but I must decrease!”  I interpret the Scriptures in a wholly metaphorical and non-literal way.  For me, they are merely literature written by human beings, but good literature at that.

Back to the matter at hand.  The Ego in the spirituality of the East corresponds to the following terms "self", "self-concept", "false self", "conceptual identity", or identification with individual existence.  The ego in this sense is our inauthentic self, the self which parades before the world with the various masks we wear given the particular situation we find ourselves in at any given time.  The ego may see itself as learned, knowing a lot, if not quite all, e.g., the pedant or expert who likes to let us all know how much he or she knows on X,.Y or Z subject. 

The ego may see itself as being powerful and in control, e.g., bosses who are bullies.  These are people in whom the Ego has literally over-controlled and reigned in both horses so tightly that the chariot is not moving in any rhythmic or meaningful sense that might allow of any real progress in its journey - to speak metaphorically, obviously.  So, in this case, the ego over-identifies itself with one mask or another, with one sub-personality or another, with one role or another, where the teacher, the doctor, the nurse, the professor never really comes out of role.  Such rigid identification of the soul with such ego states is the essence of inauthenticity and shows a severe lack of understanding of the importance of being true and congruent to the real self as opposed to the false self.

Concluding Story 

Today's story is all about over-identification of the self with the ego.  It is, in fact, the very first story we read in the wonderful little spiritual classic Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings (Penguin Books, 2000), edited by Paul Reps.

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, A Japanese Master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself.

"It is overfull.  No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "You are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"  (Op. cit., p. 17)

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