Recognize Four Functions of Ego, Develop a Most Fitting Attitude For Each, and Cultivate an Effective and Joyous Servanthood with a Hungry Ghost by Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
The ego-mind is only a problem when it’s leading the show. As a master, it is a tyrant and a dictator. As a servant, it’s a beautiful, sublime servant. It knows very well how to serve. As we know from creative activity, great moments in philosophy or science or spiritual moments, the mind is the vehicle for insight and revelation and discovery. It’s wonderful. It’s equal to the whole mystery. It’s just that we have tried to follow our minds and that doesn’t work. It’s a mess.
—Gangaji, Nondual teacher/ author
What exactly is an ego, how did I ever let it run and seemingly ruin my life, and what can I do to have my own life back? You may have considered these inquiries yourself and not know what got you here, exactly where you are, what direction to proceed, and any idea what to do about any of this. First of all, welcome to the space of where I meet almost every single client when we begin, and secondly welcome to the human race! When we’re stuck, between a rock and a hard spot, and seemingly unable to go forward or back or move in any direction, we’re frozen in indecision and ambivalence, and what to do. It actually happens to most everyone at moments in this life. At the very same time, this challenging crossroads of not-knowing and confusion is a thrilling opportunity for transformation and transcendence.
The term ego literally means self and gets thrown around by almost everyone in casual conversations, without any clear idea what exactly it is. This common situation would appear to be lots of noise with little if any signal shinning through. Consider four functions, understandings, and perceptual lenses to view ego: 1) reference point; 2) tool / skill set / intelligence; 3) developmental stage; and 4) imaginary sense of self you think you are. All serve Life in specific ways within each function and can be well used and directed, or misused and poorly directed. Each function can be held within a negative, immature field as well as an affirmative, mature field. The trick is to know each function for purely what it is and isn’t, then to be most effective within each context. Discovery deepens awareness.
The first function, understanding, and perceptual lens to see ego is as a reference point in the universe for duality, that is, the twoness of being subjects with a multitude of objects, in this relative, phenomenal empirical world, that appears to be outside the Oneness of reality. Like the fish unaware of the water it swims in, so the mind or ego cannot recognize the totality and wholeness of the universe within that mind, or see itself. Without the ego servicing this function as a reference point, you and I would not be having this human experience at all, including reading this paper, engaging in conversation and participating in any action since each takes being housed in our bodily vehicle. No duality, no bodies, it’s that simple. Duality is essential for human life on earth. We can feel beautifully blessed to be human beings existing on this planet in these bodies inside of duality. This duality is nested within a larger nonduality, that is, not-two-ness, oneness, or a lack of any separation. Although nonduality can be directly experienced, it is not an experience, verbal or written expression, any feeling, thought or action.
In pausing, looking and seeing this first function of ego as reference point, what is the most appropriate and fitting attitude by which to hold it? Many stressed, cynical, and misanthropic people would say, “Life is a bitch, and then you die.” Any negative, discounting, self-pitying and self-defeating view of ego, as reference point, purely results in you experiencing separation, misery and suffering, that is, anguish. Had enough? You can also say, “Isn’t life great!” since this is effortless and feels terrific. You can wake up each morning and say, “Good morning God,” or “Good God, morning.” It’s up to you.
Anyone of us can cultivate a life-affirming and life-supportive attitude of seeing it all as an incredible journey of discovery, resulting in depthless forgiveness and kindness, thankfulness and gratitude, that is, blessing. This alternative place to come from or hold ego as a reference point usually results in natural happiness, welcoming friendliness, and bubbling joy in not only living appreciatively, but from the perspective of Universal Intelligence or Original Nature in being well lived. Inspiring stuff.
The second function, understanding, and perceptual lens to view ego is as tool, skill set and intelligence, and this is a remarkably helpful and useful treasure-trove of creative abilities, discoveries, resources, and delights! Ego-mind as tool, skill set and intelligence is a most helpful support, servant, and powerful ally. It can aid us in helping marshal many workable internal resources you can wisely direct to make your way into the world. This can powerfully help you to not only exist and find ways to effectively support yourself and others, but to flourish, develop and thrive. Concepts, constructs and false entities that aid in understanding the phenomenal world, are doubly useful for the dream ego to “dream well” and take care of our life and those we invest ourselves in. This self, with no claim to being the source, author or authority for Life, is a key tool for spotting survival threats, engaging in analytical thinking, deductive and inductive logic, problem solving, strategy forming, critical thinking, memory retrieval, brainstorming, decision-making, and goal setting. A “healthy ego” or “functional me” provides an intelligent, adaptive toolbox to work well with changing life conditions so life works for everyone.
Again, pause, look and see this second function of ego as tool, skill set and intelligence: what is the most appropriate and fitting attitude by which to hold it? Given all the talents, strengths and genius everyone of us are born with coming of grace, the opportunity to build, nurture, develop and sharpen our inner resources can be seen as a tremendous opportunity, challenge and gift. The feeling tone that accompanies this view is one of gratitude and an inclination to give back for all we’ve been so blessed with. Within this perspective, living each day, hour and moment is an exciting opening for growth, adaptively honing, developing and broadening our skill sets, abilities, talents, strategies, intelligences and strengths. Acting in this regard we contribute to life—our immediate loved ones, extended family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances and the world at large, including ourselves. In this context we have a non-zero-sum game going on, a win-win game with no losers. Who wouldn’t feel uplifted knowing he or she was apart of making an affirmative, positive difference to those they love and associate with?
The third function, understanding, and perceptual lens to view ego is as a natural and normal developmental stage for responsibility and accountability, caring and empathy, other people having needs, wants and interests of their own, to begin to get on-line for progressively building these skill sets, abilities and intelligences. In the field of Psychology, moving through this critical developmental stage is widely seen as a necessary, essential and healthy milestone. Ego’s prime directive is survival on all levels of living. The ego’s perceptual system of dualities, that is, being a subject amidst innumerable objects, allow critical skills to be refined and daily interactions to be shaped by responsible actions.
In this stage we begin to outgrow the primary narcissism of a one-year-old in a major shift in seeing other beings as flesh-and-blood people in their own right, with all the attendant qualities of a living human being—needs, wants, feelings, yearnings, dreams, and a incredible range of feelings, thoughts and actions. This stage is the seed for all executive functions ego-mind performs, such as skills of self-preservation and thriving in the world, including organization, prioritizing, decision-making, goal-setting, scheduling, time awareness, and budgeting resources of time/ money, and balancing home and work. What would we do without these executive abilities that most of us take for granted?
How would one function without a “healthy ego”? At the extremes, usually triggered by significant traumas, neglect, willful cruelty and other forms of abuse, are three possibilities. Those who exist in a pre-ego developmental stage experience the ironically named “self disorders” of narcissism and borderline personality. These personality challenges of grandiosity or preoccupation with oneself through unregulated disinhibition along with behavioral “acting out” are highly destructive to oneself and others. Misguided impulses and misdirected behaviors aspire to unhealthy adoration and devaluation. Hedonism is coupled with periodic reactivity and insecurity. A second version of the pre-ego suggests the opposite polarity: a self-defeating restrictiveness through over-regulated inhibition that arises from diminishment or hatred of the veneer of a fabricated false self. A third possibility, the oscillation between disinhibition and inhibition, results in wild, erratic and confused behavior.
Better to have created a “self” or “ego”, even if it is unworkable, misguided or wounded, than to not go through this essential stage. In a more normalized range, most all of us experience some wounding of our sense of selves or egos in the process of growing up, usually in thinking we’re not good enough and not worthwhile with low self-esteem, passive-aggressive and manipulative behaviors, unrewarding relationships, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors and less than healthy physical, emotional, cognitive, relational and behavioral functioning. It is the psychologically aware person who recognizes their self-defeating behavior patterns, unresolved traumas, difficult / debilitating feelings and thoughts, and takes action to address each in healing the wounded ego while building a functional, healthy ego.
Once again, please pause, look and see for yourself this third function of ego as an essential and healthy developmental stage, and ask what is the most appropriate and fitting attitude by which to hold it? Basically you can hold it as a good, even wonderful, developmental milestone, especially when you consider the other alternative paths when you do not go through this necessary stage. If anything, seeing the gap between wounded and healthy ego can be seen as an energizing and motivating springboard to find out exactly what the obstacles / blockages are and start to seriously address each in a committed pattern of actions to be the very best you can be, what some people call being your personal best.
Being granted the grace to have gone through this developmental stage successfully can be held in deep thankfulness and gratitude, with appreciation to one’s parents / caregivers, immediate and extended family, friends, teachers, and all who modeled a workable contributive life and lit a fire of inspiration over what is possible in life. Gratitude is fitting given it is this healthy stage of development that helped us survive, gain some mastery over meeting the needs of our lives, aided us to grow into social animals that can be good team players, and helped us hone a balance of meeting our own needs with choosing to meet the needs of others. The question, what can I give back, and how we answer this query in action, is lovely given all of our blessings in functionally navigating through this critical stage.
The fourth function, understanding, and perceptual lens to view ego is as a personal, psychological self or hungry ghost / phantom that you and I typically identify as “I” or “me” that we think we actually are. In other words, the ego-mind can be seen as who you and I think we are, and who we think other people think we are. This imaginary or false self is the natural outgrowth of the third function over time, at least into late adolescence and early adulthood. Beyond this time, have we all overstayed our visit to the fair, so to speak? Once the ego-mind appears to have becomes one’s identity or who one is, which is illusory, mistaken and imagined, it can be experienced as quite problematic and highly dysfunctional when you follow it as your master. This false thinking mind is best considered as our opportunity for healing the many wounds of our past since it carries all the past conditioning, survival beliefs, dysfunctional stories, self-defeating behaviors, obsessive thinking and incomplete emotions. Deconstructing the false self’s persistent claim to authority, authorship and being the source of our life, and finding out that it is completely false, is the essential work in the trenches for revealing the True Self or Original Nature that is ever available, unchanging, timeless and infinite intelligence.
To not allow the ego-mind in this fourth function as a separate false self to be your master, it is most helpful to learn what I call “conversation stoppers,” that is, literally stopping conversations from hell (meaning separation) you have no interest or want to be in. Since the ego in this function is purely past conditioning and concepts, witnessing it allows you to see through all concepts as unreal, not true, and simply dismiss them. One approach is to call the ego’s bluff and say, “I get you’re bluffing and I don’t believe you.” Or, “I don’t buy it”, “I don’t get it”, “I don’t see it”, and “I have no interest in that.” Or say, “I’m done—you’ve got nothing” and “Let me give you all you deserve—absolutely nothing.” A favorite of mine is, “I won’t let you take up space in my head rent free! You are officially evicted!”
An intriguing way to perceive and hold the ego in this fourth function, understanding and perceptual lens as a phantom hungry ghost that thinks it is you, is to actively enlist the ego-mind as your dutiful, most excellent servant and let it completely serve you in so many ways! As nondual spiritual teacher / author Gangaji says in the opening quote, the ego-mind as a separate false self is best perceived as a sublime servant who loves to serve, and not as a tyrannical / dictatorial master. For over a decade I have not set my radio alarm clock, preferring to set my mind. With the rare exception of being grossly sleep-deprived or dog tired, the ego-mind has done a fabulous job waking me at almost the precise time I asked it to! What service! I’ve asked it to spot dangerous situations way before I would ever get wind of them and alert me immediately. Doing this on occasion, it has aided my survival and well-being.
By giving the ego-mind a task as your marvelous servant who truly want to serve you, you and everybody wins—another win-win, more-than-enough-for-everyone game! Since the ego wants to please you so it can stay in business, it has a heavily staked interest and huge investment in you. Knowing this, you can give it a really cool task that sends it packing, at least for a while. For illustration, you can give it the task to alert you when it gets activated, which you can then profusely thank it for since this awareness actually sidelines, dissolves and disappears it, at least for this moment. Another example: ask it to spot worry, fear and catastrophic thoughts to immediately see through and surrender, and once it does, let it freely roam in its imaginary pasture. Another one: ask it to spot when it jumps into the past or the future, past- and future- tripping respectively, and bring it to your attention to cue you to return to presence. Give it many thankful strokes. Simply see and release the very shenanigans it made up in the first place. Still another: ask it to let you know when comparisons and linking one thing to another in an unworkable way comes forth. Again, gratefully praise it for this and send it for a well- deserved time of play, rest, or even an extended holiday around the world until it is needed again.
Another workable way to perceive and hold this hungry ghost / phantom is that it neither exists nor doesn’t exist, but is purely a misidentification, an optical illusion, and makes the claim of personal authority and authorship of life. Ask who claims this, and see through its claim as false. Believe none of this. Rather, investigate and discover for yourself using self-inquiry approaches drawing upon your direct experience. In finding out for yourself the ego-mind’s unreality in this function, you may naturally give it less and less time, energy, activity, importance and space rent-free in your being. In fact, you may give it essentially nothing, since it is nothing other than a fabrication and dream of consciousness that served specific purposes for as long as they were needed. Without demonizing or villianizing it, you can be kind and compassionate, while completely seeing, outgrowing and surrendering what cannot be true.
Recognize and free the ego-mind in this function as a false imaginary self, and you are free to be who you truly already are. Other than being our superb servant as a reference point, a tool / skill set / intelligences, and developmental stage that ushers in executive functions, and even an illusory hungry ghost, clearly it has no place as our master to blindly follow since this only produces endless difficulties, pain, trouble and suffering in one form or another. Possibly the ego as a healthy developmental stage was just this—a stage—one we humans lingered in and falsely believed was who we truly are, and serves so many purposes, and now we can adaptively shed it as no longer needed being so blessed with gifts and by grace. Are we not meant to transmute, transform and transcend this imaginary sense of self, and fully outgrow its siren call as we abide in presence, linger in witnessing the ego-mind as acting stark raving mad at times, radiate and resonate with Spirit, and grow and multiply? Enjoy your ego in all its functions as a trusty servant, calling upon it often in all its useful functions, understandings and perceived lens, and not letting it be your master to follow! Let it serve you, as you serve Life itself, as Life lives you. Being and living this vision opens up your true freedom, true life, and True Self.