These words are often written about in literature and the self-exploration world. They are even written about in the worlds of spirituality and religion. They are often misunderstood in all cases because they are not explained clearly or they are used too often in different senses. For this reason I feel the need to define them as I understand them so that I may be understood.
Ego is a difficult one because it is so often maligned. For me, I do not believe that any part of human experience is useless and to be cast off or overcome. It is all here for some purpose or it wouldn’t be here at all. Especially something so universal! I see the ego as the part of our consciousness that comes with the human body, the part that arises from our physiology. Some would call it our animal mind, but that leads me to a whole other semantic argument, for we humans are animals as well, in my view. So, the ego is the part of our consciousness which comes with the body. It’s concern is for our safety and survival – so of course fear is its main focus. Fear, like the ego itself, is not all bad. Fear teaches us to avoid danger and pain so that we can stay alive. The ego learns from fear to help us survive and thrive. Imagine if it didn’t. We would be as infants constantly exploring our world without a thought for our own safety, without anticipation of the consequences of our actions. We would touch the hot stove, stick our fingers in the light socket, walk into the street without looking – and if we survived, we would do it all again!
Luckily, we have our ego, which arises from our brains, which reminds us to fear some things. It is useful to fear, and therefore avoid injury and pain. It is smart to fasten your seat belt and look both ways before pulling out into traffic. We have our ego to thank for that.
Of course, like anything else, the ego can get our of balance, too big for its britches. The ego also learns from the opposite of fear: pleasure. The ego moves us toward pleasure, which is also useful. We are social animals, so we enjoy praise from others immensely, so we are apt to do things which bring us praise (or physical pleasure). An imbalance toward either end of this spectrum can cause problems in our lives. We may become perfectionist people-pleasers and suffer in our desire for praise, or we may become so anxious and fearful of losing what we have that we spend all of our energy avoiding change to our own detriment. This is the ego. It has good intentions, but it’s a very simple tool. It sees the world in black and white, survival or death terms. I think of it as a child of about 5 years old. It knows right from wrong; it wants pleasure and not pain. It doesn’t have all the tools it needs to get the most out of life, but it doesn’t know that because its perspective and experience are very limited.
For this reason it doesn’t make sense to cast the ego as the enemy or wholly “negative.” It’s doing its job. It’s just that that’s not enough. This tool, alone, is not enough. It’s like a hammer. You can do a lot with a hammer, but sometimes you need a wrench or a screwdriver or a saw. The hammer is not “bad” or useless, it just does hammer stuff. The problem is when we see a project before us – say you’re building a toy box – and you always reach for the hammer first. That doesn’t make sense! First you need your tape measure and pencil, then your saw to cut the wood to size. Maybe then you are ready for the hammer. You need all the tools to make the toy chest, not just the hammer. In the same way, we need all of the tools of our consciousness to build our lives: the ego, the higher self, our angels and guides, our intuition. They all have their places, they all help. It is useful for us to recognize that the part of us that tends to see the world in black and white terms is also usually the first voice, the loudest voice, in our heads when we’re faced with a new situation or challenge. It says, “I don’t know what’s out there. You may get hurt. It’s safe over here for sure. Maybe you should just stay here.” But if we, as adults who know that there’s more to every story, say, “Thank you for that advice. Now what does my intuition have to say about it?” we may be willing to risk trying something new.
By the same toke, when something happens which is out of our control – a loved one dies, your car crashes, the doctor tells you you’re very ill – it is our ego, the little child, who panics and can’t think straight because of fear and pain. It wants to escape this miserable feeling and it never wants to experience it again. Luckily, our higher self, the part of our soul which is eternal and has the perspective which comes from lifetimes of experience, is there to comfort that frightened little child of the ego. Oh, it may be difficult to hear that soothing voice because wailing toddlers are loud and difficult to ignore, but as the child cries itself out, that soothing voice becomes clear. It says wise things like, “This, too, shall pass.” And later, when the child has calmed down, it says, “Now that this is our reality, these are our options. What do you think we should do? What will make you feel better?”
This leads to the other two words: Acceptance and Initiation. Acceptance is really pretty simple. It doesn’t mean, “this is okay.” Of course you aren’t okay with your loved one dying or your doctor telling you that you have cancer! But that’s the situation. Acceptance is saying, “These are the current circumstances.” It’s the opposite of denial. It’s facing the facts. Then you get to choose how to move forward.
Initiation may be an elaborate ceremony or a moment in time, but it is always a threshold that is crossed into a new way of being. It involves leaving some things behind and taking on new things at the same time, so it is a bit like death and rebirth. Initiation may be a choice you make, like choosing a major in college. Choosing to focus on one area of study means you won’t be studying other areas, at least not for a while or in as much depth. Initiation may also result from a life event that you didn’t consciously choose. Maybe you get pregnant accidentally, maybe your parents force you to move overseas – these, too, are points where you life changes inexorably. Whether we stop to examine them or not, these are all initiations into new lives. You cannot go back to who you were before these things happened.
These are my understandings of these words based on my learning and experience of life so far. When I use these words, this is what I mean (for future reference). What do you think? Does this ring true for you, or is this a new way of looking at things?