Friday, November 22, 2013

Ego, Mind, and Culture

by Miki Kashtan

The idea for this piece came to me when I read a comment on an earlier blog post. The specific content of that post (which was about race), is not the issue here. Rather, it was two references to “ego” which caught my attention and got me thinking for all these months. Here they are as context:

“The only use for these false values are to enhance the ego’s sense of separateness, be it through conceived superiority or inferiority.”

“One result of acting upon true values is the freedom from the ignorance to which the separative ego tenaciously clings.”

There is nothing unusual about these sentences. They simply capture a way of speaking that I have been aware of: attributing intention to what is, ultimately, an abstraction. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable to me if it weren’t for a second aspect: the intention being assigned to this abstraction called “ego” is one that has a negative connotation with it.

It was a sad surprise to me when I learned that the entry of “ego” into the English language was in large part the result of choices made by Freud’s translator, James Strachey. “Ego” was introduced as a translation of the word in German that simply means “I,” thereby changing the meaning and tone of what Freud wrote. “When one says ‘my ego,’” says Mark Leffert, “one can always distance oneself; when one says “I,” no distance is possible.”[Footnote 1]

It is precisely that distance that allows us to see it as separate, a “thing” with an intention.

When translation of Eastern texts also use the same word, it has become a mainstay, ubiquitous. “Ego” is now fully something to avoid, to work to free ourselves from. It interferes with our higher sense of well-being, gets in the way of generosity, and keeps us focused on desires that are generally seen as “narcissistic,” such as recognition or being seen.

It took me some effort when I decided, some years ago, to deliberately free my language from the word “ego.” I did not want to use a concept so loaded with negative charge. I want my language to reflect my commitment to a different view of human nature instead of supporting the view that inside each of us there is a core part that must be transcended or suppressed in order to become a mature, functional member of human society.

Narcissism and Selflessness


This view of “ego” is intimately linked to the concept of narcissism as well as the idea that in order to be giving we are being “selfless” or “altruistic,” somehow subtly implying that we would be going against our nature in doing so.

I remember a walk I took with a friend one day, who commented on how it was such a sacrifice for me to do the work I do. I understood later that what she meant was related to how much effort and attention I put into my work and the degree of my availability to people and projects. Initially, though, it took some time for me to even understand why she was saying that, because my own sense is that nothing could be further from the truth. Sacrifice is about giving up on something and doing something I “should” be doing, whereas my commitment to my work arises from deep within, is compelling, and is fully what I want and am willing to do.

Another time I remember another person talking, disparagingly, about narcissistic needs. When I pressed on her for clarity, she named needs such as to be seen, for recognition, or to be loved. I wanted to weep when I heard her. These are precisely the kind of needs that are core and central to our capacity to know that we matter and are part of the human fabric. To the extent that we relegate them to “ego” and call them “narcissistic,” we continue to put forth the idea that there is something wrong with wanting love, for example. Perhaps we even reinforce a notion of separation between self and others.

Part of why I deliberately refrain from using these words – ego, narcissism, selflessness, altruism, and selfishness – is because I am seeking to transcend the dichotomy between self and other. I want to distinguish between self-care and “selfishness,” and hope that every one of us can attend to our needs while offering our gifts everywhere. Similarly, I want to distinguish between holding everyone’s needs with care and the notion of “altruism” or “selflessness,” so that I can remember and remind others that caring for others is not at the expense of me, that I am not separate, that we are all born and remain interdependent.

And What about the Mind?

While mind and ego are not equivalent concepts, both are seen as obstacles to overcome, especially in circles committed to spiritual, emotional-awareness, or recovery practices. We are instructed to quiet the mind in order to achieve inner peace, for example. Our mind is also seen as the seat of judgments. “Going to the head” is, itself, a judgment in those circles. Additionally, mind is viewed as the origin of fear, guilt, and more.

I almost titled this piece “In Defense of Mind” precisely because I find it tragic that our capacity for thinking, for learning, for discerning, for making sense of ourselves and of life, for generating ideas, for teaching others – or so much else that is quintessentially human – is maligned to such a degree. I am concerned about the anti-intellectual ethos I see in some circles.

I can’t improve on the words of Alfonso Montuori, professor of transformative studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies:

It is ironic how often the search for holism, transformation, integralism, and alternative approaches in general can lead to the exclusion of what is sometimes disparagingly called “the mental.” In this view, not uncommon with students entering alternative programs and in New Age circles, anything considered “intellectual” is, by definition, not spiritual, because the intellect is the “old paradigm,” the foe of spirituality. It is precisely what separated us from the natural, spiritual, intuitive, spontaneous existence that our foremothers and forefathers apparently enjoyed in the days before Descartes, Newton, the industrial, and even the agricultural, revolution. The emphasis is on personal insight and/or connection with “higher wisdom” or God. Book-learning is seen as ultimately “relative,” second-hand, and even part of a process of egoic self-aggrandizement, aloofness, snobbery, elitism, and a removal from the “real” world. [Footnote 2]

I totally understand the reaction to the attempts to make rationality the only valuable aspect of being human to the exclusion and regulation of everything passionate and emotional. I, too, feel a deep anguish about that ongoing aspect of Western civilization. That disaffection was enough to lead me to dedicate several years of my life to challenging the primacy of rationality in my dissertation. Still, swapping “heart” and “mind” (so that heart is preferred over mind) maintains the split within us and the possibility of sustaining the negative view of human nature. Instead, what I advocated, both in my dissertation and since, is an integration of reason and emotion, mind and heart.

Whence the Mind?

What is of equal concern to me, in addition to the maligning of the mind, is the common practice of seeing it as a static entity, a given that exists independently of culture, and is therefore unchangeable. If it is a “negative” aspect of self, and is furthermore fixed, then the project of being a fully alive, loving, and integrated human being is destined to be one of perpetual struggle, since time immemorial and forever.

I feel immense gratitude for the discovery of feminism in the mid-80s, and to the years of immersing myself in the study of sociology, most especially, though far from exclusively, to my exposure to Karl Marx. Feminism and sociology provided me with an invaluable insight: that we are creatures of practice, that who we are as individuals, what our sense of self is, what we are able to think and feel, is profoundly shaped by the culture and institutions into which we are born. A child who was born 500 years ago in Europe, for example, would not be asking themselves or be asked by others what they wanted to be when they grew up. For the most part, that future role in life was determined by the time the child was born. Similarly, that child would be unlikely to imagine themselves to be self-sufficient, as child or adult. They knew life to be dependent on the goodwill of others.

Even without going very far back in time, the habits of guilt, fear, and self-judgment that are so common as to seem natural and inevitable to so many of us, are not universally familiar. I still relish the time I read of the visit of several Buddhist scholars from the West to the Dalai Lama, in which they had an ongoing discussion with him for a few hours before he could finally grasp the depth of self-loathing that is air to us: it was entirely unfamiliar to him.

There is no question in my mind that we are not born with judgments, whether of self or of others. We are not born with guilt, self-sabotage, or any of the other attributes assigned to the mind or the ego. I see all of these as reactive adaptations to what we encounter as small beings after we are born. Ideas of our own wrongness, in particular, are internalized by us to the extent that they are directed at us by others. Almost from the moment we are born we are evaluated – good girl or bad girl, good boy or bad boy – and told what we should or shouldn’t do. We are expected to grow up to be empathic, caring, respectful, or honest when these qualities are not demonstrated in how we are treated, nor are we given room to find from within who we are. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that most of us carry so much shame given how much and how often children are shamed by others.

Instead of telling us that as individuals our job is to overcome the “mind” or our “ego,” I want to inquire into the view of human nature that is responsible for creating those notions in the first place. While notions of “sin” are no longer accepted in many circles, the negative view of “ego” and “mind” seem to raise no concern. I see them as supplanting earlier notions, allowing the fundamentally negative view of human nature that is part and parcel of authority-based societies to persist.

I want us to be conscious that in order to liberate ourselves from the constriction of shame and self-judgments, what is needed is not an individual struggle to overcome a negative part of ourselves that is inevitably there. Rather, I see what’s needed as a concerted effort to undo the worst of our socialization with the support of others who are similarly committed. In addition, in order to alleviate the need for such heroic struggles on the part of our children and all children, I hope that many of us will join hands in the commitment to ensuring that all children have a chance of growing up in environments that trust their innate humanity and allow them to flourish. Not an easy task when we have been trained to believe that unless controlled, children will be selfish and aggressive. In such a world, the word “ego” will lose meaning, and we will regain access to the beauty of what our minds can be: instruments of great cognitive and emotional capacity in the service of all life.  

  1. Mark Leffert, The Therapeutic Situation in the 21st Century. P. 173.
  2. Alfonso Montuori, “The Quest for a New Education: From Oppositional Identities to Creative Inquiry,” in ReVision, 2006, Vol. 28 no. 3.  

Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call next Tuesday, November 26, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time.


  1. Yes, thank you, Jesus. Here's to reclaiming that which is so commonly relegated to the "ego" -- our humanity, our desire for love, for acknowledgment, for recognition, for being seen, for mattering. And to surrendering up our shame at having an "ego," at wanting to matter, at longing to be loved.

  2. A completely emphatic yes!

    "Ego" so often loses what it was supposed to 'think' and often simply becomes an expression of all the needs we are ashamed of, have pain around, or fear vulnerable relation with.

    While I share your practice of not finding the word 'ego' useful and therefore not using it, I do think it points to something which is worth thinking, and even crucial. I also imagine you would agree that all of this may be much more profoundly described phenomenologically - with concepts of "points of focus" rather than value judgments (narcissism, etc.)

    I believe the whole notion of "ego" is (often tragically) attempting to connect us with some degree of transcendence to a bigger picture in which we are embedded. This can denote history, social context, ancestry, ecological embeddedness, etc. - all aspects of interdependence. This doesn't equate simply with needs, even though needs like transcendence, contribution, support, etc. manifest within it.

    I point this out because paradoxically this bigger perspective is what allows us to notice that concepts like narcissism are socially embedded, learned, and historical, etc. Someone who is comfortable with the concept of narcissism (I am not), might show this paradox in the following way: "narcissistic concepts are themselves narcissistic."

    For me, determining different points of focus and feared consequences of this point of focus is what is at play - Let's say we are reflecting on the bigger picture of our lives. In this reflection, we can put our focus on how all of this lives inside of us (the need to contribute, to understand, to support, to nurture life), or we can put our focus on the bigger picture itself (ecology, history, etc.). There certainly is a difference between placing our attention consistently on one or the other. I believe more needs are met when our attention is balanced and able to shift at choice.

    At a more superficial level of explanation, I think this also explains what is alive in people who use the words "ego" and "narcissism"

    When Marshall says that at some point it isn't about your needs or my needs being met, but simply needs being met, I think he is speaking to this "bigger picture" or "transcendent perspective." I also believe that the capacity for this bigger-framing is what contributes most fully to our need for self-actualization, leadership, and effective contribution. The contribution we are missing, which your beautiful article addresses, is that in order to get there, we can start with loving ourselves and our humanity in its fullness.

    I hope you feel juiced by my reflections. :)

  3. The way I see it, the ego, rather than being it's own "thing" is simply the human being expressing his/herself from within an experience of fear. Fear is such that it makes things look separate, thus the concept of the "ego."

    On a different note, I am also reminded while reading this piece of one of Rudolf Steiner's contributions, which was to describe the fully functioning human being as one who has integrated the faculties of thinking, feeling, and willing. The heart informs the mind and both are translated into action.

  4. Sarah, I resonate with both of these statements. As regards fear, some have defined it as the opposite of love, the nature of love being self-sacrifice and self-effacement and the moving away from self-regard. I recently read: “self facing” (discerning of the false from the true, the ephemeral from the lasting, the important from the unimportant) leads to self-effacing.

    “The heart informs the mind” is an excellent relationship worthy of experimentation. In actuality, it is the only relationship. In my limited experience, ego-mind can be both an excellent servant and a necessary nuisance. Like the physical body, it is instrumental in one’s moving through life’s experiences. The human intellect can serve in the pursuit of peace and happiness, innocent amusement, and creative problem-solving. However, it “makes a terrible master,” at times presiding over a “torture chamber” of fears, worries, boredom, and stress.

  5. Yes, Miki, of course the "ego" is an "abstraction" -- a constructed artifact pointing at a phenomenal "entity" such as rock,
    tree, animal, or an emotional transience such as "fear," "joy'," "desire" -- or a mental artifact such as "want," "need,"
    "judgment," etc.
    The advantage of using this particular abstraction is to make easier its objectification: the ego as *object* of inspection by
    the subjective *I*. The ego is a transience, a construct of the individual who tends to identify with *it* rather than with the permanent entity: Mind, Consciousness, Light, God, Tao, or by whatever name one prefers. . .


  6. Again, yes and yes and yes -- the split between mind and heart or emotions is still separation. I too often have the sense of being in (putting myself in?) the position of defending the mind. I have certainly seen in my own life how the intellectual aspect of me was not in balance with the emotional and physical, and yet even saying that still implies they are all separate. I like what Sarah says about the heart informing the mind -- certainly the research being done by the Heartmath Institute suggests this is even scientifically accurate. I also love the other comment from Sarah about ego being the human expressing from within an experience of fear. I often see or hear comments distinguishing between love and fear. In my spiritual practice we sometimes chant things along the lines of "there is only love." It has helped me when I can sense into how even fear is an expression of love (e.g., sometimes fear can prompt us to take actions which will keep us safe), and similarly how "ego" is a way of describing an aspect of something which is also an expression of love, difficult though it sometimes is to see, hear, or experience. When I can remember, then I feel more acceptance, relaxation, and compassion toward myself and others.

  7. Could any label be either neutral or useful as long as it's not used as a reason to withhold our love?

    1. Hi Jeroen,

      Thank you for this simple and clear questions. For me, it raises a lot if issues and has no simple answer. Rather than responding to it right now, which would take more words than I can manage in a comment, I am adding it to my list of topics for future posts. Stay tuned for when its turn arises.